Great struggles sometimes lead to the creation of great beauty. The high-energy rock band named The Alarm was four young punkers from northern Wales who saw their share of struggles and created some beauty along the way.
In 1977, a young punk rocker named Mike Peters decided to start a band. He had seen both the Sex Pistols and the Clash play at clubs in England and his mind was made up. Finding bandmates took some work—Peters has quipped that they were probably the only punk band in their hometown of Rhyl, if not all of Wales, at the time*.
They went through several band names and a few personnel changes before becoming the Alarm; originally, the band was called the Toilets. The story has it that, while sitting in a pub, Peters saw a sign directing patrons to the restrooms. The band members all agreed that the Toilets would be a hilariously nihilistic name for a punk band. The Toilets mostly played cover versions of punk songs, but Peters tried his hand at songwriting and their fans enjoyed the results. They got a few gigs and they were thrown out of a few places in those early days.
The Toilets played several gigs at The Palace and Eric's in Liverpool, Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats was in the audience. Geldof was impressed—he helped get them booked as opening act for the Clash. Even as the Toilets were beginning to enjoy a moderate degree of success, internal strife tore the band apart.
Moments in Time: Seventeen and Alarm Alarm
Peters met up with Eddie MacDonald, guitarist for the punk band Amsterdam. The two were childhood neighbors, and both were becoming disillusioned with the limited possibilities open to punk bands at the time. By 1978, much of the energy and political anger which had characterized the early punk scene had faded and punk shows had largely turned into a repetitious cavalcade of attempted shock rock. Peters and MacDonald started working on some songs together, straying slightly from the punk sound toward one that blended these hard-edged sensibilities with British folk music and blues. They recruited Peters' old bandmate, Nigel Twist, who had played the drums since childhood. Twist's friend Dave Sharp was a lead guitarist—he had a keen interest in acoustic folk and rockabilly and helped to steer the band in those directions. This was the genesis of a new band, which they named Seventeen after a song by the Sex Pistols.
It was never easy for Seventeen to find gigs in Wales—almost all of their shows were in England. After a disastrous series of bookings in London, they were nearly ready to hang it up. Despite the troubles, Peters was hitting his stride as a songwriter and Seventeen worked up some songs that had a lot of potential. One of these was Sixty-Eight Guns, which would later return as their biggest hit. Another was entitled Alarm Alarm—this song became so identified with the band that they decided that the band should be re-christened Alarm Alarm.
Blaze of Glory: The Alarm
Disc jockey John Peel in London teased the boys about the new band name. Now, he said, it would be easy to mix them up with contemporary pop bands Talk Talk and Duran Duran—they quickly shortened it to The Alarm. The band moved from Wales to England their sound softening somewhat, as they picked up influences from the emerging new wave sound and experimented with acoustic folk. They never lost the punk inspiration, however.
The Alarm was going places—they got a recording contract with IRS Records and they toured with U2 in 1982. They brought Sixty Eight Guns back for their first album, Declaration (1984); the hit told the story of a 1968 youth gang in northern Wales. Music journalists, with their usual insightfulness, utterly missed the point and accused the Alarm of trying to stir up riots.
In 1985, they recorded the album Strength, which contained Spirit of 76, a beautiful song about friendship which many fans consider to be The Alarm's finest work. The tour that followed was by all accounts filled with energy and enthusiasm and they packed venues around the world. After a year of touring and recording, the band members were at each other's throats. Weariness, financial questions and the constant spotlight threatened to destroy the band. They went on hiatus with each member working on projects outside the context of the Alarm.
Re-energized, the band got back together in early 1987 and recorded Eye of the Hurricane with the assistance of Roxy Music's John Porter. By the end of that year, they were touring once again, supporting Bob Dylan. Two years later, the band sequestered themselves in a Welsh castle to record the album Change, inspired by their rustic surroundings. They also released a version of the album entitled Newid, which was entirely in the Welsh language.
Marching On: The End of the Alarm
Illnesses and deaths in the families of Peters and Twist caused severe conflicts, making touring nearly impossible. After some cancelled dates, the band began to drift apart once again. Peters recorded a solo album and Sharp also began working on projects outside the band. With no new material coming from the Alarm, IRS released a singles collection entitled Standards in 1990.
The Alarm's last recording sessions were in 1991. Tensions between the four men and problems with the record company made the work a constant uphill battle. The album Raw was released without a lot of fanfare or promotion and it did not see the sort of success of the Alarm's earlier works. The ensuing tour brought back old grudges and animosity between bandmates resurfaced. The Alarm disintegrated.
Several of the band members have since done solo projects and there was a brief attempt at a reunion in 1995, but the band's time had come and gone.
Financial problems, personal arguments, artistic squabbles, family stress, fatigue—Peters and his bandmates went through some tough times together. Over the course of 14 years and 16 albums (including compilations), the Alarm left some wonderful music in their wake.
* JohnnyGoodyear relates the following tale of The Alarm: "I saw these boys open for someone or another in London back then. We thought them awfully Welsh ..." And there you have it, the punkers from Wales touched another life.
Dolgins, Adam, "Rock Names" (Citidel Press, New York, 1993).
Their unbelievable website (which made a fan of me) at thealarm.com