Interview: The Alarm in Zig Zag Magazine by Mick Mercer

Amidst the general hubbub of the cozy North London pub the video screen suddenly dominated proceedings for mine eyes (only), twisting unexpectedly from the Birmingham Crossroads Motel to its London counterpart, The Bat Cave. The volume was fortunately never louder than the chink of glasses and dosser conversation but as I sat at the back quietly sipping my cocoa I began to feel quite bilious at the silent film before me became a tragedy of enormous proportions.

Here, in the underground underwear setting of a night-time world, devoid of self-respect, were people supposedly representing a scene that I was somehow affiliated to, camping it up to the eyeballs, moving from one time and one place to another, wherever was hip, wherever was trendy and…most important of all…wherever the documentary makers plied their trade. A true video nasty in narcissistic behavioral patterns, the most delicate shade of puke. Beaky-nosed vultures became sculptures, caressing the cameras, and it’s a speedy cocktail James, then home to beat the servants. It stank Watson, it reeked to high heaven.

Dens of mental incompetence like this attract the social butterflies who helped reduce Punk to a muddling ass back in 1977 and they’ve infiltrated yet another scene with considerable ease. He who spends wins, injecting herpes into the bloodstream of vital music, poisoning hearts beat as one and there’s not a quest in sight (the sign of a true believer). I strode disgusted from the pub as the painted private patients ejaculated their empty-headed notions into the bar. No-one was taking the slightest bit of notice. And why should they?

Next door, Alarm fans were gathering for their gig of the day and despite all the criticism currently hurled at this band. How dare anyone knock them when all they offer is optimism, as opposed to the opportunism of their more dilettante opposites? The Alarm are but (sweet) little rock ‘n’ rollers, which is no crime. They never claimed to be the next curious item in the crypt. They simply went their own way, tipping their hat to fellow strivers and then cranking up the guitars just one more time.

The Alarm swiftly polished off the expectant audience who had already been forced into submission by a virulent Fleshtones and the night was a raging success. Their only change that I could see was one ponderous new song (and nobody’s perfect) with a slightly thick sound that could easily be attributed, I would guess, to those black boxes piled up at the sides of the stage.

Beaming contentedly the lads stepped into my headlights the next night as the burnt down ballroom began to rebuild and rekindle the emotional cinders for another night. Into the dressing room lads, shoo…that’s better, revealing the brains beneath the hats.

For instance, there’s a heavy barrage of journalistic vitriol laid down for this band who only months before were rarely ever mentioned in print. A strange situation considering the odious clowns currently being lauded and courted.

The Alarm, to a man, shrug shoulders, resigning themselves to their fate but smiling in the face of adversity. Main vocalist Mike moves straight into fourth gear as he speaks, no visible signs of anger whatsoever.

“There’s a lot of people jumping the gun, if you’ll excuse the pun, but they’re basing their theories and revelations on one or two words that have sprung to mind in the set and I think they’re indicative of a trait that runs through British journalism.

“I believe music can change things. To what degree and how I don’t now but I think if it is going to change things then we have to stand together as a community and the people who are in the business and in the audience in the future should pull together, not things like bitching and slamming things down, and speaking pout of hand, not from firsthand knowledge….’cos there’s a war going on for us as well as the audience and a lot of things go unseen. The more facts come to light, I think they’ll eat their words before very long.’

In clear mutual accord acoustic Dave brings out some logic.

‘I’ve noticed that in the last few years there haven’t been many bands in the live scene or just the sense of the word ‘band’. Everyone has got used to a band’s career being based around records, TV and papers and when a band comes along who is out there playing live, trying to do it a different way and does suddenly get an article in the papers the journalists, so used to a clear definition between a media band or a pop band, they don’t know how to align that with a bit of success, like appearing on TOTP, and the two things become separated into two different things and that’s bullshit. I think it’s all involved in a band but because we’re appearing on TOTP it’s, ‘Oh right, they don’t believe in what they’re saying!’ or something. We’re trying to take all that so people start getting into bands rather than a fashion or media-based thing of no substance.’

