Tom Robinson, singer, songwriter, bassist and radio presenter chats with Kevin Cooper about not playing his album on his BBC Radio 6 programme, his first time on Top Of The Pops, how his sexuality affected him in the music industry and his forthcoming tour of the UK to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Power In The Darkness.

Tom Robinson is a British singer, songwriter, bassist, radio presenter and long-time LGBT rights activist. In 1976 he formed the Tom Robinson Band with guitarist Danny Kustow, keyboardist Mark Ambler (later replaced by Ian Parker) and drummer Brian Taylor, who left the band after a disagreement and was replaced by Charlie Morgan.

Hitting the club scene right in the middle of London’s punk explosion, the band made leaflets and flyers about their political views and sent them to everyone who attended their gigs.

Their debut single, 2-4-6-8 Motorway was released in 1977 and it remained in the UK singles chart for over a month. In 1978 they released their very successful debut album, Power In The Darkness which was followed up with TRB Two. Other hits included Glad To Be Gay and Don’t Take No For An Answer.

The band split in 1979 after Kustow expressed a desire to leave, and Tom Robinson went on to have a very successful solo career with a top ten hit, War Baby.

A long time supporter and former volunteer of London’s Gay Switchboard help-line, it was at a 1982 benefit party for the organisation where he met his wife with whom he has two children. He has made no secret of his sexuality and continues to campaign for LGBT rights.

Taking a break from his busy schedule, he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Tom how are you?

I really can’t complain thank you Kevin how are you?

I am very well thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all, thank you for your interest.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

I never knew that getting old could be alright but it is (laughter). Let’s just say that it’s a lot better than the alternative (laughter).

(Laughter) very much so. Well I don’t know if you will remember but you and I spoke almost two years ago now prior to you launching your last studio album Only The Now here in Nottingham at Rough Trade.

Yes we did, I remember it well. And for your information I still haven’t managed to get my quid back off Sting the tight bugger (laughter).

Well I am sure that if he reads this then he will pop a cheque in the post to you (laughter).

Really, well I am not going to hold my breath (laughter).

Anyway on the subject of Only The Now were you pleased with just how well the album was received?

Yes I was, I was very happy. I don’t think that anybody, unless they are Ed Sheran, are really selling huge quantities of records but that album really did find its audience. The lovely thing about it was that people who had never heard any of my music before liked the songs so you can’t ask for any more than that. There are people who have bought Only The Now on vinyl and they have never played it. They have bought the vinyl and then listened to the free download. They have to keep the vinyl in perfect condition.

I have to ask you, what was it like working with a certain Sir Ian Murray McKellen?

(Hysterical laughter) Ian is such a huge laugh. I have posted a video of him on my YouTube account being the voice of God (laughter). He is great.

I still keep playing the album and I really do love Home In The Morning, Cry Out and Never Get Old. I think that they are fantastic.

I am so glad, that is so nice to hear. But unfortunately on the forthcoming tour I won’t be playing any of those (laughter). However, I have been and I will be again sometime in the future. I think that what we achieved with the album has allowed me the latitude to say “well okay I don’t have to prove anything now. I can now faithfully revisit the past”. That will enable me to go back to being just the four piece line-up where I play the bass and we just get down there, dig in and rock fast and loud.

Is there anything new on the horizon?

We are currently thinking of releasing a live album which we recorded two years ago when we toured the Only The Now album. That tour went really well and the band were just shit hot. By the time that we had reached The Sage up there in Gateshead the band were absolutely on fire. So we recorded it live on multitrack and Gerry (Diver) is looking to mix that and release a live album entitled Live At The Sage. Hopefully that will be released before too long. I can’t wait really because although I am playing songs from Only The Now they are turbocharged as they sometimes are during a live performance (laughter).

Why did you not release the album on cassette? All of the kids are currently begging bands to release their material on cassette.

I know and because of that I did try to get hold of a cassette player in order to play back my old cassettes but you simply can’t buy them anymore. It’s unbelievable, you can’t buy a cassette player anymore because they are no longer manufactured (laughter). Nobody makes them, so what’s that all about (laughter). The other thing that you have got to watch out for with your old cassettes is the fact that the tape deteriorates. Back in the 1980s they made so many duff batches of tapes so everyone who later wanted to make remixes and remaster the original tapes suddenly found that the acetates were all on cassette tape which had by now turned into a pile of magnetic particles.

