The Alarm formed in Wales in 1978 and grew a following with anthemic singles like "Sixty Eight Guns" and "The Stand." Their live shows got the attention of U2, who brought them to America in 1983 as the opening act on their War tour. The Alarm made great music, but despite enjoying chart success in Europe, never managed to truly crack the mainstream in America. In 1991, Peters announced from the stage at Brixton Academy in London that he was leaving the band. This was no Elton John retirement fake-out - he went solo and later convened a new version of the band with different musicians. The original lineup - Peters (vocals, guitar), Dave Sharp (guitar), Eddie Macdonald (bass) and Nigel Twist (drums) - re-formed for VH1's Bands Reunited in 2004, but it didn't stick. These days, Peters works with his new permutation of the group.
Peters and Macdonald were the songwriting team in The Alarm, with Peters writing the lyrics and Macdonald the music. In this interview, he tells the stories behind some of the band's classic songs and explains the STREAM concept.
Mike Peters: It's a conceptual album – yes, it definitely is. It's got a narrative. It's more in line with Quadrophenia than it is the Rick Wakeman concept albums, or The War Of The Worlds. But there are certain records I went to listen to when I was starting making this – a lot of double albums. Things like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the Who records, and Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. But none of those records were linked with a narrative, which is what I have at the center.
The songs are known in their original form to the Alarm records Eye Of The Hurricane and Change, up to a live performance called Electric Folklore. I've always seen that work as being a trilogy. I didn't realize there was a narrative running through it until I came back to those original songs on their 30th anniversary.
It is a concept. It's an autobiographical story, really, of self-discovery, of leaving to find one's self, and then to come home with your identity to really discover your roots and to find out who you really are and what your place is in your world.
Songfacts: Did anything in particular happen to you to inspire you to piece together this storyline?
I always felt that I wasn't at my best. I felt slightly uncomfortable around Eye Of The Hurricane and then into Change. There was something I couldn't quite put my finger on... I was working my best at trying to do everything to keep the band together and get it through the rest of the decade. I felt like I lost part of myself in that process.
So, when I went back to look back at the music itself, I thought, "How can I link them all together?" I took the song "A New South Wales," which was the first Alarm song written after the Strength album. It was demoed for Eye Of The Hurricane but never saw the light of day until it was the last track on the Change album in 1989. But I started with that as the cornerstone of the new way of looking at all this material. I looked at the story of the song – a guy at the end of a cataclysmic time in his life. The end of the Industrial era. He was walking home alone past a church in the morning, and I thought, "Well, where is he going?" And that is a question that took me into the heart of the whole record: Where is this character going? Who is he?
So, I had to find out. And he's going to Newtown territory – that's where he's going. And then I thought, "Where is he going after that?"
All of a sudden, it took me to other songs to complete the narrative that I'd written at the time but never presented to the band. That's where some of the songs like "Ghosts of Rebecca" and "Irish Sea" came from – they were Alarm songs written in the 1980s but had never seen the light of day until now. And they helped encapsulate and move the narrative of the songs that were on the B-sides.
There's almost a narrative structure running through the songs, and they're pretty much chronologically in the order they were written in. But I couldn't see it – I was too close to them and caught up in the envelope at the time to see what the lesson was telling me that was inside, written on the paper.
Songfacts: In a press release, the live performance of STREAM: Hurricane of Change is described as a "one-man" rock theatre show.
Peters: That's how you can describe it when I take it out on the road with just myself performing it. It is just a one-man rock theatre show that incorporates spoken word, narrative, music performance, all in character in two acts as performed by myself. But I've also played it with The Alarm – we played it with an actor taking the central role and taking on the narrative elements. The band playing the music and we had actors staged throughout the auditorium. It created a very interesting live dynamic between the audience. It was very immersive, and the audience was asked to dress up and take part, and a lot of the action took place in and amongst the audience while the music was on the stage.
Our lead actor's name is Sean Jones, playing the part of the central character in and amongst the audience on a headset mic. So, it was real groundbreaking. There are some plans to stage it more theatrically later in the year, but just to get the story rolling and get it out there and start sharing it with the audience, I've played a one-man version of it, like a one-man monologue. Almost like Dylan Thomas taking his poetry on the road with a guitar strung around his back, which I guess is what Bob Dylan once did.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration for the song "Rain In The Summertime"?
Peters: It was the last song written for Eye Of The Hurricane. It was a hard song. We had done all the demos, we started working with the producer John Porter, who recorded the Smiths and "How Soon is Now?" and some of those great songs. And the last thing before we went from the rehearsal studio to the recording studio that he said to me was, "Mike, is there anything written or demoed that you thought, 'Maybe I'll save that for another time?'" I said, "Yeah, I've got this one tape."
