Two decades after his last album Radio 6 presenter and gay rights activist Tom Robinson has returned to the studio and plays in Lancashire next month. MALCOLM WYATT asks ‘why now?’
Regular listeners to BBC Radio 6 Music know Tom Robinson well, and many of us recall his performing days, too, this accomplished singer-songwriter also a ground-breaking gay rights activist.
There is only the here and now. The past is gone, forgotten
You’d be forgiven for thinking his own direct participation in the music business was behind him. But it turns out that’s not the case.
He made his name in the 1970s as singer and bass player in the Tom Robinson Band, best known for 2-4-6-8 Motorway and further hits Don’t Take No For An Answer and Up Against The Wall.
Then there was a certain sing-a-long anthem, the inspired Glad To Be Gay suggesting a musician clearly not afraid to stick his neck out, his band also early backers of Rock Against Racism and Amnesty International.
Between 1975 and 2001 Tom released 19 albums with various bands, co-writing with the likes of Elton John and Peter Gabriel.
As a solo artist he enjoyed more success, notably in 1983 with top 10 hit War Baby.
These days, he’s pretty much a full-time broadcaster, through his national radio show and new music blog Fresh On The Net.
But he plays plenty of gigs, and will release his first album of the 21st century in October, Only the Now, including a number of high-profile guest appearances.
The album inspired a healthy PledgeMusic response, around 170% of its original pre-order target quickly reached. Not bad for an artist so long out of the loop.
Down the telephone line, I say it must be nice to have that public backing to move him on to the next stage.
“Absolutely, and it’s such a thrill to have that kind of relationship with the audience, where they can make it possible.”
A new BMG publishing deal helps, but for all his friends in the industry, there must have still been a fear no one would be bothered.
“Absolutely, yeah. And is a new Tom Robinson album what the world needs now? The jury’s still out on that!”
Tom laughs, and I ask him the obvious question. It’s been 20 years since his last album, so why now?
“That’s easy. I’ve turned 65 this year, and my kids have grown up, so I’ve got the decks clear! I’ve got the room and the time to engage with this.
“All those things I’ve put on hold over the last 20 years I’ve finally been able to bring them to the boil.”
That may still surprise a few people, the ‘married with kids’ line, Tom joking about ‘contracting late-onset bisexuality’, having met his wife Sue at a Gay Switchboard helpline benefit party in 1982.
Previously describing himself as ‘a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman’, he remains an outspoken champion of gay rights.
Did his children, the youngest now 18, follow his lead into the music business?
“Not remotely. Thank God. It’s a precarious way of earning a living.”
There are lots of special guests on Only the Now, from John Grant and Martyn Carthy to Nitin Sawney and Nadine Shah.
Colin Firth and Sir Ian McKellen make spoken contributions, too. Was this Tom flicking through his bulging contacts book?
“They’re all kinds of radical contacts. With Colin Firth we did The People Speak concert, very much about democracy, so when we were putting this together, we thought the part of a BBC newsreader would be ideal for him.
“He was off on location filming, but recorded his bits on his phone, emailed them, and we dropped them on to the album.”
When Tom says ‘we’, he’s chiefly including Gerry Diver, his producer, a multi-instrumentalist who co-wrote nine of the tracks.
How did Billy Bragg – the Bard of Barking joining Tom on Mighty Sword Of Justice – get involved?
“The Justice Alliance is really important to both of us, with access to justice getting increasingly hard.
“It costs around £700 to plead not guilty in court, but £150 to plead guilty. It’s scandalous. Through lack of financial resources, we’re being denied justice.
“Billy was very happy to get involved. We were trying to create the flavour of one of those big 80s protest demos, so he was key to that.
“Having Lisa Knapp and Martin Carthy also helps. But the key to that specific track was steel pan player, Frank Rollick.
“Gerry and I were racking our brains, wondering how we were going to create that vibe of those ‘everyone altogether’ marches.
“Then we came out of Nitin Sawney’s studio in Brixton and found Frank busking outside the tube station, and thought, ‘Right!’ Putting him behind Billy just gives it that wonderful vibe.”
Some of the contacts contributing go a long way back with Tom, not least TV Smith. Did his first band, The Adverts, ever share a bill with TRB?
“We did, and I toured with TV in the90s, when we were on Cooking Vinyl, us punk survivors. We became really good friends and have sung on each other’s records.
“TV is an absolute natural, with that wonderful quality to his voice. He’s more than a survivor these days. He’s having to turn down work, he’s so much in demand.”
Is it fair to say it was BBC 6 Music that inspired Tom to get out there again?
“Totally! I was a bit daunted at first by the wealth of talent, wondering how I could ever do anything that matches that. But meeting Gerry, he’s totally got that touch.
“The first thing I heard of his was The Peace Project, creating sound pictures around words. He’s very focused on lyrics and on sound, so creates these soundscapes.
“I record a skeleton track with vocal and guitar and he creates a picture around it, putting drums and electric guitar on last, a completely unconventional way.”
Mancunian Lee Forsyth Griffiths has been part of Tom’s band for 15 or so years, who sings on the LP’s lead single, Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall.
He describes this former Trevor Horn protégé, ‘discovered by Paul Morley’, as having ‘such grit and soul and passion in his voice’ and ‘just wonderful to have involved’.
Tom’s certainly given a few artists a push via BBC Introducing and Fresh on the Net. Is it fair to say he’s taken on the mantle of John Peel, one of his early inspirations?
