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Interview with Tom Robinson, part 2

The follow-up song, Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay, how soon was that written after Good To Be Gay?

Eighteen months I’d say.

What do you remember about the writing of that?

Oh, anger. Sheer anger. Various things had happened in between. Primarily, the police – the Met – had become seriously out of control, their use of the ‘sus’ laws [powers permitting officers to stop and search citizens on a whim with mere ‘suspicion’ being enough excuse] was widespread and pretty much indiscriminate by 1976.

Was that not the case in 74 and 75, did it just kick in at that time?

Maybe it was simply that the reaction against the sus laws was becoming stronger by 76 – the lid had been on that particular pressure cooker for some time.

But the summer of 76 was sweltering hot, and tempers were fraying. There was a race riot at the Notting Hill Carnival – The Clash later wrote ‘White Riot’ about that – and a lot of active discontent at the way the Met were behaving.

They also started raiding the gay pubs in Earls Court – coming in mobhanded in vans and arresting people for just standing on the pavement – ‘causing an obstruction’. Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News, tried to photograph them doing it and they immediately took the camera off him and said ‘have you got a receipt for this, sir?’. He said no, and they arrested him under the sus laws on suspicion of having stolen it.

Outrageous shit was going on. There were Surrey bankers dressed up in leather getting handcuffed and kicked in the backs of Black Marias, who’d then plead guilty to causing an affray so as not to cause a fuss and get their face in their local paper back home. Running in a gay man on trumped-up charges was apparently known as a ‘soft’ arrest – they could be pretty sure of a conviction and no trouble afterwards.

With all that going on as background, two further things raised my political awareness that summer.

Gay Sweatshop theatre group, founded a year or two earlier, had been given Arts Council funding for a season of three plays at the ICA. One of them was ‘Stone’ by Edward Bond, which included lyrics, which a wonderful gay songwriter called Robert Campbell had put to music. He needed an extra musician to help perform them, and as the only other out gay musician anyone had heard of at the time, I was invited to come and play bass for Robert, which I was happy to do. The cast included a brilliant unknown South African actor called Antony Sher.

Edward Bond - Stone advert 1976

Edward Bond’s lyrics were savagely, bitterly political. Though not gay himself, he accepted the commission because he perceived homosexual oppression as part of a much wider picture of a generally oppressive society. I still remember the opening song:

‘Men are not asked who they are but ordered to be
Cut to the shape of a square world
As surely as old China bound women’s feet.
The toolmaker makes tools for his purpose,
They work – no questions
They break – get new ones.
Just make enough noise to drown your voice,
Turn on enough light to blind you.
Run long enough till you can sleep on the run…’

It was this ANGER, such powerful, angry lyrics – which Robert Campbell sang with a passion. The combination of Edward Bond’s bleak, exquisitely written script and Robert’s beautiful, subtle music made a deep impression on me.

And then – because people knew I’d been part of that – someone offered me the gig of accompanist for a New York theatre troupe called Hot Peaches. This was across town at the Oval House theatre – which was run by yet another group of former GLF stalwarts. The Hot Peaches publicity pictures showed them all in faux-glitter drag with stick-on spangly stars on their high platform-soled boots and over-the-top makeup. And in my blinkered, ignorant arrogance I thought ‘ugh no, this is just a tacky low-budget drag show.’

Hot Peaches London 1976 copy

Hot Peaches, london 1976. L-R: Jimmy Camicia, Mika’s kid, Ian McKay, Shara Shaw, Peggy Shaw, Cyril Cyprian (Java) & Sister Tui

How wrong could I be – our first rehearsal together blew me AWAY. There was nothing like it, it was rocket fuel. It just had an incendiary effect on my life, my consciousness and everything.

Greenwich Village in New York was the only place in pretty much the whole of America where gay people could be tolerated. Kids used to run away from farms all over the eastern side of the United States and arrive – these teenagers who’d been thrown out of their homes or who were running away – and live rough in the streets of Greenwich Village, particularly along Christopher Street. Their uniform was to kind of drag up, so you had this thing that on the one hand they were impersonating women but at the same time they were 17 years old and they were sleeping rough like tramps in Sheridan Square.

Hot Peaches kind of embodied this whole thing of it being drag but very tacky drag and not meant to be realistic. It was kind of radical drag, and genderfuck drag.

