It was releasing his first album in 20 years that inspired punk veteran Tom Robinson to go back and revisit the album that made his name in the first place.
The Tom Robinson Band released the Power in The Darkness album in 1977, it went gold and hit number four in the charts and has come to be regarded as one of the era’s classic statements.
However the original TRB only released one more album, in 1979, before dissolving in acrimony. Tom continued working as a solo act until his radio career took off with his shows on 6Music, where he still resides.
But the positive reception for 2015’s Only The Now convinced the bassist to look back at his debut.
Tom is now out on tour playing the older album in full with his current band.
‘It’s the album’s 40th anniversary, which for me is a bit unbelievable, but also the previous album in 2015, it got such a great reception, good reviews and all that, it kind of made me feel I didn’t need to prove anything any more, so it didn’t matter if I went back and did the old stuff again.
‘I didn’t want to descend into just being a cabaret act grinding out 40-year-old minor hits to an audience of dwindling faithful.
‘For those of who us who had our 15 minutes of fame in the ‘70s, that’s often the only for many of us to earn any money. And that’s what I did for 30 years. I was on the road for people who were still shouting for 2-4-6-8 Motorway, so getting a job with the BBC in my fifties, it was good to find something else I could do and earn a living for that, and focus on other people’s music for 20 years! Then that in turn has inspired me to go back and make my own music.
‘Once I knew I could make new music and new songs that people liked, it seemed like a good thing to go back and revisit the stuff they liked in the first place.’
One thing Tom also acknowledges is that having the band he assembled for Only The Now meant he had a crack team ready to tackle the old material.
‘It was quite a surprise at 68 to go back and revisit songs you wrote when you were 26, just playing them at that tempo and intensity is a bit of a shock to the system’, he laughs, ‘but I have had 40 years practice of playing the bass. I’m a lot better at it now than I was then!’
What did he make of the album when listening to it all the way through again?
‘It was almost like listening to them as new music because that’s what my ears are attuned to now – evaluating music you’re hearing through speakers for the first time, and I was pleasantly surprised,’ he chuckles, ‘how good they sounded. They really were energetic, powerful, well-made and particularly that first band were such good players. At the time we don’t have anything to measure it against, it was just: that’s the band, that’s what we do.
‘Now having listened to 40 years worth of music in the interim it was a pretty good band, and I owe a great deal to that original team.’
Much of the album got its first airing in public at Rock Against Racism‘s legendary Carnival Against The Nazis, and Tom remembers it well.
‘That’s where those songs were debuted, but we didn’t get a long enough set to play the entire album because the Clash overplayed – they wouldn’t come off the bloody stage because they thought they should have been headlining, so there was a bit of rivalry going on.
‘They overplayed by 15 minutes and in the end the organisers pulled the plug on them, so then we became the bad guys who pulled the plug on The Clash! But we played as many songs as we could. We’d been buried in the studio so it was a good chance to come out and play those songs.’
And it was a very different affair from the large-scale concerts of today.
‘We’re so used to the Live Aid-thing onwards – there’s a celebrity enclosure and the BBC’s there, and so on – this was like a ramshackle stage put on with a budget of tuppence and a savage 6pm curfew enforced by the GLC. And it was being organised by what was seen as a bit of unsavoury organisation the authorities were suspicious of, and certainly no backstage VIP area. It was outside the public toilets in Victoria Park with very little security.
‘We didn’t know in advance how many people were going to come, it was a demonstration against the National Front so it could have been anything. We thought optimistically it could be 20,000 and in the end it was 80,000, but we’d only booked a PA big enough for 20,000, so it had all of the faders pushed all the way up, and the speakers were straining out of the cabinets. At the back people could barely make out what was going on. But the important thing was to be there.
Given the rise of the right in recent years, does he think musicians could be doing more to raise awareness and act against intolerance, as they did back in the 1970s?
‘The ways that you combat intolerance and hatred might be different today, social media might be even more important. Rock music doesn’t quite have the same kind of cultural bush telegraph value for transmitting messages and ideas and sharing values it did back in the ’70s, but that said we do see big mass concerts all the time in the festival season, so it would be a good thing to do I think.’
But Tom, who has never shirked away from the political, adds: ‘If ever there was a time to be back out playing Power In The Darkness with updated lyrics, this is it. We played Wickham Festival this summer and the reception was amazing, really amazing, there was a five minute ovation. I’ve never seen anything like it! I was speechless on the stage.’
Once this 20-date tour is out of the way Tom is planning to write an autobiography, and there’s plenty to chew on from an eventful life.
‘Let’s call it an unreliable memoir,’ he says wryly. ‘I’m finding it very hard, as a songwriter I take three weeks to fill one side of A4!
‘It’s been a strange life, from a first suicide attempt at 16, seven years in a therapeutic community, coming up through the pub rock scene in London in the ’70s, seeing the Sex Pistols, having my own 15 minutes of fame, and then being bankrupted and the second suicide attempt and fleeing to East Germany to get away from the taxman, having a surprise comeback 15 minutes in the mid-’80s, then surprisingly falling in love with a woman having been famous for Glad To Be Gay, then a late-life renaissance as a DJ.
‘It’s been a strange and bumpy and busy life. There should be some stuff to put in there.’
The 1865, Southampton
Saturday, October 20