Tom Robinson, a British singer songwriter, bassist and radio presenter, chats with Kevin Cooper about his most extravagant purchase, his most embarrassing moment, forty years since the release of Power In The Darkness and his forthcoming tour of the UK.

Tom Robinson is a British singer songwriter, bassist, radio presenter and long-time LGBT rights activist, best known for the hits Glad To Be Gay, 2-4-6-8 Motorway, and Don’t Take No For An Answer, with his Tom Robinson Band.

Power In The Darkness was Tom Robinson Band’s debut studio album which they released in early 1978. The UK album had ten tracks and it included a stencil similar to the cover art, but with the album title replaced by ‘Tom Robinson Band’; it held the warning, “This stencil is not meant for spraying on public property!”

He has also had a successful solo career, the highlight of which was when War Baby peaked at number six in the UK Singles Chart.

Robinson is a supporter of Amnesty International and Peter Tatchell’s OutRage! human rights organisation and a leader of the Rock Against Racism campaign.

Whilst busy getting ready for his tour of the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Tom how are you?

I’m very well thank you Kevin, how are things with you up there in Nottingham?

All is good thank you and before we move on let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

You are entirely welcome. Thank you for being interested in what we are up to.

And I have to ask, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Well I have to be honest with you and say that life at the moment is pretty damn good (laughter). Who knew that being nearly seventy could be so much fun (laughter). The thing is that it is forty years now since I released Power In The Darkness and I most definitely will not be touring it in another forty years. It also recently occurred to me that I won’t be touring it in another twenty years when I will be eighty-eight (laughter). So if I am ever going to do it, then this is the year for me to do it.

You can’t say that with any certainty, look at The Rolling Stones (laughter).

Yes I know but those guys are only ten years ahead of me. And also you do have to be Mick Jagger in order to be able to pull it off. And what you also have to remember is that there is only one Mick Jagger (laughter).

Anyway enough of The Rolling Stones and back to the business in hand. I have been playing Power In The Darkness recently and I have to say that I had forgotten just what a great piece of work it is. It still sounds fresh and is perhaps even more relevant today than it was forty years ago.

Ah well thank you very much for saying that. It is always very nice to hear that your work is still being appreciated even after forty odd years so thank you very much for saying that. That is very sweet of you.

The last time that you and I spoke you informed me that you were busy working on a live version of the album that had been recorded at London’s 100 Club.

Yes I did and I am now pleased to tell you that the album is now all recorded, mixed and is being manufactured as we speak. It is scheduled to be released on both CD and vinyl later this month.

(Laughter) playing the album once again has bought back memories of my rebellious streak back in the day. I was fortunate enough to buy a vinyl copy forty years ago which included the Tom Robinson Band ‘Fist’ logo as a stencil. My dad at that time had a lime green Vauxhall Viva which thanks to me had the logo on the bonnet (laughter).

(Laughter) wow, really (laughter). We actually had some replica stencil’s manufactured a few years back so if you are in need of a replacement (laughter).

You have recently been playing the album in its entirety. How have the audiences taken to it; are they enjoying it?

Well to be honest I think that it is really because the audiences have enjoyed it so much last year when we were celebrating the fortieth anniversary of 2-4-6-8 Motorway and when we played those songs, suddenly everything became electrified. The whole thing simply took off and it became apparent that it was the right music for the times. Obviously with updated lyrics, but yes, everything simply felt right.

Will you be playing the album sequentially, as it was recorded forty years ago?

Oh yes, you have to start with Up Against The Wall and finish with Power In The Darkness. And don’t forget to turn the audience over half way through(laughter). It was very interesting to go back; some of those songs I have hardly played at all and there is a track on the album that we never did play back in the day, simply because we couldn’t (laughter).

Listening to the album again recently I still think that Up Against The Wall is a fantastic opening track. It grabs you and takes you on a journey through the rest of the album.

I’m so pleased that you have said that, thank you. I always thought that Up Against The Wall was the ideal opening track but there was some dissent within the ranks when I first suggested it laughter). Let’s just say that it wasn’t popular with all of the band members (laughter).

