In 1985, a band called The Alarm unleashed on the world a record, this record went on to set the set the scene alight, catapulting the band into the limelight where they shared stages alongside the likes of U2 and Bob Dylan all over the world.
30 years on and The Alarm’s legendary front man (Mike Peters) embarks on a tour of the record that helped to put the 4 lads from Wales on the map and generate interest all over the globe. 2015 is very much ‘The Year of Strength’ and we were packed into The Cavern Club in Exeter to watch Mike perform the album in its entirety (and no doubt a few of their other classics) that they put out during their colourful career.
We arrived at the venue early, forgetting that the doors rarely open before 8pm, we were soon accompanied by others, dressed in various items of ‘The Alarm’ clothing. We chatted to a couple that had recently attended the 22nd occurance of ‘The Gathering’, held this year in Llandudno (for the un-initiated, The Gathering is a 2 day festival that Mike Peters and his team organise every year to celebrate everything related to The Alarm and associated acts that have helped them to keep the candle burning bright since the bands inception in the late 1970’s). After what seemed like an eternity, the doors opened and we shuffled into the venue. The Cavern has long since been one of my favourite live venues in Exeter, the capacity is 220 though the main room where bands play can only really hold about 150, forcing others to spill over into the bar area where they can listen, but sadly not see the action. We met up with Mike’s Tour Manager, a really nice guy called Andy who made sure that we had everything that we needed and took our positions whilst the hoards flocked into the club. The stage was decked out with Mike’s various guitars, a bass drum, a keyboard, an Irish drum (I’m sure there’s a proper name for it) and a couple of microphone stands. At the back hung a backdrop of the new ‘Strength’ logo, it looked like everything was good to go and it was now just a case of waiting for the show to begin…
Bang on schedule, the sign was given, the backing music was faded out and Mike Peters took to the stage to rapturous applause, opening up the show with ‘The Stand’ which saw the audience heartily participate during the choruses. For the remainder of ‘Act 1’, Mike played tracks that, despite not being on the Strength album, were written and recorded around the same time, in between tracks, he explained how they had come about, where they were first played and what they meant to him, I recall him talking about the first time that Dave Sharp played ‘One Step Closer to Home’ at a radio session that they did for David ‘Kid’ Jenson at the BBC, bring Mike and the rest of the band mates to tears.
Mike explained that their ’68 Guns Tour’ had kicked off at Exeter University and had it not been for that evening, where they shared the stage with The Boomtown Rats, they would not have got a record deal as it was at this gig that IRS (record label) signed them and from there, they went on to release 5 albums.
Mike explained how they had met the legendary producer Jimmy Iovine whilst they were on tour with U2 at ‘Red Rocks’ on their ‘War Tour’, agreeing to meet up again in New York to run through the demos for ‘Strength’ and get his take on the tracks. Owing to record company politics, they never did end up working with him but I see that he has been credited as Executive Producer on the newly recorded version of ‘Strength’, Mike clearly managed to nail him down, despite it being 30 years later!
Mike played a cover of Woodie Guthrie’s ‘Have You Seen That Vigilante Man’ and explained that he was a great influence on the early output of The Alarm. Ending the first segment of the show with ‘Absolute Reality’, explaining that this was due to be the title of the 1985 album until they opted instead for ‘Strength’.
Mike is a prolific storyteller, I could go on all night mentioning the tales he was telling, some humorous, some serious but all told with such love and passion, you just have to look in Mike’s eyes to know that he was there, living these stories along with the rest of the band. The beauty is that he’s still up there on stage, retelling the tales to all, helping to keep the spirit alive.
After a short break, Mike once again took to the stage to run through the ‘Strength’ album in its entirety, this time, playing ‘alternative’ versions of the tracks that he had reworked prior to the tour. Some of the songs were completely restructured, lyrics were changed in order to reflect upon the past 30 years and bring them into the present, rather than reflecting on the past.
I interviewed Mike a couple of weeks before the show and I was keen to find out WHY he had decided to do this, I guess in a way that I would think ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’, he told me a story about when he met up with an old friend who used to be part of The Alarm’s road crew, he had worked alongside the band back in the 80’s when they were on the road with Bob Dylan and had since become a major part of Bob’s live show. He took Mike on stage at the Royal Albert Hall when Bob Dylan played there a few years back and was surprised to hear Bob changing some of the key lyrics to his classic track ‘Tangled up in Blue’ and Mike thought that if Bob Dylan could do it, then he could too!
