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My Fabulous Flip Sides
August 21, 2019
Fabulous Flip Sides – The Alarm – Interview with Mike Peters
We spoke with Mike Peters about the expanded reissue of The Alarm’s 1985 Strength album, the quartet’s solid new Sigmaalbum, his charity Love Hope Strength, receiving an MBE award from Prince Charles, and the group’s historic connection to U2.
By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE: We have a pair of new CDs to highlight. I am loving the new Sigma album, but let’s start with the Strength 1985-1986 2 CD rerelease with so many bonus songs beyond the original ten song album. In the U.S., the single “Strength” was released with “Majority” on the flip side, not included on the original album, but is included here, fortunately. “Strength” is powerful. I love the vocals and chorus. The song has sort of a U2-like anthem sound.
MIKE PETERS: We were playing a concert in Newcastle and the melody came to me and I wrote it the night after that concert. It is a song that has meant a lot to me and with our charity, where we “save lives one concert at a time,” it has aspired to the lyrics. It has achieved what was written. The line of “Who will be the life blood coursing through my veins?” certainly has come true with four-and-a-half-thousand people walking around with someone else’s lifeblood in them so that they can have a life. It is the theme song of the charity it has formed, speaking as a leukemia surivor. Our Love Hope Strength foundation has “Strength” in its title. People who have written us about how the song “Strength” has kept them alive made me feel positive in my chemotherapy sessions. With the surgeries that I have had to stay alive, that song has been on my play list when I have stayed in the hospital. It has helped me find strength to keep going. That is ultimately what you write a song for, to be more than a song on the radio. A lot of people hear music on the radio but not everybody listens and takes the lyrics to heart and use them as a method in their own life to inspire them to stay alive. That is where that song has made a connection. It is not the biggest hit on the chart but it leads on in people’s lives. To me, that’s what it is all about, where it resonates with them for the rest of their life because it has a connection.
GM: That is wonderfully purposeful. The flip side of the single is “Majority,” which is intense with rapid fire lyrics. I can see how a song like this could have inspired The Killers, who are rooted in ‘80s music, with their hit “Mr. Brightside.”
MP: It is interesting that you say that. The Killers recently performed their version of our “Rain in the Summertime” earlier this summer in concert. I remember playing a third person version of “Majority” when we were touring with U2. Bono loved that song and suggested a rewrite. He said, “I would like to hear it in the first person point of view.” I played around with the lyrics, so the flip side you are referring to is in the first person due to Bono’s suggestion. When we played it live it was even faster and the rapid fire lyrics went by at an incredible pace.
Flip side: Majority
A side: Strength
Top 100 debut: December 28, 1985
Peak Position No. 61
GM: You mentioned Bono. “Time” on the new album, Sigma, reminds me of U2 with the mandate of encouragement, “This is your life. These are your days, so make them the best you can.” I think that is a great message.
MP: It comes from a deep place. My wife and I are both cancer surviors. I have been living with leukemia since 1995 and my wife Jules was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and Bono got caught up in our story. Jules had just been diagnosed with cancer before a U2 concert and we met with Bono after the show and he is genuinely interested in people that he cares about, so he participated in our documentary on the topic Mike and Jules: While We Still Have Time. Bono and I have always had a kinship with a friendship that goes back to 1981. We learned a lot from each other when we were starting out. I gave Bono guitar lessons. As ridiculous as it sounds, when we met U2, The Edge couldn’t play guitar in the traditional sense. He played what he taught himself to play. He had a very original way of playing that gave rise to that Clash/U2 sound from the era. U2’s “I Will Follow,” for example, has a sound that is not rooted in traditional guitar playing. I tried showing The Edge some standard guitar chords because they felt excluded that they couldn’t play cover versions of songs. They could only do U2’s music. Bono would attempt to sing somebody else’s lyrics over the top of U2 songs, but they were really developing their own musicality. We were complete opposites on how we created music. The Alarm would always have a song to start with melody and lyrics and the band would arrange the parts. With U2, they would go into a rehearsal room with nothing, maybe a word or a little bit of guitar music and then start jamming and playing things to match what Bono might sing and they created their best music in that environment. When I met Bono he aspired to be a songwriter and a lyricist in the traditional Lennon and McCartney way and he has attained that now and has written incredible songs, but we grew up differently on that side of the art.
GM: You mentioned Jules, who now plays piano and sings backing vocals in The Alarm, and sing about her in your love song “Heroine,” with the opening lines, “My love is closer to me than God. Gives me what faith does not. My love is alive. She flows through my veins like blood.” It is a beautiful song.
MP: Thank you. The lyrics for these songs are unusual for The Alarm, from my approach to music. Most of the songs came from the melody when I was playing the guitar. I used to write songs from the big hook or chorus and work my way down the mountain to the substructure. With a song like “Heroine,” it started with just the lyric. I thought about what Jules was going through with breast cancer, being her partner, and the father of our kids. When she was going in for these treatments I felt very exposed emotionally. I thought I had taken the cancer bullet for our family. I didn’t expect my wife to have to do that. I just wrote lyrics into my phone. I didn’t have a musical instrument with me at the hospital. Originally these words were just to be for her but she encouraged me to turn them into a song for the band.
