Tom Robinson – 72, and still got it

Date:

Tom Robinson, songwriter and broadcaster, will be at The Exchange later this month. Editor Laura Hitchcock spoke to him about his 50-year career as a musician, as a broadcaster and as an activist.

It was 1977 when 2-4-6-8 Motorway became one of the landmark singles of the UK punk era. Other hits by the Tom Robinson Band included Glad to be Gay, Up Against the Wall and Power in the Darkness, which
went gold in the UK. As a solo artist, he had further hits with War Baby and Listen to the Radio and co-wrote songs with Peter Gabriel and Elton John.
As a radio broadcaster Tom has been introducing new artists to the UK audience for the past two decades, sharing them on his Sunday night Introducing Mixtape show.
I asked Tom whether his heart lies in touring or in his radio show. “The radio show was a godsend when it came along in my early 50s. I’d been a working musician for the best part of 40 years, and it was getting tiring!
So the radio show was just at the right time and ensured I knew where the next crust was coming from – that I slept in my own bed and actually saw my kids grow up. But then it’s been really nice coming back out of retirement and strutting the boards again. Really I get the best of both worlds.”

Small but perfectly formed
So why now think: “hmmm, as I reach 70, now is a great time to head back out and work long hours for weeks in a row”?
“Ha! Gratification! People still remember the songs that I wrote all those years ago, and an astonishing number of them know the ones I wrote more recently. There’s a small but perfectly formed audience,
and it’s enough to fill a venue.
“At 72, still to be able to strap on a Fender bass guitar and throw shapes on a stage, pose in the lights and play with some great musicians? Why wouldn’t I?
“I get to play with top-level musicians who are 20 years younger than me, and it keeps me on my toes. We do it because we love it. And when people sing along to what you’ve written, 40 years later, it’s definitely
something.”
And does he mind the repeated requests for 2-4-6-8 Motorway? “Oh, no, au contraire! If it wasn’t for that song I wouldn’t be talking to you now! The great advantage of only having half a dozen songs that everybody knows is that there’s plenty of scope in a show to play loads of other stuff – I just don’t have the enormous back catalogue of hits like Elvis Costello and other contemporaries of mine. So we can play all the
favourites, and everybody’s happy, but I have latitude to do some interesting new stuff too.”

Introducing Mixtape
And alongside the music, Tom’s career has really moulded around introducing new artists?
“Absolutely! Actually I’ve had a great time on this tour asking my favourites to be my guests and open the shows. A lot are completely under the radar artists. It means I get to see them play live and they get to play to an audience that doesn’t know their work. My favourite on the last tour was a 14 year old from East Sussex. She first sent me a record at the age of 11 that she’d made at home with her dad. It was stunningly good. Really radical and spiky. When we played Brighton I asked if she fancied playing a few songs, and it turned out she’d never played live for an audience before. Her very first gig was opening for us at the age of
14 in Brighton!
“And she was brilliant – the audience went crazy. Talent is talent, it doesn’t matter how old or young. She’s probably the youngest I’ve ever played on the show, and the oldest was Peggy Seeger, who sent a new song to BBC Introducing, as if she were a new unknown artist – at the age of 86. And it was brilliant! All that matters is what comes out of the speakers.”

A modern industry
I’m presuming the entire industry has flipped on its head since Tom started, compared with how people access music now?
“The key word there is industry. We always thought of ‘music’ and ‘the industry’ as synonymous. But the older I get the more I see that the industry exists simply to extract money between the creator and consumer. That’s why we have record companies, publishers, managers, touring companies, rehearsal space managers … endless people all creaming off their five per cent.
“It is interesting that creators are now bypassing all that and going direct to the consumers. I see folk bands with a mailing list of a couple of thousand followers, and they’re making a great living off that – because no one else is taking overheads. So if someone is willing to spend £100 a year on tickets, an album, a tee and
what-have-you? Multiply that by a thousand, and that’s giving up the day job and making music full time. On
a very small audience.
You no longer have to have a big industry behind you, to be on Radio 1 and play Glastonbury with an audience that loves what you do. ‘Unsigned’ used to be a demeaning term. But there’s no shame at all in being unsigned – now we call them independent artists, and they just don’t wait for permission to be
musicians anymore.

Tom the activist
So – campaigner or musician, which is your legacy?
“I never got into music to politically campaign for LGBT rights or racial equality. I was just keen to use any platform I had. It has to be music first and foremost. Because unless you’re making music people love, no one gives a toss about your political views or campaigns. Nobody buys your records because they agree
with your politics.
Glad to be Gay didn’t change attitudes, it was the audiences that used to sing it together that went home and talked and argued with friends and family that did that. I don’t believe music has the power to change minds – I don’t think a single National Front skinhead showed up at one of our shows and said ‘Oh, I’m so stupid, I’ve seen the error of my ways’. But sharing the music with a big crowd does reinforce a message
in a mind that is ready for it.”

Tom Robinson is appearing at the Exchange in Sturminster Newton on 24th June, a full band show ahead of their Glastonbury set next day Tickets are £22 here.

By Laura Hitchcock

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