The Alarm





FOR A BAND LIKE The Alarm, with a reputation built on the adrenaline rush of their live shows, capturing a similar urgency (nor to mention their towering spiky tops, the sparkle of their spurs etc) on video can be a tricky business.

Their first brush with the dreaded cameras come in America, a tour they found themselves doing almost by accident as guests of old pals U2, who's sudden invite entailed The Alarm almost literally packing away their equipment after a London gig and heading for the airport.

The program was called Cutting Edge. Singer Mike Peters recalls:

"They wanted to film us playing against a plain backdrop but we put paper over it, painted a big red poppy and the lyrics to 'The Stand' on it and played in front of that. It took about an hour to do and it's probably one of our best videos. Unfortunately it's never been shown in Britain."

Which is a shame. I sneaked a viewing at their record company and, as Mike suggests, it does embody the band's directness and excitement.

"After that we did '68 Guns' and tried to evoke the storyline. A lot of people think it's a good video, personally I don't know. In some ways it's a bit obvious and robbing people of their imagination. Showing something in a video ties down the meaning instead of allowing people to apply the song to their own lives. The video sometimes becomes specific to one thing rather than a lot of things."

Their next single 'Where Were You Hiding When The Storm Broke' was written partly to wake the band themselves up and prevent any complacency creeping in after the chart success of '68 Guns'. To some degree, the video was an exercise in restraint.

'We wanted to get things simple again. We made it at Abbey Road studios with newspaper all over the floor and music stands everywhere and we were filmed playing it live. I had the idea of the words coming up on the screen like in Batman when there's a fight and you get Zap!, Pow!. But the director just had them dropping into the screen and it wasn't so effective".

The best example of The Alarm conveying a basically simple message with a relatively complex video was with ' The Deceiver'.

"The song's about blind ambition. There's nothing wrong with free enterprise but when you start taking over and treading on peoples' lives it becomes a bit sick. The British Empire when it started off was a good idea but when it started imposing itself all over the world it got completely power mad.

"All through history there's been mad people who've wanted to take over the world. We had hands, a black hand with diamonds and gold, a white hand swapping beads and signing treaties and a clock at three minutes to midnight. It was really powerful."

Alas it was banned. The reason being a clip depicting the blowing up of a battleship. A special 'kiddies' edition had to be produced, identical to the original but minus the offending blast.

I suppose they don't want things like that shown to kids on Saturday morning TV. The Rolling Stones had a monopoly on banned videos at the time as well. Our's didn't get a mention anywhere."

More recently the group retreated to their native Wales to make a video for 'The Chant Has Just Begun'.

'We'd done all the others in England and we thought we'd have a bit of our own country in this one. Loads of people have asked us if Wales has influenced us and in America they all say 'oh, you're English' and you think 'hang on, I'm Welsh!'. So we thought we'd go back and find it has an effect on us and get some of the national things of Wales in the video. There's a lot of things you grew up with that you just don't notice.

'We had the Caenarvon Male Voice Choir in it and used a slate quarry in Nattle which is up in the mountains. It closed down the 1920s and is a massive, fantastic place. A whole village is buried under the slates, you can see the tops of cottages sticking out.

'We did a gig in Caenarvon and filmed it, then tied all the bits together. I was wearing a shirt that was painted like the Welsh flag'

Would the Welshness' be apparent to Americans?

'Well, it could be anywhere really. It's like Big Country doing the video of Wonderland' in a place that looked like Scotland but was actually North Carolina."

Obviously The Alarm approach their videos with care and thought. Do others?

"In Britain most people do but in America there is a real stylised thing. They're usually pretty horrible.

"Bands now are getting wary of the big promo director strolling in with his funny personality – they all have funny personalities! If you've got a really good idea it's dead simple to make a great video but if you put a thousand ideas in they all get lost. The hardest thing is spotting the storyline, little images should tie things together but often a viewer just loses it. That's what happened with '68 Guns'.

"You don't really have any control except in the initial idea. If you're playing live you don't know what the cameraman's filming, it could be my armpit! And they've become so expensive we don't want to get involved in the editing side because then nothing would get done. We give the director the idea and let him make it, it's his art.

"I still think people are more interested in listening to the song with just a few pictures going along. In America we listened to lots of folk and blues and narrative songs that tell stories about 10 minutes long – with no chord changes! If we could write something like that and put the whole thing on video that would be interesting. I think people would sit down and follow the storyline."

It was MTV that gave The Alarm their first real exposure in the States at a time, just two years ago, when the station was grateful for any video it could get. According to Mike, the station's rapid success has led to a change – for the worse.

"At first MTV was really exciting bur they've become very controlled and there's all sorts of underhand deals going on. Record companies saying 'we'll give you an exclusive on Michael Jackson's new video if you play four of our new bands'. There's no chance for bands with a great video and a great song getting on just by merit. That's a sad thing."



mick sinclair

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To read many more articles and reviews (over 140,000 words-worth!) written by Mick Sinclair, buy Adjusting the Stars: Music journalism from post-punk London