GM: The album ends softly. After “Heroine,” another one of my favorites comes next, “Armageddon in the Morning,” which is so poetic. Vocally, it reminds me of another British favorite of mine, Steve Harley from Cockney Rebel.
MP: I loved Cockney Rebel when they first came out with the song “Sebastian” and the early singles. They were quite a glam-rock kind of band along with David Bowie and Roxy Music. I am a big fan of that era. Obviously Cockney Rebel had the big hit with “Make Me Smile.” That is an interesting connection to make. It was just massive lyrics that I didn’t realize were connected. Where “Time” and “Heroine” were internal writings, “Armageddon in the Morning” was more looking at the world from the outside. We are obviously going through a very uncertain time in history. In America there is a different kind of president and in Britain, similarly, we are going through Brexit questions. So there is that uncertainly from a global perspective and there was the personal uncertainty not knowing if my wife was going to survive and the roles I have as a husband, caretaker and father. I had a relapse in 2015 and I was uncertain, too. All of that is wrapped up in the record.
GM: “Two Rivers (Reprise)” is a beautiful way to end the album with Jules on piano. It is a gentle finale and your convincing delivery reminds me of someone I met in his early days, Bob Geldolf, in 1978 when The Boomtown Rats were just beginning.
MP: How about that! We played shows with The Boomtown Rats in our pre-Alarm days! “Two Rivers” was also the start of the last record and I had thought that album, Equals, might be a double album, but then I thought that might be out of step with the attention span of what humanity is today. It would be very unlikely that people would sit down and listen to twenty new songs in a row by The Alarm, so we split the record into two records and have released the album Sigma a year later. I decided to record this reprise of “Two Rivers” as a different song with a different lyric. When you start making a record you are in the dark, not knowing what connections you will make as an artist and a human being. I felt we brought a lot of things together with this new record with feelings and fears. My wife survived breast cancer and I have gone from relapse to remission with a new drug to keep me alive, going through a technical trial. I felt like “Two Rivers” had a conclusion built into it. I felt I could look at “Two Rivers” from both sides of the water and both sides of the wall referenced in the lyric. I am quite pleased how people have taken to this new version and have made connections for themselves.
GM: In terms of some of the more rock numbers, “Can You Feel Me,” “Love and Understanding” and “Prisoners” are among my favorites.
MP: You got some fans in the band with those ones. “Can You Feel Me” was written later on in the process of making this record. I was on a plane and there is a gap between the seats. There was a female passenger who was obviously leaving her husband by text, writing, “Leaving is not the same as going.” I saw that through the gap of the airline seats and I thought, “That’s a song!” So it opens with, “Leaving’s not the same as going. Read it in a text across somebody’s shoulder. What’s the cost of breaking a heart? Tearing it all apart. Life ripping at the seems.” It is a real snapshot of modern life. We have these conversations now with our partners, with our adversaries, with our friends, massive conversations without being face to face, so I put it into song from one of those virtual life experiences that we all go through these days. I can’t take all the credit for the lyrics as some came from the forward seat passenger on the plane. You know, John Lennon stole a lot of his lyrics from the newspaper.
GM: Now you are on tour in America for Experience SIGMA LXXXV Tour 2019, even coming here to Florida.
MP: It will be fantastic. We haven’t been to Florida that many times but it important to our history. Early in our career we played with U2 in Tampa. We have four shows in Florida this time and that is something we are really looking forward to. We have great repoire with Floridians and many have traveled to see us in the UK and New York and it will be great to be back in the Sunshine State, supporting the new Sigma album and our other work.
GM: Back in the UK, you received a royal honor. I know that Princess Diana was a huge fan of ‘80s British rock, seated in front of David Bowie and Queen members at Live Aid and next to Prince Charles with Bob Geldolf at his side.
MP: I was also there when Charles was with Diana. We were recording the Strength album on that particular day, in fact. I had been to all three Bruce Springsteen concerts there the prior week. It is a little known fact that Bruce Springsteen left his sound system in Wembley so that there would be a proper sound system for Live Aid. On the 75th anniversary of the formation of the National Health Service in the UK, I was invited to sing and the guest of honor was Prince Charles. I sang “Walk Forever By My Side” from the Strength album. He was two feet away from me when I was singing it and he was looking at me, right in the eyes, and it was quite nerve-racking. Then I was awarded the MBE, which is the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, at Buckingham Palace and Prince Charles gave me the award and congratulated me on our charity and the band. It was a formal occasion. I was invited to go to his home in Wales and I was able to spend some time informally with Prince Charles. My wife Jules and I were there and he told me that his private secretary is a massive Alarm fan. It is funny that you never think of the royals buying LPs and getting into the band. He was very down to earth. He was very gracious company and it was a pleasure to meet him. Thank you again for our session. We hope to meet Goldmine readers on our U.S. tour.
A second Goldmine article will be coming soon: “Mike Peters’ 10 Albums That Changed My Life.”