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Mike Peters of The Alarm Looks back

By Gary Wien

originally published: 06/23/2020

Mike Peters of The Alarm Looks backThe Alarm is a band from Wales led by Mike Peters that arrived on the scene in the early 1980s with a run of anthemic rock songs that resonated with millions around the world. Many of the lyrics were about fighting to survive. In the 90s, Peters fought a battle with lymph cancer.  He’s since fought rounds with chronic lymphocytic leukemia as well.  Looking back, it’s almost as though he’s been fighting cancer through his lyrics long before his first diagnosis.  One such example is their breakout hit for America, “Strength” which opened with the lines, “Give me love / Give me hope / Give me strength / Give me someone to live for.”

In 2007, Peters and fellow cancer survivor James Chippendale created the Love Hope Strength Foundation.  The organization has raised funds to purchase medical equipment and supplies, raise awareness, and even help build cancer centers in places around the world.  The organization sends members to concerts to sign people up for the bone marrow donor list with the goal of “saving lives, one concert at a time.”  

Mike Peters’ services to cancer care was acknowledged with an MBE (Member of the British Empire) at Buckingham Palace in February 2019.

In America, The Alarm is best known for 80s hits like “Strength,” “Rain In The Summertime,” and “Sold Me Down The River,” but the band had nearly 20 Top 50 songs in the United Kingdom. 

After The Alarm broke up in 1991, Peters spent the next decade recording as a solo act.  The band (featuring new members) famously returned to the charts in 2004 with the release of “45 RPM.” The song’s music video was released under the band name “Poppy Fields” and featured young musicians.  After the song hit the charts, the band revealed the hoax; proving that an older act could rock as hard as any.  With that return to the charts, The Alarm’s legacy continued.  A movie based on the hoax called Vinyl was released in 2013.



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The Alarm released several albums and EPs of new music from 2004 to 2010 and then veered off in a different direction.  They began reimagining the band’s original catalog starting with the 30th anniversary of Declaration, the band’s debut, and continued with the anniversary for their second album, Strength, in 2015.  Three years later, the band released its first album of new music in eight years with Equals.  That was followed in 2019 with Sigma - both releases were praised by fans and music writers alike.  With the band’s 40th anniversary looming in 2021, The Alarm has just released a unique reimagining of their Eye of the Hurricane and Change albums from the late 80s.  They combine for a double release, STREAM [Hurricane of Change], which features 39 new recordings joined together by spoken word introductions by Mike Peters. In addition to the songs of those two albums, STREAM contains several new songs as well.

When the album was announced, Mike Peters said, “I have always thought of these three albums as an Alarm trilogy.  A lot happened to the band and the world, during the writing and recording sessions from 1987-1990.  As one decade bled into another, the themes of response and resolve to contend with uncertain times are running through the core of each and every album.  Played together, these songs tell their own story and, with the tumultuous times Europe and the World can expect to face in the coming months and years, are still as relevant today as when they were first written.”

The bond between Alarm fans and Mike Peters remained strong from the time the band broke up and Mike’s solo career to the reformed band in the 2000s.  Thousands have traveled from all across the world to The Gathering - a special weekend in Wales where they get to see Mike Peters, the band, and special guests perform a dizzying amount of songs from the band’s catalog.  It’s also a time in which the barriers between rock star and fans get broken down into a shared sense of community.  In recent years, Gathering events have taken place in California and New York City as well, offering fans a chance to experience the festival closer to home. During lockdown for the pandemic, Mike and his wife Jules (a breast cancer survivor) have hosted an online show called “The Big Night In” every Saturday night.  It’s part live virtual concert, part talk show, and part history of the band.  In addition to live performances, they present rare video footage from the past and talk with musicians and industry professionals.  Streamed live on Facebook, fans around the world have tuned in each week to an even more intimate version of the Gathering.

New Jersey Stage spoke with Mike Peters to learn more about the new release, the Gathering,  and why the band’s past is so important to a group who is riding a creative high.

As someone who has followed the band since 1985, I thought the last two albums (Equals in 2018 and Sigma in 2019) were among the band’s best. What inspired you to follow them up with a look back at the songs from Eye of the Hurricane and Change?

