Tom Robinson

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Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson London Pride 2019 - 48219722701 (cropped).jpg
Robinson performing at Pride in London 2019
Background information
Birth nameThomas Giles Robinson
Born (1950-06-01) 1 June 1950 (age 70)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
  • Musician
  • singer-songwriter
  • radio presenter
InstrumentsVocals, bass guitar, guitar
Years active1975–present
Associated acts

Thomas Giles Robinson (born 1 June 1950) is a British singer-songwriter, bassist, radio presenter and long-time LGBT rights activist, best known for the hits "Glad to Be Gay", "2-4-6-8 Motorway", and "Don't Take No for an Answer", with his Tom Robinson Band. He later peaked at No. 6 in the UK Singles Chart with his solo single "War Baby". [1]



Tom Robinson was born into a middle-class family in Cambridge on 1 June 1950. [2] He attended Friends' School, Saffron Walden, a co-ed privately funded Quaker school, between 1961 and 1967. He played guitar in a trio at school called ‘The Inquisition’. Robinson has two brothers and a sister: Matthew (a former BBC executive producer), George and Sophy.

At the age of 13, Robinson realised that he was gay when he fell in love with another boy at school. [3] Until 1967, male homosexual activity was a crime in England, punishable by prison. [2] He had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide at 16. [2] [3] A head teacher got him transferred to Finchden Manor, a therapeutic community, in Kent, for teenagers with emotional difficulties, [3] where he spent his following six years. [2] At the community, Robinson was inspired by John Peel's The Perfumed Garden on pirate Radio London, and by a visit from Alexis Korner. [3] The legendary bluesman and broadcaster transfixed a roomful of people, using nothing but his voice and an acoustic guitar. The whole direction of Robinson's life and career became suddenly clear to him. [3]

In 1973, Robinson moved to London and joined the acoustic trio Café Society. [2] [3] They impressed Ray Davies, of The Kinks, enough for him to sign them to his Konk label and produce their debut album. According to Robinson, Davies's other commitments made the recording a lengthy process and, after it sold only 600 copies, [3] he left the band. Subsequently, when the Tom Robinson Band were playing at the Nashville Rooms in London, Robinson saw Davies enter and sarcastically performed The Kinks' hit "Tired of Waiting for You". Davies retaliated with the less-than-complimentary Kinks single "Prince of the Punks", about Robinson.[ vague ]

In London, Robinson became involved in the emerging gay scene and embraced the politics of gay liberation, which linked gay rights to wider issues of social justice. [3] Inspired by an early Sex Pistols gig, [3] he founded the more political Tom Robinson Band in 1976. [2] The following year the group released the single "2-4-6-8 Motorway", [2] which peaked at No. 5 in the UK Singles Chart for two weeks. [1] The song alludes obliquely to a gay truck driver. [2] In February 1978, the band released the live extended play Rising Free, which peaked at No. 18 in the UK Singles Chart and included his anthemic song "Glad to Be Gay", originally written for a 1976 London gay pride parade. [4] The song was banned by the BBC. [2] [3] [4] In May 1978, the band released its debut album, Power in the Darkness , which was very well received, peaking at No. 4 in the UK Albums Chart, and receiving a gold certification by the BPI. [1] [3] Their second album, TRB Two (1979), however, was a commercial and critical failure, and the band broke up four months after its release. [2]

In 1979, Robinson co-wrote several songs with Elton John, including his minor hit "Sartorial Eloquence (Don't Ya Wanna Play This Game No More?)", which peaked at No. 39 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and a song about a young boy in boarding school who has a crush on an older student called "Elton's Song". [5] It was recorded, but not released until 1981 on the album The Fox . He played two songs live "Glad to be Gay" and "1967 (So Long Ago)" during June of that year at The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979).

