Mike Peters – The Alarm Strength 30th Anniversary Show at The Globe, Cardiff on Saturday 2nd May 2015
To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Declaration last year, Mike Peters put on a special tour where he played the album in it’s entirety, along with other firm favourites.
So, after last year’s extremely successful Declaration 30th Anniversary Tour – I was hoping Mike Peters would work through the rest of the Alarm albums as they reached 30 – and it seems he’s going to.
With 2015 being the 30th Anniversary of Strength, it only seems right to give Strength it’s due.
In a change to last year’s tour, the format for Strength is that in Part 1, Mike plays songs that led to the recording of the album – together with the stories that accompany the songs. Mike tells a good tale and uses his knowledge of those early times to great effect during the show.
Armed with three microphones, to the left, right and centre of the stage, (which he runs to throughout the show), one drum, acoustic guitars and an effects board, Mike begins with Break The Promise and it’s evident from the off that this gig is going to be something a bit special.
Included in this first half singles released prior to the album’s release and included are gems such as Majority, The Chant Has Begun, a stomping version of The Stand and a song that Mike considers to be the best Alarm song, written by Dave Sharp, it’s One Step Closer To Home.
As Mike was the main songwriter for The Alarm and wrote ALL of the hits and about 90%+ of the rest of the song, he has a legacy of songs from which to choose from.
What you probably haven’t seen before is Mike’s sense of humour as he regales the audience with tales of when The Alarm was in it’s infancy and how they supported The Clash in Liverpool and his run in with Bob Geldof. It was LOL territory on lots of occasions throughout the show.
The first half of the show ended on a high with the excellent Absolute Reality (which was going to be the title of the album before Strength was chosen) really had the crowd jumping and hyped up ready for Part Two.
Part two kicked off with the lead track from Strength, the epic Knife Edge.
The two hours plus is flying by as the Mike continues to unfurl the Strength album to a by now adoring crowd. The quality of singing is the best I’ve seen in a gig for ages, probably due to the anthemic nature of the songs and the amount of real fans in the venue. The array of Alarm T Shirts are dazzling – I just wish I could get into mine!
Before Father To Son, Mike talked about his relationship with his parents at the time and their desire for him to ‘Get A Proper Job’ – at this point he shows us the notebook he wrote the lyrics in – his parents bought him a new one every year.
Another highlight was The Day The Ravens Left The Tower with Mike producing a bodhran to set up the rhythmic loop that underpins the song.
Mike has re-recorded the Strength album and it’s an interesting companion to the original album.
With the last song of Strength, the blistering anthem of Deeside whipping up the crowd to an encore of some early Alarm classics, Mike picked two lucky people out of the audience during Where Were You Hiding When The Storm Broke to play his drum and guitar while Mike threw the cards out into the crowd during the ‘All Cards Are Marked’ line – always guaranteed to get an extra cheer from the crowd. Giving them a gig they’ll never forget.
The Globe was now rocking with a vengeance – well, from what i could see from the front looking back, and as he was back home in Wales, Mike brought out the two favourites that were bound to get the crowd filled with Hiraeth and shouting out for more, that’s A New South Wales from the Change album & Pete Seeger’s The Bells Of Rhymney, a live favourite, especially in Wales, for years. Everybody gets to shout out as their City or Town is sang by Mike. Although slow in pace, you could feel the intensity of both songs in the air.
The anthemic 68 Guns was followed by One Guitar before the song that every Alarm fan knows finishes the set – Blaze Of Glory.
So, Mike returned once again to Cardiff and conquered the Capital.
The next Alarm album to hopefully get the 30th Anniversary treatment is Eye Of The Hurricane – which is due in 2017. Hopefully, Mike will continue this way of performing the albums as the songs take on a more sophisticated tone with Hurricane and will sound pretty darn good in this format.
The Alarm – Strength 2015 review
Last year Mike Peters embarked on the first step in revisiting the catalogue of The Alarm to celebrate the 30th anniversary of those albums. Not content with putting out a re-issue, he completely re-recorded the whole of the seminal Declaration album, along with all other related songs released back then, even adding a few previously unreleased ones. While the project was at first met with a mix of anticipation and skepticism by some fans who felt strongly that the original versions were quite good enough and didn´t need reworking, and while the finished results, Declaration 2014 and the companion album Peace train, might have been a little controversial at first, in general the result was a resounding success with most fans praising the new arrangements. The albums and the following tour also put Mike Peters back in the spotlight more than in many years, with one of the highlights being the magnificent Horizons Sing concert where the new arrangements were performed together with the BBC Wales Symphony Orchestra and the community choir Acquire, who were introduced to the Alarm audience on Declaration 2014. Now, one year later, Mike does the same thing with The Alarm´s second album Strength, an album that many fans see as their strongest. A companion album, Majority, will be released soon to follow in the footsteps of Peace Train. So the question was, could the success be repeated? Would it be as radical and challenging as Declaration 2014? Would the concept work a second time?
