Tracking The New Inspirationals: The Alarm

THEIR MOVEMENT MAY be said to have been born on the smoggy Labor Day afternoon in 1983 when U2’s Bono climbed to the top of the US Festival’s stage scaffolding while a heretofore demoralized generation looked on in awe and Showtime’s cameramen got nosebleeds just watching.

They have these things in common: Their hearts are in the right place; they spurn the synthesizers the New Romantics were so fond of in favor of good old-fashioned guitars; they don’t want you to dance, necessarily, but to be moved, emboldened, given hope. Towards this end they write no mere songs, but rousing anthems, often with military cadences in the drumming. They are the New Inspirationals.

In this case, they are the ones with the Ronettes-getting-electric-shocks hairdos, acoustic guitars, buckskin and cowboy boots; they are Wales’ the Alarm (known to some old cynics as U3), with whose guitarists Mike Peters and Dave Sharp I rendezvous while they’re in L.A. to warm up audiences for the Pretenders.

“I think a lot of people are missing out on the humor in the Alarm,” says Mike Peters when asked what he wants to talk about. “People seem to think we’re these four very serious young rock ‘n’ roll politician street commandoes or rock ‘n’ roll outlaws. But we’re not any of those things. We’re four ace mates who are having a brilliant time here in America.”

A warm, immensely likeable 25-year-old who looks a little bit like Steve Martin in a fright wig, Peters beams at you as he speaks, and he seems to find nearly everything brilliant. “To us, politics is about dividing people. Manifestos come from people who don’t have any emotion or care about the people they’re talking to. All they’re interested in is getting an X on somebody’s voting card. But we care about people – we’re trying to unite people.”

“Being in a band is about the sharing of ideas and living in a society is about the sharing of ideas,” notes guitarist Dave Sharp, who won’t come across here as quite the lethal combination of self-importance, longwindedness, and fuzzy articulation that he does in real life because I’ve edited him like mad. “At one point a few years ago, I don’t think people wanted to share things through music. But then the dust-bowl of the world recession came down and nobody could see where they were going. People said, ‘I’m going to survive this, and sod everybody,’ People were trying to survive at other people’s expense. It’s exciting to be here now that people’s eyes have got adjusted to the darkness and you can take somebody by hand and say, ‘This is the way out.’”

Aside from all their noble aspirations, I wonder if wealth, fame and women weren’t three more reasons Peters and Sharp had formed their group with bass guitarist Eddie MacDonald and drummer Twist, all of them chums from adolescence. “Those are things that everybody wants,” Peters acknowledges, “but some people can’t have wealth or lots of women. To be honest, we don’t have time for that sort of thing. I’m not interested in all the parties and ligging that goes on after gigs anyway – I’d rather sit by the stage door and chart with the fans.”

Sharp chimes in, metaphors poised: “You might think of success as being five Cadillacs, three million TVs and a wonderful, wonderful relationship with someone. Your own back yard might be sorted out, but there’s still something left that you can contribute to other people’s back yards. We’re all capable of traveling our own particular roads and maybe helping giving a lift to someone else along the way instead of passing them and giving them V’s (the British equivalent of the finger) out the back window.

“What people like us didn’t realize when we first got out of school and found ourselves without any jobs or future,” Sharp notes, “was that it wasn’t the government’s fault. There’s a lot of people who live in real fear and experience real aggression. But in Britain and America and Western Europe we’re lucky to be living under moderate governments that let you make your own future, just like we did when we started our own little club and a little magazine and a little clothes shop back in Rhyl.”

I suggest that Sharp’s attempt to brow-beat the Pretenders’ Universal Amphitheatre audience into responding more vocally to the Alarm betrayed the sort of egotism that the New Inspirationals might be expected to keep under wraps. Sharp lets fly with some poppycock about having really been concerned about the audience’s not being allowed to cheer as loudly as it wanted to, and Peters reveals, “We’ve been together as the Alarm for 2-1/2 years, but really we’ve been trying for ten years.” In 1977, Twist joined Peters’ band, the Toilets, who renamed themselves Seventeen when the former’s next-door neighbor MacDonald joined soon thereafter. Sharp sat in between tours of duty in the merchant navy.

“We had massive egos then,” Peters continues. “We’d go around to record companies and demand to know why they didn’t want to sign us up when we were so brilliant. Record companies don’t have the guts to tell you when your music stinks, but we were fortunate to meet some people who did, like Kevin Rowland,” for whose Dexys Midnight Runners Seventeen briefly served as opening act.

“He came right up to us after the second date and went, ‘Listen, you’re a pile of rubbish. I don’t want you on my tour. What you’re doing doesn’t count for nothin’. You’re trying very hard to win the audience over, but they don’t want to know you.’ We’d been taken to the mountaintop. The group split up but the friendship didn’t.”

Peters refutes the notion that, like the faithful legatees of the Clash they are, they’ve disdained to write and sing about that without which there will be no future generations to embolden and inspire – love. “We just haven’t done it in the typical sense,” he asserts. “I’m not interested in writing about boy/girl things – I like to write from personal experience and I don’t have time for that sort of relationship myself. But I am interested in love, what it is and why its drives people on. ‘The Deceiver,’ which people interpret as political, is in fact an attempt to explore ‘the thin line between love and hate,’ to quote Chrissie Hynde [sic]. To write a song about how people can have fistfights and violently argue with each other without it detracting from their relationship.”

As our time together nears its end, both Alarmists profess delight with the interviewer’s adversary stance. “I hope that people question me as well as themselves,” claims Peters. “Don’t take what I say at face value, I may be talking a pack of lies. But if I don’t put down what I think and then offer it to you to criticize, then I’m not going to learn anything myself.

“We ain’t got the answer for everybody, you know. We’ve only got the answer for ourselves, for our own little piece of the world. We’ve got to have people questioning things and throwing them back at us. All we can really say is that we believe every individual – in the places that we go, at least – has the ability to shape the future with their own two hands. All we’re trying to do is make people realize the power within themselves.”

© John MendelsohnRecord, June 1984

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