INTERVIEW: ‘The revelation for me was to hear people getting up to speak to the crowd about being wrongfully imprisoned and to hear them say that it was only legal aid that had got them out.’ The 65-year old singer-songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson is recalling his impressions of last year’s Justice Alliance demo outside the Old Bailey against the legal aid cuts.
Tom Robinson – whose best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby – wrote a brand new song for the demo called The Mighty Sword of Justice, and tonight he kicks off a tour in support of his first album for 20 years of the same name.
The song is as overtly political as any by the Tom Robinson Band which split in 1979. It is – and I stand to be corrected – the only protest song to address our emasculated legal aid system. Robinson lays into the failings of a justice system that lets dodgy newspaper editors and wealthy bankers off the hook but fails the likes of Doreen Lawrence.
The mighty sword of justice stands high above us all;
All citizens stand equal before her mighty laws;
But even mighty justice has one almighty flaw;
There is one law for the rich and one law for the poor.
Billy Bragg also takes a verse attacking undercover cops infiltrating the Occupy movement.
Enforcing for the bourgeoisie
Tom Robinson doesn’t profess to have any special insight into the government’s assault into the parlous state of publicly-funded law. He was invited to join the Justice Alliance by tweet. ‘My only qualifications are that I have a father who was a solicitor back in the 1950s and I can play the bass guitar,’ he tells me. ‘I’m going on gut instinct. But it seems something has gone very wrong. People need to get angry about it.’
‘It was a real eye-opener to hear from duty solicitors who work all the hours that God sends for the smallest amount of money because they believe in it,’ Robinson says. ‘It made me understand better that it’s not all about obscene damages and excessive fees which is what we read about in the headlines in the newspaper.’
Robinson describes the imposition of the new criminal court charge – as of April this year, anyone convicted of a criminal offence has to pay between £150 and £1,200 – as ‘scandalous and wrong.’ He recently played the Latitude festival and, of all his set, it was the Mighty Sword that went down the best. ‘It’s an issue that resonates,’ he reckons. You can watch it below – 25 minutes in.
‘Enforcing for the bourgeoisie’ is how Robinson characterizes his father’s legal practice in the song. ‘He came out of the army after the war with no qualifications, did night classes, and eventually did his articles with a local solicitor. He hated it,’ he recalls.
Why? ‘A lot of it was evicting tenants for rich farmers, and helping to enforce employment contracts that were completely pernicious.’ His father quit the job as soon as he could and took refuge as a lawyer in the Treasury Solicitors’ Department where, as Robinson puts it, he was busy ‘drafting legislation for the M1 and things like that’.
Tom Robinson, once described as ‘the case study of a political pop star’, now showcases new artists on his BBC Radio 6 Music show.
Has the protest song finally gone out of fashion? ‘I don’t think in the hip-hop world it is gone out of fashion at all, anything but,’ he says. ‘Maybe in terms of white middle class men getting up and playing the acoustic guitar it’s lost its appeal.’
The broadcaster is frustrated by his employer’s reluctance to push young cutting edge artists. ‘The problem with the BBC is that our leaders are running scared of the Daily Mail. In the days when we had strong leadership from – for example, Greg Dyke – people pulled together and try to do the right thing.’
He describes former director Mark Thompson’s tenure as ‘a disaster for the BBC’ which at the time was ‘like an abused dog eating his own bed’. ‘Rupert Murdoch and the Lord Rothermere empire have such influence with the government and the public they use every opportunity to bash the BBC,’ he says. ‘Our producers are increasingly timid about putting on anything with any teeth on air. They do not want to hand further ammunition to our enemies with which to try and destroy the BBC. I have some sympathy with that.’
That said, the song-writer reflects that protest songs don’t change the world. ‘Bob Dylan didn’t change the face of America with his songs but he did change the face of American pop music. It was his wider body of work that was more interesting than his protest songs,’ he says. ‘Elvis Presley wasn’t protesting about anything but socially he did more to break down the barriers between black and white than anybody else.’
‘People don’t call Ghost Town a protest song. They call it a number one hit,’ he continues. ‘That’s the way that these things are done best.’ By way of an example of an effective protest song, he offers Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City (‘To find a job is like a haystack needle/ Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people’). ‘It was a worldwide hit, played in clubs across the world and yet you couldn’t hope to find a more potent condemnation of racism.’
