National Music Festival: 2-4-6-8 it's never too late

He went in and out of fashion but Tom Robinson is still driven by music. Rebecca Fowler meets the gay activist who became a family man
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Indy Lifestyle Online
So this is where political pop idols go when they grow up. The front door of the South London suburban house, with net curtains and a child's bike in the hall, has a vaguely threatening note: "No leaflets, no free papers, no junk mail", and an agitated man in a bathrobe and boots eventually opens it, mumbling "you're early."

The home of Tom Robinson is reassuring for its scruffy cosiness, but there are few clues to his glory years: no images that recall the late 1970s when he was hero of the gay movement, and "Glad to Be Gay" and "2- 4-6-8 Motorway" were among his hits; no sign of the magazines that put him on the cover; no hint of his comeback in the 1980s in a career that verges on a parody of the rock 'n' roll rollercoaster.

Instead there is a pond in the garden, and some family photographs, endless CDs and books. Robinson, now a youthful 45, lives with a woman, has fathered a son and this week released a new album, Having it Both Ways, which he accepts with some irritation is unlikely to even be reviewed by the industry that once bestowed awards on him.

But Robinson, who is shy and charming, still political and still gay, is still driven by music. He is among an impressive catalogue of artists incorporating their tours into the 1996 National Music Festival as part of a bid, supported by the government, to promote music in Britain.

For Robinson, who burst to fame in the punk explosion in the 1970s, there is an irony to the front line-up for the festival. "Punk was a reaction against everything we've got in the park in National Music Festival. It was a reaction against the Eric Claptons, the Peter Townshends and the major stars of corporate stadium rock, that had nothing to do with the every day lives of kids," he says.

"It's very weird. All those people, years down the line, are bigger than ever. Sting has come up through the punk movement and made it to that level. But not many have broken into that club at the top."

While the music industry is still dominated by the grandfathers of rock and the commercially blinding forces of Britpop, including Oasis, Blur and Pulp, Robinson has clung to the margins. He is keen to promote a more humble world of musicians who play for a modest living, sell CDs, and perform live outside the mainstream world of charts and stadiums.

He says: "The indie scene wasn't like it is now when we started. If you go into Our Price now, it's not just the Top 40. It's walls and walls of CDs of people we've never heard of in categories we've never heard of. The majority of people making CDs aren't in the charts, they're not selling platinum albums. But as a job and as a labour of love they are making music."

Robinson's own career started as it continued, on the back of his sexuality. He realised he was gay when he was 13, while studying at a Quaker boarding school in Saffron Walden. "I was the person my parents, all my teachers and friends had warned me against... being in a group was the only way to participate, to belong, without treading the same route as everyone else."

At the age of 16 he says the combination of "Latin 'A' Level, and being gay when you could still be sent to prison for it" drove him to a nervous breakdown. He was sent to a therapeutic community for six years, where he continued to play music, and in 1973 he moved to London to form the Cafe Society. Although their album had little commercial success, selling only 600 copies, it was Robinson's apprenticeship for the music industry.

After a performance in Scarborough, the DJ announced that the following week a band from London called the Sex Pistols would be playing, and that they were the worst group in the world. Robinson knew the venue would be packed, and went to the Pistols' next concert out of curiosity. "I hated it. It went against all the musical values I'd grown up with: don't turn up late, don't insult the audience, don't sing out of tune and out of time. After 15 minutes I left. But I couldn't forget it."

Robinson disbanded Cafe Society and founded the Tom Robinson Band without any musicians. He set up gigs and made up the numbers with friends, until he found permanent players in 1976. "We were phenomenally lucky. The caveat to wanting something really badly is not to care how long it takes. For Chris Rea it was 15 years. For us it was less than a year, but it could have taken 20."

As the Pistols spewed out untuned anarchy, Robinson's involvement in gay liberation led him to the other political issues of the day and his music became entwined in an agenda waged against homophobia, sexism and racism.