In 1980, Robinson organised Sector 27, a less political rock band that released a critically acclaimed but unsuccessful album, Sector 27 , produced by Steve Lillywhite. [2] [3] The band nevertheless received an enthusiastic reception at a Madison Square Garden concert with The Police. [2] However, their management company went bankrupt, the band disintegrated, and Robinson suffered another nervous breakdown. [2] Desolate, in debt, and sorrowing from a breakup with a beau, Robinson fled to Hamburg, Germany, much like his idol David Bowie had escaped to Berlin at a low point in his life. [3] Living in a friend's spare room, he began writing again and ended up working in East Berlin with local band NO55. [2] [3]

In 1982, Robinson penned the song "War Baby" about divisions between East and West Germany, [2] and recorded his first solo album North by Northwest with producer Richard Mazda. "War Baby" peaked at No. 6 in the UK Singles Chart [1] and at No. 1 in the UK Indie Chart for three weeks, [6] reviving his career. [2] [3] His following single, "Listen To The Radio: Atmospherics", co-written with Peter Gabriel, peaked at No. 39 in the UK Singles Chart, and provided him further income when it was covered by Pukka Orchestra in 1984. [1] The Pukkas' version was a top 20 hit in Canada under the title "Listen to the Radio".

Robinson's return to Britain led to late-night performances in cabarets at the Edinburgh Fringe, some of which later surfaced on the live album Midnight at the Fringe (1988). [2] [3] His career enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-1990s with a trio of albums for the respected folk/roots label Cooking Vinyl and a Glastonbury performance in 1994. [3] [7]

In 1986, a BBC producer offered him his own radio show on the BBC World Service. [2] Since then Robinson has, unusually, presented programmes on all the BBC's national stations: Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, 5 Live and 6 Music. [3] He 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. [3]

In 1997, he won a Sony Academy Award for You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, a radio documentary about gay music, produced by Benjamin Mepsted. [3] He currently presents his own show on 6 Music on Saturdays between 9 pm and midnight, and on Sundays between 6 pm and 8 pm as "Now Playing @6Music", a show that plays songs based on a certain theme and listeners' input. He also has a show broadcast at 2 am on Monday mornings, which is focused on music by local bands from BBC Introducing . In 1994 he wrote and presented Surviving Suicide, about his suicide attempt. [2]

Currently, Robinson rarely performs live, apart from two annual free concerts, known as the Castaway Parties, for members of his mailing list. These take place in South London and Belgium every January. In the Belgian Castaway shows, he introduces many songs in Dutch. The Castaway Parties invariably feature a wide variety of established and unknown artists and groups who have included Show of Hands, Philip Jeays, Jan Allain, Jakko Jakszyk, Stoney, Roddy Frame, Martyn Joseph, The Bewley Brothers and Paleday alongside personal friends such as Lee Griffiths and T. V. Smith.

In 2009, Robinson founded "Fresh On The Net", a showcase website for upcoming bands and artists whose aim is "to help independent musicians find new listeners, and independent listeners find new music". [8]

Robinson played "2-4-6-8 Motorway" and "Glad to Be Gay" at the BBC introducing stage on the Friday afternoon of the 2011 Glastonbury Festival, after announcing that The Coral would not be showing as they were 'stuck in the mud'. In July 2013, at the Tabernacle on Powis Square in Notting Hill, a new line-up of TRB performed the entire Power In The Darkness album to launch its release on CD. The title track featured a guest appearance by T. V. Smith.

In 2014, he was one of the performers at the opening ceremonies of WorldPride in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, alongside Melissa Etheridge, Deborah Cox and Steve Grand. [9]

In October 2015 he released his first new album in 20 years, "Only The Now". It included contributions from Billy Bragg, Ian McKellen and Lee Forsyth Griffiths. It was made with award-winning producer and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Diver and released on his own Castaway Northwest Recordings. Tom supported the album by playing many festivals that summer including Glastonbury, Latitude, Wickham and Green Man. He also played a showcase at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in September and a 15 date tour with Kitten Pyramid throughout October and November. [10] Robinson also received a BASCA Gold Badge award in the same month. This was for his exceptional contribution to British music. [11]

In late 2018 and early 2019 Robinson deputised for Radio 2 DJ Johnnie Walker on his Sunday show Sounds of the Seventies . [12]

In 2020, Robinson embarked on a four-night solo acoustic tour prior to beginning a 22-date UK "70th Birthday Tour" featuring a 5-piece band. [13]

Personal life

Contrary to identifying as gay, Robinson has admitted to having past experiences with women and has asserted to have always made it clear that he liked both men and women. [14] He now identifies as bisexual, but in the past he used the phrase ‘gay’, synonymous with ‘queer’, to encompass the entire LGBT community. He felt the term ‘bisexual’ was a cop-out. [14] [15]

A longtime supporter and former volunteer of London's Gay Switchboard help-line, it was at a 1982 benefit party for the organisation that Robinson met Sue Brearley, [16] the woman with whom he would eventually live and have two children, and later marry. [2]

