Yes folks, it finally happened, after being a fan of The Alarm since 1985 when I went out and bought 'Strength' on cassette tape from my local branch of Woolworths, I finally manage to get in contact with Mike and arrange an interview. I was given 24 hours notice that he would be available for a phone call, so many questions floating around my head and so little time to sit and get them sorted out. I finally settled on what I think was a good mixture of questions 'past and present', paying particular attention to the 'Strength' era, all I had to do now was get my head down for an early night, call him up at the agreed time and the rest would be a piece of cake.....hold on now, you think contacting a rock hero would be that easy?
The day came, the time came, I dialled the number I had been given and after a few seconds, a very pleasant lady answered saying that the number was 'unobtainable' and to try again later.....I did, about 6 times, until I succumbed to the fact that maybe I had set my sights too high and it just wasn't to be.
I emailed to say that I had tried a number of times but the phone number was 'unobtainable' and by return, received an email from Mike's wife (Jules) apologising that they were out having a walk and were out of range and to try again in 30 minutes. My faith in humanity was once again restored, along with the butterflies in my stomach....
At the rearranged time, I called the number once again and this time, it started ringing...SUCCESS! Jules answered, apologising for the earlier mishap, after a couple of friendly exchanges she said that Mike was ready and off we went....
I introduced myself, told him that I would be covering the Exeter gig on March 1st and that we'd be delighted if he could spare us a few minutes of his time to answer some questions that we had. I asked if he was okay for time and he said that he was, with this in mind, I was expecting a 10 minute window before Mike got called in for his lunch (or whatever rock stars do at midday these days), imagine my surprise when, after wrapping things up, I checked my recorder and saw that we had been chatting for the best part of 45 minutes....45 minutes with someone that really helped me to understand music, someone who's music had helped me get through some of the rough times during my late teenage years and someone for whom I still have the utmost respect for hauling his ass out on the road all the time to gig, represent his charity that is doing life saving work all over the world and generally give back to the fans the love that he has received from them since the early days of the 80's when The Alarm were preparing to unleash their music on the world.
We talked about so much, favourite songs, the best gigs, the stories behind one of my all time favourite tracks, I'll leave you to read on and marvel at the information that Mike was only too happy to share with me, ladies and gentlemen, grab yourselves a drink, make yourselves comfy as this could take some time!
So, it’s been 30 years since STRENGTH was released, do you look back over the years and think “where the hell did they go”?
No, definitely not, they’ve all been really creative years, something has come about every year and the challenges have kept coming along. Strength was our 2nd record and it was really the foundation to the future, laying the groundwork for a lot of the work I do now, the theme running through the album is ‘Love, Hope & Strength’ which has helped me to create a charity that helps save lives all over the world.
Now, Declaration had ’68 Guns’ and ‘Blaze of Glory’, Strength has ‘Spirit of 76’, 'Knife Edge’ and ‘Absolute Reality’, when you were recording both albums, did you feel that these were the strongest tracks on them?
I’m not so sure really because as the songwriter of a lot of the music you see the music as part of something that you have created, it’s like looking at your children and saying which one is best! You can’t make that decision, they are decisions made by the producers or people who are hearing the music earlier on in the process, at the end of the day, it’s the fans that make the final decision based on what they hear, radio play, music television etc. We played 'Absolute Reality' and 'Knife Edge' live before we made the album (Strength) so we knew that they were strong tracks with the fans very early on so we had a good idea they would ‘work’ when we went in to the recording studio. Seeing as Strength was our second album, lots of bands talk about the dreaded ‘Second Album Syndrome’, we on the other hand were way down the road, during Declaration, we’d written loads of songs, we were quite disciplined, trying to come up with something new every day. We did a radio session with good old ‘Kid Jenson’ (David Kid Jenson) a week or so before Declaration came out and we played 3 brand new songs that weren’t even on the Declaration album so we were well setup. Strength could have been a double album if we’d ended up going down those lines.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said about the fans making the decision at the end of the day as the tracks I mentioned in the question are MY favourites but I guess I only thought that as these were the ones that were pushed and promoted heavily during the early stages of the album.
