The podcasting duo Sodajerker secure some time with a national treasure, as they talk songwriting with the brilliant Tom Robinson
usician, rabble-rouser and national treasure: Tom Robinson has had a career that’s touched upon some of the central tenets of the iconic songwriter. Robinson began his career as part of the folk troupe Café Society, a group who caught the ear of a certain Ray Davies. It was while toiling on Davies’ label that Robinson began making solo appearances at the fledgling Gay Pride, which led him to write one of his most well noted and enduring tracks, Glad To Be Gay.
The track would be played by the band that would make his name, one who Robinson formed after being inspired by the anarchic punk he witnessed at a Sex Pistols gig. The socio-political punk group the Tom Robinson Band would see Robinson claim a slew of successful singles – including the Top 5 anthem 2-4-6-8 Motorway – and forge a career that has seen him release over 20 albums as either a solo artist or part of a band, as well as composing music with songwriting royalty in Elton John.
During the mid-80s Robinson began presenting radio shows on the BBC, helping to forge the view of him as a national treasure; with his passionate campaigning for unheard and under-appreciated music making his show on 6 Music one of most well respected shows on air, and Robinson one of the best loved presenters around.
Our friends at Sodajerker were fortunate enough to catch up with him and discovered a songwriter who’s just as passionate as he ever was.
Growing up, were there any songwriters that you were particularly inspired by?
“When people like James Taylor, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan came along with their acoustic guitars, you could sound like them without needing any fancy equipment or special playing skills. That was the big advantage of singer-songwriters; once you could play C, F and G you could play Donovan’s Catch The Wind, and you were in with a chance. And people would say ‘Oh I know that, it sounds just like the original!’ Whereas none of us could have sounded like The Stones even if we tried… well, we did try, but none of us even got close. Because the playing skills were too different and the amplification too expensive – imagine trying to buy a drum kit on sixpence a week!”
You’ve been fortunate enough to work with Ray Davies. Did you hope that you’d be able to learn anything from him during that production process?
“That happened by chance. I’d left Finchden Manner (a therapeutic community where Robinson spent six years recovering from the effects of a nervous breakdown at the age of 16) and I’d moved to London and got into my first band. Again, we had no money so the band consisted of two acoustic guitarists and three singers, using vocal harmonies to make up for the loss of instrumentation. But we ended up with a residency at Earls Court, at the Troubadour Club every other Tuesday, and Ray Davies was brought down to see us playing there by a mutual friend and ended up signing us to his label. I think we were blinded by any possible downsides from a business sense, because he was, and is, just such a stellar songwriter. As a quality songwriter no-one even gets close to him. In terms of history, in terms of being part of the national psyche, being a national treasure and just in terms of consistency.”
We were watching a documentary from 1978, which reveals a very focused and determined Tom Robinson. Were you driven to be a great songwriter at that time?
“Do you know what, I had an almost chronic determination to be famous and everything was kind of secondary to that. But certainly the experience of David Bowie in the early 70s influencing me as a young gay man, making a soundtrack to my life, made me think that certainly if I had an opportunity to do that for someone else then I will. So that influenced writing about certain things, and then the experience of seeing racism at work in the London police inspired certain subject matters. But the first motivation wasn’t ‘Oh, I know I’m gonna change the world, I’ll become a songwriter’. It was that I wanted to be famous. And then if I can, then while I’m there I’ll write about things that I care about.”
One of your most anthemic and lyrically powerful songs is Glad To Be Gay. Is it right that you started with Bob Dylan as a template for that song?
“I just had a lot of anger and sarcasm that I wanted to get out. Parallel to my supposed career with Ray Davies and Café Society, which was going nowhere, I was playing at gay benefits and performing at pride events – which in those days were 2,000 people, not 200,000 people, with quite often more police than marchers. I used to just get up with an acoustic guitar and do my bit, and I’d already written a song called Glad To Be Gay, which was just a little ditty about how great it was to be gay – it’s the same all over the world, boy meets boy, girl meets girl.