“The guy in the NME,” blurted Mike, ‘said our fans were spurred on by Fosters, not by faith! Our fans have got faith in The Alarm and faith in themselves. We’re going out to make something for ourselves in this world and they can relate to that. They don’t believe we’ve got some eternal message. They go out and find their own answers. To them The Alarm is like a friendship, a relationship for them to find company in. Look at the people who follow us, they’ve become a circle of friends. Some of them have never had friends but found then through The Alarm and I think that’s great, there’s too many journalists who think they know it all. Okay, Paulo Hewitt, if we’re going to talk about the NME. He wrote more about himself, he didn’t let me or Dave speak, all the things Dave or I said were cut out. Fair enough I don’t mind him giving his opinion but, talking professionally, it should be the band speaking, the journalist shouldn’t even come into it.’
“There’s a lot of emphasis placed on ethics,’ states Dave, ‘and credibility and codes of practice, cults and cultures…but those things are changing all the time. One thing will be totally different to next week’s thing and you can’t base a longstanding general view on something that’s going to change! You can’t use something as a reference that’s going to change all the time, your references need a strong foundation. If you’re going to write about something in a very specific and enquiring way you have to base your opinions on something really strong. If you base it on this week’s trend or next week’s trend then that opinion has no relevance at all, to anything. It’s all bullshit.’

‘It’s going to come full circle, when the kids say what they want,’ grunts Eddie, ‘not what the media is throwing at them and they’ll be deciding for themselves.’

Mike clears another hurdle.

‘When the punk thing first happened the music papers were the best thing. All of a sudden there were new writers. There’s still the same journalists and they’ve become jaded. Every band who gets an article has to harp on about the music press. Why have we got to keep on doing this? Why?

“The NME said ‘Oh yeah, The Alarm . . . a predictable rock ‘n’ roll band!’ They’re more predictable than we are, because we all know they were gonna slag us. Everyone . . . you knew! How much more predictable can you get?’

“In America a lot of people have managed to find out what punk really was. It wasn’t fifty foot sunglasses or handbags over your head. There’s a lot of people coming out of there who know how to make things original. Every band has to have their influences, everyone starts off as a fan and any one who says they don’t is a liar. You’ve got to know when to put your influences to one side and when to let your own self speak out. All this ‘The Clash’ and all that. . . yeah, I like The Clash. In some ways we’re on the same side. Everyone in music is on the same side, they all want the same thing . . . and there’s people tearing things apart left, right and centre. The amount of rubbish written about bands . . . they say we’re ripping off The Clash or Dylan but what they’re writing is only ripped off from Kierkegaurd or one of these books you’re supposed to go out and read. A lot of people can’t believe in honesty because it’s a tough world out there, know what I mean. It is hard out there and it breeds cynicism in a lot of people. It’s that barrier that we’ve got to cut to pieces.’

I smile, I agree (because it’s all true) and drag them onto the Top Of The Pops discussion which had to arrive. Their hair amused me greatly.
“Well we think your hair looks funny Mick,” chortled the unstoppable Michelle, ‘Personal tastes . . . that was our first performance. It is unnerving when you’re meant to be miming and there’s all these people stood there all day. It’s like being naked and a lot of people, even great performers, must get up there and feel a little self-conscious, especially when you’re doing it for the fifth time.

‘How people can get up there when they’ve got this massive note coming and all they go is (opens his mouth a few millimetres). . . If I’ve got this massive note I’m going (the cosmos becomes over-shadowed by gaping jowls) . . . and every blood vessel is about to burst!

‘We were singing properly. We thought, ‘We’ll play this for real!’ and they had to turn the record up in the studio to drown out the guitars and drums. We were managing to get the ‘miming’ right, or whatever it was, because we were actually singing it hell for leather. I didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do it. We think it’s amusing that it’s brought out such a reaction.’

Dave sways with glee. ‘Nobody was taking about the aesthetic values of Nick Heyward’s performance.’

