Guest post by Tracy Coakley
Since they arrived on the music scene in the early 1980s The Alarm (original members Mike Peters, Dave Sharp, Eddie Macdonald, Nigel Twist) have been creating music that often sounds like a call to action. The upcoming album “Forwards” (with current members Mike Peters, James Stevenson, Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard, and Jules Jones Peters) is no exception. From the opening title track to the album’s conclusion with the song “X” the band combines thought-provoking lyrics and energetic music that draws the listener in.
Love And Forgiveness
I recently had a conversation for Tuned Up with Mike Peters about the new album, the creation of new songs during his relapse of leukemia in 2022, opening The Red (a renovated pub in his home of north Wales), and a bit of music history. Read on:
TC: I wanted to ask about the songs on the new album. Did you approach this with a certain theme in mind?
MP: Not really, because I was actually in hospital when it arrived. I was in for a long stretch on the wards. I was very ill so my wife brought my guitar in so I could keep my fingers going. I didn’t have any intention of writing anything, and as I was playing the patients were saying, “hey, keep going! You don’t need to keep it quiet on our account,” and the nurses would come in to have a listen; and before you know it I’d started writing new things. The songs were formed without me even realizing what was happening. It was that instinctive.
TC: As a creative person, when you’re in a situation like being in the hospital where you have a lot of time where your mind can create things that are unhelpful, is having an outlet like writing songs a good way to channel that energy?
MP: Oh, very much so. Especially in today’s society where it’s quite litigious unfortunately, doctors and nurses aren’t really in a position to give you any false hopes; they don’t give you any hope at all. They just give you the facts and you have to sort of work it out and often all of us in the hospital will use “Dr. Google” to find out what our symptoms were meaning and what the direction of travel might be. So we had to generate our own hope. There was a lot of COVID protocol in place while I was in hospital so visiting was an absolute minimum, just one person at one section of the day; one hour and that was it. So I was left on my own a lot or just on the ward with all the noises and the people in their various challenges of staying alive, and the machinery and beeps. And so yeah, I think the songs became my way of describing a way out.
There’s one song called “There’s Always Another Way.” One treatment that had kept me alive for a long time had stopped working, my body had started to reject it, and I was transitioning to a brand new drug which is quite a tough drug to get used to. It had to be given to me in stages for a long period of time so I would accept it, and luckily for me it’s worked, but even those situations….I don’t think I’d have written a song called “There’s Always Another Way” without having to go through that experience of hoping that the other way works out. It was all driven by experience and I think that songs become your soundtrack whether you realize that they’re part of you. The soundtrack of your life as to how you’ve lived your life or whether you’re writing songs to sort of further your life and be a part of the soundtrack of now. And I think the “Forwards” album is really a soundtrack of now. I want the record not to be about where I’ve been and where I was, but I wanted it to be about where I was going and what I was aspiring towards.
TC: Yes, it seems like a lot of the song titles have a movement kind of theme….like “Transition”, and ‘Forwards”, “Next”.
MP: Yeah, that’s right. Well, the “Forwards” title came when I was on the ward there was a gentleman sort of like hovering around the edge of my bed, and I was thinking, “oh…hello?” “Hi Mike, my father’s just a few beds down and I’ve come from the USA just to care for him and to see him, and I realized you were here yesterday and I told all the fans on the Alarm forums that you’re in the hospital.” *laughs* I thought, “oh no!” I’d been keeping it quiet just because I didn’t really know what was going to happen or what the outcome was. Then I realized I had to go on the internet and write a letter just to reassure everybody and give them a heads up. I signed off my messages with the word “forwards” because I wanted to be positive for them and as soon as I wrote the word down, “that’s an album title! There’s a song in that!” I was playing my guitar and then the whole song had arrived. It’s amazing how fast it can be when it’s something like that.
TC: I also read that the song “Whatever” came about during the hospitalization from you hearing something on the radio.
MP: I was listening to the radio one day and the DJ played “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” by John Lennon, and I thought, “never mind the night; what am I going to do to get through life?” So I kind of lifted the idea and sort of generated it. There’s some sort of “lockdown-y” images in the song. I was in isolation in the hospital and it felt like I’d escaped one isolation in real life through the lockdown and the pandemic being alleviated and then all of the sudden I was back in hospital under this very strict regime of the hospital lockdown procedures.
TC: You used the COVID lockdown to bring about the Big Night In which is still going strong. Can you talk a little about that?
