Power in the Darkness With Tom Robinson, 1978: From My Front Seat To The Stage
Picture it: Downtown Houston. Internationally-known EMI Records punk recording artist hops into my car. Only one of us knows our destination.
Imagine attending a Harry Styles show these days. Now imagine going backstage, and asking “his people” if you could drive him somewhere else…anywhere else…in the same city, and alone…sans entourage.
Now, imagine if Harry’s security detail or manager actually said, “Yes.”
Can’t do it, can you? It’s impossible to imagine even making such a preposterous ask these days, much less having it happen, regardless of my intended destination.
After his Houston stop on a late-’70s tour, though, I managed to convince an international recording artist (who went on to write songs with Elton John and Peter Gabriel) to buckle himself into my car, where I proceeded to drive him to an unknown location for yet another gig!
An epic felony kidnapping gone horribly wrong, or the beginning of a magical, one-off musical memory in the Bayou City?
The Tom Robinson Band was appearing at Houston’s Texas Opry House probably sometime in 1978, although ‘79 would also be possible. I long ago sold all my memorabilia, including ticket stubs, and a web search for “Tom Robinson Band and Texas Opry House” yielded nothing.
Tom Robinson, originally from Cambridge, England, was in his late 20s when he made his Houston stop on what probably was the Tom Robinson Band’s tour for “Power in the Darkness,” their debut for EMI Records (if it was ‘79, the tour would’ve been for their second album, “TRB Two,” which was produced by Todd Rundgren, about whom more can be read here:
I was working, at the time, at Houston’s Cactus Records, a retail outlet near the downtown area, next to the venerable Tower Theater. I had just finished three years as an on-air personality (DJ) at a couple of commercial FM rock radio stations, Houston’s KLOL, and WFMF in Baton Rouge, LA:
I was about five years younger than Tom (now 72) at the time of the concert, and was all over the nascent punk rock surge that began in the mid-’70s.
As was sadly typical in Houston around this time, punk and new wave shows were met with mostly thunderous indifference by Space City music fans. True to form, just a few dozen fannies took seats for TRB’s Texas Opry House show. Four people who wanted to attend, couldn’t.
Local punkers, The Plastic Idols, propelled by their recent local hit, “I.U.D. (What You Do to Me”), had a show of their own at a small club downtown that evening, and were decidedly pissed they wouldn’t be able to see Tom’s band. The seeds of my “evil plot” were planted.
The Idols’ lead guitarist was Bob Bailey, whom I came to know a couple years before as a regular customer at Cactus. Quiet, introspective, curly-haired, and slightly “nerdy,” he nevertheless had a voracious appetite for all things punk, and came in often to see what the latest releases were. I was always happy to see him stroll in.
I was impressed by Bob’s thirst for the newest trends in punk, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. He even turned me on to a few new artists. I had always wanted to pay him back, somehow, for all the stimulating musical banter, and certainly his friendship. More seeds planted for the pending plot.
Step Into My Copper Chevy Cavalier
Tom’s show ended, and while I’d been backstage at the Opry House several times before (Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, and others), I recall a gaggle of Tom’s people actually gathering off to the side of the house, slightly in front of the stage. Such was the nature, I guess, of the small audience, and their hastened exit.
I introduced myself to Tom, and asked him “who was in charge.” He pointed me in the direction of a manager or tour manager. “Yeah, hi, my name’s Brad (I must have dropped my radio creds at this point to offer him some credibility, as well as some assurance that I had no plans to extradite him from the state or some other nefarious outcome), and I’ve got some friends playing at a club a couple miles away.
“They wanted desperately to see Tom’s show…do you think it’d be cool if I took Tom to surprise them onstage at their show? I’ll drop him off at y’all’s hotel after.”
he said it’s OK.”
Stunned he said “yes,” I struggled to remain cool, went back to Tom, and said, “Yeah, Tom, he said it’s OK.” Holy liability, Batman! I can’t remember a thing we talked about in the car, or even if we talked at all! More words were probably spoken while I nervously drove my blind date to the senior prom five years previous.
A recent Tom Robinson Band hit was “(Sing if You’re) Glad to Be Gay.” I remember telling myself, “Don’t sing…whatever you do…don’t sing! He’ll think you’re trying to pick him up!”
While parking at the club, and walking to its front door, I wondered what the assembled crowd (some of whom may have actually been at Tom’s Opry House gig) would think if they saw Tom walk in. I fantasized about how Bob and the Idols would react when they saw me trundle in…..with Tom Robinson!
Considerably gobsmacked, as they say in the UK, the Plastic Idols watched in disbelief as Tom walked up the stairs to the stage of this tiny downtown club. Somebody handed him a spare guitar, and they ripped through several rock’n’roll standards, including a couple of Chuck Berry classics.
In the days before cell phones, a pity nobody recorded it.
Thanks, Tom. After so many years, singing comes easy now, and I know a hundred or so fans who, for one night in Houston, saw and heard a musical magic, and whether gay, glad, or neither, are happy to sing your praises, even after more than four decades!