A person’s sexuality can sometimes be confusing. Have you ever wondered why both David Bowie in Space Oddity and Elton John in Rocket Man talked about their wives which neither had. Both are/were gay and both once married a woman. Tom Robinson was another when in 1977 he revealed to the press he was gay and sang it with pride in his EP track (Sing If You’re Glad) to Be Gay. He then said he wasn’t gay and is now married and living happily in south London.
Tom ‘came out’ in 1966 when he was a member of a choir in Cambridge and expressed feelings for another choirboy and it made the national news. Homosexuality back then was considered a crime in Britain and the penalty was prison. Knowing this and worrying him, Tom, at 10 years old, attempted suicide. He was placed in a psychiatric clinic in Kent, but whilst there he became fascinated by Alexis Korner’s blue group and foresaw a change of career on the horizon. In the early 1970’s he joined an acoustic band called the Cafe Society. They impressed Ray Davies from the Kinks so much that he agreed to produce their debut album.
The gay liberation movement was continuing to grow and Tom’s passion for gay rights caused him to campaign for it even in his music. In 1976, inspired by the Sex Pistols, he formed the Tom Robinson Band as well as becoming a lifelong supporter of Amnesty International and until the big hits came he was also a volunteer of London’s Gay Switchboard help-line. That changed in October 1977 when his debut and biggest hit, 2-4-6-8 Motorway reached number five in the UK chart.
During the 1980s he co-wrote songs for other artists working with Dan Hartman and Elton John successfully co-penning Elton’s 1980 hit Sartorial Eloquence. He wrote another song with Elton about a young boy in boarding school who has a crush on an older student, that song was called Elton’s Song and eventually released in 1981 on Elton’s album The Fox. In 1982 he came in for further criticism about the facts that he wasn’t ‘genuinely gay’ because at a benefit party he met Sue Brearley, the woman with whom he would eventually marry and have two children. In the mid 90s, when he first became a dad, the Sunday People ran a story about what they deemed as a sexual orientation change by carrying the headline ‘Britain’s Number One Gay in Love with Girl Biker!’ But then what do you expect from a Sunday tabloid? News!
In 1982 he wrote War Baby about divisions between East and West Germany. In a recent interview he said this of it, “War Baby is the song that I’m most proud of. The genesis of it came at a low ebb in my life when I had run out of money and got massively into debt, particularly with the British tax authorities, and I had to flee the country and go and live on a friend’s floor in Hamburg. And I really didn’t know what was going to happen to me but I was there and I started writing some new songs. I used to roll the most ferocious joints, large conical things that would sort of remove all semblance of reality and I used to somehow drive through the streets of Hamburg in my second-hand
20-year old car, ah, with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and make it to the gay sauna in that state, and kind of salve my soul through experiences there. And one particular evening I made it back to the flat somehow particularly stoned, after a particularly harrowing experience at the sauna, and just came back and wrote straight down ‘only the very young and the very beautiful can be so aloof.’ And the rest of it poured out onto the page, eight, ten pages of this stuff, just hand-written, stream of consciousness stuff. And it took about a year to get those ten pages down to something that you could actually sing in four minutes, but it came from a very, very deep place within me. I think it’s the most truthful song that I’ve written, because I didn’t think about it at all. The great artists are able to connect with a very deep part of themselves spontaneously, and I think that’s the closest I ever came to doing it.”
It was released as a solo Tom Robinson single and reached number six. It was also featured on his debut solo album North by Northwest which was produced by Richard Mazda who had been a member of the Cosmetics and later became an in-house producer for IRS Records.
In 1996, Robinson released an album Having It Both Ways. On it he added a verse to Glad to Be Gay, in which he sings: ‘Well if gay liberation means freedom for all, a label is no liberation at all. I’m here and I’m queer and do what I do, I’m not going to wear a straitjacket for you.’ In 1998 his epic about bisexuality, Blood Brother, won three awards at the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards in New York.
In the mid-80s he turned his hand to broadcasting when he started a regular show on the BBC World service. He has since presented shows on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 4Xtra and 5 Live. He won his first gold Sony Radio Academy award on GLR, which is now BBC London for You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, a radio documentary about gay music. He has presented The Locker Room, a long-running series about men and masculinity, for Radio 4 in the early 1990s, and later hosted the Home Truths tribute to John Peel a year after his death in 2004. He currently presents his own show on 6 Music, featuring live music sessions, on Monday and Tuesday nights, and occasionally sits-in on Radio 2’s Mark Radcliffe Show and Radio 4’s Something Understood, and Pick of the Week. In 1994 he wrote and presented Surviving Suicide, about his suicide attempt.