Tom Robinson wasn’t the first openly gay recording artist, but the Tom Robinson Band was the first group led by a proudly uncloseted rocker to really make an impact on mainstream Anglo/American pop fans. Robinson’s saga began in Finchton Manor, a home for “maladjusted” boys, where he came out and met future lead guitarist Danny Kustow. Robinson’s first group, Cafe Society, was signed to the Kinks’ Konk label and released one forgettable album. After a long legal and personal battle with Ray Davies, the singing bassist was released from his contract and set about forming the Tom Robinson Band. Kustow resurfaced, and after recruiting young keyboard wizard Mark Ambler and drummer Brian “Dolphin” Taylor, they were ready to go. EMI, fresh from their debacle with the Sex Pistols, signed the band, whose leader’s avowed homosexuality and uncompromising left-wing political stance made him an extremely controversial figure. Luckily, a brilliant (and surprisingly non-topical) first single, “2-4-6-8 Motorway” became a Top 5 hit in Britain and a riveting debut album made the band internationally successful. That afforded the singing bassist the opportunity to be an activist — spearheading Rock Against Racism — rather than merely a complainer. But a myopic outlook and limited musical range drew Robinson into a morass of sloganeering and overbearing self-righteousness that forced a major career rethink after only two LPs.
Power in the Darkness contains track after track of impassioned, heartfelt political anger, funneled through articulate lyrics and Danny Kustow’s roaring guitar figures. The memorable songs seethe with honest conviction and convert rock energy into anthemic power. (The American release originally contained a bonus seven-song disc, compiling live tracks from an English EP and both sides of the “Motorway” single.)
TRB Two was produced by Todd Rundgren and basically encores the style and content of its predecessor, but with a more mainstream sound and fewer rough edges (not really an improvement). Robinson’s alternate approach — slower numbers played at a bouncy shuffle perfect for in-concert singalongs — does improve with Todd’s treatment. This brace of polemics isn’t as striking as Robinson’s first, but fans of Power in the Darkness won’t find anything obviously missing here (except perhaps drummer Dolph Taylor and keyboardist Mark Ambler, who had both been replaced). Tom Robinson Band is a compilation.
After the TRB collapsed, Robinson formed Sector 27 and refocused his efforts on personal relationships rather than politics. With a new lineup — notably including a bassist, which allowed Robinson to concentrate on singing — the restrained Sector 27 album has some winning songs, although none with the same immediacy as before.
Cabaret ’79 is a live recording made shortly after the original TRB’s dissolution; it includes Robinson’s confrontational signature tune, “Glad to Be Gay,” as well as a reading of Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” which resulted in some legal problems between Robinson and the composer’s estate. The Collection is a useful compilation (with liner notes by the artist) of the band’s best tracks, drawing on singles and EPs for items like “Don’t Take No for an Answer,” “Glad to Be Gay” and “2-4-6-8 Motorway.”
Robinson looks like a slightly dazed everyman on the cover of North by Northwest, his first solo album, but the tunes, many co-written with Peter Gabriel, are uniformly strong. Recorded in Hamburg with only producer Richard Mazda and a drummer, North by Northwest is a mature and subtle album of various sophisticated settings, marred only by an agonized (and agonizing) song of love lost, “Now Martin’s Gone.” The music is dark and moody, with synth-heavy arrangements, but it has a low-key charm that’s more personal than political, lightened by danceable new wave and reggae beats. “Atmospherics (Listen to the Radio)” is one of the gloomiest rock tunes ever written, and another Robinson classic.
Having lost his appeal for the record industry, Robinson recorded and released “War Baby,” a number that sounds like a Steely Dan outtake, on his own. It became a major British hit in 1983, and revitalized his career. On the cover of Hope and Glory, Robinson wears a red star on his chest, but inside he sounds like any other middle-of-the- road rock artiste. With the exception of “Cabin Boy,” a bouncy bit of gay double entendre, the best tracks are redone Sector 27 tunes. “War Baby” and a cover of Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” got him some US notice as well, but the album mainly sounds like product.
Most of Robinson’s musical output over the following decade was live documents (adding Midnight at the Fridge — aka Last Tango — and the acoustic Living in a Boom Time to Cabaret ’79) and compilations, although the collaboration with Level 42 guitarist Jakko Jakszyk and Still Loving You are new studio efforts. As of the early ’90s, Robinson had returned to the Quaker faith of his childhood and had a wife and child; he was also hosting The Locker Room, a BBC Radio forum for sensitive new age Britons.
His first American album release in ten years, Love Over Rage is the strongest thing Robinson has committed to wax since Power in the Darkness. It rocks as hard as that legendary album and combines the political concerns of the early work with the more personal touch of Robinson’s middle career. “Roaring” opens the set with a thumping, two-fisted rocker that laments the folly of youth while tempering its nostalgia with hard-won realism. “Loved” is sweetly touching romance with a reggae beat. “Green” blasts corporate polluters who wrap themselves in “green” rhetoric, while “Hard” talks about problems of the common man vis-à-vis sexism and sensitivity without getting wimpy or self-conscious about it. “Silence” is a shriek of pain that’ll pound your brain like a bad headache, and “Chance” ends the album with an implicit journey from darkness to light, and from gay sex to married life. Robinson can still sound preachy, but overall this is a stunningly mature work.