MAGAZINE January 2002
INTERVIEW WITH TOM ROBINSON
By FIONA TALKINGTON, host of BBC Radio 3's 'Late Junction'
for "Music" magazine, published by the BBC.
You're etched on many peoples' hearts and memories for such songs
as Glad to be Gay, 2-4-6-8, Grey Cortina, War Baby....You seem to be just
as passionate about writing today......is this true and, if so, has your
I'm certainly passionate about communication - the business of sharing
insights, experiences and observations with others - and for most of my
life that's been via songwriting. I was writing songs in school bands
for a good many years before anyone ever paid me to do it, and no doubt
I'll carry on doing it for a good many years after they stop paying me.
It's what I do
But communication & sharing also comes into play in other areas -
telling stories on stage, broadcasting, running motivational workshops,
and (most notably) parenting. I've made far fewer albums since my son
was born in 1990, and since our daughter came along four years ago I haven't
recorded any new songs at all. This year's album "Smelling Dogs" was
a collection of spoken word pieces and short instrumentals.
Playing in bands was, for me, a sort of hankering after immortality, trying
to create vital and imaginative work that people would love and remember.
But that's quite ephemeral. It's much more important to be remembered
by friends and family - those who actually know you - as a decent, loving
My grandmother was one of the finest human beings to ever walk on the
planet, and thirty years on I still miss her far more than (say) Nick
Drake or Muddy Waters !
Do you turn to music in times of trouble?
As we find ourselves once again staring into the abyss after fifty years
of relative stability, it's more the other way round.
It's not so much that one turns to certain music, but more that certain
other kinds of music become unlistenable. A lot of daft pop music (which
I love) just seems unbearably smug or frivolous, underlining the degree
to which we in the West have been fiddling while the world burned.
For 4 months we've been hearing records and seeing movies that could only
have been made before September 11th... Obviously with new stuff now in
the pipeline that's about to change. If pop music doesn't reflect the
times, it isn't pop music.
How did it all start? Did you want to folow an "idol"? If so, who?
After a nervous breakdown at 16 I found myself in a therapeutic community
for "disturbed adolescents" in Kent. One of our Old Boys was Alexis Korner
who came down and gave an acoustic concert in the principal's study. He
was a handsome, swarthy 40 year old dressed like a gypsy, with a shock
of grizzled hair and a voice like gravel, who stood up in front of us
without a trace of embarassment - opened his mouth and SANG, right there
in the room about women, drink, policemen, civil rights and racism.
In that moment I knew what I wanted to do for a living. Alexis was my first
musical mentor, hero and role model - I've since even followed him into broadcasting
for the BBC.
What's good about music scene today? What's bad?
What's great about today's music scene is its diversity. Walking into
a music megastore or browsing the online retailers there's so much good
stuff in so many wildly differing styles it's hard to know where to begin.
People's tastes are far more wideranging now - and it refreshing to hear
John Evans arguing this case for Radio Three on Feedback a few months
ago. When I was young pop was pop and classical was classical with nothing
in between but jazz - which was hated by both. Thank God for most of us
nowadays music is just music - some of it good, some dull and some excructiating
What's bad is the vast boom in media hype and gutter criticism. Ignorance
is widespread, context is everything. Everything seems to depend on the
frame placed around the picture rather than the work itself.
New music ought to be reviewed blindfold, not based on track record, past
career, previous chart position or the artist's private life. If Dr John
or Ry Cooder makes a new album, the quality (or lack of it) will be right
there in the grooves.
Whereas if Phil Collins makes a new album, the reviews will already be
halfwritten in most critics' heads before the CD reaches the deck. What
comes out of the speakers will serve only to confirm or mitigate the journalist's
That's why music radio is so vitally, vitally important. It's the only
means of hearing new music for ourselves and making our own minds up,
rather than being told what to think by 'experts'.
Choose 4 of your own tracks which are very special to you... and why?
*Congo blue: ("Having It Both Ways" 1996) An
attempt at capturing the mood of a brief, intense, real-life moment. Hearing
it still takes me back instantly to the night in question
*Blood Brother ("Blood Brother: We Never Had
It So Good" 1992) An understated lyric that took me four years to condense
from 8 pages of prose into a three-verse pop song. The superbstring arrangement
was done by (the non-Eurythmic) Dave Stewart.
*War Baby 12" version ("War Baby Hope & Glory"
1997 reissue) This was a completely different recording from the single
version that was a hit in 1983, with a much darker atmosphere that I still
prefer, plus some additional lyrics.
*Roaring Days ("Love Over Rage" 1994) With Chris
Rea on slide guitar, ex-Advert TV Smith on backing vocals and a loping
groove, this is my favourite studio recording of the past ten years.
And four tracks you'd like to hear on Late Junction - and why?
*RY COODER "He'll have to Go" (Chicken Skin Music
1977). First time I heard Flaco Jiminez on accordion and an impeccably
authentic-sounding evocation of a past that never was.
*BRIAN ENO - Anything from "On Land" album 1982.
One of my favourite albums ever: one of Eno's adventures pioneering music
that was meant to be heard rather than listened to.
*CHARLES MINGUS "Better Get Hit In Your Soul" (Mingus
Mingus Mingus). The inimitable Mingus setting out to prove you can swing
every bit as hard in 6/8 as standard 4/4. I especially like the spontaneous
little one-minute jam led off by Charlie himself after the tempestuous
big band ending.
*TOM WAITS "Earth Died Screaming" (Bone Machine
1992). If anyone gets commissioned to score the apocalypse when it finally
happens, I hope TW will get the job. People either love or loathe Tom
Waits and I love him: this album above all others.
And what's happening for you now?
A tour with fellow songwriters Steve Knightley and Martyn Joseph in February
(2002) under the banner Faith,
Folk & Anarchy. After that
if all goes well, I'll be working fulltime for the BBC's new digital radio service
- provisionally due to be launched under the auspices of Radio 2 on Monday
March 11th. The station's provisional name is BBC 6 Music, and the slot I'm
hoping to be offered is presenting an evening music sequence from Mondays to
Thursdays between 7 and 10pm. None of this is yet finally
confirmed, but the BBC's webpage for the new service can be found