Tom Robinson chats with Kevin Cooper about Sting borrowing a pound, his thoughts on the English Legal System, his new album Only The Now and his current UK tour The Mighty Sword Of Justice

Tom Robinson is a British singer-songwriter, bassist and radio presenter, 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. He later peaked at number six in the UK Singles Chart with his solo single War Baby.

In 1986, a BBC producer offered him his own radio show on the BBC World Service. Since then Robinson has, unusually, presented programmes on all the BBC’s national stations. He presented The Locker Room, a long-running series about men and masculinity, for Radio 4 in the early 1990s, and later hosted the Home Truths tribute to John Peel a year after his death in 2004.

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

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


Mr Robinson good morning how are you today?

I’m very well Kevin, thanks for asking.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

Well thank you very much for your interest Kevin. I truly do very much appreciate it.

You and I have met previously but I wouldn’t expect you to remember as it is well over thirty years ago now.

Oh my goodness Kevin, I hope that I didn’t make a pass at you (laughter).

(Laughter) I can assure you that you have nothing to worry about as you behaved like the perfect gent.

Well of course, yes I would (laughter).

If you can remember the Heineken Free Music Festivals back in the day and Nottingham was one of the first cities to host the event. You were headlining the event. Fortunately for me, we bumped into one another and had a great chat up there.

Those were the days Kevin and that would have been in the early 90’s.

Prior to that I had seen you with Sector 27 at Milton Keynes Bowl supporting The Police.

Wow Kevin that is certainly going back some time. I vividly remember that Sting borrowed a quid off me (laughter).

Really, and I bet that to this day he still hasn’t repaid you (laughter).

We were both backstage in the artist’s marque and he needed a drink. In those days you could still buy a drink for a quid. And of course he had his stage clothes on and he didn’t have any money and he turned to me and asked me if I had a quid that he could borrow. I was just dressed normally so of course I gave him a quid as I was very happy to help him out. However the person that was with him was totally shocked and was shouting “you with all of your money and you are asking him for a quid” (laughter). I said something along the lines of “don’t be so stupid, it’s Sting and he needs a drink. It’s neither here nor there” (laughter). And yes Kevin, you are quite right, the bugger has never paid me back.

Well that serves you right (laughter). So let me ask, other than being a quid out of pocket, how is life treating you at this moment in time?

(Laughter) well I have to be honest with you Kevin and say that life has never been better. I must say that I am absolutely in the peak of things. If you had told me that life at sixty-five was going to be this much fun I would never have believed you when I was an arrogant teenager (laughter).

The new album, Only The Now, I have been listening to it all week and I have to say that I think that it has been worth the wait.

I’m so glad Kevin, thank you for those kind words.

The question is, are you happy with it?

Better than happy, I am absolutely thrilled. The problem was that I had all of these songs on the backburner as I had never stopped writing. But the problem was that I didn’t know what to do with them because the kind of music that I like listening to and the kind of music that I knew how to make were diverging at a rate on knots. So with my job at 6 Music I was listening to a lot of other stuff but meanwhile I would pick up a guitar and play C, F and G which still sounded like what I was doing back in the 60’s. So Gerry Diver, bless his heart, was able to kind of take the material and work it into a form which I could still play but he took out all of the non-essential stuff which dated it.

He would say to me that I really didn’t need those three-part harmonies because it sounded just like The Doobie Brothers (laughter). He would say “why don’t you just sing it in unison for fucks sake”. He would tell me to take out all of the chords as in his opinion I didn’t need seven chords in a particular song and that it would work just as well with only two chords (laughter). For example, The Mighty Sword Of Justice used to have a Gospel chord progression in it until Gerry just stripped it out and turned it into a violin drone by simply strumming the violin. He didn’t even put a bass guitar on it. But of course, it suddenly sounded contemporary and it’s great.

I have to ask you, why the gap between albums; why almost twenty years?

Well Kevin I had been on the road touring for thirty years and it was very hard going. You can continue to do it when you are at a certain level I think, like when you are staying in comfortable hotels with a crew to carry your stuff for you, but when you find yourself slogging around the nostalgia fucking circuit, for example playing The Wheatsheaf in Stoke-On-Trent to a total of eight people, who have only come along to hear the same four songs from thirty years earlier, then it is just depressing beyond belief. So when the BBC offered me a secure job; playing other people’s music, sleeping in my own bed, watching my kids grow up, and drawing a wage packet every week, well it was different from not knowing where the next crust was coming from, so I jumped at the chance.

I have had a great fifteen years where I have had the luxury of being able to be with my kids and be with my wife and being able to stay at home and its quite like stopping being a chef and being a restaurant critique for a bit (laughter). When I was in my own little kitchen trying to come up with my own new little recipes ever year for my customers, a dwindling band of customers, that was one thing and then suddenly dining out at The Four Seasons and being able to say “Radiohead, must try harder” (hysterical laughter). It was a really nice change. Also doing that work on 6 Radio has massively opened my ears to the music that is out there. I was so blinkered Kevin, I had no idea of the range of amazing music that was out there. Not just being made contemporarily, but also the back-catalogue of all kinds of stuff. For example the stuff that I learned about the Hip-Hop back-catalogue was amazing.