Exactly, the last track on Strength is ‘Walk Forever By My Side’, this was done with just me and a piano, this has become a massive song, people have had it played at weddings, it’s never been a single, it’s also never been on a ‘Best Of’ album but you can be sure that every show I play, if I open up for requests towards the end, this is the one track that gets shouted up each and every time! It’s a track that covers so many things, you can have it played at a wedding or at a special moment in your life, music is such a great art form, it interacts with people and it becomes theirs in a way. I’ve been lucky enough to have such a long career, I’ve actually started to learn where a lot of this music has ended up, it’s been around long enough! I’ll carry on travelling the world to find all of it!
On ‘Spirit of 76’, you refer to your friend 'John' who spent time in Walton Jail, who is John and what was he in jail for or was this just a lyric?
No, John was a real person, all the characters names I used in the song are real people. John was the first real punk rocker I ever met in North Wales. We went together to get our early gigs when I was in The Toilets, John was our roadie, well, he sort of did everything for us in the early days and he was the person who took me to a club in Liverpool called ‘Erics’ for the first time and within a week, we were supporting acts like The Clash and The Buzzcocks, we lit a fire under ourselves and had to deal with it.
Unfortunately, John got sucked into the ‘other scene’ that surrounded young punks back in the day, he was offered drugs and the gang I used to ‘run with’ were offered the same, allowing you to stay up all night and such like, I was always the one who had to drive home after the gig, John being slightly older than I was qualified me to drive as long as he was sat in the passenger seat next to me, then one thing leads to another and John ended up on the wrong side of the law and ended up in trouble and he went to prison. He’s learnt his lesson and has built a great life for himself since.
When I do the 'Strength 30 Year Anniversary Tour' this year, people will hear that some of the lyrics have been updated, people have met challenges full on in life and many have come through the other side so 30 years after I wrote the original tracks, I feel it’s time to revisit them and make it something that is true to today. I think that nowadays, it’s a much more upbeat song, it was in reverie, looking back I can think about what I’d lost, but you can always find what you’ve lost in life tenfold, I still keep in touch with John now and we send each other text messages, he comes to shows and I don’t want to sing the songs as they were written years ago anymore, I want it to reflect the relationship that we have now. He’s earned the right to that re-write as well, he’s tackled his issues full on and made himself a better person as a result.
Cast your mind back to 1977 when you formed The Toilets, you had some interesting names Eddie Bop, Steve Shock, Bo Larks & Des Troy, where did these names originate from?
We were all young and that’s what everyone did in punk bands in the 70’s! I think at the time, it was people trying to protect their identities from their employers or the social security! Stage names became ‘the thing’ that people did. I think that it helped a lot of young people who were fairly intimidated by going on stage and using a stage name helped to create a persona, I did a lot of stuff with Captain Sensible from The Damned, he’s Ray Burns in real life, when he dons his beret and his stripey jumper, he ‘becomes’ Captain Sensible. For people like me, coming from small towns, it’s almost like an armour that you can wear, go on stage and face the world! We had hours of fun coming up with the names, some great memories!
Now, the last time you reformed the original band was for the VH1 television programme ‘Bands Reunited’ back in 2005, did you consider doing it again for the 30th anniversary tour? if not, what were the reasons?
Not really, I think it was actually 2003 that we reformed for the show, it was great to do it and it was the polar opposite to what happened at the Brixton gig on June 30th 1991 (Mike announced that this would be his last gig with The Alarm before the encore “Blaze Of Glory”), the cameras were rolling there, I did what I did then because it was a chance for people to see what I was doing and the moment would live on in social media, not that we knew anything about social media in 1991! I didn’t want to rely on a press statement and instead wanted something that people could look back on and relive it at some point. For VH1 to be there at the reunion and film it was a great opportunity, everyone could see it and it lives on in celluloid. I didn’t really want to go back and play the record (Strength) as it was recorded, this is an album that is still talked about today because it has a future code embedded into it if you like, it’s relevant to the day and I want to break it free from the time capsule of 1985 and play it in 2015 with a new outlook. I don’t think that Nigel, Eddie and Dave would want me to be changing the lyrics, they’d more than likely be aghast at the thought of it, if I’m on my own, I can do it and when you play a long time and you pick up a large audience, I think they can hold their hands on their hearts when they go to a concert, ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Strength’ and ‘68 Guns’ aren’t the top songs on the list that they want to hear when they are there, it’s normally the ‘secondary’ songs, the ones on ‘Side 2’ that the fans don’t hear that often. Don’t get me wrong, if a fan comes to a show and they DON’T hear the classics, they’d leave a little disappointed, it’s a balancing act and I’m always happy to play ALL of my songs, my theory is, if you’re not going to like them for the rest of your life, why bother writing them in the first place? That’s one of my criteria that I have to use, “Can I settle with this track for the rest of my life?”, I love ALL of the music that I have been involved with over the years and to be part of the family, each track has its place and if it needs to be freshened up, told off or whatever, this is what I’m going to do.
