ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL
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Famed 1980s band The Alarm, playing Sellersville Theater 1894, again finds itself among 'Equals'
November 13, 2018
When Mike Peters, front man for 1980s Welsh new wave-rockers The Alarm, with faced with his wife, Jules, battling breast cancer last year, he found an outlet in writing down his feelings while he waited in the hospital with her during surgeries and treatments.
“A lot of it was written because we’d had to put life on hold for a while,” Peters says. “I had to take on the parental responsibilities because of that situation, and I found myself in the hospital a lot … standing aside while my wife had to go incredibly long surgeries, radio therapy, chemotherapy sessions.”
Peters says he, of course, didn’t have with him the guitar on which he usually writes, “but I was feeling incredibly deep feelings and wanted to just express them. And I would just tap lots of what was happening to me, what I was feeling about my kids, the future, our family. I just wrote masses of words.”
Those transcribed feelings turned into songs that became The Alarm’s new album “Equals,” released in June as The Alarm’s first full album in eight years. It also has put The Alarm back on the U.K. charts: “Equals” hit No. 3 on the U.K. Rock chart.
The band now is on the road in America to support the disc, and stops at Sellersville Theater 1894 for a nearly sold-out show at 8 p.m. today, Nov. 13.
Peters’ wife recently was given a two-year check that shows her all clear of cancer. He says that when he and his wife had “come through the worst of the times” with her cancer, she asked him how he felt when she was in surgery for eight hours.
“And I said, ‘Look, this is what I wrote down.’ And she read them and said, ‘Hey Mike, this should probably be the start of your next record. Maybe all of your songs could be in this.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”
“So I took it into the writing studio and just laid all these words out and I started to make a word association, and words came off one page that referenced another, and lots of melodies in those words,” he says.
“And that’s a completely opposite way to the way I always worked in the past. For the most part, anyway, I would start at the top of the mountain of songwriting, with the chorus or a melody that I created on the guitar. And then I’d work backward to find the verses, and the words and the intros and the lyrics. And this one seemed to start from the bottom of the mountain.”
Those earlier albums made The Alarm one of the most respected voices in the politically charged early 1980s – alongside burgeoning bands such U2 and Big Country, with both of whom The Alarm shared both the stage and soaring, emotional melodies.
The Alarm’s 1984 debut disc “Declaration” included the Top 40 Mainstream Rock hit “68 Guns” and the radio hits “The Stand,” “Marching On” and "Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?" Its biggest commercial success came in 1989, when its song "Sold Me Down the River" peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart.
Peters says that while the new disc’s sound has changed and become more modern, “Equals” to him still carries the original spirit of The Alarm.
“The audience is really connecting with this record, in a way that some of the others haven’t,” Peters says. “So it definitely feels like we did something a bit harmonious with this one.”
He says The Alarm doesn’t necessarily have a “sound” as much as it does a spirit.
“All our albums have to attain a benchmark that I set a long time ago, and that was when I started the band, that all our songs had to be played on an acoustic guitar at their basic level,” he says. “To be an Alarm song, they have to stand up in that environment.
“And that’s really true of ‘Equals.’ I can really play – and I have just played … ‘Equals’ acoustically from start to finish. And it stands up. I’ve done it in the past – I can play every single Alarm album on an acoustic guitar. And that’s where our sound lies.”
In fact, Peters says he brought in a new producer, George Williamson to help evolve The Alarm’s sound.
“I wanted someone to come in and really challenge us as a band to make a record and to re-think the way our stance was on the stage, and how we approached the music … and the sound in general, Peters says.
“And I was so glad we did it. He really pushed on to make … a really modern-sounding record, in line with the mission the band set out to do when we first started. And it’s certainly made a huge connection with our audience. We’ve played a lot of it live, and it sits well alongside all the songs that we’re known for and refreshes them. So it’s worked for us on so many levels.
“A lot of times our contemporaries, sometimes they feel trapped in their history – that they’ve got to keep repeating what they’ve done. But to me, I’ve never felt that way.”
Peters says one of the most satisfying things for him is that The Alarm’s songs have continued to evolve in meaning for both him and the group’s audience – able to “reveal itself in all the situations you find yourself in. We’ve been lucky like that.”
For example, Peters also underwent a battle with cancer – leukemia –in the mid-2000s, and relapsed in 2015. Now nearing 60, he began experimental treatment with portable chemotherapy treatments that he continues today.
He says that the centerpiece song of “Declaration,” which was released nearly 35 years ago, was “68 Guns,” “and I’ve played that all my life. There’s hardly an Alarm show that it’s not played.” But he says he has found new meaning it in line “Sixty-eight guns our battle cry/sixty-eight guns will never die.”
“When I played it back then, it was a battle-cry song, it was an anthem for youth about creating opportunities, making the best of life,” Peters says. “But now, after all the life experience that’s been thrown at me, it’s [a statement] to never die. ‘Sixty-eight guns will never die’ – that’s what speaks to me lyrically in a song. That wasn’t the main focus when I sang it 35 years ago, but it is now.
“And so by sticking with these songs, and being proud of them, and not letting them slip away, they’ve lived with us – lived with me. … In a way, that song means more to me now than it did then, as I think it does for our audience.”
“Equals” actually represents a creatively rich period for Peters and The Alarm. This year, it released two compilation discs, “Eponymous 1981-83” and “Declaration 1984-85,” and last year released two EPs of new songs, “Blood Red” and “Viral Black.”
Peters says the new EPs were him working through new songs right before the cancer scare with his wife.
“They were a precursor to ‘Equals’ -- that was the breeding ground,” he says. He says he was “putting songs into categories, trying to find the songs that fit together as a complete body of work.”
But he acknowledges it’s been a “massively creative period,” which he likens to the early 2000s, when he rebooted The Alarm with a new lineup after he walked away from the group, causing it to split, in 1991.
From 2002-08, the group released eight albums – five of them as the fictitious band The Poppy Fields, who later revealed themselves to be The Alarm. The new lineup now has lasted almost twice as The Alarm’s original lineup.
“We all feel privileged that we can all be in a band that still has meaning to people, and for us,” he says. “That’s always been the challenge – to stay relevant and be meaningful to our audience and ourselves.”