One thing the band are quick to dispel is the rumours running rampant amongst excitable writers that vast quantities of hype surrounded the release of ’68 Guns’, as Mike explains:

‘When we came back from America to play TOTP, something we’d always been planning to do, I remember when all those early punk bands came out there was a limited edition, a mega craze which got overused but some releases were great. We’ve had this EP out in the States, it’s available on import but it’s eight quid y’know, so we thought we’d give three thousand away with the first batch of singles. When we got back the first lot was out so we put it out with the second pressing. We bought three thousand off IRS in America, knocked it off our advance and incoming royalties. ‘Sounds’ picked up on it and went ‘HYPE!’, saying we gave five thousand away. It was three thousand and we bought them, no record companies paid for them.’

‘We’ve got the invoices and we can prove it,’ adds Eddie succinctly.

Before I make the mistake of asking Mike to explain the lyrics to the single some strange smelling t-shirt is brought in for the band to cast their eye over.

‘Last day of the tour,’ laughs Dave, ‘and the tour shirts arrive.’

“Typical Alarm that is,’ adds Eddie.

Typical Mike tells me the entire history of the band going back to 500 BC when asked about the single and the words that tell the story.

“I’ll get to the lyrics in a minute,’ he adds at frequent intervals. Seasons come and seasons go, the band grow old but still Mike carries on in his delightfully errant ways. Man lands on Jupiter, oil runs out and Mike finally settles on the original topic.

“That was the first song, possibly the song that started The Alarm. When we first came to London it was really exciting getting BIG record company offers and if we hadn’t been strong we might have been sucked into all that and become a pop group. The band has come on so much, musically and lyrically, we’ve re-written a lot of the material and ’68 Guns’ was one of those I wrote. It was inspired by a book I read years ago. I remember it was called ’The Glasgow Gang Remembered’ but I can’t remember who wrote it. It was about a guy out of borstal who was in a gang called the ‘Youth Team’ in Glasgow and they were a younger version of the notorious ‘Maryhill Fleet’, all set in the year 1968. The guys in the Youth Team weren’t a violent gang but they looked pretty mean and there’s a lot of times when people are seen together other people jump in…and a peaceful movement turns into a violent one. That’s what happens to these boys in the book. They were just ordinary kids wanting to stick together and hang around on street corners because they didn’t have any money and they got provoked into trouble.

“’68 Guns’ is my own ambiguous version of a gang of kids who are together, who believe in themselves. People can’t believe in people wanting to walk peacefully, doing their own thing. Doing your own thing often means treading in other people’s space. A lot of people are over-protective of the space they occupy and they’re not prepared to move on themselves.’

As Mike catches his breath I finish the interview by raising the one topic that does concern me, the gestures made by the band onstage. With an audience of adolescents that need to be controlled in some way from their natural urge to demand breast-feeding why do the band do what they do? Can their gestures be excused and proved to be different to what many a longhaired metal man has done over the centuries? Can ‘Crackerjack’ antics be held in check? Characteristically Mike waves away any doubts, plunging in with a sound defense.

‘Right, the song ‘Blaze Of Glory’ and the holding up of the guitar, that’s why it’s held up in the air. That’s the gesture I’m making, it’s not me holding it up, it’s the guitar. ‘It’s funny how they shoot you down when your hands are in the air.’ In ‘Freedom’ when we hold it up, that started when I was trying to get the sound out of the mike but ‘Blaze’ was about seeing so many people that happen to like in music…guitar-based groups, music that’s a little bit on the serious side, like Lennon, Dylan…they’ve got something to say. Everyone or most of the people in music, they’re not fascists, wanting to kill the next person or put their thumbs down on society, they want to make the world a better place and anyone who comes along and says that gets the bullet from the music press, no messing! That’s what we write the song about, there’ a lot of people in control of voicing people’s opinions and they distort and misquote. The guitar in the air is setting a target…come on boys, come and knock it down…because you’ll never be able to knock it down.

“Heavy Metal people do it for the sake of it, we’re doing it to make a point. We’re a group who come from the small clubs, we’re in a rush of excitement onstage, that’s why our hands are in the air. ‘Commmmme Onnnnnnn!’ No-one makes a fuss about people at football matches where everyone gesticulates but when you do it onstage, ‘Oh no! It’s wrong!’ but it’s right, it’s natural. When I talk to you I’m all like this…(a drunken octopus)…it’s me natural personality.’

What’s wrong with that? Why go people prepare bogeys when the band are mentioned? To hell with Hipness.