You mentioned that you’re reworking the lyrics for the Strength tour, will you be looking to do this for every song on the album or just the tracks that are in need of updating?
Just a few key lines, I’ve re-recorded the album and I kept a lyric book from the time when it was being written (1984-85) and I looked back through the notes from when we spent a week with Jimmy Iovine, we almost made the record with that ‘class’ of producer, which may have taken the record to another level altogether, it didn’t happen because of record company politics, IRS was our label at the time and was going through a deal with A&M and the album got made in the middle of that process and in the mix of it all, we lost Jimmy Iovine, so the notes, they were all ideas of what Jimmy was going to apply to some of the tracks. Some of the points were quite challenging, areas that he felt needed more work. Looking back through the book, I saw that I’d written words that maybe I didn’t quite understand at the time but are REALLY relevant to today.
The thing with the Strength album is that there’s a lot of stories in the songs and like John’s story in ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Deeside’ as a town and community has moved on since the 80’s and these are the tracks that have been slightly updated. ‘Walk Forever By MY Side’ became ‘Walk Forever By YOUR Side’….
I read that you did that when you renewed your marriage vows, nice touch!
Yes it was! If you think, the song impacts future generations as well, the way that they are cared for, especially with cancer that is going to be affecting at least 1 in 2 people in the future, the song has an ongoing legacy, it still gives inspiration to so many people, making people think. I saw Bob Dylan at The Albert Hall a few years ago and this was the first time that he had played there since the 60’s and a very good friend of mine who was Best man at mine and Jules’ wedding works with Bob Dylan, he met him when we had toured with him in the 80’s and jumped ship to work for him and he’s still there now, he took me onto the stage and Bob Dylan came out and started playing ‘Tangled up in Blue’ which is one of favourite Dylan songs from his 'Blood on the Tracks' album and he changed the lyrics, I asked my friend why he did that and he said it was because he thought he could do it better, and this is BOB DYLAN! He’s in his 70’s and he still challenges his own music and I thought that was a really brave move and I learned from that.
From this thinking, I wanted to be able to ‘debate’ the Strength album and by re-writing it, it took me back to the original questions, don’t get me wrong, the re-write was never designed to replace the original, it’s more like an audio sleeve note as there were so many ideas that went into writing the record, we might not have been mature enough to deal with them back in the mid 80’s but time has rolled on….
You’re playing more intimate dates on this tour, do you prefer these to playing larger venues?
It’s definitely more challenging to play to an audience where you can actually see everybody, I mean these gigs are the ones that people want to play, I’ve played all the big venues all over the world and the biggest festivals and you can get away with an awful lot! There’s something about being stood 30 feet away from the front row with a huge barrier between you, filled with security, it just doesn’t sit right with me, when we have our annual ‘Gathering’, we have loads of people rammed into a venue in Wales and we don’t have a barrier, people are right up against the stage, hugging the monitors, it’s safe, if anyone needs to be hoisted out, we pull them up on stage and I think it’s actually safer than them having to wander through a pit. You just cannot beat the intimacy that you feel when the audience are right up to the stage. There’s an element of me playing this tour that makes it feel like when we went out on the 'Absolute Strength' tours back in 85’ and everyone was right up close, everything was fresh, new and exciting and that’s what I want this tour to be like. When people came to the initial tour, a lot of people hadn’t bought the album and from attending, they went out and bought the album, there’s an element of people taking that on board and also, I’m doing solo shows, I don’t have a massive entourage to cart around that warrants when playing in the larger venues, it’s good to get the tour and take it to all the corners of the country that you just cannot do when playing with a full band and a massive production.
