Tom Robinson Interview
An Exclusive Interview with Tom Robinson
Incredibly it's the 40th anniversary of Power in the Darkness. The music is as fresh and powerful as it ever was. Why do you think it's lasted so well?
You can't really separate music from the social context it was originally made in, and there've been times in the last 40 years when that album actually sounded incredibly dated. Its basic raw rock sound was deeply old fashioned during the New Romantics era and the Second Summer of Love at either end of the 80s for instance. And the lyrics also sounded ridiculously over-paranoid during the feel-good Britpop and Cool Britannia era of the 90s.
But PITD reflected the political flux and uncertainty of the times it was written in. In mid-1978 none of us had any idea what life in the UK would be like in two years’ time, and today's insecurities about Trump and Brexit mean that - regrettably - people can now very much relate to that mood.
That's why we re-recorded it with updated lyrics and released it on Spotify, iTunes and vinyl at the end of September. To avoid confusion the new version is simply called Live at the 100 Club.
You've set yourself a very full tour schedule for October. We welcome you to Canterbury in our 300-seat Spiegeltent, quite an intimate space. What are you looking forward to about playing a small (and temporary!) venue?
I'm very familiar with the whole Spiegeltent vibe from many years of playing the Edinburgh Fringe, so the band and I should feel nicely at home there. I've always enjoyed playing Canterbury, ever since the aptly-named Tom Robinson Band first played the University of Kent in 1977. We'd been booked in a small room for a low fee, but then 2-4-6-8 Motorway came out a week or two before the show and went into the Top 10, so the room was rammed beyond capacity. One bizarre detail I remember is that the performance space was surrounded with plate glass windows. The social secretary who had booked us actually took the trouble of covering them all up with paper to prevent "people who hadn't paid" from watching the show free of charge. Bonkers.
You've achieved a very great deal as a musician, activist, broadcaster and pioneer of new and innovative music. Of which of these are you most proud and why?
Haha you're too kind. I've dabbled a lot, made some good friends and managed to enjoy myself doing this and that over the years. Probably the single most worthwhile thing over my music career was taking part in Rock Against Racism's first Anti-Nazi League Carnival in Victoria Park, London in the spring of 1978 alongside Steel Pulse, The Clash and X-Ray Spex. There aren't many occasions where one can look back, point at a particular event and say, "that made a difference". But Tom Robinson Band was briefly quite well known at that time thanks to the 2-4-6-8 Motorway single, and at the height of those 15 minutes of fame we were able to take a prominent public stand against intolerance and hatred - and 80,000 people came to join us.
Finally, the future, this tour is a striking landmark but what's still on your list to do?
Radio listeners do seem to enjoy some of the improbable escapades and anecdotes one inevitably amasses over 50 years in the music industry. Getting banned by the BBC for being Glad To be Gay, fighting fascism on the streets of Lewisham, playing Glastonbury with Peter Gabriel, writing lyrics for Elton John, drug smuggling in East Germany, two nervous breakdowns, ten years in therapy - and a period in tabloid hell after falling in love with a woman. Actually, on a personal level the thing I'm proudest of is having found the future love of my life 30 years ago - and having raised two grown up kids together. When all the music and radio stuff is long forgotten, I'll still always be their dad.
So I guess my ambition at this point is to get down as much of it as I can still remember and write some kind of memoir. In these uncertain times people tend to romanticise the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s as "The Good Old Days" and forget how bloody awful a lot of it was. So it would be good to try and set the record straight about that - at least from my own point of view. Today's conflicts and concerns about the future are nothing new: despite everything we live in a kinder, fairer and more tolerant society today than at any time I can remember over the last 60 years. The Good Old Days are here and now - don't let anybody tell you different.
Interview by Alan Payne