Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Interview with Tom Robinson, part 3

Although it’s become a confrontation to straight repression, the song was written addressing people who are gay. Did you envision it being mainly heard by them or was it aimed at a wider audience?

It was only ever written as a one-off song, for that one occasion: Pride Week in London, the first week of August 1976. I never thought it’d see the light of day again. Having written the Good To Be Gay one for the Sheffield conference in 75, this was meant to be a bit of a retraction of that optimism, to make this bitter turning around of the idea of being glad to be gay as a kind of attack. Like I say, under the heavy influence of Edward Bond and Hot Peaches it was my attempt at a wakeup call.

At the Pride Rally in 76 it reportedly got stopped by cops. The march was 828 people flanked by a cop each side every few feet.

No, no. It’s true that the police in all those early Pride marches almost outnumbered the marchers and they were very aggressive in their demeanour, a menacing presence round the edge of the stage but I don’t remember them actually interfering with the proceedings. I was bricking it while singing that first verse attacking the police with unfriendly cops on every side, but nothing happened.

London Gay Pride 1976

London Gay Pride 1976 – a steward with a click-counter registered 828 people attending. Police flanked the march both sides, one every two yards.

So it was only once Tom Robinson Band had started and we were short of songs that I thought, well let’s throw that into the mix and see what happens.

How did the rest of TRB take that?

Well originally I was the only member of the band. The band started out as a scratch band with friends helping out gig by gig on drums or guitar or whatever. It only settled down into a fixed line-up around January 1977. But all through October, November, December 76 it was just scratch musicians each time, and it was a case of ‘these are the songs – take it or leave it’.

How did it go down with the early audiences? Nobody will have heard a song even talking about the issue before, let alone taking a stance, let alone taking a militant stance.

That’s right. We did fully expect to be bottled off the stage, particularly in rougher areas we played – like the Bridge House in Canning Town. I just felt it had to be done, but it was terrifying.

At the same time, you deployed what stagecraft you could to structure the set cannily and slowly draw people in to the TRB narrative. Before you got to Glad To Be Gay there would have been Martin – delivered as a laddish, boozy singalong to try and get the laddish, boozy element on your side. Danny was brilliant at neutralising troublemakers in those early gigs – just by catching their eye and making them laugh. He was a master of body language on stage. Then would come more uptempo militant songs like Long Hot Summer with lyrics like ‘hey fag, you’re just a drag,’ starting to broach the idea. Subliminally, you hoped, it was all going in.

And then the song started off with ‘The British police are the best in the world, I don’t believe one of these stories I’ve heard,’ and people would go ‘yeah, right, all coppers are bastards’ and you’d get right to the end of that verse with people on your side before you hit the chorus and they’d go ‘WHAT?’. But usually by then they’d already bought into it a bit.

So, I think there were situations where if we’d gone in cold and opened up with that song we might have been in trouble. But if you played a strong set with a decent band with some good songs – plus the odd cover version like I Shall Be Released to get them singing along – then people were more ready to accept a lyric like Glad To Be Gay. The chorus was reasonably catchy, and you could often get the waverers on your side just before the second chorus with a humorous aside. ‘There’s a few people looking uneasy at the back, but to join in on this song you don’t necessarily have to be… glad,’ or ‘they said it couldn’t happen in Canning Town,’ or some such.

Plus, we got lucky and times were changing. With the arrival of punk, it was a time when people were doing things differently, challenging the norms – and there was a sense that almost anything went. Perhaps people were just ready for the idea of a minority standing up for their rights.

Why wasn’t Glad To Be Gay included on the TRB debut album?

The ethic of the punk movement was based on realism. Real people singing about real experience with real passion. Connection with the audience was essential, and in TRB we felt very strongly that we had to give value for money. We made sure gigs weren’t overpriced, we gave away badges and newsletters, and so forth.

The Sex Pistols had just been widely criticised in the punk community for releasing an album that mostly consisted of four singles and their B sides. Fans who’d already bought the singles were paying an album price to get just two new songs!

So I felt that, out of respect for the fans that had bought 2468 Motorway and Rising Free, we should not duplicate songs they already had, but give them a full ten brand new tracks. And then since there had to be a single to go with the album release we released Up Against The Wall, but gave them Alright Jack as a bonus B side.

Then we got heavily criticised because the best known songs weren’t on the album, and that was supposed to be a ripoff!

By a final twist of irony, the US record company Capitol decided to release the album as a double. 2468 and Rising Free hadn’t been released over there, so they put in a bonus 12 disc with 2468, I Shall Be Released, Glad To Be Gay, Martin, Don’t Take No For An Answer, Right On Sister and Alright Jack on it. Which was of course the sensible thing to do. The net result of which was UK fans bought US import versions of the album at hugely inflated prices – thus getting royally ripped off while at the same time damaging our domestic album sales. Bloody hell, talk about unintended consequences!

