Too Good To Be True?

Archive Tom Robinson Band TV documentary from 1978 gets first ever release

Tom Robinson is a curious fellow. From suffering a nervous breakdown as a young man he became an articulate banner waving rock star. After becoming a prominent gay spokesman he ended up falling in love with and marrying a woman. From the New Wave of Tom Robinson Band he’s ended up as a respected, award winning radio presenter at the BBC. In 1978 Granada Television afforded him a generous 45 minute documentary Too Good To Be True, which has remained largely unseen since its original broadcast in 1979 until it’s release last week as part of an Anthology set which includes the group’s two albums. Director Mick Gold manages to get under the skin of both the man and his band in a way few such enterprises manage.

The Tom Robinson Band were also 1977 Staring At A Goat World Cup winners

The documentary follows the group on what would turn out to be its last tour as a reasonably successful outfit. Down the road were splits and a disappointing second album though you wouldn’t think so from the enthusiasm all concerned display here. TRB’s music is best described as chunky; that is to say it’s built on the thick guitar playing of Danny Kustow, the Keith Moon influenced drumming of Dolphin Taylor and waves of 1960s style Hammond organ vibes. The results are far more eclectic than you might imagine if all you’ve heard is the hit `2-4-6-8 Motorway` or the well known anthem `Glad To Be Gay`. There’s often a sense of the vaudeville about Robinson’s witty lyrics and on stage delivery. The film included considerable footage of the band and their seemingly devoted audience from a gig in one of those medium sized theatres.

Several songs- shown in full- represent the breadth of TRB’s repertoire from the straight forward new wave of `Up Against the Wall` with its depictions of “panic in the County Hall” to the mockney vocal and good hearted humour of `Martin` which –with different lyrics- might have been sprung from the music hall of  decades earlier. `Glad to be Gay` is sung with bile and a sneer, Robinson perhaps mindful of the cameras. Interestingly this is the one song on which the crowd seem unsure whether to join in or not and Gold never shows them. It is clear that however open minded people around Robinson thought they were this song made some people awkward. Musically it could almost be a waltz, a rolling tune is an odd counterpoint to lyrics like “resisting arrest while being kicked to the ground.” `Power in the Darkness` sees Robinson hamming it up even more as he dons a false nose to portray an enraged politician railing against minorities though you wonder  how much of the subtlety of Robinson’s approach registers. The real surprise is the love song `You Turn Me On` which is smooth enough to come from Eric Clapton’s latter years

Off stage Robinson is as candid as you might expect about his life and philosophy but he puts his views across with politeness and patience. He is very articulate especially about his sexuality - “”you’ve the person your parents are still warning you about” he says – and his socio- political standpoint.  Sometimes he is ridiculously right on exemplified by a sequence during a planning meeting for the group’s fan bulletin wherein a discussion over the inclusion of a silly photo of Kustow in drag ends up as a serious discussion about women’s rights. You sense that everything, however trivial, could end up with this sort of discussion; Robinson himself admits later that he can’t resist plunging into issues when asked the simplest of questions. Perhaps it is this that wore down his band-mates as time went on? The success of Gold’s programme is in allowing the cameras to stay where they are so he has his say.  It is an approach that wins dividends especially when we the singer helping out at the Gay Switchboard the pre- Internet lifeline for teenagers struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.

You can’t fault his loyalty to fans either as we him hand writing and addressing replies to fan letters and you wonder how many others, even at this comparatively lower level of pop’s tier, would bother. It’s a shame Gold doesn’t talk to those fans more. Apart from a brief vox pop after the show, their opinions remain unheard yet the feverish enthusiasm they show for the songs suggests the band connected with them at some level even if it’s only because kids like jumping around to catchy songs. There might well be a disconnect between what the band and the fans feel about the music but despite ample running time Gold doesn’t go there.

The film is a snapshot of a level of the music business where hard work delivers success but wears down its participants. Kustow’s on camera reticence may well be exhaustion; Taylor is clearly doing the maths in his head when he talks about falling sales and pondering about TRB’s position in the business; it’s no wonder he left shortly after and has ended up as a music publisher. You get a sense that both of them sit at polar opposites and a distance removed from the intensity of Robinson’s obsessions.

What the film also depicts is how established broadcasters were trying to get a handle on youth movements. Too Good To Be True sits just before the moment when television began to change its approach to pop and rock. As older programme makers retired, a new generation that grew up in the 60s and 70s started to make their mark and this would lead to a slew of 1980s ground breaking shows that presented youth culture as a lifestyle rather than a curio. Gold’s film still has the old fashioned posh commentary (amusing when quoting from the NME) and a one step removed distance almost as if studying a new life form. Yet this approach means we get proper arguments and opinions from Robinson rather than the sound bites you’d get if someone like him were around today. There are a few gauche attempts to modernise the formula- such as at the start when they all stare at the camera trying to look enigmatic- but this is still an old school sort of documentary. This un-showy clarity is its main strength though and leaves you feeling as if you’d travelled back in time and met the group. Today’s wobbly cameras and tight edits rarely examine or reveal their subject as effectively.   

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for commenting intelligently on a film I made in 1978. It was the first film I made for TV so it meant a lot to me. A couple of points: I can understand your wish for more comment from fans, but TRB did not happen in a vacuum; they had a social context. This was the heyday of the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. The National Front, racism, and homophobia were topics young people knew about - Melody Maker, NME and Time Out all discussed them. Nobody ended up inside a TRB gig without being aware of what they stood for. But they also delivered as a rock band. As you accurately observe, the film was made just before the disappointing second album and the unravelling of the group.

    I was 30 when I made the film, I also contributed writing to Let It Rock, Street Life and Melody Maker, so I'd grown up with the belief rock music could be an intelligent medium for social issues. I thought a straight interview technique would give Tom and the others the chance to be articulate about issues that mattered for them. The groundbreaking fly on the wall rock docs, Dont Look Back and Gimme Shelter, were made by guys older than me who made different stylistic choices. They thought truth could be captured by appearing not to impinge on reality. I was more pretentious in those days and thought I was making a more rhetorical statement. Granada TV were keen to make it. They were a progressive company. Their World In Action show upset politicians of all hues and they campaigned on miscarriages of justice including the Birmingham Six. Granada also employed Tony Wilson who enjoyed mixing up rock music, politics and cultural theory.