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Talking With Tom Robinson
Shortly after the anti-Nazi gig, we sat down for a chat...
Niall Stokes, 12 May 1978
Niall Stokes: What did you think of the march?
Tom Robinson: There was a good atmosphere on the section I was on. But for the kids, the best part of the march was undoubtedly the part as we got down to the beginning of the Hackney area and there were those five thugs of about 16 on the right-hand side, who stood through the whole procession and shouted abuse at the march – which was very brave – 5 against 60,000, right – but for the first time, I think for those people on the march, they sussed that the National Front actually had faces, that they were ordinary people just like them who had these absolutely perverted views. And that was worth all the march and all the concert put together – to actually come face to face with people your own age with those beliefs because that demonstrates that it’s real in a way that the demonstration can never hope to do.
NS: A feeling I had after the march was that people need to develop a new language for political sloganeering which embraces the human element and the fact that there is a human element in the opposition.
TR: Exactly. Well, the case in point is the Sham 69 skins, who came along to a rock against racism gig – the very famous one a few weeks ago – and were pretty well won over by the reggae. I think it was Misty that was on that day, but they came along to that gig and they’re skinheads, and we know for a fact that several of them are British Movement, which is like fuckin’, you know, miles worse than the National Front. And the thing is they love music better than they love the British Movement. And they were there through that whole gig, and by the end, when we were there, I mean, like, these real hard little skinheads down the front – they moved right up to the front – and I thought "Oh, we’re going to have trouble here". They were boppin’ away, they loved it – and when all the black bands came on, when Ninety Degrees came on, as well as the punks. They were there, black, white, together tonight – and as you say, the human element of the opposition was apparent – in fact they are human and human beings have an infinite capability for the good s well as for the bad, they can rise to it. And that’s very good. Far from shouting anti-gay abuse when I was on, during the speech when I was putting down the punks and the blacks and the niggers and the commies and the queers and the womens’ libbers and that, they said "What about the skins, what about the skins? Aren’t you going to put us down?" So they definitely wanted to be in.
NS: To what extent are you worried about the identification of the TRB with the overall political thing? Do you think it could operate to the detriment of your musical drive?
TR: If we ever fucked up our priorities, it would. If it ever became politics first, music second, we’d have blown it. We have things worked out in those terms, and that’s why we’re very glad that ‘Motorway’ was the first hit, because it was a rock’n’roll song and amply demonstrated that we could make a perfectly good living playing straight rock’n’roll, thank you very much. And nobody need think that we’re using politics to make a fast buck or that.
NS: I think that at the moment you provide the answer to the sceptics who say rock and politics can’t be put together.
TR: I think that people who say that are very blind anyway. The only stock example I’ve got is ‘Stand By Your Man’, which is more or less politically devastating for the women’s movement, that’s ever fucking reached the airwaves and it went to No.1 or something. If you go down with a pub band, round the pubs of London, as I have, and you see that song being sung, you see all the old dears of about 80, who sacrificed their entire lives to some pig of a man, drinking up their halves of Guinness going "Stand by your man", because it justifies and vindicates everything they did. I mean, that’s a very powerful political song but because it’s for the status quo instead of for change, it isn’t perceived as political.
NS: Do you know the gay situation in Ireland?
TR: I know it stinks. I mean there’s the IGRM, isn’t there? And the homosexual law reform with David Norris.
NS: They’ve been in touch with you, have they?
TR: I know them anyway from reading Gay News, but I’ve also – how shall I put it? – when I get letters from gay Irish kids, I put them onto t hem.
NS: You’ve no idea what your immediate touring plans are in the Irish connection.
TR: Well, Belfast is a priority, because there’s just such craziness going on down there. But I’m insisting personally that they leave us alone from the middle of June to the beginning of September to write and record the second album. The reason I’m so worried about the next album now is that, at the moment, we’re playing songs that are a year, year and a half old, written when I was newly politicised, very angry – but for reasons of artistic integrity, I’d like to also be performing something I’d written now. I’m halfway through lyrics of about four or five songs already. But it’s just time. I don’t want to be pressurised unduly, because you can’t write songs to order. You have to write and let it come. Also there’s the whole thing of working in a new keyboard player and things like that – takes sorting out.
