Tom Robinson’s headline mid-week concert was presented as part of the ongoing City Roots Festival, an offshoot of the Cambridge Folk Festival which is presented at several venues across the city in late February and early March. It’s only in the second year of running but has again had an excellent set of gigs lined up. Tonight is, of course, a homecoming gig for local boy Robinson, although judging from the audience there aren’t too many of his youthful contemporaries knocking about. It also marks twenty five years since he played the Cambridge Folk Festival – so a lot of potential points of resonance at the Corn Exchange. Unfortunately this appearance was following on from heavy snowfall nationwide – and whilst there was very little in the vicinity of Cambridge itself it had put off a lot of people from travelling. Which meant the Cambridge Corn Exchange really felt its vast self as there were at best a couple of hundred who had braved the elements and made it to the gig. To the extent that Tom Robinson came out pre-gig and gave everyone permission to huddle up in the front rows rather than sticking to their allocated seats – because in the true never give in spirit of punk this show was definetly going to take place.
The opening support came from Lee Forsyth Griffiths with songs that were often both short and sharp. His acoustic guitar playing features some very fine finger-picking, and the songs reflect the artist – honest, open, and earnest. Just because he felt like it Griffiths threw in a cover of ‘Sweet Baby James’, the lyrics of which are both laid back and restless, and fitted in perfectly alongside the rest of the set. ‘Astronaut’ addresses the troubadour life, about following a dream and not falling back into drudgery because your old friends would rather drag you back down: Cambridge is the perfect city for a line like “so go on and get out there and show me what your degrees can do / You want to be an astronaut but it’s too underpaid / so instead you’ll just sit at home and slowly fade away”. Set closer ‘Meet Me Half Way’ is a passionate plea to one who just isn’t interested – unrequited love in this case encountering a brick wall. Lee would return periodically during Tom Robinson’s band sets to add additional guitar, shaker percussion, vocals and general grooviness.
Coming on stage with his band – Adam Phillips on guitar, Andy Treacey on endlessly pounding drums and Gerry Diver on keyboards – Tom Robinson belied his age: he was already at the top end of what was deemed acceptable in his first flush of tail end of punk / start of new wave fame. Not that he was alone in this, like most musical youth movements punk tended to ignore the implicit long-term contradictions of not trusting anyone over thirty. Yet with his bass slung like a weapon it was time to revisit 1978 – it’s forty years since the Tom Robinson Band’s debut album ‘Power in the Darkness’ and the gig would be a play through of the album in the correct running order, but with a few EP cuts thrown in for the metaphorical LP flipping between the first and second halves of the gig. Kicking off then with ‘Up Against The Wall’ and it was full power straight away – and a reminder that the Tom Robinson Band were on their debut properly punk angry, but also had targets in their sights that they wanted to skewer. Angry – but political as well with lyrics that can still, and how shameful is this?, still ring true “Consternation in Mayfair / Rioting in Notting Hill Gate / Fascists marching on the high street / Carving up the welfare state”. The solution is social revolution. And there’s plenty of testimony to this on ‘Ain’t gonna take it’, the speed and power of which leaves Robinson temporary out of breath.
‘Too Good to be True’ was the first real reminder that songs by the Tom Robinson Band could also feature un-punk guitar soloing – Danny Kustow was no “this is a chord, this is another chord – now form a band” guitarist, and neither is Adam Phillips who plays the sparky imaginative guitar solos with consummate flair. ‘Better Decide Which Side You’re On’ speaks for itself and the funky ‘Power in the Darkness’ remains a rallying call for progressive thought “freedom to choose what you do with you body / freedom to think what you like / … / freedom from elitism, male domination”: with swirling organ and a hippy checklist it’s the punk track that could have escaped from a Crosby Stills and Nash demo.
The non-album single tracks that closed out the first half included ‘Martin’ – which is Tom Robinson being the punk Tommy Steele leading a ragged sing-a-long. The follow on is the song that both ensures Robinson’s place in the histories of punk and of protest music, and also got the band’s subsequent singles kept off BBC playlists. ‘Glad to be Gay’. A song which despite its 1978 top twenty chart position was often polarising at the time in the responses it could provoke. Which must seems strange, forty years on, for a song who’s central message is the fairly innocuous question “can consenting adults be allowed to just get on with their lives?”. It’s a mark of how the country has changed, and maybe also in an age of austerity and leaving the EU referendums a reminder to not lose vigilance – many things one imagined could never be downgraded and lost it has turned out can be downgraded and lost. Change isn’t a one way street.
After the conclusion of the B-side of the album in the second half of the gig there was another set of contemporary non-album tracks, with a very straight reading of Dylan’s ‘I shall be released’ followed up by the raucous and fist pumping ‘2-4-6-8-Motorway’. Saxophonist Tim Sanders joined the band to help close out the gig on a final encore of songs from the Eighties. Songs that at the time seemed surprisingly gentle and reflective to ears still excited by the likes of ‘2-4-6-8 motorway’ become so much more acceptable almost forty years later – there’s a weariness embodied in ‘Atmospherics’ and the pathos of loss in ‘War baby’. Tom Robinson may have aged, and his stage persona between songs may be predominantly genial, with jokes and anecdotes, but these songs have gained riches with the years whilst ‘Power in the Darkness’ has proved to be vibrant as ever, punchy, still radical sounding, and makes its case well as one of the glories of mid-seventies punk rock.
Up Against the Wall
Too Good to Be True
Ain’t Gonna Take It
Long Hot Summer
(Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay
Don’t Take No for an Answer
The Winter of ’79
Man You Never Saw
Better Decide Which Side You’re On
You Gotta Survive
Power in the Darkness
I Shall Be Released
Atmospherics:listen to the radio