- September 24 1977
UP AGAINST THE WALL - LIFE WITH THE TOM ROBINSON BAND
By Pete Silverton
"The British police are the
best in the world.
I don’t believe one of these stories I’ve heard . . ."
Squashed into a hired car, on the way back to town from a gig, guts already
beginning to ache from the two over salted hamburgers and one cup of sweet
and nasty tea you’ve only just gobbled down. ‘I Shall Be Released’
purring softly from baby cassette player, round the roundabout twice trying
to find the right road . . . closely followed by a large blue Transit,
fluorescent flashing ‘Stop’ sign. “Do you always go
round roundabouts twice, sir?” Tom eases out of the driving seat,
follows the female fed over to the van, his smile a picture of co-operation.
The male copper sticks his head through the window of the car and tries
to engage us in friendly conversation over the now louder cassette player.
Tom has to show the fed how to use the breathalyser. She seems slightly
upset that, when the bag is inflated, the crystals are still in a state
of pristine, untrammelled innocence. But she does perk up a little when
she discovers that Tom is in a rock ‘n’ roll band. After all,
he might be famous and good public relations never harmed anyone, did
“Have you been on ‘New Faces’?”
“No, but he has.” Tom replies politely, pointing at Brian.
“Oh well, thank you sir. Good night. That’s the right road.”
Back in the car and on the right road, Tom remarks: “Next time we
come here, we will be famous, they will know who we are and they’ll
probably lock us up for it.” Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
let me introduce you to the crises and contradictions of Tom Robinson.
First, some points.
1. Tom Robinson is a songwriter.
2. Tom was, until late last year, in an acoustic group, Café Society,
who made one album for Ray Davies’ ill-fated Konk label.
3. Tom formed the Tom Robinson Band early this year. Its line-up settled
down to himself on bass and vocals, Danny Kustow on guitar and vocals,
Mark Amber on keyboards and Brian Taylor on drums and occasional vocals.
4. The Tom Robinson Band play some of the gutsiest rock ‘n’
roll and sing some of the bravest lyrics I’ve ever been lucky enough
5. The Tom Robinson Band have recently signed a recording contract with
EMI, the label’s first signing since the Pistol’s debacle.
6. Tom is gay. He’s neither ashamed nor boastful about it. He just
informs you of the fact and if you don’t like it, you know where
you can put it, don’t you John.
7. The rest of the band aren’t gay.
All of which are a few basic facts to keep in mind while I outline the
events which lead up to my being stopped in a car for going round a roundabout
one times too many. In the current polarisation of music between Boring
Old Farts and Bright Young Things, quite a few bands have been passed
over because they didn’t fit into such a neat dichotomy. At one
extreme, if you didn’t sound like Zappa you were derided for being
unmusical. And at the other end of the spectrum, if you showed in your
approach a knowledge of anything other than the Dolls, the Ramones and
Iggy, you were unceremoniously dumped onto the dust-heap of history.
That could well have stiffed the Tom Robinson Ban. Their lyrics were pointed
and direct enough, if incalculably more literate and intelligent than
garbage like Slaughter And The Dogs, to please all but the most amphetamine-overdosed
buzzsaw guitar social commentator. But their music was nearer that of
a standard, if tasteful, rock ‘n’ roll outfit. Nearly stymied
by the “If you’re not with us you’re against us”
pose, they could have ended up as a band in search of an audience, reduced
to eking out their starvation and frustration with a few jerk-off-left-wing
So why didn’t they? Firstly, because of the blindingly obvious qualities
of Tom’s songs and the punch of the band. (They’ve had a lot
of reviews in the papers this year and I don’t think I’ve
seen one unfavourable one. No complaints there, although they do have
another bone to pick with the press). Secondly, because, in good Hollywood
B movie flick tradition, they gritted their teeth and hung on in there,
convinced their day would come. Okay, so lots of bands and great ones
at that have thought the same but they’ve all of ‘em been
brought down by the grimmest reaper of all time. The TRB aren’t
gonna be though – or rather I don’t believe they are –
because the wait hasn’t been too long, the band have tightened up
and changed over this year and, most importantly, Tom himself has had
ample past experience of false starts, notably the prevarications of Mr.
