Return to The Alarm

September 3rd at 1:48pm

The 80s touched down at the Keswick recently. Or at least, the alternative outskirts of 80s music – that quirky neighborhood that they used to call college rock. The Sigma tour – named after The Alarm’s most recent album – was a treat of varied musical styles and like-minded musicians.

This was a smart triple bill of alternative British bands who have strong reputations and followings and some beloved cult-favorite songs although none of them actually had any big chart hits in the US. This was not just some Top of the Pops tour.

Even Modern English’s “I Melt With You” – arguably the most recognizable song played and certainly considered an iconic new wave tune – never came close to making the top 40, despite the band releasing two different versions of the song as singles in 1982 and again in 1990. In fact, of the songs played in all three sets – many of which are pretty well-known – the highest one reached on the Billboard pop charts was The Alarm’s “Sold Me Down the River,” which peaked at 50.

These songs may not have been big hits, but they sure should have been.

First up was the slightly awkwardly renamed Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel. This kind of rebranding – the group was known in its glory years simply as Gene Loves Jezebel – is usually a dead giveaway that there are at least two factions made up of some of the original members of the group, touring as the “official” band.

This split is particularly sad – both Jay and his estranged identical twin brother Michael Aston have versions of the band and are laying claim to the name. This iteration does include three of the mainstays of GLJ’s glory days – singer Jay Aston, guitarist/songwriter James Stevenson (who is also a member of current lineup of The Alarm) and bassist Peter Rizzo.

Aston is an exciting and excitable front man – he still has a supple falsetto, rock star moves and he excitedly screeches his stage banter as if he is Paul Stanley. The band’s quirky mixture of dance, fuzztone and rock – think a slightly more accessible version of the Jesus & Mary Chain – has aged well, with such shoulda-been-hits like “Desire,” “Jealous” and “Motion of Love” still coiling like a snake at the show.

Next up was punk-new wave combo Modern English. Lead singer Robbie Grey was obviously having a great time, engaging the crowd, calling for the people in back to come up towards the stage and dance in the aisles. (A venue security guard looked at me when Grey called the people down and mouthed, “Please, no…”)

Despite the fact that they are now mostly looked back on as one-hit-wonders, Modern English put together a diverse set of old and new tunes. Hearing “Hands Across the Sea” after all these years reminds us of how that song was robbed of being a huge hit, while newer songs like “Trees” showed that the band still has a good way with a catchy tune.

And, of course, the band closed out with their signature tune. “I Melt with You” is a classic for a reason. Smart, propulsive, toughened up in a live setting, the song went down like a sweet, half-remembered dream of better times. If a band must be known for one thing, this song is as good of a calling card as you can ask for.

The Alarm started out as a big-sounding angry rock band along the lines of contemporaries like War-era U2 and Big Country. This sound still packs a wallop – the angry lyrics and martial beat of the early protest single “The Stand” still slayed the Keswick crowd all these years later.

However, leader Mike Peters has done a lot of living since he was an angry young man. He has survived a 20-year battle with blood cancer and his wife – band keyboardist Jules Jones Peters – just won her own battle with breast cancer. Therefore, the band was a bit more circumspect with age – and also made sure that the show emcee, a Welsh friend named Del, strongly promoted cancer prevention.

The band’s singles still sound timeless, like the angry breakup song “Sold Me Down the River” and the stunningly beautiful “Rain in the Summertime.” By the time the group headed off into the night with a stunning medley of “Marching On,” “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke” and “Sixty-Eight Guns,” the musical voyage to a more idealistic, more righteous and more aware world was complete.

Jay S. Jacobs