Tom Robinson’s most famous contribution to the protest song oeuvre – Glad to be Gay – is up there with the best of them. It is a furious polemic railing against the bleak realities of being gay in the 1970s: queer bashers, a homophobic press and brutal and unnecessary police raids of gay bars. Its anger no doubt informed by his own experience. At the age of 16 years Robinson attempted suicide after falling in love with another boy. A sympathetic teacher transferred him to a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents.
The singer updates the songs when he plays it live. He offers me the following post-Leveson version:
The papers in Britain are really the pits commissioned by bigots and written by shits;
They plaster their pages with tattle and tits;
Then all this scandal and slander that fits;
They doorstep their victims, tap into their phones, go through their dustbins and burgle their homes;
With police in their pockets and supine MPs,
Rebeka and Rupert still do what they please.
We discuss the treatment of his friend and fellow broadcaster Paul Gambaccini who was on police bail for a year before the case against him was dropped. I had asked him whether he thought there was a ‘homosexual witch-hunt‘ in relations to historic sex claims (as recently claimed by the Conservative MP Harvey Procter).
‘Paul went through hell,’ he says. ‘Two people made an accusation against him who he had never met. The accusation was not credible, he was not in the country at the time when it was said to have place – but he still got the 4 o’clock knock on the door. The police took away every computer in his house and kept them for year. So, a witch-hunt? Yes, I would say so.’
Robinson also points to the controversy over South Yorkshire police tipping off the BBC about its raid on Cliff Richard’s home.
‘Of course, we can’t know in all cases where guilt lies,’ he says. ‘People who have suffered have been treated appallingly. They haven’t been believed by the police and have to carry their suffering for few years and years. But [Richards] hadn’t not been charged. He has been dragged through the mud.’
Was it being gay that first got him politicised?
‘Yes, totally,’ he replies. ‘The Gay Liberation Front specifically said that gay liberation is everybody’s liberation. You cannot ask for one person’s liberation in isolation from everybody else’s. So we have to be for fair wages for working people, women having equal status with men, people with brown skin having the same rights as people with white skins.’
Tom Robinson was a leading light in the Rock against Racism campaign which was set up in response to an onstage racist outburst by Eric Clapton. The Tom Robinson Band headlined a famous 1978 Victoria Park gig. Hearing Glad to be Gay and seeing men kissing triggered a political epiphany for the then 19 year old Billy Bragg who was in the crowd.
Robinson recalls the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign where activists raised £20,000 to help families caught in the 1984 miners’ strike. ‘I remember people going around the pubs and clubs collecting with the tin cans and thinking to myself: “I wonder if that is really mutual?”’
It wasn’t. At the start, the National Union of Mineworkers did not want to risk the negative PR of being supported by lesbians and gays. So the activists took their donations directly a small mining village in Wales which began an unlikely alliance between the two communities. That remarkable story was told in last year’s film Pride.
In 1985 the annual Pride march was led by an NUM banner. Tom Robinson was playing the main stage and recalls the words of Siân James, a young miner’s wife, now MP for Swansea East, telling the crowd:
‘Since my involvement with lesbians and gay men during the strike, I now know that if any of my children came to me and say “I’m lesbian” or “I’m gay”, I’ll understand.’
‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,’ the musician remembers. At the Labour Party conference that year there was a resolution committing the party to the support of LGBT rights passed as a result of the NUM’s block vote. ‘We eventually got a Labour government and equal rights. Thanks to those people with their collecting tins doing the right thing.’
Having it both ways
Tom Robinson’s last album was released in 1996 and called Having it both ways. As he puts it, he ‘very inconveniently fell in love with a woman which dealt a major blow to my credibility as a gay spokesman’.
In an interview with NME from the punk years, Julie Burchill asked Robinson how it felt ‘to be a faggot in the UK ’77’. ‘It’s OK,’ the singer replied. ‘You wouldn’t choose it if you were given a say in the matter, but you get used to it.’
How does he feel about that interview now? ‘Actually I would choose it. I had a very, very good time for the first 34 years of my life,’ he says. He points out in the 1977 NME interview he did say he was bisexual.
How has society’s attitude towards changed since he wrote Glad to be Gay almost four decades ago? ‘We have been blessed,’ he says. ‘In this country and in many parts of the western world to have found a level of acceptance.’ But, he adds, that it is ‘still very hard for the 13-year-old that comes to the realisation that they are queer’. ‘It is tough. But nothing like as tough as it was,’ he says.