OBSERVER - June 1986
Simon Frith talks to Tom Robinson
THEY met again, after all these years, in a hotel corridor in Manchester,
John Lydon and Tom Robinson, the yin and yang of punk politics. Robinson,
Mr Positive, who did his bit for every worthy cause; Lydon, Mr Negative,
who sneered at anyone who tried to pet him. 'Heh, heh,' leered Lydon,
in his expensive suit and orange, glue-sniffer hair. 'Heh, heh, it's Tom
Robinson. You wiv Red Wedge, heh ? F***king Champagne socialists!'
'I really like old Lydon,' Robinson said, remembering this Manchester
meeting later. 'He still offends everyone.'
Lydon and Robinson remain the most honest of all the pop stars made by
punk. They've both still got the principles with which they began, and
they both now do what they want, making music for a living but according
to their own rhythms of production and sales. Robinson's got a studio,
a drummer, a sound engineer. He only plays live when he can cover his
costs; he delivers his product to RCA for distribution on his own terms.
He's not in debt to anyone.
From his point of view, this has been Robinson's hardest political achievement.
Pop musicians, whether they're liberal or socialist, gay or straight,
confront the logic of capital directly, and Robinson's recollections of
1977-78 are instructive, Whatever else punk changed, it didn't change
the meaning of success and, as a 'star', Robinson became the source of
income for an ever-expanding chain of dependents - band members, road
crews, sales teams, etc - For them a hit carried only the promise of another
hit, and Robinson found himself in a gambling nightmare, unable ever to
cash in his chips because of the clamorous calls for one more bet.
Robinson, still the case study of a 'political pop star,' features in
two new books on the subject- David Widgery's polemical history of Rock
Against Racism, 'Beating Time,' and John Street's stolid academic survey,
'Rebel Rock' (Blackwell). Neither makes much sense of his experience.
In rhetorical terms pop musicians have two political uses - to raise money
(Geldof used all the trappings of hype and hard sell for Band Aid) or
to raise consciousness (the RAR and Red Wedge emphasis). In practice,
cash and ideology can't be separated - Band Aid has unleashed charitable
urges which are a threat to the Tebbit brand of Tory self-interest, while,
in the end, pop stars' basic importance for campaigns like Red Wedge is
as crowd-pullers and money-makers.
Tom Robinson certainly has no illusions on the latter score. He knows
that his value to benefit organisers is related precisely to his current
commercial status, and he quickly discovered that his 'political' fans
were far more fickle than his pop followers.
On the other hand, stars give their fans a sense of solidarity, can
boost the morale of people embattled in their daily lives. Political pop
is always played to the converted; Robinson suggests that both RAR and
Band Aid were successful because they focused moods already there.
In 'Rebel Rock' Robinson is quoted as saying that 'the danger which I
walked straight into with TRB was becoming a kind of Socialist Worker
set to music', and he no longer tries to write songs to political order.
The point, rather, is that if you're a political person and use music
to deal with strong feelings then some of your songs will be 'political'
- there's no way, in 1986, Robinson could not write about AIDS. But the
meaning of such songs is emotional not intellectual: nobody, whatever
the efforts of continuing sectarian bands like the Redskins and Easterhouse,
goes to pop singles for political analysis.
As part of his new 'steady state' career, Robinson has been playing a
month of Sundays at the Duke of York Theatre. I went to the last show
and was stirred by its atmosphere. This was Robinson's pop audience ('War
Baby,' not TRB fans) but I could feel immediately what he meant about
morale, morale which worked both ways, the crowd pushed Robinson to the
best performance I've ever seen him give (thanks, too, to a happy, skilful
Starting out in a decade-since-punk mood, I was most struck by Robinson's
musical control. His original weakness - a monotonic voice has become
a strength; his new songs build on a one-note-at-a-time drive, the strain
is the tension. Indeed, Robinson is so at ease now with rock and rock-ways
('the young Billy joel,' my American friend whispered) that his most intense
political struggle - the battle with success - may be about to start all