JOHN WAYNE didn’t do too much for anyone, but he left a fine legacy of shirts – and they look even better on the Alarm.
That’s them up onstage, sleeves metaphorically rolled up, sweat on brow, no pissing about, eyes wide open and gazing firmly into the distance like some bold, brave, pure and noble boys marching off to some righteous black-and-white-movie war. Guitars aren’t played, they’re hammered; songs aren’t sung, they’re fired; audience participation is a call to arms. Just a bunch of anthems, if you want to look at it that way – instantly memorable, stirring and immediate as a cup of Maxwell House, and everything played like a grand finale. But it’s a beat you want to stomp to and words you want to believe in. The crowd’s lifting their arms above their heads and chanting along, while the writers are muttering words like Clash, Springsteen, U2, Dylan, naivete. Of course they’re naive – they believe in Hope Around The Corner and I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing and The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow, and they believe in it with a fervor and a zeal and a joyous gung-ho enthusiasm that borders on the religious – but hey, they’re nice blokes, they’ll admit it. Still, there’s something about people with that much conviction in what they’re doing – you can’t help but go along at least part of the way. Which is why the Alarm are so popular.
Which is why I’m up at a time of morning when all good soldiers should be bedded in their barracks, talking to Mike Peters and Dave Sharp, two of the Alarm (the others: Eddie MacDonald and Nigel Twist) up at IRS. They’re both dressed like frontiersmen and could both talk the hind legs off a horse; Dave talks quietly and studiedly and stone-facedly and Mike gushes enthusiastically and excitedly and rapidly through an ever-present smile. Most of what they’ve got to say underlines and initializes and capitalizes and sticks neon lights around the same subjects: You Can Do It (Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise); Don’t Just Sit There (It’s Your Life, Live It); Hope Is Always Around The Corner (There’s Better Times Ahead); a kind of Do-It-Yourself guide to a better future. Which has got a lot of critics upset – why should these cute young things worry their little heads about such fretful stuff when all anyone really wants to do is copy their haircuts? All the Alarm have got to say to that is: do your hair however you like, as long as it doesn’t block your ears.
Anyway, all this waffle is a preamble to let you know you’ll be hearing lots of stuff about idealism and optimism – and if you’re an old hippie and liable to unsettling flashbacks, or if you want to know how to get that porcupine-landing-strip look, you might as well get off here and read the Duran Duran bit or whatever’s lurking over the page.
In a record industry that’s 99.5 percent made up of the blind leading the bland (I’d make it a more honest 99.95 percent but hey, I want to stay on a few mailing lists), the Alarm stand out like Wendy O. Williams’s chest: they’re firm and muscular, proud and passionate, naked and uplifting, don’t mind looking silly as long as they don’t get exploited. And they’ve got a point.
“I’m not preaching communism, I’m not preaching fascism, I’m not preaching anything. I’m a rock ‘n’ roller, not a clergyman,” says Dave Sharp. “All I can do is say to people what I know, what’s happened to me in my life, and share it and hope that it’s of some use towards building a better future. I don’t know what the ideal future is – I know it’s got to lead to moving forward to better places.
“If I want to court a girl called Honesty in the future and Destiny and Hope and Faith, then I’ve got to give her compassion and truth and understanding, and hope that a relationship will grow, because that’s the only way it will grow. And eventually I might be able to put my arms around her and give her a big hug and say ‘hello’.”
“We’re not so bold,” says Mike Peters, “to come out and say we’ve got the perfect answer for the world, because we haven’t. But we’re not afraid to walk into the future. People say, where are we marching to? I can’t tell you what the furniture’s like or what the pictures on the wall are, but I know I’m heading into the future and I want to walk with my eyes open and see things. We try to get reactions out of our songs. We’ve got a lot of power as the Alarm now, and we’ve got to use that power with a lot of integrity and a lot of care and a lot of thought behind it. We mustn’t fall into the trap of abusing it.
“People have been blinded by this recession, I think,” thinks Dave. “They don’t notice the person standing next to them. It’s not the government’s job to pull us out of a recession, it’s not Margaret Thatcher’s job or Reagan’s job or whoever’s in power. The government’s job is to create the framework in which we ourselves can create our futures with regard to other people, and help other people along by doing what we do best. I find the best way to express myself – and the best way to have maximum use and not just me scratching away and not caring about whatever else is going on – is music. This is the way I can have the most effect on the times we’re living in right now, and of maybe helping somebody else and all the fans that come down to see us.
“I always wanted to find the way I could express myself best – and I didn’t want to be told which way that was going to be. I wanted to ask my own questions and find my own answers, so that I’d still be me. I didn’t bother going to university or anything like that, I just went away to sea for four years to look for the answers and look for the questions to ask and always keep myself open to be aware of those things.”
When he got back home to Rhyl, North Wales, after a stint in the Merchant Navy, Dave kept tripping over Mike, Eddie and Nigel. The three had just disbanded a Buzzcocks-style group called Seventeen and were putting another band together. Nigel Twist – who’d been in a group with Dave back in Manchester before their families moved to Wales – got him to join. The only trouble was they all played guitars; after a bit of shuffling around, they settled on their various instruments, and after lots of complaints from the old lady upstairs, they chucked the electric stuff in favor of accoustic, since amplified beyond belief.