You have to bake the tape before you run them through perfectly aligned tape heads once whilst at the same time making a digital copy and then, fingers crossed, you should be alright. I don’t dare play any of my old cassettes because the music on them might just vanish.

What the kids who are currently buying cassettes don’t realise is that they will need copious amounts of pencils (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s right, they don’t know that they are born. They also haven’t realised as yet the importance of buying the tapes that have the spool in them rather than the ones that are welded plastic. The old tapes manufactured by BASF were able to be opened and then reassembled in order to make them work again.

I personally never thought that the cassette was a reliable medium in the first place. They were simply far too delicate. Why are the kids crying out for them now?

(Laughter) well I don’t know if I dare tell you this but I love cassettes, they were my favourite medium right up until the development of the MP3 file and digital music storage. The cassette was always my favourite medium.

I was reading today that the inventors of MP3 are now claiming that it is dead and buried.

Really, well I for one really do hope not as most of my music is stored as MP3 files.

At the moment I personally do not feel that it is a level playing field. Because there are no vinyl producing plants readily available you can buy the CD from your local supermarket for six pounds but the vinyl will set you back around thirty pounds.

I have to agree with you and say that is a problem but I think that technology is eventually going to save us from that one. There is technology on the way where there is a box that is no bigger than a piece of domestic hi-fi which can produce custom vinyl. They showed this at one of the trade fairs last year. That should be readily available in just a couple of years time to a few of the small indie labels. That will allow them to do small runs of a hundred or so in their own back office. That will just be a game changer. The idea is that you feed your audio in and the hardware encodes how the cutting lathe has to go and it just cuts these records which are custom made.

That’s all well and good but what about the snaps and crackles (laughter). Where would we be without the snaps and crackles?

(Laughter) that is very true and another problem with that idea is that it wouldn’t jump (laughter). Regarding the snaps and crackles people actually put them on to their recordings. There are actually plug-ins that you can get for your Pro Tools that will add snaps and crackles to your records to make them sound more authentic (laughter).

How have the fans reacted to the new songs whenever you play them live?

To be perfectly honest with you they appear to like them. The new songs really do seem to stand well alongside the older stuff which for me is great.

That’s great to hear but on the forthcoming tour you will be leaving the new songs to one side won’t you?

(Laughter) yes that’s right. For this particular tour I have taken leave from my career and have gone back to revisit the dark, distant past. So for this one tour only it will be the first time in yonks that I will not be playing any songs later than 1979. For many, many years now people have been approaching me saying “oh I wish that I had seen you performing live during your Power In The Darkness era” or “I was far too young to come to that show” or more embarrassingly “I wasn’t even born when that album came out” so I just thought why not, let’s do it (laughter). Let’s play Power In The Darkness all the way through from beginning to end and salute the musicians who played on the original record.

Well let me ask you, just where did those forty years go? (laughter).

I know, it’s terrifying isn’t it. I think that but then I sit back and think there are now two grown up children, there is a conversion to bisexuality, and those are just two of the massive events in my life. Moving to work at the BBC for fifteen years, helping to save Six Music, living and working in East Germany, lots and lots of things. Let’s not forget that War Baby also happened during the last forty years.

When you wrote and recorded Power In The Darkness forty years ago, could you ever envisage that the album would be being played as much today as it was back then?

(Laughter) no I didn’t, not at all, in fact I thought that I was going to be dead by thirty (laughter). I had absolutely no idea that here I would be in my sixties hearing people talking about the album and that it would be made album of the day on something called Six Music, which it was only a few weeks ago.

I had a look on Spotify earlier today as I knew that we would be speaking and the single 2-4-6-8 Motorway has received almost seven million hits.

Isn’t that amazing, that truly is fantastic. On the subject of Spotify I have just discovered a company that allows independent musicians to put their back catalogue onto both Spotify and iTunes for a flat fee. They charge you forty pounds; you upload your album and then you take one hundred percent of the takings. Talk about empowering independent musicians, which is fantastic. So I am going to get my entire back catalogue up on there as soon as I can.

On the subject of your back catalogue, do you ever listen to your own albums?

