Unknown Pleasures Chapter 16: Looking For a Bonfire

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

Sector 27 – s/t  [IRS 1980]

Tom Robinson – North By Northwest [IRS 1982]

Perhaps the worst side effect of the Disco backlash was how it forced gay culture back into the closet.  Disco haters weren’t the only reason: The rise of Reagan/Thatcher Inc. made people who fell for their nonsense yearn for “the good old days”  and “family values” – which really meant blacks, gays, women, liberals and anybody who believed the aforementioned were/should be equal to “the real people” had another thing coming.  The AIDs epidemic rampaging through the gay communities of cities big and small in the States and Europe helped would-be oppressors rationalize their bigotry as as “concern”.  Honestly, things hadn’t been all that great before, but now they were much, much worse, partly because we knew we’d come this close to things being much, much better.  It was a time when someone as revolutionary as Billie Jean King could be shamed and censured into obscurity simply by having her relationship with another woman made public and an inarticulate jock like Karl Malone could get away with refusing to play basketball against an HIV positive player [living legend Magic Johnson no less] without being shamed as the incoherent, lumbering Uncle Tom he was.  It was a time when people who should have been leading charges hid out in plain sight hoping nobody asked too many questions about their personal lives.  It was common to see a feminist icon like Joan Armatrading pooh-poohing fellow artist Tom Robinson, writing off his activism as “his gay thing”

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Fortunately Robinson was having none of it.  Growing up in an era where homosexuality was a criminal offense in the U.K., he’d already attempted suicide by the age of 16.  Like almost every british lad in the mid 60s, he caught the religion of folk and blues, got himself a guitar, learned three chords and never looked back.  His folk-rock trio Cafe Society was briefly affiliated with Ray Davies before splitting up.  Moving to London in 1976, he discovered  the UK punk scene as well as the new gay activism.  Inspired by both he formed the Tom Robinson Band, a lean outfit combining the best of classic rock with the political awareness and energy of punk into a sound that record labels and [mostly US] critics would start calling “new wave” in a year or two. His 1977 single “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” written about a gay truck driver went top 5 in the UK and 78’s pride anthem “Glad to Be Gay” was banned by the BBC, ensuring it’s success along with it’s parent album Power in the Darkness. The album peaked at #4 in the UK, went gold, and earned the TRB “Best New Band” honors at the Capital Radio Music Awards.  The future looked rosy.

The Sophomore Jinx hit the TRB like a brick. Work on the follow up TRB Two was plagued with creative differences, infighting, multiple producers and lineup changes.  More importantly, the punk revolution, which saw the rise of bands like The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks in the UK alone, essentially rendered TRB’s sound obsolete.  The band toured the Continent and the US in support of TRB Two, but the band had lost both its momentum and its audience.  The 1979 departure of guitarist Danny Kustow in 1979 finished the them.

Undeterred, Robinson spent 1979 co-writing songs with Elton John before starting Sector 27, named after a line from a Ginsberg poem.  Sector 27 replaced the occasionally clunky sound and thick agitprop of the TRB with a spare, modernist sound and more oblique and personal lyrics.  It’s as if Robinson decided he could do more to help gay causes by revealing his own struggles [both political and personal].  The driving, midnight-hued “Can’t Keep Away” is Exhibit A, as Robinson shows us that place where desire, guilt and the whiff of danger meet as Stevie Blanchard’s guitar slashes while Jo Burt’s bass beckons.

3898331Producer Steve Lillywhite gives the band an of-the-moment feel that protects Robinson’s occasionally grey vocals without feeling heavy or premeditated and on several tracks feels innovative and exciting. Like all of Lillywhite’s best work, the high points of Sector 27 sound current without resorting to the heavy synth pop influence that was on the rise at the time. A few songs do feel retrofitted to sound “current,”, but Robinson’s honorable intentions and the band’s inspired playing keep Sector 27 from sounding like a record label put on.  When it all really comes together, like on the urgent and harried “Mary Lynne,” the moodily urgent “Five Two Five” and the suggestively sinewy “Invitation” it’s hard to understand why this record wasn’t a huge hit.  Sector 27 isn’t a perfect record;  tracks where Robinson takes swipes at both the record industry and the new indie bands [“Take or Leave It,” “Total Recall”]popping up are a bit tacky from someone we’ve come to expect more class from and “Bitterly Disappointed” feels like a knockoff filler tune or [even worse] an attempted novelty hit.  For all that, the success rate is high for such a drastic change-of-pace record and Sector 27 looked like they had it made after a well-received spot opening for The Police at Madison Square Garden.

And then the record didn’t sell squat in the US or UK.  Their UK label dropped them, their US label became indifferent and their management firm went belly up as well.  Robinson left Sector 27 just as his personal life was disintegrating as well.  A discouraged, debt-ridden, broken-hearted Robinson fled for Hamburg, Germany, where he hid out in a friend’s spare room as he mourned his fallen fortunes and broken relationship.  After awhile, he began writing again and working with NO55, an obscure East Berlin band even I can’t tell you anything about.  Working with producer Richard Mazda, Robinson would re-emerge in 1982 with the haunting and haunted  North by Northwest.

nxnwMaybe it’s the homemade sound – more like diary pages than demos, perhaps it’s the grainy cover photo of an over it-looking Robinson, but you can feel the weight of NxNW from minute one. “Atmospherics [Listen to the Radio]” sports a guest vocal by Peter Gabriel [who was undergoing his own reinvention at the time], but Robinson scarcely needs help confessing uncertainty in both life and art.  The fist-pumping, conscious rocker of the “Glad to Be Gay” days is gone entirely; This Tom Robinson is frustrated, disappointed, weary from the fight and wary of the world. “Looking For a Bonfire” is the closest he comes to one of his old anthemic tunes, and it’s consumed with his obvious feeling that he’s outlived his usefulness to the cause. It wouldn’t be long before Boy George, Annie Lennox and a host of others would be along to make gender politics into a fashionable pose, rendering Robinson’s grass-roots style activism almost quaint; Too many hard lessons can teach you the best way to win battles is to escape them.

There are reworked Sector 27 tunes here; “Can’t Keep Away” gets a drier, reggae treatment that makes it’s tale of backroom cruising even darker while the proto-synth pop of “Martin’s Gone” replaces the energy of the original with a new level of drama. “Duncananon,” a S27 b-side is almost ambient.  Despite the abundance of synthesizers he’d avoided on Sector 27, Robinson’s decisions on NxNW always feel like he’s making this one for himself, not for a Cause and certainly not for the Marketplace. The record has an absence of peaks and valleys, sticking doggedly to an eye-of-the storm middle ground that Robinson probably found comforting, but casual listeners may find monochromatic or dull. Whatever.  North By Northwest isn’t casual listening; it’s probably the record Robinson wanted to make when he was 16, but hadn’t lived enough to write. The cliche is you get half your life to write your first album…Tom Robinson just happened to make a bunch of good-to-excellent ones ahead of his.  

North By Northwest was met with almost total silence by the public when it was released.  The world that Tom Robinson had helped make better with his words and deeds all but forgotten him in the wake of the MTV revolution, which favored those who looked like rebels over the genuine item.  Regardless, NxNW helped re-charge Robinson’s batteries and he went on to make more music, on his own and with his old TRB mates.  Today, he’s a well-regarded [in the UK anyway] singer songwriter who doubles as a BBC radio announcer…and looks happy and whole doing both.  The Road Less Traveled was a bit rocky, but the destination seems to have been worth the trip.
NEXT:  A Temporary Thing…

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