Ray Davies over the release of Café Society records which reduced
the band to a two piece when Tom left and have now split it up altogether.
Won’t get fooled again . . .
Nonetheless, the gap between saying what you think and shouting it out
good and loud while playing at London’s Brecknock and getting the
self-same point (let’s not call it message, huh) across via the
warping mechanism of a music-biz multi-national like EMI is a not inconsiderable
one. There’s evidence supporting that in the Pistols affair with
EMI and then A&M and, to a lesser degree, the Clash’s occasional
contretemps with CBS. Now look, I ain’t accusing nobody of selling
out. It’s obvious that if you think you’ve got something to
say and reckon a lot of people should hear it, there’s no point
in whispering it to your mate round the corner and expecting it to spread
miraculously by word of mouth. And the big companies are only too willing
to help . . . if they make money. Penguin print Marx for profit, not politics.
But those big companies do prefer to do it on their own terms and those
terms can, whether over a long or a short period, alter the original intention.
Which is why I was very interested in going down to Shepperton Studios
to see the TRB polish off their first single and find out the current
state of play with EMI straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak.
Of all Tom’s songs, the one chosen for the first single, ‘Motorway’,
is probably the least, shall we say controversial. It doesn’t deal
with fears of a right-wing backlash like ‘Winter Of 79’ or
the realities of life on the street like ‘Up Against The Wall’
nor is it a phial of vitriol lobbed at everything “an Englishman
holds dearest to his heart” like ‘Power In The Darkness’
or a sardonic commentary on Tom’s own lifestyle such as the bitter
as tears in your beer ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’.
‘Motorway’ is a simple song of joy about a trucker hauling
his thirty ton Scania down the M6 and watching the sun rise, its only
controversial aspect being the fact that the only reason he’s able
to drive all night is that he’s got his “double white line”.
Anyway if the Steve Gibbons band can get away with an homage to drug dealing
with ‘Tulane’, even doing it on TOTP, who’s gonna worry
about a little ol’ line like that, EMI? Anyway, it’s a great
song. Like all Tom’s songs, it’s packed with the sort of concrete
positive metaphors that Chuck Berry used to have a patent on. And when
I heard the rough mix of the backing track in the studio, I just leapt
around singing along and shouting that it sounded just like a coarse Tamla
record. And nearly got thrown out of the studio for my pains. Not by Tom
but by the producer, the Who’s sound engineer, Bob Pridden, doing
the honours here with a barn of a room and the Island mobile.
Bill’s done a great job (though he couldn’t find a small
speaker for me to hear it on – I never trust those massive studio
jobs – everything sounds good on them). He’s got the football
crowd sing-along ambience spot on and given the TRB the biting guitar
sound they’ve needed all along and have never until now quite found.
But Bob was EMI’s choice, not the band’s. They’d been
working with Jon Miller since earlier this year and had done a version
of ‘Motorway’ with him. But EMI didn’t like it. So a
new producer was found and it was EMI who made the decision. The first
of many compromises, with the office not the band calling the shots? That
was what I wanted to know but it wasn’t until the next day I was
able to ask Tom. Getting the vocal track down didn’t go quite as
had been hoped and EMI suddenly got ultra-conscious of money being wasted
by our lazing, talking to the band and taking pictures. Besides, how honest
can Tom be with his Artist Development geezer from EMI (sounds more like
Motown’s infamous grooming schools than rock ‘n’ roll
to me) sitting five feet away?