Only accidentally (laughter). I personally find listening to your own work to be the same as Googling yourself. You just don’t want to be doing that, it’s a bit unhealthy (laughter). Having said that, occasionally I will come across one of the old albums, I will put it on and sometimes think to myself ‘I really like this’ (laughter). Whenever you are making something you are focused on in such fine detail, like one three minute song which you might spend two weeks or more working on it, you get so focussed in on it so that you know that on that second verse at the end of bar three you are going to drop a little bit of violin in there and put that in echo at the back.

After that you finish the record, you put it out and then you forget about it. Then you listen to it some thirty years later and you say “oh I like that bit” (laughter). There is just so much fine detail in Power In The Darkness that when you listen to the album repeatedly you hear other bits. Which is great, that is what you want.

You are well known for your presenting on BBC Radio Six so let me ask you, if you were reviewing Power In The Darkness today, how would you describe the sound of the album?

Do you know what, I most probably wouldn’t play it.


If it was a new record by a new band and it sounded like that I would say “no, I have heard that kind of thing all before mate” (laughter). However, if they were all new songs but exactly the same I would have to say that it has all been done before. People are always sending me demos that sound exactly like the Tom Robinson Band and then they wonder why I don’t play them on the radio. What you have to remember is that Power In The Darkness was written, recorded and released in 1977 for fucks sake. We are living in the twenty teens now and getting towards the end of those (laughter). It’s not radio comfy slippers, it is radio edge that you want. Give me something that is going to get me excited, give me something that is political, relevant, and modern like nothing that you could have heard ten years ago. That’s what you want to hear on the radio.

I’m personally still waiting for the Billy Bragg and Tom Robinson double header tour, will it ever happen?

No never, Billy doesn’t need the likes of me on the bill with him (laughter). Billy did in fact invite me to headline with him on the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury last year on the Saturday night, and I have to say that I really did enjoy that. He came on stage and did his bit on Mighty Sword Of Justice and yes, it was really nice.

Was your first time appearing on Top Of The Pops a disappointment?

Yes I have to say that yes it was extremely disappointing. The studio is much smaller than it looks on the telly and the other thing is that all of the technical equipment being used at that time was so primitive and was all fucked (laughter). The only playback for the bands to mime to was coming through tiny three inch speakers suspended high above your head. There were no monitors on the floor blasting it out at you so that you could know what you were doing so that you play over the top of it. The drummers did not have to actually hit the heads of their drum kit otherwise it made far too much noise and you couldn’t hear the track (laughter).

I remember the very first time that we were asked to appear on the show Slade were on the same show as us. I was standing underneath the stadium where they were performing and as they went through their run-through I couldn’t actually hear their song for the sound of the creaking of the boards above me (laughter). Slade were really giving it some, they were stomping and jumping around the stage and the noise coming from the floor really was quite frightening. There was so much noise coming from the stage floor that the track that they were supposed to be miming to coming from these tiny speakers hanging above their heads was totally drowned out.

However, Slade were such professionals and they were so tuned into it, they knew exactly what to do so when you watched it back the next day it looked amazing. They looked like they were actually playing. The first time that we appeared on the show we insisted on playing live and I have to say that we sounded bloody awful.

Didn’t you get Chris Thomas to try to make everything sound better?

(Laughter) yes that’s right. Chris Thomas as you know is a world famous record producer and we got him to come along to the Top Of The Pops studio in order to oversee the sound. Chris went into the gallery and he was shocked to see that there were only six channels available for the whole band (laughter). There was one for my vocals, one for Danny’s (Kustow) vocal, one for the guitar, one for the bass, one for the organ, and I think that left two for the drums, one on the top and one on the bottom and they wouldn’t let Chris anywhere near the mixing desk. They said “no mate you’re not union” (laughter).

All that Chris could do was to wring his hands in despair at these timeserving old duffers who really did mangle our sound. So the next time that we went on the show we recorded a backing track and simply put my vocals over the top of it. That sounded a lot better (laughter).

Who has musically inspired you?

I would have to say (David) Bowie although I would have to say that Bowie inspired me more emotionally than musically. Having grown up in an era where I had fallen in love with another boy at school, there was no music at that time which reflected my emotional state; everything was boy meets girl. So all through the 60s and into the early 70s there was nothing that reflected your own experience from my generation of queer kids and then along came Bowie with not only brilliant music but it was about us. That was fantastic. So yes, David was an amazing inspiration plus the way that he mutated musically was really great.

