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Interview with Tom Robinson, part 1

Glad To Be Gay – the first one, later retitled Good To Be Gay – what do you remember writing it? You’ve said it was a commission from Campaign for Homosexual Equality. What was it exactly?

I had a parallel career at the time. It’s odd how an overblown ego and desperate insecurity often seem to go hand in hand – at least they did in my case. So I was trying for success as a musician with [acoustic trio] Café Society, but at the same time also trying to make a name for myself as an activist on the London gay scene.

Reading Gay News religiously every week, it became clear there was an in-crowd of movers and shakers on the scene whose doings and photos featured on its pages every fortnight. To an unhappy sex-starved country boy newly arrived in town these people seemed impossibly glamorous and desirable, and I longed to become one of them.

At that time, there was really no out-and-out unambiguously queer music to be heard anywhere in the UK. So in addition to answering phones as a volunteer at the newly-formed Gay Switchboard, it also occurred to me that perhaps I could use my songwriting abilities to help fill this void – and also, with luck, improve my dismal love life.

My chance came in 1975 when Sheffield City Council allowed Campaign for Homosexual Equality to host their annual conference at the City Hall. Being given this huge, prestigious venue made it possibly the biggest official gay event ever to take place in the UK up to that point. Delegates came from all over the country.

[The council support was an achievement in itself. CHE booked their 1972 conference in Weymouth, only to have it revoked by the council. In 1973 Morecambe council withdrew support for that year’s CHE conference. Gay News reported that the 1975 Sheffield conference, held on the August Bank Holiday, comprised 1200 people]

The event was being organised by the great CHE activist and organiser Barry Jackson, I tentatively approached Barry about the possibility of me writing a singalong gay anthem for the event, which he could then press up and sell to delegates on vinyl afterwards – and make a few quid for the cause. Barry loved the idea and ran with it. He fronted the money for me to record the song in someone’s cheap home studio in North London. We couldn’t afford a drummer but my friend Phil Palmer, now a famous session guitarist, came and played some nice fancy licks while I strummed a guitar and overdubbed the bass part. A lesbian duo called Rose and Annie provided the female backing vocals – plus a song of their own for the B-side.

There weren’t many of them, I saw one source say there were 300 pressed.

That’s about right. Barry gleefully launched CHE’s very own record label with that one and only release – though I think he had hopes at the time of doing more. He chose the name CHEBEL for no other reason than that it rhymed: the Chebel Label. As a rookie songwriter still learning his craft I’d never been allowed to release a record of my own before, so it was hugely exciting. But as a first attempt it was a kind of polyanna vision of ‘isn’t it great to be gay?’, as if just saying it in a song lyric would make it so.

It includes the line ‘it’s the same old feeling all over the world when a boy meets a boy and a girl meets a girl’, a play on Be Young Be Foolish Be Happy, giving it a clear barb, a deliberate assault on the heteronormative attitude of mainstream pop songs.

My generation had grown up as teenagers in the 60s with pop music as a defining characteristic of who we were. Yet for those of us who’d grown up attracted to the same sex, the lyrics always described someone else’s situation, never our own. It was boy meets girl, every bloody time, even the great lesbian icon Dusty Springfield was singing about ‘him’ in the lyric. The nearest thing I heard to the way I was feeling was John Lennon’s lyric to You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away – which can only have been about Brian Epstein.

Did you twig that then or later?

It’s only subsequently we’ve found out about the holiday that John Lennon took with Brian Epstein in Spain. According to the rumour mill John later reported he’d gone to bed twice with Brian, the first time to see if he liked it and the second time to confirm that he didn’t. Immediately after that holiday the Beatles recorded the Help album, which included that song.

While not knowing this at the time, I was hopelessly in love with another boy at school spending my every waking hour thinking about it, and having to hide my love away was the big all-pervading secret that dominated my life. The song was just so true to my life, except for one crucial detail. The lyric went ‘if SHE’S gone, I can’t go on’ and suddenly the lyric wasn’t about me after all.

For all gay kids at the time there was always that ‘almost but not quite’ aspect to the way we identified with music. After moving to London in my 20s I read an article about this in the American gay magazine The Advocate. The journalist wrote ‘Lord, all I want is some gay rock n roll to soothe my soul’. I knew exactly what he meant.

And then Bowie – bless his cotton boots! – Bowie comes along with Hunky Dory and songs like The Bewlay Brothers and Oh You Pretty Things. And suddenly a whole generation of us went ‘Yes! At long bloody last – great, great pop songs that are actually about us! “Gotta make way for the homo superior”, oh we know what you’re on about there!’ It didn’t even matter that he later retracted it. At the time Bowie validated our lives.

For me, the intensity of hearing Hunky Dory for the first time was an incredible experience. I vowed to try and do the same for others if fate ever put me in a position to do so in the future. So the Good To Be Gay song was perhaps my first baby step towards doing that. It may only have been for a tiny minority audience, but the chances of my mainstream career as a musician ever taking off weren’t that great. Most musicians have an embarrassing demo skeleton or two lurking in their closets, and I don’t suppose it was any worse than most. It had a corny faux-calypso wannabe-Kinks kind of vibe, being under the direct influence of Ray Davies at the time. [Café Society were signed to Davies’ label Konk, and Davies’ publishing company still owns many of Tom’s early works including Glad To Be Gay].

Who exactly were the Campaign for Homosexual Equality?

The Campaign for Homosexual Equality was the ‘respectable’ wing of the gay liberation movement. The philosophical divide between CHE and the Gay Liberation Front was very similar to Stonewall versus Outrage today. Its roots were in the North Western branch of the Homosexual Law Reform Committee who campaigned for law reform prior to 1967. When legalisation was granted they moved on and became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Their approach, like that of Stonewall, was to campaign for change with a moderate reasonable voice within the system, and to make as few enemies as possible.

Gay Liberation Front badgeThe Gay Liberation Front was a radical movement born in New York as a direct result of the Stonewall riots in 1969, and its ideas rapidly spread to the UK. It was directly informed by the anarchic rebellious mood of late 60s youth culture. It was the first time in history that gays had said ‘fuck respectability – we’re here, we’re queer, get over it.’ They used to zap any individuals, organisations and events they perceived as their cultural enemies by turning up screaming with banners, in radical – ie non-realistic – drag. It was both huge fun and pretty bloody brave, and designed to annoy rather than placate the establishment. The respectable campaigners for law reform on both sides of the Atlantic – including many in CHE – were appalled.

Of course, by the nature of things, the Gay Liberation Front quickly fell apart amid bitter in-fighting like every radical political group and its energies got diverted into dozens of splinter groups – Gay Switchboard, Gay News, The Gay Sweatshop theatre group, Sappho and Lunch magazines, the Icebreakers befriending service, Bradford GLF and the South London Gay Community Centre, among others.

So CHE may have been scorned by some as the ‘respectable’ wing of the struggle for equality but they managed to stay together and organise things and make things like the conference happen. Whereas the wild antic spirit of GLF – which to me was much more appealing – was far too anarchic and disorganised for any long-term concerted action. My heart was with the GLF but sensibly you knew stuff was really only going to get done with CHE.

How did the track feel at the time, having just done it? Did it go down well?

It went down well because it must have been the first openly gay song that those people had heard in that conference hall. And it just felt good to be putting something out there that we’d all spent a long time hiding from. It probably helped that I was 24 with long hair and reasonably cute, but I don’t know. Some delegates may well have been thinking thought ‘who is this jumped-up self-aggrandising little git that’s presuming to get up and sing on behalf of all of us?’. But certainly some of them did seem to like it.

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