They moved to London after the little scene they’d set up in Rhyl collapsed – The Gallery, a club they opened “by young people for young people,” got trashed by outsiders – and used the money they made from gigs and jobs driving vans and tending bars to press up 2,000 copies of a single, ‘Unsafe Building’, and stick it out on their own crusading White Cross label.
“We went to London,” says Dave, “because that’s the center of communication and that’s where the radio stations speak from and the records get sent out from, and we wanted to go where our voice would get heard the loudest.”
Not that it got heard instantly. Dexys Midnight Runners had them open for them and advised them to give up; though the single sold out its whole pressing, it wasn’t sudden fame. That didn’t come until they started getting more political – after the various unemployment riots around England, the songs became less pop, more power-to-the-people – and until they got a spot on the U2 tour. Bono liked them (“When great music is made, there are usually great people behind it, and the Alarm are great people.”) and the press liked Bono, so the attention spilled over onto the Alarm. They joined U2 on their U.S. tour, an EP came out on IRS – they turned down major labels because “they wanted to take our freedom, they just sell records like a piece of plastic and value it at no more than that, just taking out without putting back in” – accompanied by amazingly successful live gigs, and a new album, Declaration, recorded in blocks of two or three songs over a period of seven months, which they say is a “document of where the Alarm is right now, but not everything that the Alarm will be.”
Of course there’s anthems on it. “It’s dead hip,” Dave frets, “to say that the Alarm write anthems at the moment. It’s dead hip to say all sorts of things about the Alarm. I don’t know whether they are anthems, I just write them as really good songs. It’s funny how people are so ready to put walls around things and look at them through a glass case, ready to sum up something so easily. Maybe they’re easy to sum up – but I hope not, because I put a lot of faith into these songs. Those songs aren’t there to be summed up, they’re there to be heard and used in any way that you want to use them, songs that people can take off that album into their heart and say ‘yeah, that was of some value to me; listening to that wasn’t a waste of my time’.”
And of course there’s soldierly stuff on it. “We were from a pretty small town, a no-hope town, the Industrial Revolution had died before our very eyes and does the world need another band?” Mike poses the question. “And it doesn’t; at least it thinks it doesn’t. And we had to fight a battle to break out from where we were from. And those songs to us were like literal statements of what we were doing. We were marching on with our records. And White Cross and our song about the unknown soldier – a lot of early fans of the Alarm were taking these records and becoming unknown soldiers and part of the cause of the Alarm. So a lot of these songs that deal with a sort of war theme were very relevant to us, because we were fighting a battle, everyone was writing bad things about us and shooting us down, saying ‘who needs another guitar band singing about war and peace?’ But we’ve managed to show them that we are capable of doing a lot more than writing about war and marching on, that those are very valid statements and they’ve been said now and it’s time to move on.
The band’s aware of the danger of degenerating into meaningless gesture, all style and no substance, they say, and reckon they’ll chuck it in before becoming a walking cliche. They realize they can’t go out and talk to each and every member of their audience between sets, like they used to, so want to compensate by writing more personal songs, songs aimed at the individual. Above all else they believe in individualism, but not, they say, the American style – which they see as cutting yourself off from the rest of the universe, I’ve-got-my-four-BMWs-so-I’m-alright-Jack, and the antithesis of their share-and-share-alike policy. Oh, and they’ve got plenty more to say, but no room for you to read it. So a final burning question. Is this much-touted New Hope Movement or New Young Guitar Revival or New Folk or New Energy or whatever-you-want-to-call-it-thing just a load of old hippies with a highly advanced fashion consciouness?
“I cut my hair the way I want to cut it and I dress the way I want to dress,” says Dave. “I’m trying to encourage people to do the same – not dress like me and have a haircut like me but how the hell they want it, and don’t let anyone tell them how to look, least of all me. They’re creating rules for themselves that they don’t need; they’ve got too many rules already. They’ve got to find out their own way to dress, have their hair cut, and live it.
“I think there are some bands that think the same way as we do, who’ve set standards for themselves and believe in change, but I don’t think it’s a movement.
“I think that the things the Alarm are trying to sing about is survive this dust storm of world recession, these hard times, and don’t do it at other people’s expense. There are peaceful ways of doing it. A lot of people have forced them to use bombs and guns, but there are peaceful ways that we can all move forward together and exchange ideas and share things and celebrate that there is peace around the world right now. Some people may relate to things like that in terms of fashion – ie. hippie, punk, rockabilly – but I think peace ain’t fashion and sharing ideas ain’t fashion and honesty ain’t fashion. I think to look at it in terms of fashion is really silly.”
“And there’s so many people looking to chain us up to the past,” says Mike, “and call us naive and say the Alarm doesn’t mean anything new, it’s all been said before. But I believe in change and I believe in a peaceful future and so did Bob Dylan when he wrote ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’. I don’t believe a better future will come tomorrow, especially with cynics around calling us hippies or whatever. But we’re trying, we’re doing something and maybe other people will hear us and do something, and that’s what’s important.”
© Sylvie Simmons, Creem, July 1984