2-4-6-8 celebrate: Pete Mitchell on Tom Robinson and Rock against Racism

The Absolute Radio DJ recalls the Tom Robinson Band's fight for equality and headline set at the first Rock against Racism gig

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EMI have just released the Tom Robinson Band Anthology 1977-79, a four disc box set that contains both TRB albums, singles, sessions, live concerts and a hour-long Granada TV documentary broadcast in 1978.

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 I worked briefly with Tom at BBC 6 Music and always found him affable and generous with his time; he was always excited by new music and would chat quite happily about something exciting that he had received in the post that day. He is a great champion of the up and coming and radio needs more of his type.

I remember his debut hit single 2-4-6-8 Motorway in 1977, the year the band formed, which through a series of lucky breaks and plenty of diehard support from their then loyal following, hit the charts. We all enjoyed his uplifting sing-along ditty which sat rather uncomfortably among the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and the Clash, who were all part of the punk movement, and the Tom Robinson Band were part of this so-called attack on the establishment.

He was miscast in this new musical uprising. For one Tom was older and maybe more wiser — his first foray into music was a semi-folk outfit called Cafe Society who were bizarrely signed to Konk Records and produced by Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks. The project never really got off the ground.

The thing about Robinson is that he had a conscience, he wanted to strive for fairness and equality in society, and had good reason to follow this turbulent and uncomfortable path. “For me, having grown up gay in 1960s Britain, where you could be imprisoned for falling in love with a person of the same sex, was very tough, but I started to embrace gay liberation when I came to London in the 70s,” explains Tom enthusiastically, “but it wasn’t just about gay liberation, it was also about combating racism and inequality, it was about giving a voice to people who were marginalised by mainstream society. We were fighting for a fairer world. The Tom Robinson Band were about a fair society for everyone.”  

His band logo is a direct lift of the black clenched fist logo of the Black Power movement that was prominent in the late 60s and early 70s and which went a long way in improving race relations in America and beyond.

The first time I became aware of the movement was during a presentation of the medals of the 200-metres race at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised a black gloved clenched fist for the entire American national anthem after they were awarded their medals on the podium in front of the world’s media. It was the most bold, brave and controversial political statement in the history of the Olympics.

In 1978 at Victoria Park in east London, Rock Against Racism held its very first open air concert. The movement had started in 1976 as a reaction to the now infamous remarks bleated out on stage in Birmingham by Eric Clapton (Clapton had made a declaration of support for Conservative minister Enoch Powell, telling his audience they should vote for Powell to stop Britain from becoming a “black colony”, before descending into racist epithets).

80,000 people turned out to watch the Clash, Buzzcocks, X Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band perform. Billy Bragg was in the audience that day and was inspired so much, that he began his musical career that day. He was inspired not by the Clash but by Tom stepping up to the microphone, backed by the 80,000 supporters, and breaking into Sing If You’re Glad to Be Gay. It was a moment.

“It was a very jittery time. We had the three-day working week, a discredited government who were stumbling from crisis to crisis, far right-wing parties marching through the streets of immigrant areas, beating up residents, and it felt like the whole country could go down the pan. There was a real sense of fear and menace but also one of opportunity to change things.” Robinson recalls. “The Rock Against Racism gig for me was a very proud moment. We didn’t get paid, it was not a big corporate gig, there was no hospitality and no changing rooms. We had no idea how many people would turn up; we were expecting about 20,000. It was an important thing to do, it was important to stand up to the National Front. The spirit of the event was so great.”

I seem to remember that the refuse collectors were on strike and our streets were waist high in rubbish, Johnny Rotten had been stabbed and the Pistols had been talked about in the House of Commons.

It was a very gloomy black and white time but there was a wind of change in the air. What Rock Against Racism did was give me a real sense of change, hope that everything will turn out fine if we collectively make a statement of intent, that we will not tolerate injustice, racism, inequality and homophobia. Tom heralded change.

The Tom Robinson band headlined the concert, which caused a little consternation with the support act, as Tom recalls.

“The Clash were a little moody about the whole thing and kicked off because they wanted to headline, because they felt they were more important, and indeed they were. They played over their allotted time and my set was disappearing against the curfew. In the end my manager pulled the plug on them. The Tom Robinson Band went down in history as the bad guys that pulled the plug on the Clash because we were jealous of them. Which is so far from the truth.”

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Hear Tom Robinson in conversation with Pete Mitchell this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio. Listen live here: www.absoluteradio.co.uk/listen