So if I put you on the spot, which one do you prefer, recording or the radio?

I have to say Kevin that whilst the radio work is good, it soon evaporates. You spend three days preparing an interview; listening carefully to the artist’s back-catalogue, trying to find out which are the artists key works together with the works that the audience does not know about. Then you have to try to find out what the interviewee likes to talk about. You totally immerse yourself into their world. You spend all of that time doing it and then you key yourself up for the interview. It then takes around two days for the Editor to edit it, it then goes out once and then it’s gone. That is satisfying work to do Kevin, but it is so dissatisfying that it evaporates so quickly after.

In a way, recording material at least for your own records stays around and things which I recorded in 1982, even though they were only for a small audience, it means that people can still go back and hear them or if they like one record then they may go back and check out another. That is the beauty of the digital world now. The past is now suddenly instantly with us; quite simply YouTube has bought back the past. Those Top Of The Pops performances which I did briefly in one moment and which I saw once live on the TV the next day and then never saw again, are suddenly with us once again. You can see every last mistake that you made, every last pimple on your nose (laughter). YouTube is extraordinary in the way that it has telescoped time Kevin. It has even bought the childhood stuff which I watched in the 60’s, for example Ready, Steady, Go is suddenly back with us. I love it.

Having said all of that, has the new album not given you once again the hunger and the desire to achieve?

Yes it has Kevin. I mean if the BBC will still give me my day job and if The Daily Mail does not succeed in closing down the BBC, then I would love to carry on doing that because it is such wonderful work to do and you meet such interesting people. If it hadn’t have been for my day job then we wouldn’t have had John Grant or Nadine Shah on the new album. I just met them through work and we got on like a house on fire and they both agreed to appear on the album. But yes, having got this album out you suddenly go ‘hold on, it is suddenly possible after all, that I really can do both’. So yes Kevin I am up for collaborations and we will see just what else is out there.

On the subject of collaborations, you have worked with Billy Bragg on The Mighty Sword Of Justice. Was that a pleasure or is Billy still a miserable old bugger? (Laughter).

(Laughter) now then Kevin I have never known Billy to be miserable actually, he might be grumpy but not miserable (laughter).

I recently sat at the side of him at a Who concert at Wembley Arena and he was bloody miserable that night. Everything that he could moan about, he moaned about (laughter). I’m surprised that he hasn’t written a song about it.

(Hysterical laughter) don’t worry Kevin, he will (laughter). There is a great quote from Oscar Wilde when somebody said something witty and Oscar Wilde said “Oh I wish that I had thought of that” and somebody else said “you will Oscar, you will” (laughter).

Whilst speaking of The Mighty Sword Of Justice, why did you chose that particular title for the tour name?

That’s simple Kevin, I wanted to draw attention particularly to what has happened to British justice. I could have picked any song from the album; I could have called it the Only The Now Tour but that doesn’t really capture the moment. Our Legal Aid system has simply been screwed and tilted in favour of those with money. I suppose that it always has been but we did live through a period when there were at least some attempts at equality so when Legal Aid was instituted it did produce a slightly less skewed and unjust system. Particularly the Guilford 4 and the Birmingham 6 would never, ever have won their appeals and got out of prison for being unjustly accused without the help of Legal Aid.

So for the next round of injustices there is simply going to be no cause of redress. To be honest Kevin, I just think that it matters. It really, really matters that we draw attention to it. There are so many other things in the world, so many issues that people are talking about, for example the refugee crisis, but the justice system isn’t one of them. So that’s my little corner as my dad was a lawyer as are a lot of distant and remote relatives who have a law firm in Lincolnshire. They tell me that they can’t take on this desperately needed work because they simply can’t pay their mortgage unless they take on the kind of work where the money is. “Those that have shall be given, to him that hath shall be given from him that hath not, shall be taken away, even that which he had”. And that is straight from the fucking Bible Kevin.

You have already done some dates, how is the tour going?

It is great Kevin, it is really great to be on the road, doing some interesting venues and getting close to people again. It is a seventeen date tour altogether and I have already done a couple of dates and I have got a few in late October, but November is quite busy.

You are coming to the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham on 11th November. Are you looking forward to it?

I am Kevin, I always have a great time in Nottingham, but don’t forget I am at Rough Trade on 22nd October to promote the new album. It would be great to see you there.

Thanks. It is well documented that you are a supporter of Amnesty International, Outrage and Rock Against Racism. From what you see and hear, do you think that the country as a whole is moving in the right direction?