MP: Yeah, on the day of the lockdown here in the UK when the Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the lockdown, it was March 21, 2020. We were due to play that night. Over that weekend we had two big shows in Manchester and Glasgow, and then all of the sudden we weren’t going and we thought, “Oh no, what can we do?” All the fans were in their homes so we decided to go live from our sofa and played songs by the Jukebox Stage. Jules would interview me and we soon learned how to share videos from the Alarm archive and it became a bit of a lifeline for all of us. For all the fans it was something to look forward to. A lot of musicians stepped forward in their own communities and did their acts on the internet, but we just kept ours going after the pandemic. The Big Night In continues; we recorded season 6 episode 5 last night. And we really enjoy it. I like sharing the Alarm stories with fans.
Episodes of The Big Night In are available to watch on The Alarm’s YouTube channel
TC: You’ve been renovating The Red and doing some DJing there. I’ve seen pictures of the bookshelf. Are those your personal collection of books?
MP: They are, yeah. They’re all books from the studio that I’d amassed. And again, I think I’ve got a lot of stuff….there’s some memorabilia in The Red. It’s not an Alarm shrine but it’s books that I’ve read about other musicians, a pretty musical thematic going on, and there’s a few Manchester United books in there as well. *laughs* I’ve got things from when we played with Bob Dylan and with Queen, and U2. I’ve got a lot of laminates on one wall from all the tours we’ve been on going back to 1984. So there’s a lot of rock and roll, sort of modern rock history, alternative rock history in there and people find it quite fascinating. It goes hand in hand with the music we play over the speakers when I’m DJing. It’s a great little place, We haven’t got the coffee shop side open yet but it won’t be long. And that’s really going to be the main focus; a place to come in the daytime, grab a coffee, do a bit of work on your laptop, meet some people, hang out, commune. We’re right opposite the waterfalls. You can’t miss it. Beautiful place to be.
Click here for Photos of The Red
TC: You mentioned Queen…can you talk a little bit about Freddie Mercury’s piano?
MP: We recorded our “Strength” album in 1985 and there were two big songs that featured piano, “Spirit Of 76” and “Walk Forever By My Side” and we needed a really good sounding piano to take on the road. They were hard to come by in the mid-80s and Queen were selling a piano. I’d met Freddie Mercury in 1984. We’d played with Queen on a tv show in Switzerland and at the party afterwards Freddie Mercury asked me to go and talk to him and he turned out to be a massive Alarm fan and he loved “Declaration” and he said, “look, you need any help, here’s the number of our office. Give me a call and I’ll help you out any way I can if it’s possible.” And we heard they were selliing their piano so we called the office and they said, “yeah, it’s still for sale”. We went round and we picked it up from their rehearsal place and then it went on the road with the Alarm for a couple years. And then technology caught up and you get much smaller than the gigantic flight case that needed six dozen men to carry into a venue *laughs* So it ended up in my storage space for a long time. We decided to auction it off and somebody came along and put a nice bid in for the piano anonymously and they’re now the owner of the Freddie Mercury piano. Whether he actually played it himself personally or not; I couldn’t find any actual photographs of him playing it. I think they might have bought it at the same time that they bought another one that they used years later. I think they tried them both out to see which one they liked, although they used it on “The Works” album. It was used extensively on that.
TC: What are you listening to these days?
MP: I’m listening to a lot of northern soul music from my DJing. I used to know a lot of it in the late 70s when I was getting into music and going out to clubs and northern soul was really big in the north of England and Wales. I knew the songs, but interestingly, playing them….like Al Wilson – “The Snake”, Frank Wilson, “I’m On My Way”, Dean Parrish…they’re amazing songs. They’ve got brilliant drum breaks in them and it’s like, “Wow!” …you’re dancing to a real drummer, not a click track electronically-generated beat. It’s a real drummer with real feel, and the drumbeats are absolutely amazing. So I’m sending the tracks to Smiley, our drummer…”you’ve got to check this intro, it’s incredible!” My young boys are into Oasis and Stone Roses so we’ve been listening to a lot of that lately.
TC: Back tracking a little bit to the books…have you ever considered writing a book?
MP: I’ve been asked about writing a book many times but I haven’t had time to do it. I thought maybe that would’ve happened in the lockdown but I got into the Big Night In. Writing a book seems like you spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder. I haven’t quite got time for that yet. I’ve written a lot of sleeve notes. We’ll see. I’d like to do it one day.
TC: You are a good storyteller on stage. I’ve been to several of your acoustic shows and the stories are great.
MP: *laughs* I can make people laugh sometimes. I’m not really good at jokes but I can tell a good story, I think!
Many thanks to Mike for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me via Zoom. The new album “Forwards” is scheduled for release in the US on June 16. Mike Peters is currently doing an acoustic tour in the UK. The Alarm will be playing New York City’s Gramercy Theatre on June 23 and 24 for their NYC Gathering. At this time there are no details on further US shows but any future announcements will be found on the band’s website (thealarm.com) and their social media.