In the mid-1990s, when Robinson became a father, the tabloids ran stories about what they deemed as a sexual orientation change, running headlines such as "Britain's Number One Gay in Love with Girl Biker!" ( The Sunday People). [2] Robinson continued to identify as a gay man, telling an interviewer for The Guardian : "I have much more sympathy with bisexuals now, but I am absolutely not one." [2] "Our enemies do not draw the distinction between gay and bisexual", he added. [2]

In a 1994 interview for The Boston Globe newspaper, Robinson asserted: "We've been fighting for tolerance for the last 20 years, and I've campaigned for people to be able to love whoever the hell they want. That's what we're talking about: tolerance and freedom and liberty—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So if somebody won't grant me the same tolerance I've been fighting for them, hey, they've got a problem, not me." [2]

In 1996, Robinson released an album Having It Both Ways. [3] 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." [17] [18] In 1998, his epic about bisexuality, Blood Brother, won three awards at the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards in New York. [3] In the same year, he also performed at the fifth International Conference on Bisexuality at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Peter Tatchell criticised "Glad Not to Be Gay", an article written by Vanessa Thorpe about Robinson in The Independent newspaper, for suggesting the LGBT community would be "shocked and angered" that a gay man would "go straight". Tatchell stated: "Tom Robinson has behaved rather commendably, in my view. Ever since the beginning of his relationship with Sue, he has continued to describe himself as 'a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman'. Who could quarrel with that? I can't." [16]


Robinson is a supporter of Amnesty International and Peter Tatchell's OutRage! human rights organisation and a leader of the Rock Against Racism campaign. [2] He is also an enthusiastic proponent of Apple computers, which he has used extensively since the mid-1980s. In 1999 and 2000, Robinson was involved in a celebrity seminar work for Apple to promote their home video editing software iMovie.

A fictionalised version of Tom Robinson, portrayed by Mathew Baynton, appears in the last episode of the first series of the BBC One television drama Ashes to Ashes , as leader at a Gay Liberation Front protest in London. The character is later incarcerated with other protestors by the time-travelling protagonist, Detective Inspector Alex Drake (played by Keeley Hawes) and dismisses her claims that he will one day marry a woman. The scene supposedly takes place on 9 October 1981, precisely fourteen months before the real Tom Robinson met his future bride. The character then leads other protestors in singing a round of "Glad to Be Gay" in the confinement facility, much to Sergeant Viv James' annoyance. "2-4-6-8 Motorway" is also used in the soundtrack during the protest after Detective Sergeant Ray Carling sings a few bars to Alex, who then proceeds to drive a pink tank over a parked Ford Escort, which she believes would otherwise have later been used in a car bombing. Robinson's song "War Baby" (which he premiered the night he met his wife) is used in the soundtrack of the third series.


Over his career, Robinson has released more than twenty albums either as a solo performer or as a member of a group. [2] He has also released fanclub-only bootlegs known as the Castaway Club series.

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  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Simmonds, Sylvie. "A Brief History Of Tom" Archived 13 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine .
  4. 1 2 "Sing If You're Glad To be Gay" on
  5. "His song" by Elizabeth Rosenthal
  6. List of UK Indie Chart number-ones from the 1980s Archived 16 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine at Cherry Red Records
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  8. "About". Fresh On The Net. 25 January 2009. Retrieved 15 February 2020.
  9. "Rise Up" the theme as WorldPride 2014 arrives. Toronto Star , 19 June 2014.
  10. Adam Sherwin. "Tom Robinson: Singer shows new generation the power of the protest song in his first album for 20 years". The Independent . Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  11. "2015 Gold Badge Award recipients revealed - M Magazine". M magazine: PRS for Music online magazine. 16 September 2015.
  12. "BBC Radio 2 - Sounds Of The 70s with Johnnie Walker, Tom Robinson sits in". BBC.
  13. "Gigs |". Retrieved 15 February 2020.
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  17. Medicoff, Zack (19 July 2001). "Glad to be... Paid". NOW . Archived from the original on 14 June 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2007.
  18. Rebecca Fowler, "National Music Festival: 2-4-6-8 it's never too late: He went in and out of fashion but Tom Robinson is still driven by music. Rebecca Fowler meets the gay activist who became a family man", The Independent , 4 June 1996.