Well it’s something that we’ve always done in the history of the band.  Even in 1990-91 when we created our first compilation album, Standards, we looked back at The Alarm single “Unsafe Building,” rerecording it and releasing it as a single.

When it got to the 30th anniversary and in the 10 years before that we reissued all the albums and remastered them - the sleeve notes alone were massively expensive. I just thought I can’t say any more than we’ve already done.  The only way I can add to the stories is to reimagine the songs as part of my life today and see how they fit in today’s society and the dynamics of the world that we’re living in. So I remade Declaration in 2014 and Strength in 2015 and they were brilliant experiences.  I think by going back into those records, it sort of reconnected me with the DNA. of what The Alarm is all about.  I think that helped shape what Equals and Sigma became because I was so connected to the history of the band and what the standards would be demanded by the songs that could live in the timeline and stand as testament of what The Alarm is.

I had actually dropped the Eye of the Hurricane anniversary sequence because Equals and Sigma came out in the period of time when it would have been the anniversary to celebrate the album.  So when it came to the end of the Sigma tour, I gave that one a listen.  I didn’t want to not follow up on the series that I had already started creating.  So I thought I’d group Eye of the Hurricane and Change as one piece that I could share with everybody before we embark on a new record.  And so that led me onto the idea of putting both albums together.  I had no idea what was coming; I just went in and took the initial songs.  That’s what The Alarm has always been built on - the songs.  We were never a band that got into a real jam and create a piece of music with a title and the lyrics and instrumental.  It was always the writer or writers bringing the song into the rehearsal room. Songs were already formed (lyrics, chord changes, melody, top line) with everything formed before the band set about arranging the music.  And so I stripped the whole thing back to that beginning and thought, “If they were born today, what would I do with them?” And I reimagined 39 pieces of music.  Then I thought that’s a lot of music, how am I going to connect it all and make sense to people out there?

So I looked at the lyrics and I thought what was the first song of all these to be written? And it never occurred to me at the time, but the first song written was “A New South Wales” and it was debuted by The Alarm in 1986.  But it wasn’t recorded until the Change album in 1989.  When that album came out, it was the last song on the record.  So I realized this song spans the beginning and the end of this whole timeframe. I looked at the lyrics and read them.  Who is this guy whose obviously at the end of an era? He’s walking all alone past the church full of mourning souls.  Where is he going? I looked through all of the song titles and thought there’s one about a destination - it’s called “Newtown Jericho” - perhaps he’s going there.  I read the lyrics and thought he is going there! It makes perfect sense.  Then the whole thing revealed itself to me as quite an autobiographical story of - not just my life, but the story of The Alarm: leaving a small town and trying to realize itself in the big, wide world.  So, the whole thing just pulled me in.

I realized more when I went to the studio and communicated to all of the band members and George Williams. I only involved George at the last minute because he produced Equals and Sigma.  At first I didn’t want to use George in this as it is just an interim project and I didn’t want to burn his energy on this.  He was at The Gathering on the night before I went into the studio and I said, “I’m going to record these songs tomorrow.” He said, “Well, how about I come along as well?” And I said ok. 

George asked, “What are we doing?” and I said I’ve got this story and I read the opening paragraph.  I said the song that follows it is “A New South Wales” and he said, “What’s the next one after that?” I said I’ll tell you after we record “A New South Wales.” So we recorded it there and then and I read the next part of the story and that took us to “Newtown Jericho” and that’s how we made the album.  George didn’t know what the fourth song was going to be while he was recording the third song because I wouldn’t tell him until I read him the story that led to it.

It was George who said to me, “Mike, this story that you’re reading to us.  You realize this is part of the record?  This is our way into the record, but it’s also the listener’s way into the record.” And that’s when it started to take shape.  I never intended for it to be this big thing where I was going to be running around the world.  It was more of an internal project for the fans; a way to look back at a certain point in The Alarm’s history and reveal it in another way that wasn’t just through the sleeve notes or telling the history of the song, but to try to find a different understanding of the songs as they were created.  But as songs that live today.  As soon as I played a few shows to honor it life took over and I was getting invited to perform it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and artistic directors began coming to me to discuss turning it into a stage play - a musical or radio play.

