The Alarm have combed down their hair and finally plugged in their guitars. Martin Wroe turns up the volume and takes a long hard look at the Welsh wonders’ second album.
Eight years ago, in a school in North Wales, two punked-up young boys discovered mutual inspiration in a band called The Clash and formed a punk combo named The Toilets. Those two lads, in the flush of youth, were Mike Peters and Nigel Twist.
Three and half years later Peters abandons well-dodgy mod band Seventeen to collaborate with Twist and fellow North Waleyans Dave Sharp and Eddie MacDonald in forming The Alarm. Principal instruments: guitars, harmonica, drums and emotion.
“We wrote our songs from our hearts. We would rather write one song that’s original than ten that are copies,” says Peters.
Three years, hundreds of gigs and thousands of new fans later; The Alarm release debut album `Declaration’ to widespread critical derision. The album isn’t bothered, it charts at number six and confirms the beliefs of thousands of fans with its primitive acoustic-thrash, its hymns and chants and anthems.
Sure the influences are clear – the heady raucous Clash-stomp of the tunes, the heavily Dylanesque poetry in the wordplaying of the lyrics – yet there’s an originality about it. No one else sounds quite like the Alarm, and few come close to generating the bubbling cauldron of excitement and communal fervour that is an Alarm gig.
America seems to like them too, persuaded by their support slots with the likes of U2 and The Pretenders. But all is not well in The Alarm camp – recording of the crucial second album is delayed by crammed diaries and impolite family traumas of prospective producers.
Two singles put out in the album’s absence flirt with the wrong end of the Top 40. A third, `Strength’ – the title track of the new album – looks more likely, but ultimately doesn’t quite make it.
And now `Strength’ – the album. And there’s some quite significant changes in the camp. On the image front, the electric-shock hairdo’s are more in control, shorter, neater, less comical, and the cowboy gear is gone too. Even the trademark acoustic guitars are apparently in process of replacement.
But more important are the musical changes. Where ‘Declaration’ hosted a clutch of immediate and irresistible anthems like `Where Were You Hiding?’, Sixty Eight Guns’, `Blaze Of Glory’ and `The Deceiver’, `Strength’ has only `Deeside’ and possibly `Spirit Of ’76’ to compare. The former is a stinging litany on the fate of `the working man’ with a familiarly powerful chant-chorus, the latter a sad and personal lament on the fate of punk’s children, born in such optimism and now often dead in despair.
But in the main The Alarm have swapped their punk anthems for rock songs, often with a distinctly old-fashioned feel – maybe it’s just the lead breaks and absence of acoustic guitar, or maybe it’s the sad pessimism that pervades the songs.
Mike Peters appeals for “love” “hope” and “strength” and doesn’t know if `I’m living or dying” (`Strength’) He’s “a lonely man walking lonely streets” (‘Dawn Chorus’), he writes of “a ` pointlessness about it all” (‘Knifedge’), of “black times everywhere” (‘Father To Son’) and the cruelty and unkindness of life (`Spirit of ’76’). Clearly he’s listened to one too many Smiths records.
Where before The Alarm suggested bold, strident answers rooted in faith and hope, now Peters is fraught with doubt and uncertainty (`Only The Thunder’), resorting to political solutions alone.
But perhaps the merit of the songs is in that same ruthless honesty and tracks like `Dawn Chorus’, ‘Knifedge’ and `Walk Forever By My Side’ are proud songs, infused with that special combination of Peters’ scrawny but powerful vocals and that ragamuffin rhythm section. But like Peters’ own confused thinking and pessimistic lyrics, `Strength’ is a touch too uncertain, a bit too bleak. At best it’s a step sidewards rather than forwards. Many of the songs cry out for the broken strings and duff chords of a live performance, just as The Alarm cry out for a crowd to busk to.
One for the collection, but maybe the next one should be a live album?