Listen to this track by British folk-rock-with-sophisti-pop leanings singer-songwriter Tom Robinson. It’s “War Baby”, a 1983 single which also appeared on his album Hope and Glory released by the next year. That full-length record is also known as War Baby: Hope and Glory in some quarters.
This single performed exceptionally well on the British charts, reaching number six and serving as a positive turn in Robinson’s fortunes. By 1982, Robinson had moved to Germany in a fit of low feelings in part brought about by debt and by the end of his former musical outfit Sector 27. It was a significant move. Relocating to a new country and social context shook up his worldview, bringing out certain geopolitical dynamics in his music. This was particularly when doing shows in Berlin, a place known for the infamous wall that bore its name; a physical metaphor for the cold war itself.
This political edge is very evident on this song, which is about war and about love at the same time. Maybe too, it reveals just how similar love and war are emotionally speaking, or at least how disturbingly interchangeable they can be.
“War Baby” is a standout song for many reasons, starting with a shift in Robinson’s musical style. Previously, he’d been well-known for his LGBT anthem “Glad To Be Gay”, a stark and topical folk-rock tune that commented on what it’s like to be a queer person living under the constant fear of social rejection, violence, and even imprisonment by the end of the 1970s. Even if the musical style was different by 1983, the emotional undercurrents are largely the same. “War Baby” is also about fear, and about being in a state of powerlessness. And this time, that element of defiance found in “Glad To Be Gay” is absent. Despite the smooth and jazzy textures on this tune, “War Baby” is more desolate. Once again, the change of scenery that Robinson made probably had a lot to do with that.
These were the things we thought about as populaces all over the world in the 1980s; that the powers that be on one side of the table would lose their patience with the other side, and in their impatience would end the world in a fit of righteous rage. While ensconced in Germany, the opening phrase “only the very young and the very beautiful can be so aloof” was the start of a creative deluge. From there, he wrote pages and pages of lines in something that was like an jumble of images and narrative fragments rather than a linear story or polemic. What it suggests even now is a snapshot of a very tense period of history and in a very tense part of the world when the very real possibility of a third world war was most sharply felt. If the words of this song don’t explicitly reflect this state of things, then its Robinson’s vocal that is so full of raw and abject desperation that communicates it better.
Further, it’s the contrast between his voice and the very fashionable mid-eighties sophisti-pop textures heard in this song that makes it so compelling. On first listen, the musical textures on “War Baby” makes it sound like a war metaphor that’s been applied to describe a love affair that is taking a turn for the worse. Yet at the very same time, Robinson’s vocal delivery makes it sound like a love metaphor applied to the political climate and to the threat of war. This contrast is the engine of the song. War and love are completely interchangeable here as the forces holding the powers of life and death loom over it all. When this love affair comes to an end, its the literal end of everything!
Make no mistake, kids. The eighties was a terrible time politically speaking. It was a time of polarized and regressive ideological stances, cartoonishly bloated military budgets, and widespread fear of sudden death from above. Basically, all of the shit we’re seeing today, all of the levers that many politicians pull in order to scare people and to further their agendas, were designed as we know them today during this era. Yet “War Baby” is not a defiant song in the face of this so much as it is an emotional outpouring; scared, so scared, whatever it is you keep putting me through. It could be aimed at a lover, or at a government. It could be aimed at the world itself; an unpredictable, beautiful, terrible reality that could draw to a sudden and violent conclusion before we’ve come to terms with the idea of its loss.
Tom Robinson is an active musician, songwriter, and BBC6 host today. You can learn more about his career and work at tomrobinson.com.