 The best thing I think happened to us was when we got to January of this year and The Gathering.  We performed the whole album with the band as a piece of immersive rock theatre.  We invited all of the audience to come dressed as characters in the style of the albums and to depict their dress as they see the characters in the album, which they did.  We had a Shakespearian actor narrating the story, so I could just play the music. The band was set up in the middle of the audience with an acting troupe amongst everybody as the curators of the songs.  They moved among the audience so the audience felt like they were part of the song - part of the whole experience. We created a Welsh language protest march inside the show; had a prime minister question time, and a whole team of climate change activists on stage while we played “Scarlet.” It was an amazing experience to be part of with the fans being a part of the story and adding to the drama as well.  I think it’s one of those pieces of music where I’ll come back to it at various points and maybe play it in a theatre for a week or stage it here and there.

 

People from around the world have been coming to see you and the band at The Gathering in Wales for decades. The Alarm is one of those bands with lyrics that connect to actual places that fans want to see and experience.

It’s a small town, like with Springsteen.  Freehold and North Wales are probably not that dissimilar; they’re on the other sides of the Atlantic, but they face each other in a weird sort of way.  I think to really find yourself you do have to go away because everyone will say the grass is greener on the other side, but unless you’ve been to the other side you don’t know for certain.  You have to make that journey to find out.  Even if it’s just to bring you back home to appreciate who you are - it’s the environment you were brought up in and how important that was in making you who you are.  I think the fans who come around the world come from the same places in their countries and they see themselves in the music in a similar way to how I see myself and how I’ve documented my own journey.

In recent years you’ve begun taking The Gathering on the road to places like New York and California.  What led to staging it outside of Wales?

We’ve been running The Gathering for 28 years.  I think we just felt that with the way the world was changing, maybe the idea of all these people coming to Wales, getting in planes and creating a massive carbon footprint through cars, trains, and everything that goes into it should be addressed.  We felt The Gathering would work for people in other parts of the world if they saw the camaraderie that exists around The Alarm it would sort of bring them back to Wales.  I think the whole idea of The Gathering has always changed.  It’s never the same twice.  Every time we close the door on a weekend it’s like, “What are we going to do next year that we didn’t do this year?”

We’ve moved the venue a few times in Wales.  It’s been at Rhyl Town Hall, Prestatyn; we’ve been to Llandudno and back.  Next year we’re back in Rhyl and Cardiff as well.  So, I think it’s a natural evolution of the event and the spirit of it wherever it plays.  As we’ve always said with The Alarm, you have to break things down - tear them apart - and build them all up again.  I think that’s what we wanted to do with The Gathering; take it outside its natural habitat and see what happens.

Speaking of the camaraderie of The Gathering, you’ve been able to bring that sense of community online with The Big Night In shows each Saturday.  

We just did it on that first night thinking we’re locked down and were supposed to be playing in Manchester.  It was going to be a big show. We thought we’d do a big night in and just stumbled on the way of doing it.  The reaction was phenomenal! It was like we’ve got to do it again, so we did and we’ve been doing it each week!

It has way more upsides than we possibly imagined.  You can see all the comments that scroll down the screen - everything is saying hello to each other.  “Hello from New Jersey!” “Hello from Nova Scotia!” They’re all over the world.  It’s amazing! It’s great for fans and that’s what The Gathering is all about, bringing fans together who are from different parts of the world into this one off environment.  The Big Night In has created this Gathering atmosphere.

We said we’d keep going through the lockdown and in Wales we’re still in lockdown.  We’re only allowed to travel a 5 mile radius from our home.  England’s got a much more relaxed atmosphere around it; people are going to the beach and shops, but here in Wales they are much more cautious.  People in England aren’t supposed to drive into Wales to come to our beaches and mountains.  It’s very quiet here.  I think The Big Night In has been a bit of a lifeline for me and Jules to realize all of our fans are still out there and we’re together.  This lets us share some experiences during lockdown.

