Tom Robinson steps back into the spotlight

TOM Robinson is back with a new album and tour after a self-imposed absence and, while his political voice is undimmed, the singer-songwriter says from gay rights to the opportunities for young musicians, there is much to be glad about. By Fiona Shepherd
Tom RobinsonTom Robinson
Tom Robinson

News just in: on the very day of this interview, Tom Robinson, much loved singer, esteemed broadcaster and veteran activist, tweets that he has joined the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has just addressed conference and the press has come down hard. Robinson is better known for being a proactive player, but this time he reacts “in response to the newspaper headlines I saw in the face of that brave and courageous speech, so free of bulls**t and to see the man crucified…” he laments. “He needs all the help he can get so if my throwing a pebble at the wall helps then I’ll do it.”

Robinson has been throwing not so much pebbles as lyrical projectiles since the mid-70s when, inspired by The Sex Pistols’ brand of radicalism, he formed the Tom Robinson Band and made his name as one of our most overtly political songwriters, agitating for social justice, in particular gay rights, championing the Rock Against Racism campaign and paving the way for left-wing artists such as Billy Bragg and Red Wedge collective to emerge in the 1980s.

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Just as it is possible to contend that the political climate has gone full circle since then, Robinson’s musical drive has also come round again. He has just released Only the Now, his first new album in almost two decades and, following joyfully received appearances at a number of summer festivals, has also come out of self-imposed touring retirement.

“I was on the road for 30 years so towards the end of that time, playing to ever diminishing audiences, people only coming because they knew something from back in the 70s, it was dispiriting and physically harder and harder to keep up with it,” he says. “It’s been so nice sleeping in my own bed every night, seeing the family grow up. I couldn’t really stop writing songs quietly in my shed. But I gave up any hope at the time that anyone would ever hear them.”

Just as Robinson was powering down as a musician, his career in broadcasting was taking off. In the 70s, the BBC was quick to ban his gay rights anthem, Glad to be Gay, but 20 years later he could be heard presenting shows and documentaries on Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Live and latterly on 6Music, the digital station he was involved in developing.

“Radio saved me,” he says. “It gave me back my love of music. All through my childhood, I had been such a huge fan and record buyer but in the last ten years of slogging round on the road and making albums of my own, it was like being a chef – I’d set up my own little restaurant in a back street and had my regular clientele and I was just cooking for them, not aware of the developments in cuisine that were going on elsewhere. Suddenly I got this job as the equivalent of a restaurant critic and started dining out all over the place on the very best there was. That’s enormously daunting to me as an artist, to hear the quality of stuff that’s being made by today’s young artists, but at the same time it’s hugely inspirational.”

Robinson has become something of a champion of new music through his involvement with the BBC Introducing scheme, and is happy to declare that his tastes have changed considerably over his time at 6Music.

“I’m not so interested in hearing the same old thing that went before,” he says. “There’s an awful lot of supposedly new music that’s being turned out today that could have come from any time in the last 50 years, whereas I tend to like stuff that sounds a bit different and slightly more challenging.”

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Which is not to say that Robinson’s new album is some leftfield electronica odyssey. Only the Now plays to his traditional strengths, mixing the personal and the political, and actually achieves its currency through a batch of hoary folk punk protest songs targeting the perennial iniquities of financial corruption, religious radicalism and social inequality, on which he is joined at the barricades by fellow veterans such as Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, TV Smith of The Adverts and Sir Ian McKellen as the voice of God – “the obvious contender,” says Robinson.

He was encouraged to include a range of voices on the album, partly through his exposure to new music and partly because of the way his producer, Gerry Diver, chooses to work – recording vocals first, ensuring the story comes across with integrity and, in some cases, humour before he paints on the backdrop.

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Robinson is an eloquent, thoughtful and responsive storyteller. One of his more rambunctious new songs, The Mighty Sword of Justice, was written for a Justice Alliance demo protesting cuts to legal aid, just as Glad To Be Gay was first written for London’s Gay Pride march in 1976.

His most famous song remains a work in progress, with new verses added every year, as a way of charting positive social change. “The new last verse goes ‘today we can laugh as we march to the park, Clause 28’s been consigned to the past’, so there’s a lot to celebrate,” he says. “When I first wrote that song, I had no idea we would come this far, either in terms of gay/bisexual/transgender acceptance, but also in a wider sense. Although there is so far to go in terms of racial and sexual equality, it’s so much better than it was in the 70s. For example, we’ve got more people of colour in parliament, we’ve got openly gay MPs. It’s slowly changing but we have to stay vigilant because these things go on a pendulum swing, they always do.

“There’s always conspiracy theories about how the establishment wouldn’t actually let somebody genuinely radical ever come anywhere near power and we are seeing the establishment doing its damnedest about that right now. It remains to be seen whether democracy is still alive enough in our country to overcome that.”

As for the future of music, Robinson is entirely optimistic. He is an enthusiastic advocate of social media channels, and can speak from experience, having funded Only the Now through a Pledgemusic campaign.

“The good old days are right here and right now,” he declares, “because if you really have great talent you will get heard much more certainly than you would in the 70s and 80s. If you write the next Creep or Champagne Supernova or Hey Ya, you don’t have to go cap in hand to somebody and say ‘may I make a demo please?’, ‘will you sign me to your label please?’ You just put the work out there and find out if people are keen. So it’s a great meritocracy these days and it is possible to bypass the industry and all those middle men – and they are mostly men – who were the gatekeepers before.

“Contrary to all the doom and gloom the music industry is spreading around the place, I don’t think there has been a better time for a new hugely gifted artist to set out on their career.” Or an old(er) one to get back in the saddle.

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• Tom Robinson plays Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 6 November and Oran Mor, Glasgow on 7 November. Only the Now is out now on Castaway Northwest