During an era when political singer/songwriters seem virtually extinct, Robb Johnson has flown the flag with biting songs and satire, railing against the evils of capitalism, oppression, greed, and injustice wherever he can find it. Yet, charged and angry as his music has often been, it's invariably laced with as much wit and humor as polemics, and is in any case merely one feature -- though the most pronounced -- of his work. A huge fan of Jacques Brel, he virtually invented a new English chanson genre, made a double concept album about his grandfather's role in World War I and another album to raise funds for his beloved Brentford soccer team, and wrote a book about Yoko Ono. He has toured in places as disparate as Belgium and Nicaragua and, asked what he'd like people to say about him, Johnson said: "Robb Johnson? He don't 'arf write some good songs."
From Hounslow in West London, Johnson set out to be a rock star after spending his teenage years listening to David Bowie and Lou Reed, but got diverted by the singer/songwriter bug after seeing Pete Atkin in a folk club. He ran a folk club at Sussex University, got hooked on the blues, bought a Dobro, and formed a pub rock band called Grubstreet intended to be Hounslow's answer to Bruce Springsteen. When they dissolved in 1983, he returned to playing in folk clubs, where he met Mark Shilcock and Graham Barnes and, inspired by the horror of Margaret Thatcher's right-wing conservative government, they formed an agitprop trio called Ministry of Humour. Heckling when other people sang hunting songs or shanties they considered racist or sexist, they polarized opinion on the folk circuit but nailed their colors to the mast with many benefit concerts.
After another abortive attempt at an electric band, Johnson reverted to a solo career, writing radical songs with his trademark caustic humor, aligning himself with other left-wing songwriters like Leon Rosselson. Setting up his own record label, Irregular, he went on to form a popular duo with Pip Collings and released a string of albums that cemented his reputation as one of the last genuinely political songwriters. In 1997 he delivered perhaps his most ambitious -- and one of his best -- projects, the concept double album Gentle Men, a moving suite of songs built around his grandfather's war experiences first performed live at the Passendael Peace Concert and also featuring singers Roy Bailey and Vera Coomans and Belgian jazz artist Koen de Cauter.
Through the 1990s and 2000s he continued to plow a highly individual furrow, mixing regular gigs with benefits, political events, and tours all over the world, his reputation as a radical frightening off many would-be promoters who failed to see he was far from one-dimensional. He expanded his Irregular label to release albums by other artists such as Maggie Holland, and celebrated his 50th birthday by forming a new band and recording a live album, Saturday Night at the Fire Station. It went so well that the band decided to stay together -- Roger Watson, Saskia Tomkins, Paul Midgley, and John Forrester making up the Irregulars. In 2007 Johnson enjoyed more acclaim than he had ever experienced in his career when the band released its first studio album, All That Way for This. His most accessible album, it was largely nonpolitical and even picked up radio airplay, although there were some familiar barbs in his lyrics, including a scathing indictment of modern-day Britain in the song "Moronland."