I think people like seeing us in our home environment.  We’re lucky that we have a massive archive of interesting footage to share with the band.  That helps people keep coming back.  We’ve had all the original and current band members on The Big Night In. We’ve had guys like Bruce Watson from Big Country and Ian McNabb from The Icicle Works.  We’ve been celebrating the launch of the 40th anniversary next year, taking people through some major milestones in the history of The Alarm.  

We’ve come to the point where we can actually celebrate our history now and realize that all of the colorful chapters have only added to this rich tapestry of what the band is all about.  We’re all one big family and that’s how we see ourselves these days.  We’re lucky to have survived all the incidents and the drama, and to live to tell the tale and still be making music.

I last saw The Alarm play on the Equals tour.  Out of roughly 2 dozen shows I’ve seen over the years, I thought that was the best set I’d ever seen.  It was amazing how you were able to blend at least 7-8 songs from the new album with the band’s greatest hits.  That’s not easy to do.

No it’s not.  Back to the beginning of the conversation, all the remakes of The Alarm songs have kept me very much in touch with the DNA of the band and that’s very much written into Equals and Sigma.  And I’m very excited about the music I’ve been creating this last month in the studio during lockdown.  I cannot wait to make another album!  I’ve got the demos sounding absolutely amazing.  Life’s given us a lot of blessings in this time.

I think we’re really set up to do some great things going forward.  We’ve got two great albums that have added to the legacy of the band.  They make the old songs sound fresh.  When you came on the Equals tour; the fact that we can play “Beautiful” or “Two Rivers” or “Neutral” or some of the other songs on the album - they freshen up “Spirit of ’76,” “The Stand,” “Strength,” and “68 Guns.”  You hear them in a different context.  I think that gives them a new life and makes everything seem fresh.  It’s what we’ve felt ever since those two albums came out and made such a big connection with Alarm fans old and new.

Where did you see us? Was it in Asbury?

 

Yes, it was The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park.

Yeah, that was a brilliant night. I remember it well.  The owner, Debbie, is a lovely lady and always takes care of the community.  We got along fantastically with her.  I loved the Yappy Hour with all of the dogs!

Members of Love Hope Strength Foundation were there signing people up as potential bone marrow donors as the organization says, “saving lives, one concert at a time.” How does it feel to know you’ve actually helped save lives?

It’s very rewarding.  It’s humbling actually.  To know we’ve been able to take the music and turn it into something that can help save lives in a positive way.  It’s something you never set out to achieve, but you always hope it will affect people’s lives.  Through Love Hope Strength, it’s given everything another level of how our music helps to contribute to society.  I think it’s hard to put into words, but it’s just added so much, so many dimensions, to what we do.  

Sometimes you go back and it literally catches you by surprise because you know it’s affected somebody’s life.  We get messages from people who have been affected.  They quote lyrics and songs that have seen them through these challenges in life.  Just to be part of that creation is humbling and it gives you a lot of drive and impetus to keep that stand of time forever more.  It gives a lot of ambition to the band and has made our connections to the fans so deep.

You mentioned “Unsafe Building” at the start of the interview and I think that’s a good place to return to for the conclusion.  Tell me about the relationship between that song, you,  and the band.  Did you know at the time that it was going to play such a meaningful role for you?

It meant a lot to me as soon as I wrote the lyric.  I was working in a little clothes shop I put together called Riot Clothing.  I used to get clothes from shops and punk them up, write lyrics on them and such.  Then I’d sell them to everybody in the town going out that night.

I wrote the lyrics sitting in there one afternoon.  As soon as I finished the lyrics I thought, “There’s something about this; this is the door, this is the key.  This is going to take us all out of here.” Gareth Jones was our roadie at the time.  He was with us on the Sigma tour last year when we talked to a lot of fans before the shows about the early days.  Gareth said, “Mike came in one day with this lyric for ‘Unsafe Building’ and he had this list with it.  He said we’re going to make this as a single.  We’re going to go to London.  We’re going to get an agent.  Going to get a manager.  Going to go on tour.  We’re going to release a record. We’re going to go on ‘Tops of the Pops.’ And we’re going to go to America.  The only thing he got wrong was they went to America before they went on Tops of the Pops.”

“Unsafe Building” was like a eureka moment.  When I wrote that lyric I thought there’s no going back from this.  We can only go forward from here.



Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.



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