The Alarm: An in-depth talk with The Alarm's rock music icon, Mike Peters MBE

Friday 13th September 2019

Tony Cummings spoke to Mike Peters of THE ALARM, whose albums are still producing radio hits

Continued from page 1

Tony: Funnily enough that was the question he asked me. He hasn't heard "68 Guns" in a while and I think he had heard it a previous week on the Beeb but he said, "What's the song about?"

Mike: Well, in its true essence it started off as a bit of a joke to be honest. We were driving a car, my grandad's old Ford Cortina, we used to drive it along the seafront here with cassettes that we'd make up, you know, mix tapes. And we used to love "I Fought The Law" by The Clash and there was a line in it that went "Robbing people with their six guns" and they used to drone on about the six beats on their snare drum. We always used to think, 'what if it was more than six bullets in that gun? What if they were robbing people with their 68 guns, what would the drum beat [he mimics a fast drum beat] be?' And then I thought, 'That's a great title for a song' and went off to write the song. Along the way I was reading a book called the Glasgow Street Gang Observed, a classic psychology book where a teacher went undercover to run with the gangs of Glasgow and get into the mind set of why they were drawn together. They're in that twilight zone between being kids and adults and there's nowhere to go but the street corners. You're not old enough for pubs, you're too old for youth clubs and too outrageous for church, so you end up on the street corner and you bond; there's clothes and music and identification with other people through those means. I thought, 'That's what a band is really.' It was set in the year '68 and there was a lot of violence and Kennedy was shot and Martian Luther King was writing in Paris and all this. And "68 Guns" seemed to be a good idea for a song based on belonging, and that's how it came to be.

When it came to recording the song - as we'd play it live it was a very long piece and it's got two or three sections, it's almost prog rock in a way, it's not just the pop single version you hear on the radio - but when we were making the song the producer and our A&R man at a record label said, "Look, this could be a hit if we shorten it down and join the choruses up and make it a bit speedier and get to the hook line faster." So we created two versions, one for the album where we play it live, and a single version. The producer said, "Look Mike, to get to the hook line we need to get fast. So let's take a verse out of the song." So I thought, "Yeah, okay let's do that." So we dropped a verse and sang one verse straight to the chorus. But when it came to the 30th anniversary of that song and I looked back at the original lyrics I realised to my horror that we'd taken out the wrong verse! We took the verse out which gave the song its real meaning which maybe would have stopped people asking what "68 Guns" is about. Because there was a line in the song which went, "If they take our chances, we'll create our own." And that is really what the song is all about. But now, we often sing it with that line back in the song and it makes sense when we play it that way. But for me it's not about 68 guns, it's about what happens after the 68 guns [which] will never die. That is what speaks to me when I sing that song today; that is the emphasis for me because that's what I've been trying to do all my life.

Tony: You're so pro-life as opposed to anything which relates to warfare and killing and that sort of thing, isn't it time now for you to record a new version called "68 Doves" or something like that?

Mike: It's funny that you would say that, in this last couple of years with all the gun crime and the killing that's gone on. I've almost found that we should change it to "68 Love" and delete the word 'guns' from the title of the song. That is something I toyed with last summer, especially when we went to America and certain incidents had happened, horrific incidents of people losing it, just getting lost in life and hitting back at life through innocence. It's a terrible thing to see on the news especially when you've got young children yourself and seeing people going into a school with a gun and wiping people out, it's tragic. And so, I almost felt that there's no need for the title to say that anymore so it's possible that this summer I might well sing it as '68 Love'. Even if it's just me singing it it'll still move it on. It's interesting, when I discovered the line in the song about "If they take our chances, we'll create our own." In 2013 I went to see Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall in London and it was the first time he'd played there since the infamous time in his career when he went from acoustic to electric and people were calling him Judas because he'd taken up an electric guitar. One particular song he sang that night was "Tangled Up In Blue". When he started singing it I didn't recognise the lyrics, I thought it was a new song. When he mentioned the line "tangled up in blue" I thought, "Wow, he's just changed the lyrics at this time in his life" - for whatever reason he felt compelled to do that.

