Tom Robinson Band – The Albums 1978-79 : Boxset Review

Enjoyable saunter through Tom Robinson’s back pages, the angry years.

Release Date: 14th July 2023

Label: Captain Oi (Cherry Red)

Format: Digipak 2CD

TRB were huuuuuge in the late 70s, with Tom Robinson having as high a profile as a commentator on the moment,as a singer and writer of powerful punchy anthems. The candle burned brief, but bright, before the zeitgeist faded, there becoming less demand for angry agit-p(r)op polemics, Robinson toning down his temper to become a more suit-sleeves rolled up and saxophone solos kinda guy. TRB made but two long players in this period, Power In The Darkness and TRB2, with the odd EP and with singles, otherwise unduplicated. All are here, together with some live cuts. And, if, yes, the format sounds familiar, of course it is, with Cherry Red we can thank for this cornucopia.

No further ado, let’s kick back and hit play. Disc 1 contains the explosive debut, which didn’t actually include the single, or the odd EP alluded to earlier, but they are here, present and correct. (Odd is good, btw, and you’ll know it when you start singing.) Power In The Darkness is an astonishing album, as ‘punk’ as The Clash ever were, with a vein of melodicism Strummer et al never quite managed, let alone the clarity of the lyrical intent. This is in no small part down to the calibre of the players, largely the part played by guitarist, Danny Kustow. With Mark Ambler on keyboards and the exquisitely named Dolphin Taylor on drums, the bass duties, as well as the singing and the songs, was the responsibility of Robinson. Ever tried singing whilst playing bass, especially if there is more than root note plodding to be done? Not easy, with Robinson, as he can prove to this day, making it look easy. His voice, OK, not a precision tool, but perfect for snarling out his diatribes, if less well suited their more whimsical fare, smacking sometimes of am dram accentage. But away with such criticism, no-one liked those songs much anyway, it was the up against the barricades banter the crowds came to hear.

So, Up Against The Wall is as perfect a song of that time as can be recalled, the mix of instrumentation a swirl of rage and tears, with a pace that would broach no stragglers. Grey Cortina? Less so, but the lyric is a deal more nuanced than I recall, hindsight giving it quite an old school rawk punch. To Good To Be True showed the later direction Tom would be later going full stretch. I couldn’t bear it 45 years ago; it is staggeringly prescient now. The guitar solo is stunning. Ain’t Gonna Take It is perhaps a bit rental bondage trousers, but no less exciting for it, in a grammar school Sham 69 style. Ambler stretches out on the organ for Long Hot Summer, which keeps up the momentum, ahead the distinctly Thin Lizzy-like, vocals apart, Winter Of ’79, written a full year ahead that season’s arrival. Man You Never Saw, even allowing for nostalgia, feels irrevocably dated, with Better Decide Which Side You’re On giving a first flavour of Robinson’s LGBT leanings. More Lizzy guitar leanings for the bouncy You Gotta Survive, ahead the showcase closer of the title track, where Robinson plies some possibly simple but nonetheless effective bass motifs. The lyric may sound a bit woke to our jaded ears, but remember when this was. As a song it gives off whiffs of West Coast US bands like the Doobies, but the spoken word segment still raises a shiver up the spine, a frisson of pride for the performer. Whilst I never caught the band at the time, I can certainly vouch for the adrenaline rush when these songs, as they do, get played live by the current incarnation, scotching, perhaps, the ‘you had to be there’ merchants.

2-4-6-8 Motorway is the single, in case you can’t find it in you to remember. Is it as good as your memory tells you? Does it matter, it is just such a belter, bastion of Dad-dancing or otherwise. How many people , I wonder, flipped it for Robinson’s worthy, if dull, take on Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, the lyric clearly the attraction for the singer, not necessarily having appreciated that point back then. The little heard B side, I’m Alright Jack, the other side of the single version of the album’s title track, follows and sounds a bit rushed. Which takes us to the entirely more divisive matter of the Don’t Take No For An Answer EP. Four songs, all played live (at the Lyceum), even if only one stands out, two maybe, if you are called Martin, the bane or the banner for men of that name. The eponymous Don’t Take No is OK but another song that feels it wasn’t strong enough for the PITD album.

Glad To Be Gay, intro and all, is astounding, as it always was. Years on, I still find it staggering, if uplifting, that so many were able to sing gleefully along with the chorus, perhaps failing to appreciate the irony and bitterness of the words. Hell, I’ve done it myself, so what do I know, only hoping the rowdier singalong audiences really saw the imperfect join between the lyrical despair and the pure pop confection that carries the lyric. Martin is still as dreadful as ever it always was, but I found I had forgotten Right On Sister. Perhaps I never got that far. I hope the “Sisters” were grateful for the consideration, it all feeling a little uncomfortable now. A couple of nothing special live versions are followed by a surprise, a raggedy Andy version of Lou Reed’s Waiting For My Man, which is competently workmanlike, with a thoroughly decent organ solo by the teenage Ambler, so soon to leave the band. I’m glad it’s here, but may not listen too often again.

