The Alarm is currently touring North America with Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel with a stop in Denver at the Oriental Theater on Friday, August 9. All three bands came up at around the same time and were on even mainstream radio in the early 80s. At that time post-punk bands of various stripes were enjoying varying degrees of popularity and commercial success. In addition to the above groups like U2, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees helped to define the sounds and look of that style of music for decades to come.
The Alarm’s roots in music go back to Wales where singer and guitarist Mike Peters cut his teeth as a live band playing in the punk band The Toilets in 1977. Peters says the fledgling group played with bands like The Clash, The Buzzcocks and Sioxsie & The Banshees. The band would go to London’s now legendary The Marquee Club, where the Rolling Stones played their first live show in 1962, to see bands including Chelsea whose James Stevenson once drove original Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp home one night because he’d had a bit to drink. Stevenson now plays in The Alarm as well as Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel. The same social milieu meant that Peters went to a clothing store on London’s King’s Row where Billy Duffy worked before the latter joined The Cult. At that time The Toilets had dissolved or rather evolved into a group called Seventeen. “That was fairly directionless in a way and we experimented with echo, power pop, rockabilly and we got lost in the learning curve,” comments Peters. “But we got a tour with the Stray Cats by pretending to be a support band at gigs and we played The Marquee Club and the guy who ran the club thought we were horrible.”
That club manager refused to book Seventeen from thereon out from one of the premier venues of the era. But a year later Peters and company had reconfigured and focused its ideas into The Alarm. And still the guy at the club recognized the members from being Seventeen. “[He] said, ‘I’m not gonna have them play,’” recalls Peters. But Chelsea Singer Gene October offered to get The Alarm a gig as a support band but needed an alternate name so The Alarm played The Marquee Club for the first time as The Black Sheep and the club manager said, “That band’s going places.” At that The Alarm’s manager quipped “That’s the band you wouldn’t book. That’s Seventeen!” And from there The Alarm became a popular band throughout the 80s even though savaged by the English music press. It’s 1983 single “Sixty-Eight Guns” broke into the top twenty in England and it’s 1987 single “Rain in Summertime” cracked the American top ten Mainstream Rock chart, the latter remaining a staple of college and Modern Rock playlists for decades.
Though known for unabashedly positive up-sweep to its music, The Alarm’s catalog runs the gamut of emotions with luminous songwriting that sounds like the band is striving to connect with something bigger than themselves. By 1991 in the wake of the then new album Raw, The Alarm called it quits. Peters went on to a respectable solo career but also engaged in a short-lived project in the late 90s with his previous acquaintance and now then friend Billy Duffy—Coloursound. The group recorded demos, no official releases, but it did perform live. “Pardon me saying so but those recordings have a kind of cult status for fans of the bands,” jokes Peters. The band sounded like a fusion of the great sounds of mid-80s post-punk and Peters says that in the audience of that first show were Ian Astbury, The Cult’s singer, and Eddie MacDonald formerly of The Alarm.
“The next morning the phones were ringing off the hook, says Peters. ‘Let’s get The Cult back together! Let’s get The Alarm back together.’” By the turn of the century or so both groups were back and active.
But by then Peters had already recovered from a bout of lymph cancer only to discover in 2005 that he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He formed the Love Hope Strength Foundation shortly after to support people suffering from cancer and leukemia. Peters and The Alarm continued to write and perform music perhaps more actively than in its previous iteration and in the wake of Peters’ wife/band mate, keyboardist Jules, diagnosis of breast cancer in 2016 The Alarm has put out four albums in three years beginning with Blood Red and Viral Black in 2017, Equals in 2018 and Sigma in 2019. It wasn’t just the urgency of health issues that has inspired this flurry of creative activity either. Peters took on the challenge of his creative legacy as well and not to just rest on past laurels like a band celebrating live a kind of museum.
“I think a lot of that stems from arriving at that point in 2010 or 2011 and an era of fortieth anniversaries for The Alarm,” says Peters. “And I like to look forward so I took that as an opportunity to re-present ourselves as a modern band even given the dynamics of who we are, our age, and even though we have active and inactive members but all part of the family—you become a history of the band. You go away but you never really leave. So I wanted to re-establish the band in the modern era given the weight of our history and make music that can stand up to that and live up to that and represent itself through itself against that history. With the new records it challenged us to re-establish ourselves. That’s a stronger calling, I think, and that’s what’s fueled all the new music we’ve made. And more the will to survive, my wife diagnosed with breast cancer and my leukemia relapsed. There was a lot of reason in the air and to make music that could be a soundtrack for us not just as human beings but as a band as well.”
With the new configuration of the band Stevenson, a versatile instrumentalist, has taken on a greater role playing bass pedals as well as guitar as Peters plays a special guitar called The Deceiver which looks like an acoustic guitar but has greater capabilities than the standard instrument. Peters also has microphones set up across the stage so he can move about and in general the music can be presented in ways that had not been possible previously. To perform live for the anniversaries of their respective releases, the first two albums 1984’s Declaration and 1985’s Strength have been revisited and reinvented given the new live format and not hemmed in by the technological and creative limitations of the time of their original release.
In 2017 The Alarm performed on the Vans Warped Tour side by side with much younger bands but earned the respect of musicians and audiences who, given the era, shared The Alarm via social media platforms and giving the group a new audience that only truly knows the modern band and not influenced by expectations of years past. And the younger audience is having an impact on The Alarm’s older fans through social media.
“That’s re-invigorated our old audience and they see younger people talking about the music in social media. And they can say this band is making music today and it validates their reason to like the band in the first place. As long as we’re enjoying it and our success isn’t getting number one on the Billboard charts but maybe to still be there. It’s about longevity and creating a life in music. We’re still learning what we’re capable of. In the 80s we had big hair and western clothing but that’s only one facet of our history and people can discover other facets of us and doors open for us as we play and opportunities arise when we stay true to the core values of the band which is to to be restless, never be happy with what you’ve be created, make things better, make it around the next musical corner, live for the day to find that chord and keep on dreaming and the thrill of the music.”
Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel have also been releasing some of the best music of their careers with 2016’s Take Me to the Trees with the former and the latter’s 2017 album Dance Underwater. Modern English in particular has always made interesting and moodily haunted post-punk but most people probably only remember the band for “I Melt With You,” which was commercially beneficial but has perhaps eclipsed its other fine offerings.
“A lot of bands can get overshadowed by a massive hit,” comments Peters. “I remember playing with Radiohead in Albany, NY in 1995. They were massive Alarm fans and struggling with the weight of ‘Creep.’ It became a sleeper hit in a way and they’d just released The Bends. And they were saying no one wants to hear The Bends, ‘They only want to hear ‘Creep!’ And it was killing them. Thom Yorke was really struggling and I talked with Jonny Greenwood and told him you’ve got to put your arm around this guy and stick to what you believe in and keep playing your music and it will come out from under the shadow. They stopped playing ‘Creep’ for awhile and I admire them for that because that’s what bands have got to do sometimes. That’s what’s great about seeing Modern English on this tour and spreading their wings and playing the music they love and playing ‘I Melt With You’ at the end of the night. It’s great seeing them and Jay and James playing songs from Dance Underwater. It’s as good as anything they’ve done. What’s good about this tour is that all three bands are as much about tomorrow and we’re all bands that have survived but the ethic of the band has stayed intact and that’s what people are experiencing when they come and see the tour.”