The story behind the writing of the song ‘The Day The Ravens Left The Tower’ was very good, Eddie Macdonald being cooped up in a London hotel with flu with the television stuck on channel 5 that was playing an ‘infomercial’ style video of what to do in London. After numerous hours of watching this film, Mike popped in to see how Eddie was doing and he pleaded with him to change the channel as he was sick of it but from this, Eddie suggested they look at a track based around what would happen if the ravens every left the tower of London. Mike went off to write some words and music around the concept and before long the track was born. Mike played this track using a loop pedal, irish drum, keyboard and guitar, the output was quite a haunting melody that accompanied the theme of the track very well. After the song ended Mike admitted that the idea of the ravens ever leaving the tower was ‘complete bollocks’ as they all had their wings clipped and probably couldn’t fly off even if they had the desire to!
Mike went on to tell us how he ‘thought’ that he was the only punk rocker in North Wales, this was until he met a guy called John Hughes who Mike befriended and set about running with for a while when ‘The Toilets’ were in full effect. John was the guy who took Mike and co to ‘Erics’ nightclub in Liverpool and arranged a Saturday lunchtime gig for them, Mike was super excited as he saw that The Clash were playing in the evening of the same day so he managed to see them at the same time. John Hughes was one of the characters that Mike sung about in ‘Spirit of 76’, this time, changing the lyrics to reflect that John had learned his lesson (after spending time in Walton jail owing to a drugs offence) and had reformed and is to this day a true friend of Mike’s who he keeps in regular contact with.
Mike went on to describe how the track ‘Deeside’ came about, one day in the early 80’s, 8000 people’s lives were affected when the government decided to close down the Shotton Steelworks, causing everyone in the surrounding area to rebuild their lives over the following years and how they pulled together in solidarity to make the best of the terrible situation that they had been thrown into. Opening the song on the keyboard, Mike moved to the acoustic guitar when the backing track kicked in and brought the track to life.
Mike has worked tirelessly for his own cancer charity ‘Love Hope Strength’ that was setup in 2007 to use funds raised via the charity to purchase medical equipment and supplies, raise awareness through special events and recruit potential donors to the organ and bone marrow registers. He explained the very simple process of getting added to ‘the list’ and proudly said that so far, the charity has signed up over 100,000 people that have so far been successful in providing over 1500 life saving matches. This led nicely into ‘Walk Forever By My Side’, Mike explaining why he had decided to change the lyrics to ‘Walk Forever By YOUR Side’, this was also the track that Mike sung Jules (his wife) when they renewed their wedding vows, the old charmer!).
Straight after the heartfelt lyrics of ‘Walk Forever’ came the legendary battle cry that is ’68 Guns’ which had also gone through the reworking process, I didn’t hear any alternative lyrics, just a change of pace which suited the mood of the venue very well. I’m sure Mike slipped into ‘Swan Song’ midway through the track, unless I was just hearing things?
Mike started playing the opening chords to ‘Where Were You Hiding…’ and owing to the wrong harmonica asked the audience to clap along whilst he replaced it before kicking into what I think is one of their classic tracks, as expected, there was much audience involvement for this and I was stood at the back, singing my heart out! The show came to a close with a faultless rendition of ‘Blaze of Glory’, which went on for what seemed like ages with the crowd carrying the chorus on leaving Mike on stage, looking so proud and no doubt reflecting over the past 30+ years and thinking about what his music has done for so many fans all over the world….
Going out in a blaze of glory……
I have been fortunate enough to have seen The Alarm in the late 80’s, Mike Peters a number of times in various sized venues across the UK and also at The Gathering back in 2006, I don’t know what it is about the music that he produces that kept me interested in his work for so many years, maybe it was that I got ‘into’ music at the time when The Alarm were at their heyday, maybe it was just the fact that their music is so timeless, so honest and so rewarding to listen to it has kept me involved for so long.
It was a brave move by Mike to rework the Strength album, having heard his reasons for wanting to do so, I fully appreciate and understand his decision and I look forward to listening to the new version in a lot more detail when I get a few spare hours….
I’ll sign off the review with some words that I said to Mike at the end of a lengthy interview that we did a couple of weeks ago;
“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!”
Review by Steve Muscutt
Photography by Bruce Benson www.241photography.co.uk
If you'd like to check out the interview I did with Mike, you can do so by clicking HERE