Forget Ray Mears. If you want lessons on “survival” go speak to The Alarm frontman Mike Peters. Derided by asinine sections of the music press during the ’80s, The Alarm still notched up multiple hits, achieved what the majority of British bands fail to do – “break” America – and are troubling the charts in the 21st Century.
And that’s just professionally. On a personal level, although Mike and his wife Jules were told by doctors that they would never bear children, they are about to have their second baby, while he has has recovered from cancer not once but twice.
The first time this writer interviewed Mike was shortly after he had been given the all-clear from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A decade later and he is in remission from chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), having gone from having the highest white blood cell count his doctor had ever seen (very bad) to the lowest (definitely good) in the space of a few months. All of which leaves us free to discuss musical matters with the affable and garrulous Welshman, while trusting that the next time we speak, cancer won’t even be close to being an agenda item…
Earlier this year The Alarm (or officially The Alarm MMVI in order to pacify Peters’ former band-mates who were part of the “classic” ’80s line-up) released their seventh full-length studio album. It was called Under Attack, featured lyrics such as “my life has been shot down but I’m not ready to fall / I’ll never give it up without a fight”, yet – remarkably – was written and recorded before Mike was diagnosed with CLL. He doesn’t think its seemingly prophetic nature is a coincidence, mind:
“When you’re trying to write words down it can be quite slow; your mind’s racing away and you can’t get the words down fast enough – you lose some great thoughts in the process. So this time I just sang into the microphone, recorded everything and then went back to it. A lot of the words were just thrown up out of my mind’s eye while we were making music and I tried to keep as many of the natural, instinctive lines that I sang in each song as possible.”
“So I think a lot of it’s come from that. Obviously my body’s been fighting an illness for a long time – those thought processes formed sub-consciously and came out when I wasn’t trying too hard and was just randomly speaking my mind in a musical context.”
“A lot of bands from our generation just go out and play the hits and people don’t want to hear new ideas from them.”
– The Alarm’s Mike Peters is grateful his fans still want new music.
It isn’t just lyrically that Under Attack impresses. As well as being groundbreaking from a media perspective (it comes with a DVD featuring a separate video for each song), to these ears it is one of the finest albums that Mike Peters has ever put his name to. He agrees:
“The one thing I always look for with every album is that it creates an environment from which we can go on and make another new album – that the audience I’ve got, who have stuck with me through the years, or the new ones who come along, are still willing to give us that chance.”
“A lot of bands from our generation just go out and play the hits and that’s it and people don’t want to hear new ideas from them. So the record’s worked on that level for us. And I just know from playing it live that it’s going to be one of those albums that throws up a lot of songs that we’re going to play forever.”
Anyone who has witnessed the intensity and rock ‘n’ rolling of The Alarm live will understand that one of Under Attack’s key strengths is how well it captures this spirit on record. Mike reveals that he has been battling to achieve this ever since the heady days of recording the one song that most people still remember The Alarm for – 68 Guns:
“When we heard 68 Guns for the first time we all HATED it but we were presented with it as a fait accompli in the studio. We’d recorded the backing tracks in the daytime, gone off to play some shows in the night and the next day we came back to hear the finished mix and there were trumpets and keyboards on it! And the record company were saying: ‘It’s gonna be a hit guys!’ [Laughs.] At that time there was so much pressure and people were saying to us: ‘The record label loves it and if you change it now they’ll all get upset and you’ll find yourself back in Rhyl!'”
“When we heard 68 Guns for the first time we all hated it… We came back and there were trumpets and keyboards on it!”
– Mike Peters prefers The Alarm’s biggest hit live than on record.
“At the time I was very disappointed with the album because I felt we were a different band on the record than we were in concert and in reality. It was much cleaner [on record]… We probably should have dug our heels in but we were always a bit too nice and easy-going. I wish we could have made the album with Mick Glossop who made The Stand [the single prior to 68 Guns that was Number One on the US Rock Charts] – then we would have made a timeless record whereas, unfortunately, Declaration does sound like it was made in the ’80s.”
At this point, Alarm fans need not worry that we have yet another case of a rock star foolishly disowning his past. Peters is understandably proud of his back catalogue, remarking that “whenever I’m compiling the tour set-list I always end up with four or five songs from Declaration on it”; that “Strength has got the best songs on it”; and that “Change and Raw are more organic-sounding and they still stand up as sonic pieces of music”.
It was after 1991’s Raw that Peters announced he was leaving the band in now infamous fashion at the end of a Brixton Academy gig. He spent the ’90s recording solo albums, maintaining a devoted fanbase, collaborating with The Cult‘s Billy Duffy for one rather nifty record as Coloursound, before deciding to take The Alarm name again with guitarist James Stevenson, bassist Craig Adams and drummer Steve Grantley, who count bands such as Gene Loves Jezebel, Sisters Of Mercy, The Mission, The Cult and Stiff Little Fingers on their collective CV. It’s a bit cheeky, but I wonder which line-up Mike prefers:
“To be honest I do prefer playing with Craig and James and Steve. It’s far more open, everything gets said and it’s far more fun. That’s not to take away from the Mike, Eddie, Dave and Nigel Alarm, which did have its moments of fun, but I think because we’d grown up together so many issues came into the band that don’t come anywhere near this one.”
“To be honest I do prefer playing with Craig and James and Steve. It’s far more open, everything gets said and it’s far more fun.”
– Mike Peters compares the 21st Century Alarm to the original one.
“Because we were like a little family, we would argue and bicker over little things that we would never get to with this Alarm today. There was a certain amount of envy in the old group that started to manifest itself and tear us apart. And I think a lot of that is because in the old band we all saw ourselves as being equals all the time so nobody got any credit for anything they did individually. I think that became a really terrible thing that brought us down as a band and there was no room to manoeuvre and I think we choked each other.”
“With this Alarm there’s a bit more distance from each other. We get on socially fantastically well – I mean it’s unbelievable really – and we do have our moments and have our battles like any band, but they tend to be confined around the music. Also we’re not as insular as the old Alarm. Craig can go off and play with The Cult or step back and play with The Mission again; Steve’s in Stiff Little Fingers; James plays with Chelsea and Gene Loves Jezebel; and I go off with the Dead Men Walking or play an acoustic show. We didn’t have those outlets in the old Alarm… I think having the other outlets keeps us all really fresh.”
So much so that Mike credits his “new” band-mates with helping to forge the authentic Alarm sound on Under Attack:
“With this record, Craig and Steve especially said: ‘Let’s trust ourselves here. We’ve got a great band chemistry, we know what we want to do so let’s not have any really big outside influence on this record… Let’s not have anyone dominating it and taking it in a direction we don’t want it to go. If the vote goes five to one in the studio, go with the five not with the one.’ It often happens with a producer – ‘I’m the producer and I know better than you!'”
“To be fair, Steve Grantley had a lot of say in the guitars as well. He was saying to me and James: ‘Don’t get too many guitars out. Keep it simple. I’ve got one set of drums and that’s what stays on the record. I don’t go overdubbing more snare drums and tom-toms and cymbals. I think we’ll sound much more of a powerful band if we keep it simple. Let’s not put an acoustic rhythm on things that don’t need it.’ This record is pretty much the sound of the band and not much else – slimmed-down and healthy.”
“Healthy”? Indeed it is and long may it – and the band members themselves – stay that way.