So now we reassemble and switch on the tape recorder the next day, travelling
up to the gig in the hired Cortina. Much to Tom’s chagrin, it’s
a mucky yellow series 3, not the Mark 1 1600E grey Cortina he covets in
the song of the same title. He does admit, however, that the new ones
are more comfortable to drive. Seeing how Elvis got his Cadillac when
he put his John Henry on the line for RCA, I ask Tom how come he didn’t
get his grey Cortina out of EMI. He laughs. The ice broken, I press on
to the more serious points about the relationship with EMI. Was there
any pressure to put out such a relatively uncontroversial song?
“We were planning to use ‘Motorway’ whichever company
we went to, even if we pressed it ourselves. We were quite determined
to go ahead, with or without a record company. It wasn’t that important
that we had a record deal. We had a truck, we had our gear, we were reasonably
self-supporting. We were going to press it ourselves anyway so we could
get it out to the kids on the street.”
So why a record deal then?
“Totally simple. We want more people to hear our music. And the
better the record company, the more people will hear the music. And EMI
is, I think, one of the best record companies in London, if not the world.
Therefore, it will be heard by more people.”
Isn’t the change of producer some kind of compromise?
“We’ve made a compromise. They’ve made a compromise.
When we came to the label we had choice of producer according to our contract.
But they didn’t like his approach. John (Miller) had a classically
crisp studio sound. EMI had seen us with our crappy PA, bum notes and
distortion and that’s how they saw us. So we said, okay, we’ll
go along with the change for the A side but we want to keep John for the
B side – ‘I Shall Be Released’ – which, as you
know, is for George Ince who’s doing fifteen years on very flimsy
evidence. EMI didn’t want him to do that either but they compromised
and we came to an agreement. But as far as the lyrics go, there’s
been no compromise.
“It could very easily be the thin edge of the wedge. It could be
them trying it on early in the game. The A&R department flexing its
muscles to see how far it could push the band. On the other hand it could
also be in the best interests of all of us, if it gets the best sound
on record.” Actually I agree wholeheartedly with EMI on that issue.
I’ve heard John Miller’s version and it has the attack of
an asthmatic mouse, leaving Tom high and dry punching out his lyrics in
front of a musical vacuum. Bob Pridden’s treatment has turned it
into the wonderful rock ‘n’ roll dance record it should be.
But then the relationship with Jon Miller was more than just band/producer.
John had given them support help and studio time when they were at their
lowest ebb, crying in the wilderness, Tom moonlighting with Irish show
bands just so he could eat a decent meal now and again. And John did it
all for a hope and a promise. But then rock ‘n’ roll was never
known for its extremes of sentiment (and John’ll be compensated
anyway). John Miller was also a link with the past in so far as he produced
the second Café Society album – which has yet to be released.
Now, if you’ve heard the first Café album (which is very
unlikely) you’ll know they were the epitome of soggy singer-songwriter
acoustic-guitar Valium ‘rock’.
“But I gradually became aware of what there was an audience for
and what there wasn’t an audience for. In two years of Café
Society we’d had two reviews. I did four nights by myself (for Gay
Pride week0 and got reviewed in Sounds twice and in Streetlife. So I thought
I must be doing something right and it showed me that there must be something
wrong with Café. But I didn’t then know what I was going
The Gay Pride Week shows were a turning point for Tom. For the first time
he found himself able to sing songs that spoke about his deeper, more
honest feelings (and I’m not just talking about his being gay).
It was where he premiered what has come to be seen as the band’s
anthem, ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’, which I know
the band felt had become a mill-stone round their neck at one point. “Now
we see it as a v-sign to Mary Whitehouse” chorused the previously
silent Danny and Brian.
But still, why the change to rock ‘n’ roll?
“It seemed to me that 77 and 78 were going to be years of big trouble
on the streets. And that’s where the average music fan is. They’re
either still at school or just left school and are in a boring job.Whatever
music you make you’ve got to be in touch with their lives. I could
see they were going to want much more basic, more simple hard-hitting
rock music. But I’m not in it for the money. There’s easier
ways to make money. Like property speculation, for instance. So long as
I’ve got a roof over my head, something to eat and grey Cortina,
that’s me happy.