Why wasn’t it recorded in the studio apart from demo versions?

As with Martin, the song only ever seemed to achieve its full character as a live piece. Just compare the Cafe Society or TRB studio demos with the Rising Free version – the playing may have been tighter in the studio but there was no comparison in terms of impact or atmosphere. Once it had been released live there was no point going back and re-doing it in the studio in any case.

Glad To Be Gay is such a pioneering song, it seems that there was simply no other out and proud militant song in popular consciousness before it. What antecedents do you see for it?

Obviously having heard Bowie, through Gay News I was looking for anything else that might remotely be along the same lines. There was an American singer called Chris Robison who made an album [Chris Robison and His Many-Hand Band, released on Robison’s own Gypsy Frog label 1973, recently reissued on CD], and the lead track was I’m Looking For A Boy Tonight. It was just a quite crude, country-picking song, not particularly interesting musically, but it was blatant, out there and without precedent as far as I know.
[Robinson was interviewed in June 2005 by the incomparable Queer Music Heritage].

Then there was an artist who got signed to Mercury Records in the States, Steven Grossman, who made one album called Caravan Tonight [Mercury 702, 1974]. It was standard kind of wimpy acoustic singer-songwritery love songs, except that they were about his boyfriends. That was pretty courageous for the time.

I had both those records and was aware of them and consumed them passionately. And then best of all a Canadian pianist called Lewis Furey made a fantastic album that was produced in New York by John Lissauer, simply called Lewis Furey [1975, A&M Records 4522]. The opening track was an extraordinary piece called Hustler’s Tango, in fact it’s an extraordinary album by any standards. What was great was that it was first and foremost a collection of immaculately written songs – sung, played and produced to perfection – that still stands up today. Lewis’s bisexuality just sprung spontaneously from some of the lyrics, rather than being a defining issue. I’ve covered a couple of his songs, Love Comes and Closing The Door.

Is there anything in a British context?

The Bradford GLF had a song called Stand Together written by Noel Greig which, again, I covered in later years because I saw it being sung by an angry gay crowd confronting two police officers in 1975.

Glad To Be Gay seems to have put it in the British consciousness and had a prominence that no other gay song had had before so that people who aren’t gay are very aware of what it’s saying and having their attitudes challenged by it.

Glad To Be Gay advert - Gay News

Full page advert in Gay News for Glad to Be Gay

Well, although it wasn’t the first out gay song to be released on record, I guess it was the first one to make it into the singles chart. In fact when it came out on the Rising Free EP, Radio 1 played Don’t Take No For An Answer as the lead track, John Peel was the only DJ there who stuck his neck out by playing Glad To Be Gay. But Capital Radio in London on the other hand played Glad To Be Gay – cheerfully and frequently. It went to number one on the Capital Radio hitline where listeners could phone in their vote for a favourite song, and it stayed there for six weeks.

That was one of the band’s proudest achievements in many ways because it wasn’t people buying the EP but voting for that particular song week after week. And not just gay people voting, far from it.

Somebody told me at the time they’d been on the top deck of a crowded number 27 bus when the conductor tried to throw off two blokes who were holding hands or had kissed each other or something. Apparently pretty much everyone sitting on the top of the bus started singing Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay at the conductor who backed down and left the blokes alone. Fantastic moment of validation for the song.

And then letters started to come back about what the song had meant to people. One that still sticks in my mind was from an American teenager. He said he’d come out to his mother in Arkansas – who had called him the spawn of Satan, told him she wished he’d never been born, and ordered him out of the house. He’d locked himself in his room, taken an overdose of aspirin and put on the college radio station to go to sleep and die. And then – he said – Glad To Be Gay had come on the radio, he’d stuck his fingers down his throat, sicked up the aspirin, grabbed his bag and hitched to San Francisco. That was an amazing letter – I hope it was true.

It’s like with any stories that sound a bit extreme, like writings from a war zone – if it feels like this could be true it means, even if it’s not true, something similar probably is.

Well I hope so. The thing is, I did get quite a lot of stick from the gay community, people saying stuff like ‘it’s so embarrassing, this clumsy great pseudo-football chant, it makes me sick every time I hear it, it’s just so crass’. At least one activist actually wrote me an angry letter demanding I should never put it out.

Well yeah, when there are all those other out and proud gay songs that are so eloquent and poetic flooding the charts, it’s easy to see their point there.

The great gay music critic Chris Kirk wrote that he respected what the song achieved but thought it was an awful song. But yeah – the way was wide open for all these know-it-alls to write a much better song and show everybody how it SHOULD have been done. But – certainly at that time – nobody did.

Similarly, when we were trying to make our way with TRB early on there were a few influential gay people in the industry who wouldn’t help us because they didn’t want to be tarred with that brush. But for each one of those, you also found the opposite – sympathetic straights going ‘that’s a brave stance, let’s support them,’ like Peel.

^ Back to top ^