NS: Is there going to be any new emphasis in the material for the second album?
TR: It’s like Mr Eliot said: "Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, next year’s words might have another voice." It’s just the thing we voiced in a way in which one would express it today, as opposed to the way one expressed it then, I dunno.
NS: Do you change the lyrics of existing songs as you go along?
TR: Yes. For instance, just the latest newspapers that happen to have been slagging gays are included – like the Daily Express. After the lesbian mother bashing by the Evening News, that went into the song. And that song I think can only survive if it carries on changing. Because if it stays at categorically listing the things that happened three years ago, it becomes sterile, meaningless. It’s a song that obviously one wouldn’t want to drop, so if you’ve got an old song, it’s got to stay on and the nature of the song being a catalogue of woes, it has to stay up to date.
NS: In the show yesterday, you incorporated a fairly strong theatrical thing with the speech.
TR: I was really so nervous I really fucked that whole speech up a lot – I think it could have been a lot funnier.
NS: Do you think the claims about the figures were accurate yesterday?
TR: Everyone obviously inflates them, but if the BBC News say 60,000, it has to be 60,000, ’cos they don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. Even if the public came along just for the music and weren’t interested in the politics at all, maybe 5% of those got politicised – it’s still worth it, with those kind of numbers.
NS: Again, it comes down to the question of just how effective music can be in stimulating people into thinking critically. You have to ask the same question about any art form. Do you think music is more capable of politicising people than, say, film or theatre?
TR: Yes, more than film or theatre and less than football. It’s just any kind of mass culture, any kind of populist culture as opposed to an elitist culture is bound to have a greater power in that way. Film and theatre are basically elitist, apart from sort of a ‘Jaws’ or ‘Third Encounters Of The 56th Kind’ – those kind of things, well, maybe. Even so, when I was on the dole, I could never afford to go to films. TV, yes, radio yes, football matches yes, though not for me personally. Films and theatre no.
NS: How do you see the balance of different political interests or concerns in what you’re doing?
TR: Well, to say that there’s one human race, sounds pretty mild but actually it’s political dynamite. That’s the basic premise, I know it’s the cliché of the decade, but clichés don’t stop being true from becoming clichéd. And that’s the common ground on which the band works. Well, obviously a lot of things start following from that, once you start thinking it through. It’s the general idea of Rock Against Racism, anyway. You start with common ground where any fool can see that black people may be different from white people, but then it’s no inherent betterness or worseness about it. And then you start moving it on from black people to Irish people, you know. What’s all this Irish jokes business about? When you start thinking about that. And you get down to queer jokes, right and you start thinking about that one, too, and gradually this whole "Well, is it really true when they say that the workers are out to just cripple industry? You know, is that all they’re at…?"
NS: On the question of your relationship with the record company, how do you rationalise being involved with a company like EMI and at the same time putting across socialist politics?
TR: If it wasn’t for EMI, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. I wouldn’t be going to talk to a lady from Sterne magazine this afternoon to say the same things, basically about the rally. We wouldn’t have reached – it’s quite possible we wouldn’t have had the hit with ‘2468 Motorway’ without EMI’s promotion department, in which case we probably wouldn’t have reached all those people at the rally yesterday. And if you make music, you make music because you want it to be heard. And if you want it to be heard, you want it to be on record, and if you want to make records you have to have a good record company. And we went with the best we could get our hands on. You know, CBS and EMI are probably the two best in the world in terms of just making sure the records get heard and "exploited".
The kind of contradictions I find much more unnerving are the EMI weapons division, where they make anti-personnel mines, as well as radar for guided missiles. And all you can do in the end is be very open about it and say to your audience, to you public "Look I’ve just found out about this. I didn’t know but I think you’d better know as well". In the last bulletin, I published the EMI pamphlet that somebody stole from the arms sale, the Military Arms Fair on the EMI ranger, which is a missile-throwing device that can be fitted to any medium or heavy tracked vehicle, fires 1,296 rounds per minute, reloads in five and can immobilise personnel without fatality. The pamphlet’s got all these sort of little stars with the pluses – a bit like Persil washes whiter and whiter, does this, that – it was just like that.