I loved The Clash when they came along although they didn’t like me very much (laughter). I thought that Joe Strummer did some extraordinary work. I love Soul II Soul, I thought that Jazzy B did some amazing things and I think that Damon Albarn is particularly underrated. Even though he has had numerous number ones and has been successful with around four bands and different identities I still think that when people are thinking about who has been a great songwriter over the past thirty years, very few of them will turn to Damon Alburn. I think that he is really great; look at the way in which he has worked with African musicians as easily as he has worked with American Hip-hop stars as well as making rural Essex music.

I can remember seeing him at Glastonbury with the late Bobby Womack. I thought that was fantastic.

Yes, I had forgotten about the great work that he had done with Bobby Womack. That was brilliant what he did for Bobby Womack.

I have to ask you, did your sexuality cause you problems within the music industry?

Yes it did but in unexpected ways. The funny thing was that it was the closeted gay mafia embedded within the music industry who didn’t want anything to do with us. There were gay radio producers who wouldn’t play us on the radio because they didn’t want to be tarred with the same brush. It was actually sympathetic straight radio DJ’s like John Peel who would say “yes that’s a worthwhile stance” and would then play the record. Then suddenly The Marquee Club on Oxford Street in London became a den for the gay mafia and they didn’t want us on at all (laughter). However, we then signed for EMI Records, got ourselves on the front cover of Melody Maker and then suddenly they were all over us (laughter). It was generally straight people who thought that the gay struggle was worth supporting rather than people who were gay themselves helping us out.

Are you still having far too much fun presenting on Radio Six?

Oh god yes (laughter). For me it is the best job in the world. I get to listen to great music all week, I get to talk about it on the radio and then they pay me (laughter).

Would you say that the music business here in the UK is currently in a good place?

The music business is fine, it is the record business that is in trouble. However, if you ask me the record business is finally getting its come uppance because they never paid the artists properly at the time; they constantly ripped off the consumers by overcharging for CD’s and stuff, and then selling them the same stuff again but this time in a different format. They were merciless both to the musicians who they could exploit together with the consumers who they could exploit. And now they are in fucking trouble (hysterical laughter). So the record business is in trouble and people are now saying “sales are down, just how can that artist make a living?” Well just how did artists make a living before recorded music even existed.

It’s simple, they made their living by making music for people, and finding new models and ways of getting through. I think that technology now offers us a wealth of ways in which you can find an audience so I am hugely optimistic about the music business as opposed to the record business. I think that if you are a new artist today and you have got a really stupid level of talent, a Paul McCartney level of talent, then you have more chance today of getting heard than you ever did in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s or even the noughties. Social media is fantastic for spreading the word whilst bypassing the gatekeepers, bypassing the mainstream media and just going straight to your audience. I think that it is wonderful what is going on.

What was the first record that you bought?

That was Twist And Shout by The Beatles.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

That was Manfred Mann and The Yardbirds at the ABC Cinema in Cambridge.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh Jesus, that would have been Raphael Doyle and a song called We’ll All Get Together Again. Raphael was the lead singer in my very first band Café Society and last year he made an album which was produced by Gerry Diver. I helped him to get the album organised and financed and the reason was that Raphael is suffering from Motor Neurone disease. Time was running out so we got his vocals recorded, we made the album, Cooking Vinyl released it and Steve Wright interviewed Raphael on Radio Two. It is a lovely album which includes the song We’ll All Get Together Again; ‘We’ll all get together again, we will sit in a circle in the wind and the rain with our friends, all beside us to hold back the pain’. It’s so beautiful.

A few of us recently had a reunion in a church hall in Cambridge and Raphael turned up and his Motor Neurone disease is such that he can’t use his arms anymore, can’t lift his head off his chest and he sang that song after lunch for all of us and it was just incredibly powerful. It is such a lovely optimistic song being sung by a man who has made such a terrific physical struggle to come and be with us. There was not a dry eye in the house, it was just amazing. That is such a powerful song and it certainly made me cry.

Tom on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been interesting as usual and I will see you here in Nottingham at the Rescue Rooms on the 19th October.

No thank you Kevin. Thanks very much for plugging my gig and I will see you in Nottingham. Bye for now.