@ I live for my hour on stage. That’s what I’m hooked on.
That’s what I live through the other 23 for. To me it doesn’t
matter whether I’m playing or singing or jumping up and down, waving
my knickers in the air. It’s performing that counts. The, if within
that, I can contribute to making the world a slightly better place to
live in, I feel as if I’ve done something. It’s not even a
question of a better world for people in general. I’m most concerned
with me. But I know that a better world for me means a better world for
you. Motives don’t matter. It’s the end result that matters.
If you see a guy starving on the street and you give him a quid just to
impress your girlfriend or boyfriend, it doesn’t matter, ‘cos
at the end of the day that guy’s still got the quid.”
Your songs have any real effect?
“Nah. Fuck all. Nobody ever changes the world by singing pop songs.
But if you can change it one iota it’s worth doing.”
I know somebody told Tom that listening to his songs was like reading
the Agit Prop column in Time Out. I wondered how he’d react to the
charge that his political poses were shallow, empty, trendy.
“This is when you write down “long pause, dot, dot, dot”
. . . Look maybe it is trendy to get almost bottled for singing ‘Glad
To Be Gay’. Maybe it is trendy to get your roadie’s head kicked
in in Wales just ‘cos one of us said “fuck” in front
of a lady who was too lady-like to hear a word like that but wasn’t
too lady-like to kick someone in the balls. Maybe it is trendy . . . I
By this time we’ve arrived at the gig and discover that it’s
just another case of a local club owner knowing his Wednesday nights are
slack and hoping to cop a little more money by turning it over to real
live rock ‘n’ roll for the night. The band, especially Tom
are visibly brought down by the prospect of playing to a tiny audience
most of whom don’t really understand what they’re doing there
anyway. You might get Mick Jones coming along to most of your gigs in
London and he and Glen Matlock might have to squeeze hard through the
crowds to get up on the stage to play a little with yoou. But, out here,
you’re on your own, boy, with a crowd that’s waiting to be
astounded and ain’t gonna do anything to make it easier for you
to do it.
Sod the Fillmore West in 1967 this is the real acid test of a band. What
do you mean, did they manage it? Of course they did. Okay, so a few people
went back to the bar but those who stayed were more than warm in their
appreciation of the band. They do their standard set, albeit a slightly
shortened one. Tom does his best old trooper routine, playing the crowd
like he was holding five aces, totally winning them over by the third
number, the whimsical but not at all twee ‘Martin’. If you
believe in yourself and believe other people will too given half a chance
you’re half way to convincing any crowd. They even applauded ‘Glad
To Be Gay’.
When I asked Danny Kustow how he felt about singing such an overtly gay
song and by extension, being in a band with a gay singer, he admitted
that it pissed him (and the others) off that the papers always concentrated
on the gay angle, especially as how he was personally more interested
in women. But, living up to his Jewish middle-class street urchin vibe,
he added, “When I sing ‘GTBG’ I get a vague feeling
that I could be singing “Sing if you’re glad to be Jewish”.
I don’t know what it’s like to be gay but thinking about it
that way helps it make sense for me.”
Coming from someone else that may sound stupid but Danny’s both
naïve and clever enough to mean it. It’s the same sort of sinuous
line he peddles with his guitar. This night neither he nor the rest of
the band were great but they turned in a solid professional set and, what’s
more important, they proved they had the bottle to go out and confront
on unknown territory. They’re not like some ‘political’
bands (and I’m not talking about the Clash) who feel afraid to move
out of the secure womb of benefit circuit. The TRB get out and do it,
hang the consequences.
Going into the club, Tom wondered aloud if this might be the time one
of them got bottled during ‘GTBG’. It wasn’t. Don’t
reckon it ever will be. With the front he’s got, only a nutter would
have the nerve.