“But in the intervening year I saw the sort of thing that the London Met Police were up to in terms of beating up gay people, running people in for no reason and no excuse, just the same as they were doing with black youths in Brixton. They’d get a soft arrest if they ran in a banker from Surrey who was wearing leather and chains and stuff, because he wouldn’t want it to get in the local paper. So it wouldn’t be contested and their arrest record would go up, so they’d get their promotion.
“So it made me make all sorts of connections; you either live in a free and a fair society or you don’t, and clearly we didn’t. And Glad To Be Gay was a badge that people in the gay scene were wearing at the time, and that pre-dated the song: people would wear them when they were in the pubs and the clubs and then they’d take them off when they went into the street. So I thought ‘So how glad are you to be gay?’ That was the idea of the song, to write something scathingly sarcastic and then list all the different stuff that was happening and then going ironically, ‘Well then, sing if you’re glad to be gay, hey!’.”
Are there certain things you can do in the writing process to get the audience on board?
“I think you’ve got to not be afraid, to a certain extent, of playing into clichés, or of doing the obvious. I think you’ve got to be reasonably straightforward to do a rabble-rousy kind of song. It’s difficult to do rabble-rousy songs if you’re Radiohead. They rouse rabbles in an entirely different way, which is splendid, and I couldn’t do it to save my life, but one thing they won’t have is everybody singing along and stamping their feet and punching their feet in the air shouting Power In The Darkness. That’s my special prerogative.”
In the late 70s you wrote some songs with Elton John. How did that work?
“I thought I was going to hate him, because really he represented everything that TRB (Tom Robinson Band) was against. He was kind of opulence and traditional pop star, travelling in limos and excess and all the rest of it. But people’s public image and what they’re really like are often miles apart. I once got invited round his place for dinner, and I was at the buffet and there’s all these celebs there, and then as we’re settling down for dinner Prince Andrew and all of his entourage walk in. Elton actually took me to one side and said, ‘Not bad for a council house boy from Watford eh?!’ So there was a part of him that was still like a little kid thinking ‘I can’t believe it, they’re gonna find me out any minute!’
“So we found out that we actually got on quite well – he didn’t have anything like as much front as I thought he would, and I wasn’t anything like as mouthy and as obnoxious as he thought I was going to be. And when two songwriters meet what do they do? They write songs! So I had some lyrics that I hadn’t been able to put lyrics to and gave them to him. The next time I saw him he beckoned me over, put the lyrics up on the piano and just played them. And I had my cassette player and recorded him playing the songs and there they were, the songs.”
We love your passion for making music, what do you have coming up?
“I’m just starting to make my first album for 20 years with a guy called Gerry Diver. He produced Sam Lee’s amazing album that was Mercury nominated a couple of years ago, and Lisa Knapp’s album that was nominated for BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards last year. He’s a fantastic producer and I’m making music that I’m very excited about it. We’re hoping to go down the crowdfunding route.”
We wondered whether you still had that passion for making music, now that you’re a national treasure!
“Well, working at 6 Music has seriously inhibited my writing, because you’re so in awe of all the talent of the people that you are playing; unknown people who send you a record that makes you go ‘Bloody hell why isn’t this really famous?’ That kind of inhibits you a bit because you wonder ‘How can I, at my age with my experience and limited time, compete with these musicians?’ With young people at the height of their powers and at the height of their motivation, coming up with life essential work that they live, sleep, breathe and eat. And it’s only really in the last couple of years that I’ve gone, ‘To hell with it. They’ve got their thing and I’ve got my thing and I can do stuff that they can’t do and vice versa’.
“So I gathered together the songs that I’ve been writing for the last 10 years. But I still didn’t know how to record it, because I knew what I wanted to hear was something that I wanted to hear on the radio… I’m bored with the type of music that I was making. That’s not to denigrate it, but I don’t want to make records like that now. The thing that I’m interested in is the pithy pop song, so I’m trying to make no song longer than four minutes and hopefully all less than three minutes.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 60 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 70-minute interview with Tom Robinson – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.