It was a bit of a jam and it lasted for about 20 minutes. I played it for John, and he said, "There's something in that. Leave it with me." In his producer's suite, he had original Otari computers that came into music-making in the mid-'80s. And he laid out the song arrangement from the best parts of the tape. All of a sudden, he had me singing a guide vocal in the studio, and I thought, "Wow, this is something really special here!"
That song was born, and I think there's a lot of joy in the song, because the Eye Of The Hurricane record was the most tense record we'd ever made. It had been a real challenge to the songwriting process. Nigel [Twist] and Dave [Sharp] didn't want to work on any songs written by individuals. We had a huge battle and it tore us apart, almost. To get to the end of the record and have that song, it felt like we'd weathered a massive storm. We'd come through the eye of the hurricane, and here was the rain at the end of this intense period just to wash away all the ill feeling and bad experiences that we had, to bring us together. The key lines are in the middle: "If I run fast enough I can leave all the pain and the sadness behind." That's really what that song is trying to communicate.
Songfacts: "Sixty Eight Guns"?
The Alarm wasn't just a band of four people on stage – there were two other members of the band that were beside the stage. I wouldn't call them roadies, they were our friends. One is now a TV presenter doing amazing work and the other works for Bob Dylan. But they were intrinsic to the band. [Mike is referring to Gareth "Gaz Top" Jones and John "Redeye" Edwards. Gaz Top has been a presenter on a number of UK children's shows; Redeye, according to Mike, is Bob Dylan's stage manager.]
It was a gang that made The Alarm special, and once that gang broke up and it was just left to the four members on stage, we didn't have the same camaraderie. So, "Sixty Eight Guns" is really the description of the feeling that you could make change for yourself and make your life a better place to be in. It came from the year the book was set in, 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was killed and there were a lot of student uprisings.
For me, as a cancer survivor now for many years standing, the key lines are in the words, "Will never die."
Songfacts: "The Stand"?
Peters: That was inspired by the Stephen King book The Stand. A friend of mine who passed away last year, Cody Evans, gave me that book. He loved it, and I devoured it. It was an incredible story.
I had this song that was like a folky version of "The Magnificent Seven" by The Clash. British bands, through The Clash, were starting to bring the influence of Grandmaster Flash to the UK. I thought, "There's almost a talking blues thing in this rap that starts to develop," and I thought I could take it into the folk area, and set the story of The Stand to the music of the A minor and G chords, and the E minor and the F. It was something that came about pretty fast. We actually recorded it at the Who's Ramport Studios, where they made Quadrophenia.
The song was formed in my imagination and I just had to find the chords on my guitar. That was the only thing that was lacking – I didn't know what the chords were. We played it at soundcheck the next day and it was all there.
The line, "Who will be the life blood, coursing through my veins?", I didn't realize how prophetic that was going to be for my own life as a leukemia survivor now who one day might have to have a transplant and have a donor to give me their life's blood to stay alive. I didn't really know what I was singing when I wrote those words, but they stayed in the song and they were just straight out of the imagination. Some of the songs on the very first jam of it at the soundcheck I took from "All Along the Watchtower." There was something about the opening line where I thought, "I've got to build the song out of those."
So, it's really about depending on someone else to help you be alive, be happy, find love. We can't find all those things as individuals, we have to find them in pairs or through togetherness or community.
Peters: I think you have to have a reason to write. It's hard to "write for order." I'm not one of those guys that sits down and collaborates. I never really had that opportunity. I write on my own for the most part since the '80s.
I think songwriting partnerships like Strummer-Jones or Lennon-McCartney, they would tend to write individually and then share their songs with another individual, and that allowed them the strength and conviction to sing their words. I think Paul McCartney, when he wrote "Hey Jude," he had the lyric, "Don't carry the world upon your shoulders," and he said, "Oh, that's a terrible line." [Close. The line is, "The movement you need is on your shoulder."] And John Lennon said, "No! That's the best line in the song – it's got to stay!" And it did – it's a fantastic line. I think that's where collaborators are the producers of your song.
But sometimes, other members of the band can feel left out in the process if they're not allowed in the intimacy of those first-ever unveilings of songs where you're still unsure of what you've actually got. It was a very naked experience for young guys like The Alarm to actually reveal ourselves in an intimate songwriting situation. It's nerve-racking and it's very against-the-grain when you've got to share these tender moments with another human being. It's quite difficult and it needs a lot of love and understanding to nurture that process.
I do find now having recording technology much closer and more immediate - laptop recording technology - allows you to have that second person in the room. You can hear your songs back a lot quicker and you can hear the weak lines and you can change them. It's very liberating for an individual like me who works in a more solitary way.
March 31, 2020
For more Mike Peters and The Alarm, visit thealarm.com
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