But so far, I’ve reached a compromise. I’ve already signed to EMI, they’ll find that out. All I can do is stir up what shit I can around that, using the position equally and not be so sort of two-faced that I sit down about the EMI Weapons Division, whereas I shout on about women’s rights being taken away.
NS: Do you think there’s any qualitative distinction between people like EMI and people like Radar?
TR: I think it’s only a distinction of quantity, isn’t it?
NS: I’m wondering about that. I mean someone like Radar, they’re operating in the same basic business sphere and they’re operating in the same way, but then –
TR: Do you want to let me tell you – all right. Jake Riviera. When we approached him with our band, we sent him a demo of ‘Motorway’ and the current single ‘Up Against The Wall’, and you know what those two songs sound like and what they’re about. After two weeks, we rang him up and said "What do you think?". Didn’t like it. "Why?" Don’t like this queer music. "But there isn’t anything gay about it." Don’t like it. "Why don’t you come down and see the group?" Fuck off! I don’t want to stand with a load of queers. When I go to a group gig, I go to pick up women, not stand with a bunch of poofs.
That was the Jake Riviera perspective on the TRB. So you can understand if I’ve a mildly jaundiced view of Radar records, whereas the big multi-national capitalistic organisation, EMI, had the sole consideration that it wanted to make money and it saw in our band, consumer demand, market potential and that’s all they saw and that’s all they worried about and they went in there and they gave us a chance to put our music over to other people, where Jake Riviera just gave us the two fingers. So, so much for the so-called progressive independent.
NS: How do you get on generally with your peers in the rock sphere – the actual musicians?
TR: I really like Bob Geldof and Mick Jones and the Clash, I really like a lot. They hate each other, I think. Phil Lynott, The Motors – I’m trying to think of all the people we’ve met. Generally, when we meet people, it’s charming, you know, they’re really nice people. You know, the mood that you find among the other bands of your own generation is generally kind of wonderment at what’s going on. But we’ve all got this far and we’re all sittin’ there gong ‘what’ clinching the novelty of all this and the slight headiness of it.
NS: There’s a macho thing in rock generally which is – it’s something which is ultimately hard enough to pin down, when you get into the whole sexism set of distinctions it can become very hazy. I just wondered how you feel about that in rock.
TR: Yeah, well, rock’n’roll is almost by definition sexist, isn’t it? Well, it’s built on machismo, its fundamental thing, it’s basic rock’n’roll as opposed to, like, popular music generally is male generated. The female singer in rock’n’roll is the exception and generally she’s the singer and not the drummer, right. There’s strictly defined rules whereby a woman is allowed to sing rock’n’roll and she’s definitely a bit of titillation for male palates anyway – Blondie, that general thing. That’s usually it.
It stems from the roots of rock’n’roll which is in the blues ethic – the 12-bar blues and the old songs like Muddy Waters’ ‘I’m A Man’ and ‘I Got My Mojo Working’ and "I ain’t no milkman baby but I’m the milkman’s son" or "I’ll give you plenty cream until the milkman come" and the double talk and the jive talk and the double entendre.
The Doors encapsulated it by taking ‘Back Door Man’ as blues standard and doing it themselves. And then you just saw it from Morrison straight away… (sings) "Well, the men don’t know what the little girls understand". It’s all there. The medium itself is sexist just by all the precedents. Don’t you agree?
NS: I think a lot of bands that steer clear of blues basis can do things which are non-macho.
TR: Are you talking about Yes?
NS: Well, I’m not talking about Yes at all, ’cos I don’t listen to Yes and I don’t like Yes.
TR: Yeah, but they’re, like, sexless.
NS: But isn’t it possible to incorporate sex into music without being macho? A band like XTC at the moment, just reflecting on their music, I can’t think of anything macho in it. Maybe I’m wrong.