I felt really challenged and sort of unsettled by that because I didn't recognise this great song sung by this incredible artist, but he feels he still has the right to be able to go back to his art and give it another brush stroke. So when I went to look at "68 Guns" on its 30th anniversary I felt, well, I'm gonna do what Bob Dylan did, I'm going to reinvent it or reposition it or reimagine it or bring out another element to it that people didn't realise was there, that's still part of its creation but has been hidden. So I'm always in that mind-set now, that you can go back on everything you've created and adapt it. Being in a band, being a musical artist it's like being dumped in the river, it's flowing all the time. And sometimes you don't know why you're in that water until you've pushed out into the sea and you think 'Ha, this is where I've been traveling to.' So I think there's a lot to be learnt from "68 Guns" and I think, like you've mentioned, the word "guns" needs deleting so possibly this summer we'll have a new version to sing.

Tony: The Alarm's 'Equals' album has the song "13 Dead Reindeer", which has a distinct EDM flavour. Also there are one or two other things on there that don't sound like you'd expect The Alarm to sound.

Mike: It's really important to stay creative, with respect to where you've come from, but part of it for me is that I've never wanted The Alarm just to sit back and rest on its laurels because that's the kiss of death for an artist I think. As it's happened to us as a group at times or individually. At times I've had to sit back and think I need to kick myself and move forward. Because sometimes you get drawn into alleyways in your musical career that have a dead end to them and sometimes the way to get back on track into the main artery of the flow is a big kick to do that. And sometimes you'll do that by bringing in a producer or taking up a new instrument or challenging yourself to write a different kind of word that you're maybe not used to before and to sort of see those dark passages coming and head them off at the pass if you can. But with this new album, it came from a very challenging point in our life for all of us involved in The Alarm, especially for me and my wife Jules. And so I felt that there was new music being created in the turmoil of what was happening and I felt it was best to leave all the doors and windows open to receive whatever was going to blow my way.

Something like "13 Dead Reindeers", obviously it's an unusual title for a song as it is. It came because I was travelling in Norway at the time and there was a movement from some people there who are offended by the idea of what Christmas has become or becoming, the real message of it is getting lost. Also there's certain people in Scandinavia, they would go into stores and rip all the Christmas trees and the decorations down. These things started off as an innocent direct action protest that doesn't hurt anyone then somebody takes it to an extreme and they started killing reindeer. I thought that that was a tragedy. I felt compelled to write the song about how an innocent thought can be turned into something really dark and sometimes the internet allows really dark thoughts to flourish and to gain speed and traction and end up in really harmful places for individuals and communities. To give it that extra edge and to colour that we felt that we really needed something pulsating through it, would give an edge, so when The Alarm fans were listening to it in their comfort zone and thinking 'Here's another guitar track' they'd go 'What's this?' And it would throw the whole thing out of order so we could create a new listener experience for our fans and a new experience for us musically.

Tony: Having said that, I don't believe that any songwriter is going to be content just to write up songs. You've written some very dark material in your time. Talking of playlists, I suspect you may be surprised to learn that the most played track from your solo career on the Cross Rhythms stations is "The Message", a cover version and you outdo Grandmaster Flash on that. It's such a brilliant cover and it's a quintessential angry song - "Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge".

Mike: The lyric of the message is incredible. It's one of the greatest lyrics written. It's such an observation and everyone's been there, being pushed to the edge every day. We get pushed to the edge, get tested, get challenged, all day long by everything. And more so than ever before in the world we live in now. Sometimes you can't even post a message like, "Oh I love my wife." If you post that on the internet now people are going to reply "Shouldn't it be 'partner'." Anything you say about somebody today you're going to get challenged. I stay off the internet and I stay off the grid and I carry on my life I chose to live and the way I've been brought up.

Tony: Possibly because of my age I don't want to go on social media.

Mike: I think if you listen to what people are saying about you on social media then you become confined to that, you respond to that and you're not living free. It's like if you're an artist or a soccer player, the worst thing you can do is read what the people are saying about you in the press, all it will do is inhibit you. You'll start to respond to the negatives, you'll start to overthink things you don't need to overthink and you'll stop being yourself. You'll start wanting to be liked by the people who dislike you. So you change your stance on life and you don't say certain things that you want to say in case you offend somebody who doesn't like you or make them compound what they don't like about you and so you start to become less of yourself. I've always wanted in my life to just be myself and to be the person I've been brought up to be and to be part of the community I wanna belong to.

Tony: I've been reading through some interviews about your life story, and I've written here, "Your life's had more ups and downs than a scenic railway."

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