Next time I tour with the band, yes, there’ll probably be less shows but bigger venues and less travelling but I’m happy to do it this way, I really do enjoy it. I’m playing solo with my new bass drum, electric guitars and other paraphernalia, it’s as if it is a full band playing a gig!
You need some cymbals between your knees Mike and then you’ll be a proper ‘One Man Band’….
That’s it! I think it’s good that when you’re playing solo and it’s just you in front of the audience, you can just go with the flow a little more, with a band, there is much more preparation that you have to do and the spontaneity is lost but on your own, every pre conceived idea can just go out of the window, if you feel a song is relevant at that time, you can do it!
What was the story behind ‘One Step Closer to Home' and why did Dave Sharp sing it?
Well Dave wrote the track so it was his to sing, it wasn’t on the Strength album, it nearly was, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin was mixing an album that he was doing with Paul Rodgers, the band was called The Firm, they were in the studio next door to us at Marcus Studios in Westbourne Grove (London), we were in the main studio and Jimmy was in the mixing room upstairs, Dave Sharp ended up in the mixing room for 3-4 days with Jimmy, the story goes, Jimmy came into our studio and played some of Dave’s guitars then went up to his room and Dave followed him, carrying on the conversation and Jimmy Page basically put a bottle of Bourbon outside the door and said that if you want to come inside, you need to drink all of this and you can’t leave until it’s all gone! They stayed in the room for 4 days and when they finally surfaced, it was time for Dave to sing the song and by the time his voice was totally destroyed after being up for 4 days straight, the track never ended up on the Strength album!
A number of the 25 UK dates for the 'Strength 30th Anniversary Tour' have sold out already, have you decided what you’ll do if all dates sell out?
Retire! (laughing…) It’s really flattering that people are still following me this far down the line!
The approach that we sort of pioneered in a way with the 30,000 reissues of the album rather than a standard reissue that most bands would be happy with, I did that back in the year 2000 and it was definitive, there was no more that you could have got out of it, it was recorded in a state of the art studio, there really is nothing more that you could have done to it. I wrote 70000 words for the sleeve notes which was EPIC, there’s no more to be said, I didn’t want to simply re-hash it all and rewrite the words to the stories all over again, I wanted to find the things on the album that we didn’t record and that should have been there.
When Declaration was released, I think people were shocked at the way that ’68 Guns’ sounded, it was more of a ballad at the start, sounding more like ‘Spirit of 76’ did on Strength. When it ‘exploded’ into life on the 2014 version of Declaration with extra verses and such like, giving the song much more weight, most people who come to see me play live nowadays want to hear the 2014 version rather than the original which is weird, I think now that bands are enjoying the scholarly approach that has come to the record, it’s a way of telling the story but in a whole new way, people get off on it and the music/words are more modern, we get loads more younger people coming to the shows that are hearing it 'as it is'.
I was at the BBC in the summer of 2014 and it went around the world, mainly because U2 did a video in the middle of it but it bought me home to a lot of the audience who had not heard a lot of the tracks in years and to hear them played alongside a big orchestra it really triggered a huge wave of new interest in myself as an artist and the music that I make, it put it on a new level in a way. It’s exciting for both me and the fans, if a gig is sold out, people have to work extra hard to try and get tickets, it’s a real buzz!
Hopefully there’ll be no touts outside….though you never know your luck!
If you had to name your favourite Alarm track, which one would it be and why?
Back to the earlier question with the children, I guess I’ve always been a fan of Dave’s (Dave Sharp) writing and especially on ‘One Step Closer to Home’ and he didn’t do enough of it, I think that when he wrote ‘One Step Closer’ it was beyond his vocal capabilities, he could pull it off live (just about) but he wasn’t able to sing it regularly and become comfortable with it as it required a different kind of voice and all the producers that we worked with, Jimmy Iovine, Mike Howlett, they all suggested that although it was a great song, he should have let me sing it and it would be a single, Dave was having none of it! I ended up feeling bad as he probably thought that I’d put them up to it but I hadn’t, it made things quite awkward for a while, you can’t really blame him wanting to sing his own songs.