My answer to all of these questions is a resounding “Yes”! The new arrangements were unveiled at the annual Gathering in Llandudno in January 2015, and at first they seemed to divide fans even more than last time. The rearrangements were bolder and more radical, lyrics were changed and updated and some of the rockier songs were severely slowed down. Reactions were divided, some loved it and some hated it. Myself, I liked most of it but I was a bit skeptical to some of the rearrangements. But I also felt that those songs had the potential to grow on me. So I eagerly awaited the album to indulge in the new versions over and over again. And repeated listening brings great awards. So while the versions I loved immediately are still beautiful and wonderful and majestic, some of the arrangements I didn´t like at first have also definitely grown. One example of that is the slowed down Deeside that I didn´t like at all hearing it at The Gathering but has now grown to be a rather epic reworking, with an infectious “fire fire fire fire fire fire” chorus that refuses to leave your head.
In many ways, Strength 2015 builds on Declaration 2014 but takes everything one step further. One year ago, the choir was added to Declaration at a late stage in a strike of genius, and now it is used again with even more finesse, sparkling magic dust where necessary, but never taking over or becoming annoying. Also the musical environment is richer, adding a broad range of instrumentation from the folk rock group The Deportees to grand effect. In fact, taking Strength in a folk rock direction is not at all what I could have imagined, being almost a stadium rock album to start with I envisioned either a stripped back acoustic based approach much in line with Declaration 2014 or perhaps a full on rock approach. Folk rock I would have thought could be a choice for a reworking of Eye of the hurricane or Change that were drawing more on the folk tradition but not Strength. But it really works out exceptionally well. The new versions of The Day The Ravens Left The Tower and Dawn Chorus, taking full use of the lovely fiddle playing of Julie Rands Allen, takes these two songs to unprecedented new heights, in my opinion lifting them way above the original recordings good as those were.
The title track is also dressed in a majestic folk rock costume, ripping off the riff of Neil Young´s Heart Of Gold but transforming the song into something completely different than the original. Another big favourite of mine is Only The Thunder which is also slowed down and given a sadder more melancholy approach. And Walk Forever By Your Side (originally by my side) now has an arrangement so rich that it brings tears to my eyes. The strings, the choir, the guitars, everything is just so damn perfect. Ok, I will say that even if I like all the new arrangements, in some cases I think that reaching the heights of the original versions is nigh impossible, for example the new version of Spirit of 76 also becomes a rousing folk anthem, but loses some of the splendor and majesty of the original version. But on the other hand the new version fits very well with the other new versions while the original would have felt out of place in the circumstances.
But it would be wrong to hail or dismiss Strength 2015 on the song reworkings themselves only. There are four other factors that I think lift the new version of Strength to higher heights. First, the emotions. The original Strength is a very emotional album, and the new version manages to transform the emotions from 30 years ago to something similarly emotional but from the vision of a 55-year old man rather than a 25-year old. Slowing things down, the emotions of desperation and anger of the original album are completed by world weariness, melancholy and more. But the album was never just a bleak one, there is also hope and determination in the emotional palette. And the new album manages to keep all those emotions together in a coherent package, very well done. Secondly, the previously unheard song Last train. This was written around the time of the original Strength album but never released at that time. Now it has been added to the album, and it is a wonderful addition. While it is hard to see that it would have fitted on the original album, in tone and feeling it reminds me more of the songs on Change so perhaps it was ahead of its time in 85, here it sits perfectly alongside the old classics. Honestly, even if the rest of the album hadn´t been as good as it is, this alone would have been worth the price of admission. Thirdly, the vocals. I don´t think I have ever heard Mike Peters sing better. The tone is a little lower than before but the singing is very varied, perfectly fitting the music and hitting those high notes wherever necessary. It is not common for a singer to be vocally even stronger 35 years into a career but Mike Peters is. And finally, the production. There are great dynamics in the playing of the musicians and the production of Mark Warden and Smiley uses that to full effect. In fact, this is a great headphone album, A sad fiddle here, an organ there, the choir going from whispers to full throttle, crisp guitars and drums, all the little details combine to a perfect blend. Just listen to the groovy little bass line underpinning the Deeside bridges and choruses to see what I mean.
So, all in all, another very good reinterpretation of a classic Alarm album. Surely it will divide old fans, straying far away from the punk rock roots of The Alarm and the majestic rock sound of the original Strength. It is very different, which is not always accepted lightheartedly. But just as Declaration 2014 was not meant to replace the original version, this is also meant to sit as a companion piece, presenting new takes on familiar songs putting them in a new context and hopefully pointing to a future. There is new music coming up ahead, new Mike Peters songs waiting to be unveiled to the world. And with these re-workings as templates, it will be very exciting to hear if the production techniques and rich vocals of Strength 2015 continue to flourish on the upcoming new material, if so we could be in for something special indeed. And I also surely hope that the series of reworkings continue. If they do, 2017 will be the year of the Hurricane, and since Eye of the Hurricane is my favourite Alarm album I am already eagerly waiting to hear where Mike takes that. Probably somewhere just as unexpected as where he has just taken Strength, and if he does it will surely be just as exciting. Bring it on, Mike!