Power in the Darkness
Do you remember the first time? I do – sweaty, thrilling and emotionally charged. Tom Robinson has a lot to answer for I tell you. For it was Tom and his bandmates in the Tom Robinson Band, or T.R.B. as we acolytes referred to them as, who made my first proper gig such a life-affirming event that I have devoted a huge swathe of my life to listening to music and a fair proportion to hosting live gigs in the hopes that they will be events that stick in the mind long after they have been and gone, Furthermore, Tom was instrumental in my politicization which may be even more significant, given my day job.
The history of the T.R.B. is in some ways a sad one but for a while they burned brightly – a flare of resistance in the troubled days that saw Thatcher come to power. It helped that their first single 2-4-6-8 Motorway was a hummable, chug-along, radio-friendly anthem that on the surface seemed a simple paeon to the freedom offered by the open road. But it was the second record that really sealed the deal with the teenage me – the Rising Free e.p. which confused me at first in true John Peel style as it was the first 7” record that I had come across that played at 33rpm. (I always loved it when Peel put a record on at the wrong speed, it never happened to other DJs). The e.p. featured four songs so was good value for money: the power-chorded teenage rebellion of Don’t Take No for an Answer led the charge, the gay rights anthem – (Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay, the catchy, matey sing-along Martin and another rocker, Right on Sister. I played this record to death and can still remember all the words. It showed that Tom Robinson was a highly accomplished songwriter from the get-g and set out the T.R.B. stall as a lean and proficient rock band with a specific stance that didn’t quite fit any of the normal camps, And that was the point of them to me. As the youngest of four, my tastes and more had been heavily influenced by my elder siblings but I had found the T.R.B. on my own. Fizzing with hormones and not a little bolshy, their amped-up tunes of rebellion were just what I needed and I needed to see them LIVE.
It’s hard to remember life before the internet. For music nuts, the inky pages of the Melody Maker, Sounds and for the cool, the N.M.E. were essential for finding out about new music and tour dates. If you were really into a band you could join the fan club which in the case of the T.R.B. meant sending a self-addressed envelope and receiving cut and paste fold-out bulletins and a couple of button badges with the band’s distinctive fist logo. Living out of the sticks, such missives were much-anticipated and it was through these and the song lyrics that I began to consider various social issues.
In particular, the T.R.B.’s championing of Rock Against Racism was important to me. My sister had told me of the murder of one of her friends by racists and I had read in the N.M.E. about Eric Clapton’s shameful, racist rant on stage in support of Enoch Powell. Then in February 1978, while trying to make my way to Birmingham New Street Station to catch a train home, I had inadvertently found myself running into lines of police, some with shields, holding back throngs of anti-fascist protestors who had come to confront a group from the Young National Front who had organised a meeting at Digbeth Town Hall. Sensing the violence in the air, I didn’t hang around and managed to get to the safety of a departing train. When I got home, I switched on the TV to see pictures of what some dubbed ‘the Battle of Digbeth’. I knew where I stood and desperately wanted to attend the Rock Against Racism rally which took place on 30th April 1978 in Victoria Park and which also featured Steel Pulse and the mighty Clash alongside the T.R.B.
Sadly, I didn’t make it but almost a year later I gleaned details of the 1979 T.R.B. tour. Needless to say, there was no dates near us but I worked out that I might be able to make the Guildford Civic Hall gig on 6th April 1979 as it was near where my elder sister lived and I could perhaps stay at hers. Unfortunately, when I tried to obtain a ticket, they had already sold out. I wrote a begging letter to the fan club and received a friendly but apologetic response from Pip the secretary saying there was nothing she could do. Unaccepting of the situation, I decided to chance it, organised to stay with my sister and had her drop me at the venue midday to see if I could get a return. It was no-go but word got out that a lad wanted in and at some point in the afternoon a burly roadie collared me and flogged me a ticket.
When the doors finally opened, I rushed down the front to secure my position up against the stage, bang in the middle. By my side were two punky girls, clearly veterans at this game who chatted cheerily about all the bands they’d seen.
I have absolutely no recollection of the support band but remember the anticipation building as the hall filled and us all chanting with unfettered joy the famous string of expletives that is the opening salvo of Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Plaistow Patricia when it came blasting out of the P.A. just before the T.R.B. took the stage.
The gig was everything I imagined and more. I pumped my fist and shook my head and bellowed my way though every song whilst hanging onto the front of the stage so as not to be knocked over by the heaving and possibly pogoing throng behind. The only near mishap was when my glasses got knocked off but the girl beside me, who I’d been talking to before the gig, noticed and dived down to retrieve them from the floor before they got stomped on. I will be forever grateful for this act of kindness.
All my favourite songs flashed by but what I remember best is possibly one of the best rock’n’roll moments ever. The band encored with Jumpin’ Jack Flash and as guitarist Danny Kustow ran across the stage with his Les Paul, his guitar lead got pulled out from the body of his guitar but somehow Tom, without missing a beat, caught it and plugged it back in. I sometimes wonder if I made this up, or dreamed it, but I don’t think so and now I’ve written it down, it’s the stuff of legend.
Leaving the hall into the night air, which felt all the colder through my sweat-soaked t-shirt, I felt elated and connected which is what I always hope for from a gig.
So, here’s to you Mr Robinson, koo-koo-ka-choo Mr Robinson!