From then on, he almost stopped writing songs that featured a vocal beyond his own capabilities and this really limited the scope of his songwriting, he never really contributed a lot to ‘Eye of the Hurricane’, he came along with a full set of demos, none of which were selected to appear on the album, we left it up to the A&R guy (Steve Tanner) to make the decision, he only ended up choosing ‘One Step Closer’ and that was from the Strength album. So to answer the question, I’d say that ‘One Step Closer’ is my favourite track, probably because I didn’t write it!
I think that’s the thing that was lost in The Alarm, had Dave written more for other vocal ranges who knows what songs we’d have. I suppose it’s a bit like Pete Townsend saying that he won’t write ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ because he couldn’t sing it, instead he gave them up, it must have been really sad for him to go on stage every night and for people to listen to these brilliant lyrics that he doesn’t even get to sing, it takes a lot of artistic discipline and self control to do that.
When you started The Alarm, did you ever set yourself any goals (playing in America etc) and if so, do you feel that you have achieved them?
Just to be good, to be good at what we do and produce the best quality and to be meaningful, we’d spent years in our previous group ‘Seventeen’ trying to ‘make it’ and get a record deal and when we became The Alarm, we decided to forget all that and just concentrate on making excellent music, if it’s good, it’ll take us where we are trying to get to and keep us involved. I guess it’s a similar question to ‘How long do you see yourself staying as The Alarm’ and I guess the answer to that is as long as I am enjoying myself.
As soon as it becomes more of a chore than a pleasure, you’ll weigh up your options?
Yes, and as the original 4 members, we just stopped enjoying it, it just wasn’t fun at the end and being truthful, I would say that it wasn’t as much fun from Strength onwards , we really fought for it and tried to make it fun but it just didn’t come naturally, it’s like the band that formed so many years before only had a limited lifespan and nowadays, with The Alarm under my stewardship, I can take it where I want to.
I look back and I can say that I am so proud of the band, we always challenged things, we always had great ideas and I think that’s what the fans look back on also, sometimes groundbreaking ideas, the way that we communicate, the way that we run the website and the charity and the annual ‘Gathering’ events are as much about the fans as they are about me really, a lot of the time, I find myself responding to what THEY want to hear live and what they want from bootlegs and compilations that THEY pretty much put together online, it’s very hard to do that if you’re not getting that level of enthusiasm from the fans, so I feel proud about where we are now.
Looking back over your career, which gig would you say stays with you as the best and why?
There’s a number of shows, the Strength period was an amazing time for the band, we definitely hit a peak, we came bursting out with a great album, Dave was on fire as a guitarist, playing on the tip of the stage, sweat dripping off him, producing some amazing guitar work, soloing on ‘Spirit of 76’, it was a real challenge for me to keep up with him. I remember playing at the Apollo in Oxford around that time, I think it was the ‘Absolute’ tour, we were playing ‘Knife Edge’ for the first time, Dave was leading from the front as the guitarist and I just had to keep up, it was like an in house competition, each trying to drive each other on to better things, I remember having to drop the guitar and become a singer without a guitar for the first time in order to take the audiences to new heights and really ‘front’ the band.
Another stand out gig was at the end of that tour, it was at the Guildford Civic Hall, this really was The Alarm at its best, ironically, at this years ‘Gathering’ a guy called Nigel Luby who was our live sound engineer actually recorded the Strength album for us, he was trying to capture our ‘live’ sound outside of the studio, well he passed away a few years ago and one of the last conversations that I had with him was about a box of tapes that he had found when he worked with us back in the 80’s and they finally came back to me at The Gathering this year and I saw that there was a soundboard recording from the Guildford Civic Hall show, I’ve yet to get the cassette decks out but I’m looking forward to having a listen, I am really thrilled to have it in the family, hopefully it’s something that I can share.
We did a gig when the album was released, we played in December at Cal State Fullerton in California and that was an amazing gig and MTV filmed some of it but they didn’t take any audio so I’m going to run through the Nigel Luby tapes to see if there is a soundboard recording from that show. For modern times, I would have to say that some of The Gatherings have been up there as my favourites, mainly because I was out doing my Declaration tour as a one man band and it had been a year since the band had last played together, we all came into it wanting to make it an amazing event, we were all looking forward to playing together, we were all fresh and even on the Friday night of The Gathering event, the band hardly played, there was a band called The Deportees who backed me on most things, there was even a choir on stage, it was completely different to anything that we’d ever done before.