And so to disc 2, for the second album and some, with this representing largely new ground to these ears. Chris Thomas, the experienced and expert producer behind Power, was ditched, having become exasperated with the band in the initial sessions, in favour of Todd Rundgren, to see if he could add some gloss to the grit. Despite Taylor having suggested Rundgren, this led to his then acrimonious departure from the band. With Ambler already gone, this meant Robinson and Kustow had to pick up new blood. This came in the form of Preston Heyman on drums and the keyboards of Ian Parker. Perhaps in response to some critique of his sometimes admittedly shaky vocals, a bevy of backing singers were also hired up. If still a sound and solid piece of work, it certainly shows the direction of flow.

All Right All Night opens and already sounds more commercial and polished, arguably, in hindsight, not the wisest of intentions, but it was the way many other acts were turning. I guess it depends whether you are a Richard Gottehrer Blondie fan or a Mike Chapman one. Why Should I Mind follows in the same format, Parker’s keyboard occupying a far more central positioning than Ambler ever had. Black Angel is a Stonesy strut that causes little offence, it needing Let My People Be to give a reprise of the standard of songs on album number one, if despoiled by the ghastly bvs. Blue Murder perpetuates that ghost of a good song, with a great electric piano opening, before its ancestry becomes familiar, a mix of some older tunes. Kustow supplies some retro guitar, but the spectres won’t go away.

Bully For You, written in cahoots with Peter Gabriel, recounts the tale of Taylor’s flounce, and signposts where later work could have gone. The chanted “We don’t need no” sounds ominously familiar, wondering if another band may have been at work, contemporaneously, nearby, over a “Wall”, so to speak. Talking of future work, Crossing Over The Road could easily slot into Hope And Glory, and is about as far from Power In The Darkness as anything here. Sorry My Harris tries hard not to be filler, as it channels a Ray Davies vibe, ultimately finding itself quite appealing, talkie bit aside, the trick not working on this song of lesser import. Ray Davies? Jings, Law And Order is exactly the sort of song the Kinks could pump out and tuck away on a forgotten b-side, so, with a little trepidation I hazard what could come next. Days Of Rage tries to capture the vim of the opening triad of songs, in part scoring a result, leaving only the maudlin pass-agg piano ballad, Hold Out, which is a sort of triumph, showing off, rather than hiding, the inherent frailty of Robinson’s vocal, and all the better for that. Plus it allows the album to end on credit.

Bully For You came also out as a single, b/w Our People, a Faces style rocker, here for completeness, but it is the next song that has a deal more interest, another co-write, Never Gonna Fall In Love (Again), this time with Elton John, here in both 7″ and 12″ version. Indeed it sounds very Elton, in an OK way, if with a needlessly over Philly-fied chorus. Better than vilified, I guess, but I don’t remember it being a hit. Otherwise we get an out-take/demo, Suits Me Suits You, from TRB2 of little merit, and a rough mix of Bully For You, which benefits the lack of sheen. There is also the flipside of the Elton collaboration, Getting Tighter, actually one of the best songs here, and thus worth the long haul. A piano rocker, it sounds a lot more personal and confident than the buffed-up work elsewhere on this disc. As a last hurrah comes the harmonica-laden demo of Motorway, which is an attractive variation.

All in all, warts and all, this is a thoroughly decent package, if front ended by the quality of music on the first disc. TRB2 is, nevertheless, an interesting peruse, demonstrating, arguably, and possibly, why Robinson let the band implode. As he says in the extensive notes, a perennial of Cherry Red releases: “I have two principal reasons to be grateful to Danny Kustow; one is for joining TRB when he did, the other for leaving TRB when he did.” But, after a rest and recupe, he was up and ready for his second career as a more straightforward solo star and, alongside and latterly, as radio presenter and writer, lasting to this day. These notes also taught me also something I didn’t know, as to the progeny of the lyric for Motorway, it deriving from a then prevalent Gay mantra, adding further kudos to his subversive side, getting a largely hetero audience to sing along so lustily.

Cherry Red deserve a King’s award, should anyone here have a say, for their commitment to bundling and boxing up the nooks and crannies of our listening habits of yore. Long may they do so.

A bit of Tom, that Getting Tighter:

Tom Robinson online: Website / Facebook /Twitter / Instagram / Youtube

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