Tom Robinson Loves Mary Lynne:
Sector 27 in New York

When the Tom Robinson Band dissolved in 1979--broken by its own premature success and conceptual uncertainty--and taped radio shows. Two months later, he began organizing a new group with ex-Troggs bassist Jo Burt. The musical plan was sparse, keyboardless, and experimental, and the conceptual note more "personal," less "political." Musically, TRB had been direct, with flat, loud vocals, athletic, even-handed rhythms, and music-hall flourishes. Politically, it had left-liberal concerns: police brutality, right-wing machination, oppression of gays, solidarity with women, like that. The cutting edge was that Robinson himself, a blond schoolboy type, earnest as the day, was openly gay.

Robinson and Burt placed ads and held mass auditions for lead guitarist and drummer, found young Stevie B and Derek "The Menace" Quinton, lifted the name "Sector 27" (for its "neutrality") from an Allen Ginsberg poem, and within seven months the band had toured England and America, cut an album, and bought the tape from a dubious EMI: Where were the cars and football that pleased the crowd, the politics that pleased the critics? I saw Sector's summer debut at the Bottom Line-crisp and tense, with post-punk visuals-thought, "Good idea, but Tom's too well-bred to bring it off," and forgot the whole thing until I heard Sector 27 (on I.R.S.) and realized I remembered close to every song. That was the other thing about Robinson: he could write like that. The well-bred problem came out mostly at Robinson's live shows where (in America, anyhow) his straight-arrow sincerity and compulsion to please seemed so inconsistent with the genuine rage of his material that I first squirmed and finally lost interest, just as I often have in the protest of folksingers - because tone alters credibility and phony protest is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It was because of the tone that at first I heard Sector 27 as more political than its predecessors. The music (mostly co-written with Burt and/or Stevie), with its spaces, guitar stings, and purposeful designs, broke down Robinson's gung-ho, hail-fellow-well-met pose and emphasized the dryness, angularity, and bite that had always been present in his voice, language, and melodies. The lyrics are more allusively conceived, typically built on alternating fragment blocks open to multiple interpretations: "I never expected a pie in the sky/but anything's better than a kick in the eye," b/w "Am I ready? I'm not ready!" (for sex/death/war). They have obscure, sometimes contradictory subjects, and regularly refer, however obliquely, to gay sex.

"From a gay point of view, I feel much happier with Sector 27," Robinson told me last weekend, in between headlining at Irving Plaza and opening for the Police at the Garden. "In TRB it was like something that was just tacked on." And I find the band as well as the material more suitable to a gay artistic statement. (I mean artistic:--Who the other musicians sleep with is their own business.) At the very least, it's punker, and punk is so boy-conscious. The clean, sharp attractiveness of the men and music of Sector 27 is much more in the style of gay male culture than the scruffy rough-and-tumble of TRB.

And I do mean the music, too, where the specializing of the very young men who are half the band is fostered, honored, and needed, with the special gender sympathy gay men share more commonly with women than with straight men. Burt's tom-tom basslines shade harmonics and build a brooding suspense, but it's Stevie B's post-Giorgio-Moroder skitters, squawks, swoops, and screes that save Robinson from his own foursquareness. And it's my guess that Derek Quinton--that great prize, a laughing drummer--could improve some tempos that are just begging to be pushed headlong.

At both New York gigs, while Stevie preened, Quinton laughed, and Burt--whose wonderful face carried better at the plaza--held steady, Robinson seemed surprisingly relaxed. While he was always friendly, he didn't try so hard to be ingratiating--though he should have dared to stop for a tune-up at the Garden. Robinson has a different physical presence than last time around, so much that a gay man I introduced Robinson to at a party was disappointed: "I heard he was gorgeous."

I had a different take. I liked seeing this gay hero so puffy, tired and ill-at-ease--it was as if he was letting us see a hurtful truth. There has always been a disorienting tension in Robinson's work between his courage and charm and a terror of displeasing that can make him clumsy or pat--or straight. That tension is put to artistic use in Sector 27, where righteous fear (of sex/death/violence) appears as the cornerstone of future courage. This is why I think that the album's center is "Mary Lynne." Robinson's memory of being beaten and called a girl's name by queerbashers--a child's defeat, but the first day in the life of a heroic man. As I've said, Robinson's fearfulness has put me off too. But though his new musical strength is very much a function of new command, command alone never makes good art, or politics either: it's just discipline. Sector 27 is art and politics--its force doesn't grow out of its muscle. It grows out of an "overweight, underhand, out-of-bounds" boy who was once told, for an awful hour, that he wasn't a man.

Village Voice, Jan. 1981