Well Kevin, what can I say, you win some and you lose some. However I have got to say that compared to the 1970’s we live in a much more tolerant society. It is a much nicer place to live than Britain in the 1970’s. We have seen massive changes in the culture, so yes, let’s not look a gift horse in the teeth (laughter).

What I would say is that the English Legal System is badly broken and is in desperate need of a radical overall.

Yes it does, you are right Kevin. The truth of it is, it isn’t just about the Government taking away Legal Aid, we actually need to reform those ludicrous fees which the tiny minority get, together with the whole culture of litigation tourism which is scandalous. My dad used to get totally riled about the closed shop of the judiciary. We must never forget that we need to look after the underdogs Kevin.

Right back to the music. I have listened to the track Home In The Morning a few times now and I have to ask, is the song about you closing a door on a chapter of your life and moving on?

I have to say that’s a beautiful analogy of the song Kevin but alas it’s not about me (laughter). I am not the character in the song rather like David Byrne is not a Psycho Killer (laughter).

Not that we know of (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s very true Kevin. I once heard an interview with David Byrne and he said a really good thing. He said “people think that I spend my evenings listening to puppies being tortured” (laughter).

So just who is the character in Home In The Morning?

I simply couldn’t possibly reveal that Kevin (laughter).

Going back to politics, you obviously take a great deal of interest in politics. Have you never thought about standing in some capacity?

Never for longer than about ten seconds, no Kevin. I am simply not constitutionally cut out for it. You have to be so tough in that world, you really do. It is one thing to just get up on your soapbox and bleat out your songs; pointing out all of the injustices in the world that everyone can agree with, but that is the easy bit. Doing what someone like Sadiq Khan manages to do; being a civil rights lawyer himself, with being a front bencher for Tony Blair where all kinds of dirty deals and compromises had to be done. He supported detention without trial which really must have stuck in his craw but he knew that unless he stayed on the front bench he wouldn’t have any power to ever change anything. I couldn’t do that Kevin.

At what point in your career did you feel most musically satisfied?

That would have to be around the time of War Baby I think Kevin because I had absolutely nothing to lose. I was at rock bottom. Not only was I penniless, I was massively in debt to the Government. We had had one successful album, ploughed the money from it into a second album which didn’t sell so well and ploughed everything that was left into a third album which didn’t sell at all. And then at that point the Government came to see me and said “you know all of that money that you had…it’s now ours” (laughter). So I went to see our manager and said “don’t ask us, we have gone bankrupt”. I was absolutely on my uppers, I owed more money than I had ever earned in my life, more money than I had ever seen, but it had just come and gone. It was all on paper and had all gone through various bands.

So at that point I was just making music for the sake of it. I was completely free with no expectations, living on a friend’s floor in Hamburg with a little drum machine and a small 4-track tape recorder. And that is when I came up with War Baby. It was rather like the difference between actual mathematics and pure mathematics Kevin. War Baby was pure music as opposed to applied music because I never thought that anyone would ever hear it. If I had ever thought that I was trying to make a single that would get into the charts I wouldn’t have written something that was four and a half minutes long that didn’t rhyme. But as it turned out, by pleasing myself I actually wrote something that was pleasing to other people. So that is the period that I am most proud of Kevin.

You recently played at Glastonbury, which do you prefer, the larger gigs or the small, intimate venues?

They both have their charms and they both have their disadvantages. The charm of playing to a larger crowd is that you can talk to them as one person. When it is a sea of faces you can have in-jokes and little asides to a whole crowd of people. It’s fun for you and it is also fun for them that you can have this conspiracy between a very large number of people and a performer. So you can take that into places where you can’t do it if you are eyeball to eyeball in a folk club, playing to thirty people. But on the other hand playing eyeball to eyeball to thirty people in a folk club means that you can react to them individually.

So if somebody shouts for me to play Martin I can reply with “why don’t you come up her and sing it” (laughter). Or “only if you do the dance” (laughter). It is totally a different type of performing and they both have their advantages. The disadvantage is that if the big crowd doesn’t like you you’re fucked (laughter). And similarly if the small crowd don’t like you and starts talking to each other or going to the bar, you are equally fucked in a completely different way (laughter). You can say screwed when you are reporting this Kevin (laughter).

Admission time now. I still regularly play Power In The Darkness and I think that it still feels as fresh today as it did on its release back in 1978.

Chris Thomas who produced the album is an extraordinary producer; he is really good. It took him months of work to make it sound as fresh and spontaneous as it did. Tracks such as Up Against The Wall sounds just like it did when we played it live on stage but on the album it actually has twelve guitars on it (laughter). Whereas we did the second album with Todd Rundgren in six days and everyone said that it was massively over produced (laughter).

On that note let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

You’re a good man Kevin, thank you very much. If you manage to get along to Rough Trade on Thursday please do say hello won’t you. And I promise not to make a pass at you (laughter).

And I promise to try and get your quid back off Sting (laughter).