American journalist Greg Easterling caught up with the Welsh rock hitmaker MIKE PETERS.
It's easy to be cynical about the state of contemporary music. What was once magical now seems merely mass-produced and marketed. Whether it's the latest wannabe, or the current crop of pretty boys with pouts and coifs or even the next Dylan, you're forgiven if you get the feeling it's all been done before. Sure, the outfits are a little racier, the bodies a lot harder, and the subject matter more extreme, but for better or worse, they're all variations on an all too familiar theme.
So why bother with it anymore? Because every now and then, somebody makes it through talent and perseverance, not only because of a well-timed advertising blitz. It might only last for the duration of a tour, or the length of an album but for a moment, it makes you forget about the other stuff for awhile.
That's the kind of effect The Alarm has on a growing number of people these days. No, they're not necessarily the first great band of the 90s or even the next big thing - they're just a hard workin' rock'n roll band who put a lot of thought as well as emotion into its music.
For the record, they're not exactly new either. The Alarm has been around in one form or another since 1981. By 83, its eponymously - named EP surfaced, a handful of simple anthems conjuring up the image of an acoustic Clash. A tour with U2 soon followed as did its first full-length album, 'Declaration', which yielded the memorable top 20 UK hit "68 Guns."
With its third album, Strength, The Alarm demonstrated a more mature but no less forceful sound with solid favourites like, "Spirit of 76" and the title track. The next album, 'Eye Of The Hurricane', hit the stores in the spring of 88. Most of that year was spent out on the road, split between its own Electric Folklore tour (subsequently chronicled on a live EP) and a two and a half month stint opening shows for Bob Dylan. By the following spring, singer-writer Mike Peters and the rest of the band were back home in Wales preparing to record a new album.
The result is The Alarm's current release, 'Change', its most commercially successful album ever in the US and UK, and arguably its finest achievement to-date. Buoyed by two bonafide American radio hits. The Alarm has played to a succession of near capacity crowds made up of long-time fanatics as well as recent converts.
The Alarm's reputation as a stellar live attraction has not gone unnoticed by rock's luminaries. In addition to the Dylan tour, they were joined onstage by Neil Young during a recent show in New York. His appearance came as a total surprise even though the Alarm had been encoring most of its concerts with a rugged rendition of Young's recent hit, "Rockin1 in the Free World." Peters recalls, "Neil just arrived as we came off at the end of the set. We grabbed him and said, 'C'mon,' and he was up for it. I think he'd really come down to check out the way we do quite a lot of acoustic (material) these days. He was really interested in the fact that we have a full band sound and still use a lot of acoustic things."
Although Peters is already looking past Change to the next album, it's still the focus of The Alarm's current activity. Peters and the rest of the band - Dave Sharp, Eddie McDonald and Twist have been touring Europe while the album hit number 11 on the British chart without the benefit of significant BBC airplay. It's likely The Alarm will return to the US this spring for another round of touring.
Peters was eager to discuss the band's approach to Change, which comes across as a throwback to the golden age of rock'n'roll when bands played live without benefit of sampling, sequencers, and syndromes. The Alarm still shuns certain aspects of modern recording technology, according to Peters who's often been critical of the latest methods. "When Elvis recorded 'Hound Dog,' he only had one microphone and it all went down that mike. The 90s way of recording is not a very truthful way. Often musicians have to fake it in the studio by pretending they're playing together in a studio with an engineer and a producer to say 'you've got it' or "you haven't, come back tomorrow and do it again!'. That's what The Alarm is all about ...very simple, true values of rock'n'roll rooted in live music."
All of which explains The Alarm's most recent choice of producer. After receiving a letter and demo reel from Tony Visconti the band decided to meet him. Not that Visconti really needed any introduction, having made his reputation in the previous decade supervising the recording of a healthy handful of classics like David Bowie's "Young Americans" and T. Rex's "Bang a Gong" and "Jeepster."
As it turns out, Visconti became an important catalyst for Change. Peters relates, "We were very intrigued and when we met him we really got on very well. Tony didn't want to move the band in any other direction than the one we were going. He's a guy who realizes that some crosstalk and having a bit of guitar coming down the vocal mike is where the chemistry of great rock'n roll happens. He tried to capture that chemistry we produce when we play together as The Alarm."
Interestingly enough, the song which most resembles the hook-laden, strutting singles Visconti produced for T. Rex was relatively untouched by the veteran producer.
"The Alarm version of 'Sold Me Down The River' is exactly as it was when we played it to Tony. He didn't want to mess around with the band's arrangement too much," recalls Peters.
What The Alarm had come up with was one of the most inspired blasts of pure rock'n roll to hit the airwaves in a long time. While there's nothing terribly original about the song's lyrics which quote liberally from Dion, Bryan Ferry, etc., it's the savage guitar riff and irresistibly driving rhythm that demand attention. The little touches are nice, too - the strong vocal harmony on the chorus and some classy acoustic piano, reminiscent of the stylish lines that Nickey Hopkins and Ian Stewart lent to the Stones' sound from "Beggar's Banquet" to "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll."
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