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

Oh yes, for me it has always been You Gotta Survive. I really like that track and I think that it is a bit Mad Max like (laughter). It has a bleak, futuristic scenario. I always felt that it had a certain smokey atmosphere to it.

Do you feel proud that the album has stood the test of time?

Yes I do I really do. Having now worked for the BBC for nigh on twenty years now, my job has been to listen to music and so with those ears on for me to go back and listen to all of the old recordings again, you suddenly realise that actually it was pretty good. And in particular the original playing of those instruments by those original band members was so very special. You don’t realise it at the time because you simply say “well that’s my band, that’s what we sound like” (laughter). You don’t realise how that then stands up in the context of what’s out there. I think that they did a fantastic job, and it’s just a shame that in terms of getting on with each other we had the kind of relationship of four ferrets in a sack (laughter).

Will EMI be doing anything special to commemorate the forty years?

No, as far as I am aware, EMI are not doing anything and that is partly the reason for me to be putting out the live version of the album on my own Castaway Northwest label. The live album is very much marking the occasion so we will just have to wait and see if people like that (laughter).

I have to ask you, who was responsible for the ‘fist’ logo?

Well, I suppose that originally the Gay Liberation Front because when I first moved to London and came out aged twenty-three, the Gay Liberation Front was really important to me and their badge was a fist with the wording Gay Liberation Front Rally round the side. So when the modestly named Tom Robinson Band came into being approximately four years later, I went to see Rock Against Racism’s designer Roger Huddle and said “could you make me a logo that has a fist in the middle and the Tom Robinson Band in stencil letters around the outside” and so Roger went away, found that fist and put the whole thing together for us. So it was my idea but in a way it wasn’t mine if you see what I mean; I nicked that (laughter).

Did the logo ever work against you due to the fists close affiliation with the Black Panther Party which was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in October 1966?

Wow you have certainly done your research. No not really. That fist is actually out there in the public domain and has been used by the Socialist Workers Party in the late 70s. It was the fist that was used in the Free Nelson Mandela campaign, so it is a good fist and we all know that you can’t beat a good fist (laugher).

Swiftly moving on (laughter). From writing to recording, how long did it take you to make the album?

Well the album actually contains two or maybe even three years’ worth of songs and then the record company gave me three months to write the second album (laughter). That is the nature of the second album syndrome. You have all that time to put together your best shot and then not very much time to follow it up. The recording took about eight weeks; I actually kept a diary, and let me tell you it was very interesting to go back and look at that diary and to see just how painful the making of the album was. Our producer Chris Thomas really knows what he is doing in the studio but he is such a perfectionist. And so in order to make it sound spontaneous and like a live band actually playing together, he actually put at least five days work into each song. They were compiled from many takes and put together. There are at least three or four guitars on every song.

Were you always happy with the album?

I think that it is an interesting thing which all artists find, and it is certainly the case with everything that I have ever released, which is that you are never happy with something when you have finished it. You are always thinking ‘oh that could have been so much better’ or ‘that’s a bit out of tune’ (laughter). And it is only as time goes by and it recedes into the distance and you get used to what it sounds like, that it sounds like it should never have sounded any other way. That has been true for almost everything that I have ever released (laughter). You always feel a little discontented. It’s interesting isn’t it? You must find this when you interview people who you think of having done something extraordinary and they say to you “oh that was so rubbish, I really hated that, I could have been really successful”. An example is, Ani DiFranco moaning about her lack of success (laughter).

So in answer to your question, yes I am really happy at the way that it sounds. And whilst I wasn’t at the time, if it hadn’t have been for that album, that band and the way that the audience received it, then I wouldn’t be talking to you today.

I have to say that I find a hell of a lot of artists to be totally insecure. Would you agree with that?