The version of Gay Liberation I’d imbibed in London had all been watered-down second-hand stuff compared with this life-affirming energy, talent and humour – laced with sheer righteous anger – that fuelled the Hot Peaches’ incendiary stage show.

What was the show like?

The songs crackled with life and resonated with hard-bitten experience – TRB later covered one of them called ‘Getting Tighter’. The show – scripted by Jimmy Camicia – was called The Divas Of Sheridan Square and played to packed houses for its whole run. It told at first hand the story of the Stonewall and how – only seven years earlier – the camp queens and diesel dykes of Christopher Street had battled New York’s police and sent them packing. And how by 1976 ‘everybody done forgot who done what – for who – and why’ as their respectable brothers and sisters ‘in all their liberated glory’ now denounced them from the very platform those same pioneers had helped to build. It was aggressively gay. Night after night, Hot Peaches sent their audiences out into the night feeling proud, uplifted – and angry.

I’d never seen anything like it – the coy ambiguous imagery of Hunky Dory just paled by comparison. Suffice it to say Hot Peaches blew my middle class white English mind and made me see gay liberation as something that could – and should – be proud and aggressive and in-your-face.

So with Glad To Be Gay it was, right, fuck you. With the government falling apart, the NF and religious right on the rise, queerbashing on the increase and the police out of control in that hot summer of 1976 it just felt like there was no room for compromise any more.

The new song was named after the big yellow ‘Glad To Be Gay’ badges that were in circulation. [These had been around for several years. A late 1972 issue of Gay News reports someone having a ‘Glad To Be Gay’ badge confiscated by a police officer in Pont Street, Chelsea. When challenged, the officer replied that the badge was an offensive weapon].

Many of the people who wore the badges to CHE discos used to prudently take them off before venturing out onto the late-night London streets afterwards. You could hardly blame them, but how glad was that? There was no communal reaction against the police brutality, in fact the whole Stonewall spirit Hot Peaches had been singing about was nowhere in evidence. So the song was meant as an attack on complacency, a sarcastic wake-up call to our own community at the time.

I originally wrote the lyric to the tune of Sara by Bob Dylan [released on Desire, January 1976]. It’s an old songwriters’ trick – you take a favourite tune and write new lyrics to it, then take away the tune and write new music. hey presto – a new song. It’s like building a brick arch. You put up a wooden arch, lay the bricks around it, then take away the wood. Once I had the verse lyric on the page it was, well, ‘how can we sing that now?’, and suddenly the other rhythm came in. Again, I was still musically influenced by The Kinks: Sunny Afternoon, Well Respected Man, those sorts of songs. To be sung at the Pride rally, it had to be a song that would work with one acoustic guitar.

The use of irony is quite a Kinks thing too, it gives it that bit of remove.

It was just the sum of my influences at the time, for the want of anything subtler. At the same time I went and demoed that with Café Society, as a Café Society song. The others were a bit edgy about it cos they were happily married heterosexuals and wanted the band to be known for its music. Not for the fact that one of the members was gay, which had already attracted unwelcome attention in the small amount of press we’d had to date. They really thought that was going to damage their chances of ever getting famous if we did death-wish songs like that. The piano player on that early demo actually refused to join in on the backing vocals.

Ray Davies himself said at the time, ‘it’s too bald a statement, it’s always better to tease your audience and keep them guessing. It works much better if you keep it ambiguous’.

Which is the opposite of what he says he said.

Is it? What does he say he said?

In an interview a couple of years ago [Q magazine, October 2005] he said you have to write what you know and stuff like that. He said, ‘there was this one guy I used to know and he was a militant gay, and I said if that’s what you know you’ve got to use it’.

Oh, he’s such a lying git, bless him. But Ray’s such a canny master at the media game himself and playing the ‘oh keep them guessing’ thing apart from anything else. He’s always said stuff more for effect than out of any strong desire for candour.

The song was debuted at Gay News’ 100th issue party in July 1976 and then played at Pride in August. Did it get performed with Café Society?

Live? No. It was them helping me out making a demo of my song. I sang it in a twee Kinksy kind of way, it took a while before I found my own authentic voice for that song.

Tom Robinson - first performance of Glad To Be Gay

Tom Robinson – first performance of Glad To Be Gay, Gay News’ 100th issue party at Henri’s Bedford Head, 41 Maiden Lane WC2, 19 July 1976

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