“A lot of people have taken that on. He left such a big gap and people in such a lot of different fields have taken on different aspects, not least his son, Tom Ravenscroft.
“He’s really on the radical edge of it, helping people making the most extreme music get heard. And he’s got impeccable taste.
“It’s what he doesn’t play that makes his show interesting! Then, of course, Steve Lamacq has been flying the flag for developing music for so long.”
With both on 6 Music, it seems that Tom’s definitely in the right place.
“I so love that job! There’s nowhere else I’d rather work. I was on the development team building the station, even before it had a name. It was Network Y then.”
What’s his finest moment as a songwriter?
“That’s like asking which of my children is my favourite. Grey Cortina says exactly what it set out to say, a very specific thing about wideboys I saw driving up and down Seven Sisters Road, North London in the early 70s.
“‘Cortina owner, no one meaner, wished I could be like him,’ I’m proud of that.”
Did he ever get to own one?
“I did, but it was jinxed. Back in 79, the first day I took it out I got into a race with some 17-year-old that just started driving his father’s Vauxhall or something.
“He was racing away from the lights. The Cortina beat him, but I made the mistake – rather than going home and having a nice cup of tea – of pulling over to the side of the road to gloat as he went past.
“Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good driver and thought he’d drive really close and give me a scare.
“He rear-ended the Cortina just outside Shepherd’s Bush police station, writing it off. It had taken me about a year to get enough money to buy it, too.”
Moving on to War Baby, there are far too many words there. It shouldn’t really work. It does though.
“Yes, a comedy programme at the time did a brilliant spoof, starting ‘Only Tom Robinson would try and get this many words in the first line of a song …”
‘Only the very young and the very beautiful can be so aloof’, you sang. Do you still stand by that sentiment?
“Yes … in my experience. Never more true!” Tom’s been busy this summer, including shows at the Glastonbury and Latitude festivals, and this month’s Wickham and Green Man festivals.
And a day after playing London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, he heads to Ramsbottom Festival on September 19.
“I’m looking forward to that. It’s run by the Bury Met people, one of my favourite gigs in the country. It was a show I couldn’t pass up on.”
Does he recall headlining Sunday at Preston in the Park in the mid-90s, one of the Heineken Big Top shows? I recall a great reception, Tom leading the masses on an updated Glad to be Gay.
“Oh, they were good fun!”
After the festivals, there’s an album tour from October, including the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on November 4, supported by Kitten Pyramid.
“And we’ve got Gerry Diver himself coming on to play chainsaw violin. He’s such an astonishing musician.”
Does Tom think he’ll feel 65 by the end of those dates?
“Well, my father lived to 92 and would say, ‘Getting old has its drawbacks, but it’s a lot better than the alternative!”
It’s 40 years in the public spotlight now. Is he getting used to it?
“I’m lucky I had my 15 minutes of serious fame so long ago, before the whole tabloid thing took off.
“Someone like Taylor Swift must really suffer, with people writing nonsense about you all the time. That’s the huge advantage of being on the radio.
“If I was on TV I’d probably have kept a high profile, and among the cast of characters people like to gossip about.
“The lovely thing about radio is this intimate one-to-one relationship with your audience. You’re able to work in communication. It’s not about celebrity.”
Tom certainly took to the airwaves, and has appeared on all the national BBC radio channels since his World Service debut 30 years ago.
“A producer came to a show, and perhaps she preferred the chat between songs to the actual songs! She obviously thought. ‘That’s a good radio voice’, got in touch, and got me my own show. And I haven’t looked back really.”
How do you think Tom Robinson in 2015 compares to the fella produced by The Kinks’ Ray Davies – who he soon fell out with – 42 years before, in his formative days with Café Society?
“It’s been interesting coming full circle. We finally met again after all these years. Ray came on my show and did a two-and-a-half-hour interview, which was wonderful.
“That’s the whole point of this album. There is only the here and the now. The past is long gone and forgotten.
“The only thing that really matters is that he’s still here and I’m still here. In 20 years we’ll probably both be dead, so we might as well have a conversation about music.”
Were the Kinks an important influence?
“Anyone who grew up in the ’60s and says The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, The Manfreds or The Yardbirds didn’t have any effect on them is lying. It was part of the water we swam in and the oxygen we breathed.”
Who did you learn most from – Ray Davies, Elton John or Peter Gabriel?
“Ray probably taught me the most important stuff, about connecting, having as clear a line of communication as you can between creator and consumer of music.
“On stage, nobody can touch him. He creates this bond with his audience.”
Has Tom got more mellow with age, or more outspoken?
“Well, the current album includes songs like Mighty Sword of Justice, then there’s my tribute to the Lehman brothers, and Merciful God, inspired by a US bomber pilot who said, ‘I’m just doing the job God put me here for’.
“It’s all part of thinking about now rather than then, with songs that engage with what’s happening at the moment.”
If he were to add a new verse to Glad to be Gay now, what would it rail against?
“The tabloids have blotted their copybook and I update it every year, anyway, so the last verse includes phone hacking. There are so many different verses that there’s a whole website a fan put together documenting each version and each verse.”
Malcolm Wyatt is a freelance writer, with his own website at writewyattuk.com.
For Ramsbottom Festival details see ramsbottomfestival.com/
Only The Now is out on October 16 on Castaway Northwest Recordings. For details on pre-orders and the latest news from Tom Robinson see www.tomrobinson.com/