Tom Robinson grew up in Cambridge in the 1950s believing he was the only gay person in England. He swore that, if he ever achieved success as a musician, he would try to be the role model he needed back then. Several decades of punk songs, political activism and radio presenting later, I spoke to Robinson about Rock Against Racism, Radio 6 and the bleak situation we’re living in.

How did you find growing up in Cambridge?

Most of my childhood took place during the 1950s and many of my memories from that time mix the city with the era. There was still rationing for the first few years, windscreen wipers and heaters were optional in cars and very few households had telephones. We didn’t even get a TV until 1962.

So, the Cambridge I remember was one of people on bicycles, students wearing gowns, steam trains, austerity and our annual treat being a trip to the pantomime at the Arts Theatre.

Have many fans told you that your 1978 song ‘Glad to Be Gay’ has helped them with their sexuality?

Falling in love with another boy at school was a catastrophe. Back then, I would rather have died than tell anyone at school, let alone the boy himself. Since homosexuality was illegal, there were no openly gay people in the public eye and therefore no role models. In fact, there were many happy and successful LGBT celebrities such as Noel Coward and Dusty Springfield but they were all hidden from sight for a teenager growing up queer in 1960s East Anglia. Imagining I was the only “homo” in the whole school, the whole town, the whole country, I had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill myself.

I was lucky to end up in a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents called Finchden Manor, which saved my life. Later, when David Bowie came out as bisexual in the early 70s, he provided not only some brilliant music, but also that missing role model.

“Falling in love with another boy at school was a catastrophe”

I swore that, if I ever achieved a successful musical career, I would try to pass on the amazing gift that Bowie gave queer kids of my generation. So, after the Tom Robinson Band’s breakthrough hit ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, we followed it up with an EP containing ‘Glad to Be Gay’ in 1978. It’s important to remember that homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And, anywhere in the UK, if two men kissed or held hands in public, they were committing “gross indecency”. The song’s lyrics detail the degrading treatment LGBT people faced at that time. That’s why, even now, I’m always hugely gratified when people tell me that song made a difference to their lives.

What was it like performing as part of Rock Against Racism with bands like The Clash?

Rock Against Racism was formed in 1976 in response to a disgraceful speech by Eric Clapton, which backed the anti-immigration MP Enoch Powell and was full of racial slurs. Much of the music we loved had its roots in Afro-American and Caribbean culture so supporting RAR was a no-brainer. For the first year, it was just a grassroots movement putting on small-scale gigs and building support.

The first large-scale carnival against the Nazis in 1978 was the culmination of lots of hard work from the organisation’s dedicated founders. There was no way of knowing in advance how many would turn up. It was just a rally and a march through National Front territory in the East End, concluding in Victoria Park with the concert. The organisers hoped we might get 20,000 people and booked a PA system suitable for that number. In fact, 80,000 turned up and the sound was woefully inadequate. But the atmosphere, just the experience of being part of that event, was electrifying.

Do you think a movement like Rock Against Racism remains vital today, especially given the structural inequality still pervading the music industry?

Racism, inequality, class divisions, misogyny. It’s no wonder so many people feel alienated from each other. Add to that the escalating climate emergency, murderous conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the global consequences of the next US election, and the picture looks pretty bleak.

“It’s easy to take an unduly romantic view of what Rock Against Racism achieved”

It’s easy to take an unduly romantic view of what RAR achieved, important though it was. Only a year later, the country voted Margaret Thatcher into power with a thumping majority. It’s possible that RAR and the Anti-Nazi League helped ensure the National front were soundly defeated at that election. But it might equally have been because Maggie & the Tories effectively stole their clothes.

You now host an excellent show on BBC Radio 6 highlighting upcoming bands. How important are schemes like BBC Introducing?

I still remember how hard it was in the 70s, 80s and 90s for musicians to reach a wider audience unless they had deep pockets or insider contacts. Or both.


Mountain View

When Cambridge put Bob Dylan on the curriculum

The only route to a mass audience lay with Radio 1, which operated a tight and cosy cartel with the music industry. A musician’s only route onto Radio 1 without a label or manager was to send a cassette to John Peel. His contribution to the richness and diversity of new UK music was incalculable. When he suddenly died in 2004, it was like the ladder had been pulled up.

Luckily, the Internet broke the radio monopoly wide open. First MySpace, then YouTube made it possible for talented unknowns to bypass the music industry and reach a mass audience. BBC Introducing was envisioned as a way of using local radio to plug the gap left by John Peel. To this day, it allows artists to upload their music to the BBC without needing insider contacts or a record plugger. I’m so proud to be part of BBC Introducing because it allows interesting musicians to get heard on the airwaves without money having to change hands.