A long time ago I posted another track from this album, Pete Townshend's acoustic version of Won't Get Fooled Again.
I explained then:
The Secret Policeman's Ball was a comedy/music fundraiser for Amnesty International. The four shows at Her Majesty's Theatre, London ran on consecutive days from 27th-30th June 1979. Two live albums came out from the gigs, one comedy one music.
Performers included Peter Cook, Rowan Atkinson, Billy Connolly and most of the Monty Python team for the comics, and Pete Townshend, Tom Robinson, Neil Innes and John Williams in the muso corner.
Tom Robinson performed on the last night, 30th June 1979, at the end of a varied month. On the 1st, his birthday, he'd performed in America on Tom Robinson Band's final tour. For Gay Pride Week, 18-23 June, he'd done a run of shows with jazzier arrangements of gay songs, released on the album Cabaret 79.
I suggested in that post of the Townshend track that I might do a Glad To Be Gay month here, posting all the various versions of the song that Robinson's done over the years. It is such a bold, pioneering song, so brazen and angry and militant, a stance simply without precedent in popular culture.
Well I've gone one better than a series of posts here. I've done a whole Glad To Be Gay website that's just gone live this week. It has all the versions, explains the references in the lyrics, MP3s, streaming audio, and a big interview with Tom about it all.
Robinson always saw the song more as campaigning journalism than art, and frequently updated the lyrics. There's no point in saying 'make sure your boyfriend's at least 21' in these days of an equal age of consent of 16. Other things would come along, like the Spanner trial, rampant tabloid homophobia and, especially, the onset of Aids.
There have been at least ten versions officially released, but for me the Secret Policeman's Ball one stands out in particular. It always had a special intensity, a laser focus and venom to it, but I didn't know why until I interviewed Robinson.
It's a quality you hear better on the record. In the video, his visual acknowledgement of the warm response from the audience - clapping along, singing on the chorus - tempers the impact. Until, that is, he gets to a verse reinstated after being cut from earlier versions of the song; here the video becomes more intense than the record.
Have you heard the story about Peter Wells
Who one day was arrested and dragged to the cells
For being in love with a man of 18
The vicar found out they’d been having a scene
The magistrates sent him for trial by the Crown
He even appealed but they still sent him down
He was only mistreated a couple of years
Cos even in prison they look after the queers
It's this verse that is the reason for the power of this version. Tom was furious that Amnesty asked him - the most prominent gay rock star - to perform for them even though they refused to acknowledge gay prisoners as human rights cases.
What happened to Peter Wells was a genuine scandal and a reason to be very fucking angry. But, specifically with the Secret Policeman’s Ball, Amnesty had ruled that gays did not count as political prisoners and therefore they didn’t support gay prisoners. That’s why I was singing it and that’s why I was so angry, because I was singing it to an Amnesty audience. Hence the venom. Amnesty asked me to come and perform, OK, well have this then.
download Glad To Be Gay 79 (6.3MB MP3)
Just to be clear, Amnesty now actively supports the human rights of LGBT people.
If you want me to send you the other Robinson track on this album, 1967 (Seems So Long Ago), leave your email address in the Comments.
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UPDATE: SPECIAL ONE-OFF LONDON GIG, 1st JUNE
As his career as a broadcaster and standard bearer for new music on BBC 6Music has taken off, his touring has declined. So it's something of a rare treat to have Tom perform a one-off concert at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London on his 60th birthday, 1st June.
There'll be an extensive set from Tom and band with assorted guests like TV Smith. As he hurtles towards retirement age he's called the gig - what else? - Glad To Be Grey.
Tickets are £15. You can get them online via the gig's site. If you go in person to any O2 Academy box office and pay cash, you get them without any of the ripoff booking fees.