Review: Review:Saved by Rock and Roll:Mike Peters brings back The Alarm

ANTHEMIC: the Alarm had as much Beatles as Clash and
U2 in them, with a strong dash of Mighty Mighty
Bosstones camaraderie.

Even in their ’80s heyday, the Alarm used to get
knocked for writing too many anthems – as if coming up
with rock anthems that worked were an easy thing to
do. But the Welsh quartet wrote virtually nothing
else: they took “The Stand,” they made the
“Declaration,” they confronted the “Eye of the
Hurricane,” they went out in a “Blaze of Glory.” And
they proved that good, rocking songs could be wrapped
around such lofty titles.

Maybe they weren’t the most sophisticated band that
punk ever produced, but the Alarm – who broke up in
1992, have lately re-formed under original frontman
Mike Peters, and are in the midst of a November
Wednesday-night residency at the Middle East – had
enough hooks and heart to turn their idealism into a
virtue. At their best, they evinced the same kind of
camaraderie that would become a trademark for the
Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Although they got compared
(and not always favorably) to U2 and the Clash, they
had at least as much Beatles in them, in part at least
because of Peters’s classically Brit-pop voice. The
best song on their 1983 debut album, Declaration
(IRS), was “We Are the Light,” a wide-eyed ballad that
owed a few chords to “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love
Away.” And it’s no coincidence that Peters is now
playing in the side-project band Dead Men Walking with
bassist Glen Matlock, who’s alleged to have got kicked
out of the Sex Pistols for saying something nice about
Paul McCartney.

These days, Peters is testament to all those clich�s
about lives getting saved by rock and roll. Diagnosed
with lymphoma in the mid ’90s, he told his doctors
that treatment would have to wait until he wrapped up
a scheduled American tour. He now has a clean bill of
health, and he says that’s partly because he never
stopped working. “I started getting books about
self-healing and came to think that negativity was
part of the disease,” he explained after getting off
stage at the Middle East last week. “I realized that I
needed to take back my life, and my life is the
Alarm.” The other original members declined to come
along (though they did tape a one-shot reunion for VH1
this month), so he’s formed a new Alarm with guitarist
James Stevenson (ex-Gene Loves Jezebel), bassist Craig
Adams, and drummer Steve Grantley.

Apparently still running on adrenaline, Peters has
worked a blue streak in recent years. Mission of Burma
billed their reunion tour as “inexplicable,” but the
current Alarm tour is just plain impossible: they’re
playing four cities – Boston, New York, Chicago, and
Los Angeles – on a weekly basis through November,
using four sets of rented gear and racking up loads of
frequent-flyer miles. “It’s our little commando raid
on the country,” is how Peters describes it. “We’re
trying to do all those things that bands always say
they want to do – to have artistic control and
creative freedom. But I don’t want to sound
self-aggrandizing here. This is what I do; it’s what I
live for,”

On disc, the new Alarm have been equally prolific.
Last year they announced a subscription deal through
their Web site; fans would get a few singles with
exclusive B-sides followed by a new album, In the
Poppy Fields. The project grew into five separate
albums, all recorded and released within a year. It
was also a participatory experience for fans, who got
on-line updates as work progressed and heard the songs
within weeks of their recording; they also voted for
the numbers that will make up next year’s single,
commercially released disc.

Best of the lot is the disc that sounds the least like
the old Alarm and the most like the Who. The fourth in
the series, the 33-minute rock opera called Edward
Henry Street throws no end of Tommy and Quadrophenia
references into 14 linked songs that deal with a young
band’s first year of existence. The autobiographical
story makes a handy frame for Peters’s trademark
optimism and melodic sense. Elsewhere, the best songs
find him loosening up on the optimism. “Swansong”
(which closes the first, most old-Alarm-sounding disc)
deals with the fallout from a broken friendship; disc
three’s “The Drunk & the Disorderly” is a big guitar
epic in the vein of the old band’s “Spirit of ’76,”
but without the sense that anyone’s necessarily bound
for glory. And “Rain Down” proves he’s got a lot of
Brill Building songwriter in him, latching onto
another band’s trademark sound – in this case,
Coldplay’s pianos and angst – and writing something
that band would be proud of.

The Alarm played surprisingly little of the new
material at the first Wednesday show, preferring to
stick with the familiar hits and fist-waving rousers –
including a Slade cover, “Get Down & Get with It.”
They quieted down on only one of the new songs, “The
Rock and Roll,” where Peters ponders the loss of
friends and bandmates and concludes, “The rock and
roll still burns in me.” But here’s where he got off
the U2 train, because he didn’t deliver that line as
an anthemic sing-along or a world-saving gesture, just
as a simple statement of fact.

The Alarm play their final Middle East residency show
this Wednesday, November 19, at 472 Massachusetts
Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST

Publication::Publication:Boston Phoe