Tom Robinson, an English rocker whose album Power in the Darkness (Harvest) has attracted remarkable attention in the last weeks, isn’t simply a singer who happens to be gay. He’s a man who’s been deeply and broadly politicized by the fact of his sexuality, an instinctive activist who’s chosen rock ‘n’ roll as his field of action because he has a true flair for the music. TRB, the group Robinson leads, is most effective when drawing on the sounds kicked up by the Sex Pistols; they play hard, harsh, sometimes corny and sometimes wonderfully dramatic rock.
Though Robinson’s songs are better than his slogans suggest, titles such as “Right On Sister” or “Glad to Be Gay” aren’t quite misleading: Robinson’s performance works as a good time partly to the degree that he’s able to set off the thrill that only a sense of solidarity–of a shared fate and purpose under the gun–can bring. What’s so impressive about the TRB is that this thrill, as they create it, has virtually nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation. Robinson’s perception of his oppression has opened him up to the oppression of others, and that’s what he’s really singing about. For him to win a strictly gay cult audience would mean defeat.
There are at least two ways to mix explicit politics and popular music. You can make music that defines a situation and then demands that the listener acknowledge the reality and the ambiguity of his or her own place in that situation, as the Rolling Stones did with “Salt of the Earth.” Or you can assume both your domain over the truth and your audience’s allegiance to it: You can sing protest songs. But protest music always betrays its nervousness. While those who play it congratulate their audiences–taking their very presence as proof of righteousness–they don’t trust them. Songs must be explained; the music takes a back seat to the words.
At the Old Waldorf in San Francisco recently, just after the American debut of the TRB in Los Angeles, Robinson touched both bases. His music usually spoke for itself, but he undercut it with his performance.
“Glad to Be Gay” turned out to be an ironic, bitter comment on liberation; “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” Robinson’s Top 40 natural, was a joy, with its lyrics–about a gay truck driver with his eye on a motorcyclist–fully unintelligible. “The Winter of ’79,” a devastating, transporting look back at a fascist uprising and a failed anarchist counterattack in Great Britain, was as powerful a piece of recorded music as I’ve heard this year.
But instead of saying, “This is who I am and what I do–take it or leave it,” Robinson seemed less to want to be heard than to be liked. Smiling manically, he tried too hard to ingratiate himself. Constant references to the Briggs initiative, Anita Bryant, and Ed Davis ultimately came off as crowd-pleasing proofs of hipness; the number of times Robinson mentioned KSAN-FM, which was broadcasting the show–I counted fifteen–verged on ass-kissing.
Commencing a satiric impression of a British Conservative, Robinson found it necessary to inform the audience he was being satiric. What if someone got the wrong idea?
Of course, if Robinson’s version of the right idea weren’t so exhilarating, I wouldn’t bother to complain.
As featured on the soundtrack of the reggae movie The Harder They Come six years ago, the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” was a gentle, despairing metaphor for the centuries of slavery and exile that to a great extent make up the heritage of black Jamaicans: It turned crime into beauty. Now, a Munich-based disco group called Boney M has come up with its version of the tune–music is the language that knows no borders–and it is one of the worst atrocities whites have perpetrated on blacks since slavery. That Boney M is composed of West Indians has been rendered irrelevant by its Bavarian overseers–the producer, the arranger and the back-up band–for it’s they, and not the singers, who have made this record such a classic of goose-step funk.
Already a huge hit in Europe and the U.K., the disc has recently been brought to these shores by the Sire label. Spinning 45s a few weeks ago, Johnnie Walker, a KSAN DJ, hadn’t had Boney M’s Meisterstitck on the air for a minute before he broke in screaming like a refugee from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; he then dragged the tone arm straight across the record–right into the Melodians’ original. Despite Walker’s laudable counterattack, we may be in for tortures undreamt of in those days when men and women of goodwill had more to fear from Germany’s secret police than from its musicians.
Elvis “Not Just Another Mouth” Costello closed out his third American tour at Winterland June 7. In just under a year–Costello appeared simultaneously with the disappearance of his namesake–the 23-year-old British misanthrope has gone from an unknown to a headliner, and he still seems as unimpressed with himself as he does with the rest of the human race. On record and on stage, he is fast becoming the most compelling presence in rock.
There was a definite aura of cheapie horror movies to the Winterland performance: Costello used lights to turn his face a sickly green; his tough little band, the Attractions, looked like the mutants the filmic mad scientists of the fifties used to turn out by the hundreds. The organist took his cues from old radio mystery plays. When Costello sang his best new line, “Sometimes I feel/Just like a human being”–a line that cuts because he sounds surprised he can feel that way–he could hardly have been more convincing.
Just before the Winterland show, Costello went on the radio to announce Patti Smith as the first winner of his Dead Fish Award, a prize he promised to give out annually (or, if the occasion warrants, daily) to “that rock star most deserving of being hit in the face with a dead fish.” No doubt Costello caught Ms. Smith’s recent New York concert, where she announced her number “Ghost Dance” as “a song about the Indians–before they sold out.”
Real Life Rock Top Ten
- The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones Records)
- Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (CBS)
- Carlene Carter: “Slow Dance” from Carlene Carter (Warner Bros.)
- Johnny Shines: Too Wet to Plow (Blue Labor)
- Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: “Feel Like a Number” from Stranger in Town (Capitol)
- Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA)
- Nick Lowe: “Marie Provost” from Pure Pop for Now People (CBS)
- Althia & Donna: “Uptown Top Ranking” (Sire)
- X-Ray Spex: “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” (EMI import)
- The Adverts: Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts (Bright import)
New West, July 31, 1978