By the time the main band hit the stage on the next night, WOW, what a night, there’s something about the first night of a tour that you cannot replicate, you might make mistakes but the energy that you all have, it’s a feeling that you just cannot repeat. The second night of a tour, you tend to think about the opening night and despite what you do, it’s never quite the same. For this reason, I would always urge people to make the trip up to The Gathering as every year is like the opening night of a tour, no matter what we do it’s always going to have an electric atmosphere, this year just really came together, the audience were great, we took the barrier away, it was like the perfect storm.
I attended a ‘Gathering’ back in 2006 in Llandudno, I remember Billy Duffy (The Cult) being there and Dave Sharp doing a couple of tracks, the rest of the weekend was somewhat ‘foggy’…
Yes, the weekends have a habit of doing that to people! I think Pete Wylie (The Mighty Wah!) was there too if my memory serves me right! That’s the great thing about the ‘Gathering’, it gets everyone together and gives a reason to just kick back and enjoy the music and chat to old friends! It’s like a Christmas dinner for fans of The Alarm!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, what advice would the Mike Peters of today give to the Mike Peters of the early 80’s?
Just to keep enjoying it, take it as it comes, you can’t force the issue when it comes to rock n’ roll, it’s not a competition, you can only do what you can do and it’s not X-Factor, just keep enjoying it, if you make the big songs that last forever, great, if not, don’t worry because every long term artist who has ever lived has their ups and downs and it’s not that you aren’t doing your best, it may even be that the fans just aren’t ready for your new material yet. It’s purely a case of riding the roller coaster, it has its ups and downs but all in all, it levels out in the end. You’ve got to remember that the band (The Alarm) started in 1977, (it does say 1981 in the official biography but it was 1977) and it was just all the tryouts that we had to go through before we had our first hit single, 6 years after we started, I think that people forget all the work that went into getting us ready and prepared for that time, I think as The Alarm, we were never really sucked into the ‘music industry’, we were never on what you might call a ‘major’ label, we went through the majors but were always signed to a smaller label, now that the internet is such a big part of everybody’s life, you don’t really need to be on a label at all, it’s very rare that we send anything out to magazines or websites for review purposes anymore, it doesn’t change anything anymore, what changes the game is writing a great song, if it’s good enough, it’ll find its own way into the world via the web, you can’t force it. I have a lot of young bands knocking on my door asking for advice and I always say, “Just go and write a better song tomorrow that you have today”, that’s the most honest advice I can offer, if you have ‘what it takes’, the fans will tell you about it!
I could tell that Mike was getting hungry and I could even hear Jules in the background preparing his lunch, so, despite having a few more questions, I thought this would be a great time to move onto the quickfire question round....
Acoustic or Electric?
Declaration or Strength?
CD or Vinyl?
Festival or regular gig?
Camping or Campervan?
Bob Dylan or Neil Young?
Sunbathing or Skiing?
Sunbathing (I might break my leg skiing!) but then again, I might get skin cancer whilst sunbathing so I’ll go with sunbathing under an umbrella!
Facebook or Twitter?
Mad Max or The Terminator?
Terminator (The Terminator movies were always on the tour bus!)
1980’s or 2010’s?
God or Google?
Before we parted company, I ran through a message that I had for Mike that was sent to me from a good friend called Martyn Rich from Wales, here's what I said....
And finally Mike, I just wanted to say that as long as you've got your voice, please don’t stop gigging. You're a terrific singer, front man and a storyteller and it’s always a pleasure to listen to you. I’ve been a big fan since the mid 80’s and I’d like to say that your songs really helped me to choose my musical path and for that I am eternally grateful…..Thank you so much for your time today Mike, it’s really made my year!
Mike thanked me for taking the time to chat to him and obviously I thanked him for his time, we agreed to hook up for a drink after the Exeter show as he is staying over in Exeter and doesn't have to be up in the morning, I'd best take the next day off as I feel things could get messy!
Mike is on tour from late February, dates and venues can be found HERE. If you fancy a great night out with one of the most genuine, honest and friendly front men from the world of rock n' roll, get your tickets booked NOW folks as the gigs are selling out fast!
Find out more about Mike Peters and The Alarm using the links below