TR: No, it’s true. But isn’t what XTC are doing an extension of the Yes genre. It’s the intellectual thinking man’s rock as opposed to raunchy rock’n’roll. Raunchy itself implies sex.
NS: But the question is whether you can incorporate sex without being sexist. That’s the ultimate issue.
TR: Joni Mitchell – her songs are very sexual.
NS: Yeah, and I don’t think they’re sexist.
TR: No, but then it isn’t rock’n’roll.
NS: I doubt that a thing like ‘Rag, Mamma Rag’ which has a certain exuberance and sex, whether that actually cross the border into sexism.
TR: Touché! That’s great, that’s a really good example, ’cos that’s a really sexy song but it isn’t sexist. Possibly because of the fact of the breadth of The Band’s vision anyway, the love of humanity which sort of oozes out of that whole album anyway. They just like couldn’t put somebody down. There’s no real sort of hatred on that album. Even when Virgin Cain’s brother gets killed, he’s still like very fatalistic and he’s not blaming the other side. By=ut that album, let’s fact it, is an exception.
There’s on other guy I thought of and that’s Johnny Rotten, who’s a lead singer who – I suppose he isn’t really sexual either – but I mean he doesn’t do much posturing. I really think a lead singer is in a position that you would expect to be very sexist and it’s actually not there at all. The guy’s a complete individual.
NS: What do you think of their abortion song?
TR: I think it sucks. And the part that sucks is too mild a word. I don’t want to be associated with that sort of rot.
NS: I felt the same.
TR: I would say a thing that’s probably worth saying from Dublin to Swansea that anyone who in an over-populated, under-resourced world tells you that homosexuality or abortion are anti-social has to be off their rocker.
NS: The question with that song is what motivated it.
TR: John’s an ex-Catholic.
NS: This brings up the whole question of God and religion.
TR: Well, I’ve got nothing against believing in God. One day I might end up that way myself. There seems to be quite a good case to be made, that there might be a God. To lay my cards on the table, I must tell you that I was church of England from about eight through to about 15 – I was part of the Church of England. My father is an avowed atheist. I mean, he actually bothers to put in his diary where it says "in case of emergency" under religion, he puts humanist. He’s that obsessive about it because when you take him back and you find that he was trained to be a priest before he lost his faith right – I mean that’s him certified.
So I lay my cards on the table and say that although I was not brought up to be religion, I joined the church choir locally where I was living at the time at the age of 8 and got interested in the religion through that and got confirmed and everything and gradually lost interest again about the age of 15.
But as I say, you know, for that reason, I can find the idea of a God quite plausible. But, I mean, whereas Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly a very good bloke and had some pretty sensible ideas, the atrocities that have been committed in the past 2,000 years in his name aren’t worth thinking about. I mean a lot of evil things have been done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that bloke Paul of Tharsus has quite a lot to answer for as well.
NS: What do you feel about gays who are apologetic about their sexuality?
TR: My theory for it, for what it’s worth, is that somebody who isn’t quite – doesn’t quite belong – hold to the trappings of belonging much more than somebody who does. That’s as evidenced by, for instance, noblesse oblige. And the difference between the you and the non-you will say "I beg your pardon" and the you will say "What", because the upper-class doesn’t need to prove anything. They know they’re upper, so they can afford to be rude and say "what". The aspiring bourgeoisie say "I beg your pardon".
In other words if you don’t have it, you aspire to it. So if you are beyond the pale by being gay, either beyond the pale of religion or beyond the pale of politics, perhaps you cling to those things. You see Indian guys wandering around the city wearing suits and bowler hats. They’ll never be let into Claridges, for Christ sake. Who are they kidding?
NS: I think that’s important in the gay thing in Ireland that
TR: We lick the asses of the establishment and the status quo and try and beg some little crumbs from under their table and play their game and when they see fit to pay us any attention by even mentioning us or deigning to, we fall over ourselves in gratitude. I think gay people really want to wise up. As far as the vast majority of the population are concerned in Ireland and Great Britain, we’re scum. And suss that. We’ll never be respectable if we live a million years. So fucking stop clinging to all that.