But the explosion that propelled Robinson to stardom burned out just as quickly as it started. The second TRB album was a flop, the band fell apart, and Robinson sank into despair. He formed Sector 27, and played Madison Square Garden with the Police, only for the management company to go bankrupt when the band split. Robinson fled to East Berlin, leaving a trail of miserable debts behind him, where he spent his darkest hour.

Then out of nowhere, he produced "War Baby", a haunting song of the divisions between East and West - a hit in 1983. "Suddenly people who hadn't spoken to me for five years were on the phone again. Although I knew how seriously to take it this time, once it was a hit the pressure was on again. I think congenitally I wasn't suited to stardom. I've been close to people who are - Sting, Elton John, Phil Collins - and I couldn't deal with it in the same way."

The biggest glare of publicity was yet to come. Robinson was 'inned' by the tabloid press six years ago when it was revealed that the hero of the gay movement had a female partner with whom he now has a son. "Britain's Number One Gay in Love with Girl Biker!" the headlines screamed. According to Robinson the mainstream press grabbed it as an opportunity to undermine homosexuality, while he was villified in the gay press. Robinson, who grinningly wears a T-shirt with the logo "the artist formerly known as gay" is reluctant to discuss his current situation. But the message in Having it Both Ways is clear. In a rewriting of "Glad to Be Gay" he sings: "Well if gay liberation means freedom for all, a label is no liberation at all. I'm here and queer and do what I do, I'm not going to get a straitjacket for you."

It is the only overtly political line on this new album. The political backdrop that Robinson was singing against two decades ago has changed beyond recognition in the 1990s. But despite the apparent blurring of divisions between left and right, which recently prompted Billy Bragg to withdraw allegiance from the Labour party, Robinson says his own perspective is unchanged.

He says: "The question is, what's the alternative? We had Callaghan in government, we had Thatcher waiting in the wings. The cover of the first TRB album put the fact that we had no illusions about the political left or right. It was just a question of who was going to stomp on us first. I've never believed in Labour as the new Jerusalem, but I am a member."

Now, among the issues that appear to be preoccupying him is the politics of the music industry itself, including his own frustrations at the critics and radio stations that he believes control it. When he sent his latest album to the controller of music at Radio One, he E-mailed him back: "He said 'it's not the kind of thing we're playing', and he added, 'don't take it personally. We don't play Bob Dylan and Puccini, and they're very good too,' " says Robinson.

It is also, for him, the main reason for supporting the festival, because aside from the big names, it is giving a platform to a wide spectrum of musicians.

"It's one reason for getting to be associated with the National Music Festival, because of the broad church of musicians being represented over all," he says. "It's a chance to put a different viewpoint for all the other people in CD stores who aren't in the Top 40 and aren't in NME and Melody Maker every week."

Although Robinson's own perspective on the current British music scene is cautious, he raves about Skunk Anansie, Detrimental and Dead Can Dance, and says Blur's "Girls and Boys" is one song he would be delighted to have written. He also suggests the standard of playing among younger musicians is much higher.

"As each generation gets used to hearing music played to a different standard, it gets better. A lot of it is drum machines and systems, which play in perfect time," Robinson says. "That's something we're just not used to, being really properly in time. But what we oldsters can still score on is feeling. If you take a Van Morrison record to pieces you'd probably find certain performances out of time. But it all hangs together."

The sun is shining in Wandsworth, and Robinson's own situation is as unpredictable as ever. But he says his forties have proved his happiest decade so far, and he is happy to recall an incident from the first time he lost his place front of stage. "I was down to selling off my guitars and amplifiers. And when a musician sells off his instruments it's getting serious. Among the people who replied were two scruffily dressed rastas," he says.

"They were looking at the stuff in my garage and TRB was written on one of the flight cases. One of them says, 'Yeah, Tom Robinson, what happened to him? He was really good, man!' So I said, 'Well actually, I am Tom Robinson.' And the guy said: 'Hey, you ought to keep at it, you know. People who keep at it always come back in the end.' So I said 'Sure, look at Eddy Grant.' And he replied, 'I am Eddy Grant.' "

Tom Robinson plays the Fleece & Firkin, Bristol, 12 June.

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