Monday, December 8, 2008

Motorway #2-4-6-8

The mid to late 70s produced an explosion in popular music innovation and experimentation not witnessed since a decade previous. Classic rock was still with us, as was bubblegum pop, soul/funk, R&B, album oriented rock and easy listening, but new (and old) genres and styles were on the rise. An explosive punk scene led to new wave and in turn to power pop, a resurgent roots rock scene flew in the face of other trends, disco became a powerhouse (some might say monster), and the seeds were sewn for the likes of electronic dance music, hip-hop, rap, the new romantics and even grunge. Britain and the U.S. tended to favour certain genres over others, but Australia seemed to embrace pretty much the entire melting pot of musical melange. However, in amongst the hurly burly chaos of trends, and fads, and flavours of the month, good old fashioned melodic rock music continued to find its place on the Australian music scene, both from local and overseas artists. One of those artists that continued to deliver no nonsense gilt edged rock was the Tom Robinson Band.

Tom Robinson became involved in rock music during his teen years as a means to rebel against his father’s passion for classical music - sounds a pretty standard scenario. But Robinson’s rebellious nature possibly extended beyond tinkering with rock music, as at age seventeen he was shipped off to a home for ‘maladjusted boys’ called Finchden Manor (actually there was a bit more to the story than that). Finchden obviously catered for a good number of ‘troubled’ adolescents, with a penchant for loud and rebellious music. Hence during his stay there Robinson became friends with another young guitarist by the name of Danny Kustow, and the two formed a band called Davanq, which gave them both something positive to channel their energy into. Bored with life in the countryside, Robinson took off for London in his early 20s, looking to make a career for himself in music. It was 1973, the era of the singer songwriter, and Robinson formed a folk-harmony band called Café Society with two old friends, Herewood Kaye and Raphael Doyle. Ray Davies, he of The Kinks, must have stumbled in for a cup of coffee one day and liked what he heard, because he signed Café Society to his Konk label. Davies also co-produced Café Society’s only album, a self titled effort, released in 1974. The album tanked (selling 600 copies), and so too did the relationship between Robinson and Davies soon after. Robinson obviously retained some ill feeling toward Davies over the falling out, as he later penned the song ‘Don’t Take No For An Answer’, a thinly veiled snipe at Davies.

Tom Robinson folded Café Society in 1976, or possibly went off coffee, and decided to form his own band, literally. The Tom Robinson Band came into being during early 1977, and after a few teething problems the line-up eventually solidified as Robinson (vocals/bass), old friend Danny Kustow (guitar/vocals), Mark Ambler (organ) and Brian ‘Dolphin’ Taylor (drums). With a solid live reputation, and its members having recording experience already in the bank, the Tom Robinson Band were a relatively low risk investment for a record label and were snapped up by EMI within six months of forming. The Tom Robinson Band already had a reputation for playing rousing high energy rock, with clear symptoms of the rampant punk epidemic that was surging through the British music scene in the mid 70s.

The Tom Robinson Band came up with the perfect debut single to announce their arrival with a bang. The rowdy rocker ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ hit the road running in the U.K. during October ‘77, and before long had raced to its peak destination of #5. In early ‘78 Australia picked up on ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, and managed to inject enough fuel into the song to propel it to #13 nationally. To maintain the momentum established with ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, the Tom Robinson Band released the five track live EP ‘Rising Free’ in February ‘78. ‘Rising Free’ gave a clearer indication as to some of Robinson’s political and social views, advocating equality and social justice. The track ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’ was an affirmation of Robinson’s openly homosexual stance (though privately he was bi-sexual), quite a courageous and risky move at that time. It was also a declaration that here was a musician committed to his beliefs and with a conviction to express those beliefs. But on the flipside the media profile of the Tom Robinson Band soared, and Robinson’s frankness made him a darling of the British press. The ‘Rising Free’ EP rose to #18 on the U.K. charts, and the public were eagerly awaiting the debut album from the Tom Robinson Band.

