Monday, November 19, 2007

The Tom Robinson Band's "Power In The Darkness" album (1978)

While English punk bands tore across Europe and the US with spiked hair and rage, it was easy to think lump them all together to the average unassuming American. What The Tom Robinson Band shared with them was rebellion and rock and roll, but the similarities stopped there.

The Tom Robinson Band had two agendas. The first one was political -- they were card carrying members of Rock Against Racism who distributed leaflets and tee-shirts with their clenched hand logo at their concerts. The second one, which made for an interesting juxtaposition, was bassist Tom Robinson loved writing pop songs about cars.

TRB, as everybody called them, burst out in America with their Power In The Darkness album, which combined a full album and EP released in the UK. I attended a press conference at EMI's New York City offices, had a minute with Mr. Robinson, and they chatted up their forthcoming US concert debut. Robinson was a mesmerizing character who was deeply influenced by the Kinks and like that band, put on a rousing show full of sing-alongs.

Power In The Darkness is unquestionably one of the great rock albums of the punk period, a tour through working-class England, battling against prejudice and speaking up for freedom of rights. This was not a sneering band, like The Sex Pistols, or a mod band with soul, like the Jam. TRB was like The Kinks with louder amps, prepped with the basics of guitar, bass, drum, and organ. Each of them played magnificently on this album which won many awards in Europe.

Tom Robinson had good reason to be a street fighting man, as he was openly gay in a punk rock era that was not used to this. While he had one blatant song about it, "Glad To Be Gay," and another that was just subtle and clever called "Martin"("I just want to tell you about Martin/Cos nobody I know has got a brother like him"). But Robinson's genius was that he rocked so hard and his passion was so convincing, the fact that he was gay just dissipated.

One song after the other, the album pulled off being dramatic and scenic while classic guitar rock riffs moved the body. You've got hand it to Robinson for opening an album with "Up Against The Wall," rife with street scenes but ripe for air guitar:

Darkhaired dangerous school kids
Vicious, suspicious sixteen
Jet-black blazers at the bus stop
Sullen, unhealthy and mean
Teenage guerrillas on the tarmac
Fighting in the middle of the road
Supercharged FS1Es on the asphalt
The kids are coming in from the cold

"The Winter of '79" was an imaginary look back at 1979 when supposedly life in England would be akin to war ("The Carib Club got petrol bombed/The National Front was getting awful strong"). "Long Hot Summer" and "Don't Take No For An Answer" were more calls to arms, balanced out by Robinson's car songs like "Grey Cortina" and the big single "2-4-6-8 Motorway."

"2-4-6-8 Motorway" was one of those Kinks-type singalong rock songs that on the surface was about driving the motorway with your best friend, the pleasures of the road. Of course, it could have been subtly interpreted another way, but again, who cared. The song broke them wide everywhere with a memorable chorus you could join in there mere second time you heard it:

2-4-6-8 ain't never too late
Me and my radio truckin' on thru the night
3-5-7-9 on a double white line
Motorway sun coming up with the morning light

Like many bands on this blog, that was their peak. And like other bands on this blog, they hired an American producer to make them even bigger, and it totally flopped. In this case, they hired Todd Rundgren for TRB Two, the band was fighting over songs they liked and disliked and soon crumbled apart.

No matter. They left us a memorable high energy rock and roll creation, immensely entertaining, fun to sing along to with Robinson's Cambridge accent and English jargon, and a model for political songwriting for decades to come.

I've chosen a great promo video of TRB performing "2-4-6-8 Motorway," followed by a clip combining performances of "2-4-6-8 Motorway" and "Glad To Be Gay" from 1977 before they were signed to a label, then two atmospheric homemade clips of "The Winter of '79" and "Power In The Darkness." The volume knob must be turned up!

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