SUN - July 1983
EXLE TOM COMES IN FROM THE COLD
By John Blake
IT took exile in communist East Berlin and a broken love affair to put
Tom Robinson's career back on the rails. For the grittily-outspoken singer
poured all his fury and confusion over what was happening to him into
the hauntingly beautiful song War Baby. The record, which is at number
6 in the charts, has become his first hit for five years. And now he is
back, bolder than ever and determined to make the big time again.
OUT Is the tough, leather-jacketed, woolly-haired, defiant image. IN is
the clean-cut, studious look of a bespectacled lyricist - an image that
has shocked and delighted fans who thought he had faded forever from the
world of rock.
Tom's fight back to the top has been a gruelling one. His brief spell
of success came in 1977-78 with a smash hit 2-4-6-8 Motorway, and outrageously
controversial songs like Glad To Be Gay and Up Against the Wall. But by
the beginning of 1979, quite suddenly, it was over as abruptly as it had
He says: "The Tom Robinson Band was flavour of the month in 1978. "It's
funny because I went through the press cuttings the other day and I discovered
that Melody Maker featured the Tom Robinson Band on its front cover eight
times in a single year. "Then they did a summary of the Seventies on the
last day of 1979, and I wasn't even in it!"
Tom, 32, says one of the worst moments in his life came when he returned
from an American tour supporting The Police to find himself faced with
a mountain of bills and so over-drawn that the bank took his cheque-book
Though he recorded War Baby more than six months ago the song was bluntly
rejected by every major record company in Britain.
"Listen, three months ago people in the business were seriously advising
me to consider making records under a false name. That's how cold my name
was. "Now, of course, everybody develops hindsight and says: 'Good old
old Tom, he kept in there."
In desperation Tom decided last month to release the single himself. Radio
One DJs Andy Peebles and Peter Powell started playing it to death - then
every record shop in the country suddenly started selling out of copies.
Tom feels that the suddenness of his band's success was one of the main
causes of his problems. "We went from the dole queue in North London to
playing Hammersmith Odeon in a year and I think that just made me too
big for my boots." He says.
"However hard you try to keep your feet on the ground, if enough people
tell you you are wonderful for long enough you believe it."
"But then they turn around on you and start to say how awful you are and
you start to believe that as well. It was really traumatic."
The band finished when guitarist Danny Kustow quit because he hated the
constant touring. Tom says: "It was wonderful for a while but then it
wasn't wonderful any more. I was down to selling off my guitars and amplifiers.
And when a musician sells off his instruments it's getting serious."
Among the people who replied to Tom's ad for his equipment were two scruffily
dressed Rastas.He says: "They were looking at the stuff in my garage and,
on one of the flight cases was written Tom Robinson Band. "So one of them
says 'Yeah, Tom Robinson, what happened to him? He was really good, man!'
So I said: 'Well, actually I am Tom Robinson.'
"And this guy said: 'Hey, you ought to keep at it you know. People who
keep at it always come back in the end. Just don't let it worry you. People
that keep on going and don't worry what people say, they come back in
the end.' So I said: 'Sure, look at Eddy Grant.' And he said: 'I am Eddy
Grant.' He was really kind. Talking to him was one of the things that
kept me going."
Fate lent a hand then when Elton John invited Tom to write some songs
with him. So affected was Tom by Elton's description of his concert tour
of Russia that he left his London mews flat to live in Hamburg in order
to learn to speak fluent German.
From Hamburg he obtained a visa to live in communist East Berlin, where
he joined a band, played concerts, wrote songs and shared a flat with
musicians. Tom's stay there ended when his best friend in the city, a
singer called Frank Gahler, told him late one night that he had been called
up to join the Red Army.
Tom says: "I felt like you feel when your father rings up to say he's
gone bankrupt or you hear someone has got cancer. I mean, I've got mates
who are squaddies in the British army on the Rhine and suddenly I had
friends on both sides, in both armies, who were learning to kill each
"And it just seemed that with all of them in East Germany terrified of
NATO and all of us terrified of the Kremlin that it was like a sort of
love affair that has gone badly wrong.
"I certainly know those kind of love affairs, and it tied in with a relationship
of mine that had gone badly wrong. "It's like when you have been very
close to somebody in a love affair and you are that near to one another
that you are almost one person.
"Then the defences come up, you got more and more frightened of getting
hurt and it just goes badly wrong.
"Well that's what seems to have happened with the East and the West.
"So I just sat down after all this and poured out the song War Baby. "But
really it is about reconciliation. That last verse is all about people
finally getting back together again. "Let's hope . . ."