Bands of the 1980s: The Alarm

Posted on Mon Sep 24 2007 at 5:13 pm in the category 1980s, Alarm, Alternative / Experimental, Artists / Bands, U2 -- Copyright notice

Listen as you read: “The Stand” (audio snippet from first self-titled ["Eponymous"] album, © 1983 IRS).

One band that very few seem to remember (at least in North America), even if they were teenagers in the 1980s, is The Alarm (full discography). The Alarm was a contemporary of both U2 and Simple Minds, and there was a fair bit of interaction among members of all three of these bands in the early 80s. Bono was known to appear on stage at Alarm concerts, and vice versa for Mike Peters, the lead singer of The Alarm. The Alarm opened for U2′s War tour in 1983. There was a sense in which The Alarm was Wales’ U2, Simple Minds was Scotland’s U2, and, well, U2 was Ireland’s U2.

All three bands were punk-influenced (as is clear in the Alarm tune you are listening to now and the cover of Declaration [1984] to your right) with a touch of new wave and a Joy-Division-like somberness at times. All formed and began recording in the late 1970s or early 80s. All were played on “alternative” stations, such as CFNY (now “the Edge”) here in the Toronto area.

By 1983, both U2 and the Alarm were known for their politically-charged anthems. U2 and the Alarm were also known as excellent, lively concert performers. I can remember how overwhelmed I felt at one particular Alarm concert at Massey Hall when I was about 16 or 17. The energy at an Alarm concert was hard to match!

Although there are similarities among the three, each nonetheless had its distinctive character (and I’m not just talking about the Alarm’s regretful hair-dos). While U2 went on to mass stardom and Simple Minds continues to have radio play (on retro stations) as a result of their hits (such as “Alive and Kicking”), The Alarm is largely forgotten here in North America. This is the case even though Mike Peters has continued to record both under his own name and with bands such as Coloursound, along with members of the Cult (Bill Duffy) and the Mission (Craig Adams). Most recently, Peters has now formed a new Alarm (official site here — a video will start playing), called “Alarm MMVI”, which charted in the UK with “Superchannel”. The loss of memory of the Alarm is unjustified in some ways.

Listen as you read: “Eye of the Hurricane” (audio snippet)

The Alarm quite quickly progressed from the very basic, punk-influenced marches (and, yes, you can march to just about every early Alarm track) of 1983′s self-titled EP to a more well-refined alternative sound by 1987′s Eye of the Hurricane (© IRS). There are also continuities, though, in the sense that from beginning to end the Alarm had an intriguing sound marked by a combination of both acoustic and electric sounds (harmonica was not uncommon). The new incarnation of the Alarm XXVI harkens back to the 1983 sound more so than 1987, by the way, with its more direct, garage-band sound.

In some ways, the Strength (1985) album was a clear transition from the earlier, more basic sound which was still heard in “Sixty-Eight Guns” (on Declaration [1984]), to the more refined and produced sound of Eye of the Hurricane. This fourth album seemed promising in breaking the band to a larger audience, and it did so to some degree. The single “Rain in the summertime” which you are listening to now did get considerable radio play at the time and hit #6 on the US charts, according to the Wikipedia article. It was a bit harder to get Alarm concert tickets as a result. The album is an interesting combination of acoustic and electric as expected, and yet synthesizers were added and stand out quite prominently here (understandable for 1987). Two more, commercially less-successful albums followed (Change [1989] and Raw [1991]) before the group disbanded. As mentioned, Mike Peters continues to record but is basically unknown in North America, and he has remixed all of the Alarm CDs, adding b-sides and other rareties to each.

UPDATE: Little did I know, but it seems that there have been two, recent documentary-style reality shows by the BBC that follow the daily family life and struggles (including the struggle with cancer) of Mike Peters and his wife and two children. Go to the Alarm “news” section: The Peters’ Family BBC Documentary.

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2 Responses to “Bands of the 1980s: The Alarm”

  1. Tony C-B Says:

    Hi Phil: ahh, the Alarm. I remember in the late eighties trying to see the band several times at the Highlands in Cambridge and the shows kept getting canceled because the band had trouble getting into the country. Have you heard that several years ago the band released a hit single in the UK under a different name and represented in video by young actors (a la Milli Vanilli)? The goal was to show that music should get airplay regardless of the age or image of the performers. Check the story out–I may have some of the details wrong, since I’m aged too.

  2. pharland Says:

    Hey Tony,

    I had never heard this story, but I’ll investigate to find out and post whatever I find out.