Guardian, Saturday September 11, 1999
Last week Guardian reviewer Adam Sweeting criticised
a Tom Robinson gig,
describing some of it as 'excruciating'. Now the musician
| I'd have to say last Saturday's piece about my
concert at the Purcell Room on September 1 was by
far the most generous review of my work that Adam
Sweeting has ever written. In fact, if you kept
the best bits, you could end up with maybe 15 positive
words about the music - probably the nearest thing
to fulsome praise that will ever come my way from
But big thanks to AS for finally admitting
in print what had long been apparent: the man can't
stand me. There's no possible performance I could
ever give, or album I could ever make, that he
wouldn't detest on general principle.
Could I just run that
by you once again? Before he even turned up at the show, there was
never the smallest doubt that Adam Sweeting would tell
the world just how embarrassingly, toe-curlingly
awful it was... regardless of what happened on stage.
Fair enough, all artists have off-nights and if any
of us give dull, sloppy or pretentious performances,
we deserve to be roasted.
Take (say) an Ian Dury concert - a fair
review might cover whether he sang well, whether the band were
hot, and what artistic risks, if any, were taken.
It might mention that his vocal range is limited,
his humour lavatorial - also (probably) that the
audience enjoyed every minute of it. But suppose
you've always loathed Dury's Essex Boy persona and
find songs such as Clever Trevor deeply unfunny?
You might go along and review him once, just to
get it off your chest. Twice, if you're feeling
particularly vindictive. But three times? Four?
Of course there's no reason why any artist shouldn't
get a good kicking in print from time to time: we
take the rough with the smooth. But the rough with
the rough? Year after year? Every album review,
every concert review. This is criticism, Jim, but
not as we know it.
Far be it from me to lecture the Guardian's arts
editor on The Role of the Critic in Contemporary Popular Culture, but surely
this is a waste of column inches. The ignorant jibes about my personal life,
the gratuitous digs about geography teachers: this
isn't an arts review, this is character assassination.
Nor is it simply a question of wounded ego: the
fact is, I don't have a big-shot manager or PR company
to help undo this kind of damage with promotional
Yes, damage. My records aren't played on Radio 1,
or reviewed in Melody Maker: the liberal press are
just about the only way of contacting my potential
audience these days. So while 300 people had a storming
time at my show the other night, 500,000 more read
that it was "a few songs short of enjoyable". ("Shall
we go out and see Tom Robinson's next concert, dear?"
"Erm, probably not.") I'm not asking for special
treatment, just making a point.
is such a thing as bad publicity.
And while there's no modest way
to say this, plenty of people don't agree with Sweeting. From his review
you'd never guess that the venue was packed and
ecstatic, or that the two songs he described as "excruciating" won
the wildest, warmest applause of the evening.
So if the new Guardian pop critic is young enough
to be my grandson, for God's sake next time (if there is a next time) ask him
to come and judge one of my performances on its merits in the here and now. Without,
like Adam Sweeting, bringing 20 years of history, bile and emotional baggage
to bear. Were the songs any good on first hearing? How committed was the performance?
How was the rapport between stage and audience? How did the show compare
to Skunk Anansie, Faithless, or The Prodigy? OK
- the answer might turn out to be "badly" - but
I'll take my chances.
Most of the audience at Glastonbury this year
had never seen me before but 2,000 of them gave my new
material a tumultuous reception in June. Good job
Adam Sweeting wasn't there to to tell everyone how
crap it was, eh?
| ORIGINAL ARTICLE:
'Tom Robinson not all
that bad' shock
GUARDIAN Saturday September 4, 1999
What's a critic to do when an artist
asks him not to bother reviewing him?
Adam Sweeting sneaks in the back door
| All rather embarrassing, really. The Guardian said, "Go and review Tom Robinson at the Purcell Room."
Tom Robinson was even less delighted than I was.
When I came to collect my ticket, I was handed a
letter from the artiste instead. "My partner and
I greatly enjoy your TV and music reviews," he had
written, since "you have a great line in vitriol
that often makes us chuckle in the mornings." Actually
Tom, this would be a great time to mention that
to the features editor, if you could be bothered
to drop him a line.
But then he added, "Since you have consistently
disliked everything I've ever done, I'd rather you
didn't review the show." There was no performance
he could give, he felt, that I "would find enjoyable
or worthy of respect".
I could see his point. It must be dispiriting
when, through all your various changes of style and stance,
including the baffling leap from gay spokesperson
to contented family man, you keep getting reviewed
by this miserable bastard who can't stand you. As
a loyal Guardian reader, what has he done to deserve
But look at it from my point of view, Tom. How
do you think it feels when you can see your editor's
thought processes whirring along before your eyes: "That Tom Robinson is old enough to be our new pop
critic's grandfather. We'll have to get Sweeting
out of mothballs." Depressing or what?
But what the hell. It's only
journalism, and there are pages to fill, so I went round to the box office
and bought a ticket. I slid furtively into my seat,
hoping Robinson wasn't going to quiz each member
of the audience individually to make sure the enemy
hadn't crept into their midst. Some of these performers
get a bit paranoid in their middle years.
He didn't, luckily, and
I would have to say this wasn't the worst Tom Robinson performance I've ever
seen. In fact, if you dropped some of the songs
and kept the best bits of his onstage banter, you
could end up with rather an enjoyable show. He did
a comical routine about the ritual of playing encores,
where the performer has to pretend to be surprised
to be asked back, and the audience convinces itself
it's delighted that he has deigned to play a couple
more tunes. Rightly, he singled out Lou Reed as
an especially heinous operator in this respect.
There was a drummer joke, too. What's the difference
between a drummer and a drum machine? With a drum
machine you only have to punch the information in
I won't dwell on the typically Robinson-esque excruciating
bits, like the awful geezerish singalong of Martin or his diabolical imitation
of a Pentecostal preacher. Tom's problem (and let's face it, I've had plenty
of opportunities to work this out) is his lack of
a self-editing capability. His sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll
anthem, The Most Natural Thing in the world, is
like watching embarrassing secret videos of your
geography teacher letting it, as it were, all hang
But why not think positive, and point out that
Atmospherics was very atmospheric indeed, while
War Baby is proof that Robinson can make potent
music without beating you over the head with a rolled-up
manifesto? And you never know - maybe I'll never
have to hear him play it again.