Until 1967 homosexual activity was illegal in Britain.
That doesn’t really surprise me, it may as well have been illegal in the 70’s as far as the general public were concerned. I can’t imagine anyone at my school ever admitting to any gayness, their life would have been over. The usual derogatory terms for homosexuals (‘benders’ being the most common) was common currency. With a lack of willing volunteers suspects were identified and if the label stuck for long enough life would be hell.
It was the culture rather than the individual. Take my mate Dave for example who remembers, with shame, turning down a potential chance to see David Bowie with the words ‘I’m not going to see that bender’. Dave’s not anti-gay today, far from it, but in the early 70’s that was a common response. He also got to see Bowie a couple of years later so it’s all ended well.
When I was about 13 I went to my first wedding. The best man’s speech started with a homophobic joke just to get us in the mood, that was common, normal behaviour.
The irony was, of course, that this was the period of glam rock but there lies the rub. No one was in any doubt that, despite their gender bending attire, the like of the Sweet, or Mick Ronson, or Mark Bolan or Garry Glitter (ok bad choice) or even Elton John were normal healthy heterosexual men. When someone did express a liking for the opposite sex it was usually in the context of being bi-sexual i.e. a bit of a phase you were going through, which, in the case of Bowie, was actually correct.
Bowie was an icon not because he might be gay but because he was willing to consider the possibility of being gay along with lots of other possibilities relating to identity. It true though that a nation quivered when, on Top of the Pops, he put his arm round Mick Ronson during ‘Starman’. Yes, we really were that repressed.
And so imagine in 1977, just ten years of legality someone comes forward to the nation and admits to being a homosexual, not because it’s cool or exciting but because he prefers to have sex with men.
That person was Tom Robinson.
Robinson was both a bit posh and a bit old for the punks. If you come from a middle class family from Cambridge then you are very middle class believe me. Robinson has a fine fruity voice which has served him for many years as a radio presenter and comes across as an intelligent likeable guy which must have helped his acceptability among the more enlightened music fans.
Finding himself gay at a time when it was illegal was traumatic for Robinson as no doubt it was for thousands of other young men. After a suicide attempt he was moved to Finchden Manor a community for “delinquent, disturbed or disturbing boys”. Although his feelings were a reaction to the terrible repression of homosexuality Robinson, rather than society’s attitude was seen to be the problem. Finchden was, in some respects and ideal place for someone who found himself out of step with the majority. Alexis Korner was an’ old boy’ of the school, no doubt his bohemian attitudes had not gone down well with mainstream schooling, Korner’s visit, with guitar, inspired Robinson to consider performing himself.
Arriving in London in the mid 70’s Robinson formed the band Café Society. I had always assumed the band were some sort of cut rate Crosby, Stills and Nash but research (yeah that word again) revels a run of the mill mid 70’s band, low on harmonies but packing a bit of a punch thanks to a proper studio rhythm section. The mid 70’s was a boom time for refreshment establishment related bands, we also had Sad Café and Café Jacques, and we didn’t need another. Café Society came to the attention of Ray Davies of the Kinks but he just seemed to waste time, their album only apparently sold 600 copies, Robinson left.
Now he was in the big city Robinson was able to link in with the emerging gay rights movement and decided to form his own band. First recruit and also an ex Finchden resident was guitarist Danny Kustow. With the strangely named ‘Dolphin’ Taylor recruited on drums and Mark Ambler on keyboards the band launched itself into a scene already buzzing with punk energy and audiences populated by A&R men brandishing check books.
The Tom Robinson band had a plan negotiated between Robinson and his record company EMI to project a political band which would make money. The first single 2468 Motorway was a prime chunk of mainstream rock guaranteed to offend no one. 2468 crops up all the time in dadrock drivetime compilations along with ‘Bat Out of Hell’ and ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’, it’s a minor rock classic. Allegedly about some guy trucker the lyrics are so garbled that to this day I still haven’t got a clue as to what most of the song is about, it’s about as gay as Jeremy Clarkson.
Having appeared on Top of the Pops TRB were now ready to start their manifesto. Their next move was a 4 track EP which pretty much summed up their career. ‘Don’t Take no for an Answer’ was more dadrock. ‘Martin’ was sing a long cabaret and ‘Right on Sister’ was pretty much like you would expect it to be. The meat of the matter was ‘Glad to be Gay’. I’m probably wrong but I can’t remember a song that laid out homosexuality so clearly while confronting the police for their openly homophobic stance.
And it had a tune that was easy to remember and, of course, sing along with.
From then on it was downhill.
The TRB was, in reality a deeply flawed unit. Kustow was happy to go along with it but really he wanted to be a star playing blues rock guitar solos which didn’t exist in songs like ‘Glad to be Gay’. Ambler was the musician of the group and could work out a song immediately. He had originally been recruited to be the bass player but when the other members heard him play keyboards (he had studied with Stan Tracey, one of the few really original British Jazz musicians) he switched instruments. Like half of Britain at this time Robinson decided that playing bass really couldn’t be that difficult and took over the 4 string. In fact Robinson really had not got the talent to sustain a career beyond the initial excitement. His songs were ok and his singing was a bit weird, like when you hear a friend sing, it’s in tune, sort of but it’s not quite right it’s just ok.. Luckily due the nature of his songs he was able to spend as much time punching the air as playing the bass but like everything else, his bass playing was ok, that’s a lot of ok for a band frontman to handle.
They could be pretty stirring live thanks to Kustow’s riffing and some chunky drumming it was pub rock on steroids. Lyrically it was apocalyptic stuff as you might discern from the titles, ‘Up Against the Wall’, ‘Don’t take no for an Answer’, ‘Aint Gonna Take it’ and so on. Radical lyrics and conventional music never did any career any harm and their debut LP ‘Power in the Darkness’ was in the right place at the right time. I love this track.
After that things fell apart rapidly, Ambler was the first to leave, he could learn Robinson’s four chord songs in second which left him bored while the others caught up. The next single ‘too Good to be True’ was a dreary recycling of ‘Moondance’ and all of a sudden the band were no longer flavour of the month and split up.
Without Robinson’s incredibly brave gesture of coming out as a gay man in what essentially was a hard rocking band TRB would not have amounted to much but that’s probably true of the vast majority of bands cruising under the flag of punk, the message was as important as the music. It seemed that within a couple of years sexism, racism and homophobia were no longer being accepted as part of everyday life and protest music was back on the agenda. I actually can’t think of any other artist who laid his sexuality bare from the outset until Robinson appeared, I’ll say it again, it was incredibly brave.
Post TRB Robinson formed another band Sector 27 who were allowed to wear better clothes and concentrate on being a band rather than spokesmen. He had another hit as a solo artist, ‘War Baby’ was probably one of his bests songs, marred for me by having to listen Robinson actually sing it.
Strangely, around this period he fell in love with a woman and subsequently became a father. This confused many but not Robinson who continues to identify as a gay man, and why not?
Today he is doing what he does best, having a regular slot on 6 music, filling much the same role for independent rock music as Alexis Korner used to fulfil for the blues in the 70’s. Producing an intelligent show in a fruity radio friendly voice and still being an activist and occasional performer suits him well, long may he continue.