Oh god yes, terribly insecure. We seek validation through our ‘art’ (laughter). That was the fatal mistake at the time. I was so extraordinarily insecure back in the 70s and I had this desperation to be validated by having a successful record. Because I thought that if lots of people loved me then I would be alright as a human being. And when that was taken away after my fifteen minutes of fame were up, I was completely crushed (laughter). It took me a hell of a long time, all through my thirties, to actually be able to inhabit my own skin, start to enjoy life and to get my validation from relationships with other human beings instead of trying to have a relationship with an audience.

Are you looking forward to the forthcoming tour?

Yes I am, I really am. The only reason why we are doing this tour is the fact that I want to be there and for no other reason. For me it is such a nice luxury for me to be out there for the fun of it rather than because you have got to pay the mortgage.

Are there any signs of any new studio material?

No, I have to say that there are no signs of any new studio material at this moment in time. We actually had our hands entirely full mixing three nights recordings at The 100 Club last year ready for the album release plus we have also got the album Live In Gateshead from the recent Only The Now tour. There is another entire album there which includes War Baby and Atmospherics: Listen To The Radio on it plus the songs from the Only The Now album and that will now have to wait until 2019. So in answer to your question, there won’t be any new material until 2010 at least.

What is the one thing that Tom Robinson cannot live without?

(Laughter) wow that is such a searching question. I would have to say that would have to be love.

During your music career what has been your most extravagant purchase?

That would have to be my very first Apple Mac back in 1985 and it had a whopping 128 KB of memory together with not one but two floppy disc drives that were 400 KB each (laughter). The whole package, together with a printer cost me two and a half thousand pounds. Imagine that back in 1985. It was ludicrously expensive. At that time it was the price of a car. But, having said all of that, it was the start of my love affair with Apple which continues to this day. Don’t get me wrong I don’t love Apple but I do love their products (laughter). It was the first computer that you really could just get on and use and not have to think about code or obeying all of those end commands. So yes, it would have to be buying my first Apple Mac in 1985.

Working on BBC Radio 6 gives you access to lots of people, so putting you on the spot, which new artists, if any, do you find exciting?

Well firstly let me say that it is hard to nail it down to just one (laughter). Thinking about it Sam Vance-Law who originates from Berlin would have to be right up there. He made an album called Homotopia last year and I have to say, if that album had existed back in 1967 I wouldn’t have needed to attend Finchden Manor which I’m sure you know is a therapeutic community for emotionally troubled boys.

What would you say has been your biggest achievement so far?

That would have to be performing at the Rock Against Racism Carnival back in 1978 together with Steel Pulse who were fantastic, The Clash and X-Ray Spex. That is the thing that I am most proud of.

Without offending anyone, do you have an embarrassing moment that you can tell me about?

(Laughter) there are just so many (laughter). When I was at my lowest ebb, and my first fifteen minutes of fame had finished, I was having to sell-off everything that wasn’t nailed down. A couple of guys with dreadlocks came round to look at the equipment that I was trying to sell. They saw Tom Robinson Band stencilled on the side of one of the flight cases and one of them said “yes, Tom Robinson, whatever happened to him man” and so I said “I am Tom Robinson”. He said “well don’t worry about it man, you will write a new song and come back” which I did with War Baby six months later. I said to him “yes sure, look at Eddy Grant” and he turned to me and said “I am Eddy Grant” (hysterical laughter). And I have to say that actually is true.

If you have five minutes spare take a look on Amazon. They are selling a compilation album entitled War Baby for well over eighty pounds.

Really, well I think that is an illegal one. To be honest with you it is a terrible live album that we licensed to some bastard in Finland. Just so that we could get a foot hold in Finland. He then renamed it War Baby and relicensed it to loads of people. So absolutely under no circumstances buy that album. Just nip along to and you can download the whole album in 24bit for a fraction of that.

One final question. A lot has been written about the fact that you didn’t include either of your most famous songs, 2-4-6-8 Motorway or Glad To Be Gay on Power In The Darkness. With hindsight, do you still regret taking that decision?

Yes I do, I really do, so much so that I refer to it as the fatal mistake.

On that note Tom let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been an absolute pleasure once again and good luck with the tour.

You are entirely welcome Kevin, and I hope to see you very soon. Bye for now.