Twenty-five years after first performing as The Alarm, Mike Peters and his band are back with a new release called "Under Attack". They're climbing the UK charts once again with a sound that rocks as hard as the band's first records. We had a chance to talk to Mike Peters about everything from being part of the early days of punk rock to his battles with cancer and the band's brand new album.
"It's a very contemporary sounding record," said Mike Peters. "It's quite fast and furious. It sounds like it was made by The Alarm of today - the modern version of the band. It's got a lot of classic trademark things about it because of my involvement with it - but it's different. It's got an energy about it; it's the sort of energy that we've always strived to get in The Alarm from the beginning.
"There was a sense of energy about our first album, Declaration, because we were young but some of it was stifled by the production values that were put on the record to make us sound a bit more grown up and, dare I say it, more Americanized. But this record is very pure. It's an honest record that I think can stand up there alongside any of the modern bands like Green Day or Coldplay and it'll sound just as good as those records."
The Alarm broke up in 1991 after a successful run in the eighties with songs like "Sixty-Eight Guns", "Spirit Of '76", "Strength", "Rain In The Summertime", "Rescue Me" and "Sold Me Down The River." For most of those years, the band was unfairly labeled as a poor man's version of U2 by rock critics. While U2 went on to critical and commerical success, The Alarm didn't do so bad either as they had 16 Top 50 UK singles and sold over 5 million records worldwide.
Nevertheless, when Peters put a new version of the band back together and released "In The Poppy Fields," he didn't believe radio would instantly welcome them back. So the band released the album's first single, "45 RPM", under the band name "Poppyfields" and fooled everyone. The song started climbing the charts with people calling "Poppy Fields" one of the UK's next great bands.
"We thought people would see through it right away," explained Peters. "We thought as soon as somebody puts the record on and flips it over to see the B-side they'd get it because we put the live version of "68 Guns" on the B-side and we didn't even hide our names. But for some reason people just bought it as being a new band straight away.
"It's become much bigger than we thought because I think a lot of people used it as an opportunity to bash the music industry from their own point of view. We did it really because there's a lot of negatives that go with a band like The Alarm today. Three decades in the music industry - some people see that as a crime, we see it as a positive. We just liked the record and though we were making the best music in the name of The Alarm since the early classic albums and we felt to give it as good a chance as we could it almost had to not be called The Alarm."
They used a band called The Wayriders for the song's video, which made it look as though the Poppyfields was a young punk band on the rise. The stunt was loosely referred to in UK music publications as "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle Part II" and showed how the record industry was geared towards only promoting young artists while guys like Peters could continue writing great punk rock tunes into their forties.
"I'm still a punk rocker today, but some people would say I'm not because I'm too old," said Peters. "But I was there at the beginning and that counts for a lot for me. To me, when punk rock started it wasn't about a look or such - it was about an attitude. If you look back at photographs of punks in 1977 they don't look anything like punks of today. I think it's just a frame of mind. It's still really important to have that frame of mind. That's why we created the Poppyfields and that's why I'm still in The Alarm. And people love us and hate us in equal amounts, which is just like it was in 1977."
On the band's website (www.thealarm.com) there are biographies for all of Mike Peters' former bands going all the way back to the band that started it all for him - a band called The Toilets, which also featured Nigel Twist who would later be the drummer for The Alarm. The idea for the band came after Peters saw The Sex Pistols at a club in Chester, England. Mike's first experience with punk rock had him hooked. It wasn't long after that he had a band himself and was opening for bands like The Clash and The Buzzcocks.
There is a sense of nostalgia and pride when Mike Peters talks about those days. You get the feeling that he can simply close his eyes and return to the days when being a punk rocker was shocking to the outside world.
"It was great because it would just create such a reaction," he recalled. "You didn't even have to pick up your guitar, you could just walk down the street and people would be pointing at you and swearing at you and shouting all kinds of things. There was just an excitement wherever you went because you were a punk rocker and you wore your heart on your sleeves. It was just so shocking to be a punk rocker at that time. When you went on stage it was electric! It was so confrontational with a certain amount of the audience and it was everything to another part of the audience who had already picked up on it. So, it was a great time to be in a band. It was like year zero and you were starting when it was brand new and intoxicating. I don't know whether that shock value will ever exist again; whether the world will be allowed to go that sleepy.
"Punk rock was something the world had never seen before. You were either a punk or you weren't and if you were a punk that meant you were part of something that was bigger than individuals and everyone was part of the same army fighting the same battles."
Nowadays, Mike Peters finds himself fighting a different battle every day. In December, Peters released a statement on the band's website stating that was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphacytic Leukaemia (CLL). This is the second time he's had to fight cancer. He was diagnosed with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1995. It was around this time that "The Gathering" - a unique event where Alarm fans travel to Wales to see Peters perform - became a global event. As news spread about Peters' cancer, more and more Alarm fans started attending "The Gathering" and made each year bigger than the year before.
"It's sort of a role reversal," explained Peters. "I get to stay at home and the fans do all of the touring. We put an incredible amount into that weekend because it's on my doorstep. I don't have to worry about the suitcases and the flights, I can worry about playing the obscure B-side that people want to hear.
"A lot of people come to North Wales to hear the music in the environment that a lot of it was born in. If you want to hear "Rain In The Summertime" and then walk out and actually feel proper rain on your face - North Wales rain - it's an incredible feeling. I think a lot of the fans get those experiences. They drive to Wales and they come to Deeside town or maybe take a chance to visit Liverpool and see the 4 Lads Who Shook The World and go down Matthew Street. They can sort of see the live references of "Spirit Of '76" while they're here. I think that helps to make it real."
The new record was completed before his cancer was diagnosed. Ironically both the title of the album (Under Attack) and several of the songs have a sort of subconscious theme towards the illness. Peters is currently undergoing chemotherapy which will limit the amount of touring the band can do. They will be in Austin, Texas for a show at South By Southwest in March and plan on setting up more dates in the future. Peters says that his body is still learning about how much it can take. He doesn't see back to back nights of shows in the near future but believes he should be able to do special events and one-off shows.
Under Attack was released in the UK on February 6th on the EMI label. The debut single, "Superchannel," has already topped the British modern rock charts. The record will be out later in the year in America on a different label, but is available as an import on Amazon.com. The band's official website has many rare records and dvds available for everyone from the casual fan to the die-hard fanatic. Items for sale include a box set featuring every song the Alarm ever recorded from the band's creation until 1992 (including B-sides and non-released songs), live concert dvds and a comprehensive dvd of the band's reunion on VH-1's "Bands Reunited" with hours of unseen footage.
"When you take back a name like The Alarm there are certain ideas that come to mind," added Peters. "Things that were less than finished and being the Alarm again gave me a chance to finish some of those ideas and extend some of the ambitions and dreams and the hopes we expressed in those songs in the eighties."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.