I think the people at King Biscuit would like this record to be cited as "King Biscuit: The Alarm", as if King Biscuit is such an enduring emblem of musical quality that it becomes the artist of these recordings, as if thinking people the world over are endeavoring to keep their King Biscuit collections complete, caring little whether the next installment features the Waitresses or Uriah Heap, just thrilled to know that another random hour of music has been aged to delicious perfection in an oaken vault buried deep under Cleveland, waiting for the perfect day when a bright young intern realized that legally, nobody could stop them from trundling out CDs of every minute they ever broadcast. Standing in the way of the noble dream of corporate brand-loyalty is the fact that the releases themselves have the shoddy look of an apprentice bootlegger's first surreptitious practice-run. The stenciled band-name, splintered-wood background, grainy computer-drawn flower and random song-title capitalization that adorn this package all look to me like the work of a twenty-two-year-old with a copy of Photoshop and an empty-handed courier idling in his doorway, working from the memory of having seen the cover of an Alarm record, once, at a friend's house, long ago, or was that The Armoury Show? The "Collector's Edition" liner notes devote one page to a wildly self-congratulatory essay about the King Biscuit Flower Hour itself, and two to an ineptly written and chronologically haphazard biography of the Alarm that can't even provide the date of this recording, much less anything a "Collector" didn't already know. Even the truncation of "King Biscuit Flower Hour" to "King Biscuit" irritates me, a corporation trying to assert its own familiarity, and in doing so deleting the only word of the name, "Hour", whose pertinence I ever understood. The production quality is woeful, at times losing entire instruments in the bowels of the mix, Dave Sharp's guitar somehow ending up sounding like the Wedding Present, Eddie Macdonald's bass rarely hitting two in-tune notes in succession, Mike Peters shouting to be heard over it all as if the band grew up so poor they never learned to use stage monitors. The last track here, a "bonus interview", is a distorted ten-minute phone conversation with Peters for which clearly neither party has prepared, and I'm not entirely sure that Peters even knows he's being recorded. In their hurry to take advantage of their only asset, now that live broadcasts are no longer novel, the people at King Biscuit have missed the fact that although their radio show was significant, its significance was not the archival value of its broadcasts, but rather their timeliness.
What bails them out, however (and you could claim that they know what they're doing, but I don't see any evidence to that effect), at least in this instance, is that the Alarm, in Boston for a rare headlining appearance on an unknown December night, 1981, transcend themselves. They seem to be in control of their direction in only the loosest conceptual sense; Twist's drumming is reasonably decisive, but the other three musicians stick to their parts with all the graceful aplomb of derailed subway cars, careening through chord-changes in the hope that if they move fast enough, any mistakes they make will recede into the past too rapidly to register. King Biscuit's no-overhead dumping of the tape onto CD turns out to be the best possible thing they could have done with it. By sitting still and keeping the microphones pointing in the correct direction, some uncredited attendant captured the band's breathless intensity an order of magnitude more vividly than any of the albums they made themselves. Their one official live record, the half-hearted Electric Folklore Live, may as well be of someone else. The Alarm, the real Alarm, were grand masters of ragged, anthemic catharsis, and in concert, with eyes to make contact with, and heartbeats with which to beat in sympathy, they came alive in a way that the studio experience could almost inevitably never recreate. Over time, in fact, it seems to me that instead of learning how to impose their will on the studio, the Alarm just became progressively more confused by it, assured by too many producers that this bizarre, polished, impersonal quartet on the records was their true selves, and eventually, their faith in themselves sapped to the point of collapse, they were reduced to attempting to oblige the illusion, to become the strangers they saw in their own publicity photos. I saw them for the last time in the same club where this show was recorded, almost exactly a decade later, on tour for the blunt, lifeless Raw, desperately trying to recall their old selves, and failing. But for one night in 1981, all that is far in the future. Declaration, their first full album, is still in the future. Learning to play their instruments properly is, arguably, still in the future. Except for the absent "Lie of the Land" (available in similarly unhinged live form on the 1998 reissue EP Save it for Later), they play about every song they know, "Marching On" twice, even "Reason 41", "Up for Murder" and "Unsafe Building" making their way into the set list, and by the end they may be out of blood, not just material. "The Alarm offered listeners something to believe in", the liner notes dryly assert, but I don't think that's what the Alarm did at all. I think what they gave away, for the most part, were anthems whose defining genius was that they came with no ideologies of their own, and thus could be applied to any sufficiently passionate conviction for which the listener wanted a soundtrack. And this noisy hour, more than half my life ago, the conviction given voice is, recursively, heartrendingly, upliftingly, immortally, the very idea that music can be the language in which we declare our selves