They didn’t have to wait past June ‘78 when the album ‘Power In The Darkness’ hit the shelves. The album further entrenched the Tom Robinson Band as an artist with a vociferous social conscience, and the ability to articulate their views in accessible and enjoyable rock music. Their musical manifesto was manufactured around positive causes and ideals, standing tall for anti-racism and pro-individualism movements, but never losing sight of the fact that it was music, first and foremost. The cover of ‘Power In The Darkness’ featured the clenched fist logo symbolising those principles. It was a refreshing counterbalance to much of the bleak, destructive, nihilism put forth by many other punk rock acts of the time. On the U.S. release of the album, Robinson ensured a plug for ‘Rock Against Racism’ and contact numbers for a gay support hotline were included. While the Tom Robinson Band never made the U.S. mainstream charts, they attracted quite a strong underground following at the time. Britain pushed the album ‘Power In The Darkness’ all the way to #4 (OZ#52), whilst the new single ‘Up Against The Wall’ peaked at #33 in the U.K. The album became somewhat of a positive rally cry for the disaffected, the disenfranchised, with an intelligent, but not preachy, collection of tracks. Robinson took his politics and ideals out on the road also, playing a string of rallies and benefit gigs.

After a frenetic 1978, the Tom Robinson Band entered the studio again late in the year to begin work on their sophomore album. By that time both Ambler and Dolphin had split the scene, replaced by Ian ‘Quince’ Parker and Preston Heyman respectively. The vibe and energy of the first album couldn’t be recaptured, even with acclaimed producer Todd Rundgren overseeing work in the studio. The lead out single ‘Bully For You’ (a collaboration with Peter Gabriel) crawled limply to #68 in Britain, and soon after the album ‘TRB2’ met with a lukewarm reception. The rally cries of the first album were now being viewed as blatant and tired sloganeering, and the critics went cold on the Tom Robinson Band. Initial sales were reasonable, but ‘TRB2’ didn’t climb above #18 on the U.K. charts in the first half of 1979. Robinson asserted that the Tom Robinson Band had run its course and by July ‘79 they had disbanded. Tom Robinson assembled a new line-up of musicians, going by the name The Voice Squad, and released the single ‘Never Gonna Fall In Love (Again)’ in September ‘79, which actually made the charts here in Australia, barely (#99).

Robinson then experienced a nervous breakdown, but following his recovery put together another band called Sector 27. With Robinson’s name removed from the billing, Sector 27 released an eponymous album in 1980 (produced by Steve Lillywhite), but despite some positive reviews, neither album, nor single’s ‘Not Ready’ and ‘Invitation’, made the charts. Sector 27’s sound was classified as post-punk and likened to band’s like The Cure and XTC (see future post). After his efforts in the mainstream music scene proved futile, Robinson packed up and moved to Hamburg (worked for The Beatles). For a period Robinson worked with alternative-style cabaret and theatre groups, but in 1982 he released his debut solo album ‘North By Northwest’. It was a more personal album, but still imbued with Robinson’s old rock fervour in places. The 1983 single ‘War Baby’, which Robinson had written during his stay in Germany, returned Robinson to the U.K. top 10 (#6/OZ#73), and was followed up by ‘Listen To The Radio: Atmospherics’ (UK#39), which was a renewal of Robinson’s studio alliance with Peter Gabriel. Both singles were included on the 1984 album ‘Hope And Glory’ (UK#21), which featured plenty of hope, but didn’t achieve much glory. It did yield another minor U.K. hit with a cover of the Steely Dan classic ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ (#58). The 1986 album ‘Still Loving You’ saw Robinson continue his transformation from rebellious youth to mellow 30-something.

Robinson reunited with the original members of ‘T.R.B.’ for a number of short tours and one off shows over the course of the late 80s and early 90s. In 1994 Robinson released the solo album ‘Love Over Rage’, his first full length album in almost a decade, which was well received by critics (and featured Chris Rea playing slide guitar), and was followed by 1996’s ‘Having It Both Ways’. Robinson also hosted a regular program on BBC Radio called ‘Locker Room’, through which the outspoken singer continued to express his strong views on all manner of political and social issues. His career as a radio jock has continued to blossom over the last decade, but Robinson has maintained his commitment to numerous socio-political organisations.

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