The Alarm





I'D JUST nonchalantly wandered into the Fall gig at the Venue and was heading straight for the bar end of the building, lest my weary frame be subjected to yet another run-of-the-mill support band.

Without prior warning these four geezers leapt to the stage, three touting acoustic guitars and one a harmonica, and they began a super-sprightly campfire singalong, a kind of radically re-directioned, politicised skiffle. Good grief. I choked on my Branson burger.

The passing of songs revealed the hollow-bodied portions of the set to be equally split with electrically-plucked material. In the staid Venue setting the band's fervent enthusiasm permeated right through the crowd to the last row of optics behind the drinks counter.

I copped a handout, blagged their self-produced 'Unsafe Building'/'Up For Murder' single and finally caught up with the band at the massive Deeside Leisure Centre where the quartet were supporting the Jam. Our serious chatterings took place next morning over a background of yelping gulls on the sea-front of their home town, Rhyl.

It transpires that the boys once acquired a dollop of the wrong kind of publicity when they were called Seventeen and paddled for a while in hot water with the bureaucracy of their local DHSS office. Mike Peters and Eddie MacDonald are born and bred local lads whilst Dave Sharp and Nige (aka Twist, the drummer) moved to the resort some five years ago.

Mike gets historical: "With Seventeen we were just a pop group. We started in 1977 but lost sight of what we were doing. We formed the Alarm because we were growing up and writing about things that we felt strongly about. Some of the songs we wrote on acoustic guitars didn't sound as good on electrics, so that's why we have both in the set."

THE BRIGHT lights of Rhyl, however, were insufficient for ambition fulfilment. The Alarm made the big break and shifted lock, stock and mouth harp to London.

Eddie: "We were trying to set something up for young people in Rhyl. We ran a disco for a time and then put Discharge on, who were great but the kids ruined it, which was typical. We got summer jobs which is quite easy around here and moved down to London on September 8. We then went around everywhere trying to get some attention."

Mike: "'Unsafe Building' is all about leaving the safe world of Rhyl for the unsafe world of London. People who knew us here thought we'd be back in five minutes but we thought no chance, we're off!"

In keeping with the approach of the live displays, the disc has both an acoustic and an electric song.

Eddie: "Most records these days are one side of this and the other side is a re-mix. We thought we'd try and get airplay for both sides, but of course we got none at all. It's not a gimmick though. Changing the guitars is great for the sounds of the songs but it used to be a nightmare with everything going out of tune."

Mike: "Things work better by contrast. We don't limit ourselves to a particular sound, it depends on the song. 'Up For Murder' just didn't work with acoustics."

This last mentioned piece was penned by Dave. The previous evening, aprés Jam gig, he had shown me around Rhyl bistro, the town's most lively nightspot and popular after hours drinking establishment. We stayed up late imbibing and talking .ourselves Paranoid. Dave began with the tale of how gullible Rhyl council had misguidedly pumped a staggering £2 million into a view-destroying monorail running the length of the seafront. The first train to run promptly fell off.

THE CONVERSATION then built up to Papa Doc and mass suicides in East Africa. Sharp is a former Merchant Seaman. Training films depicting a corpse-strewn nuclear holocaust aftermath showed up the Protect And Survive twaddle for the die-quietly-at-home manifesto that it really is, and brought Mr Sharp to the realisation that Things Are Going On Which We Do Not Know About.

A preoccupation which is bound to raise its head in his lyrics. Eddie and Mike write together and are responsible for the other half of the set. A lot of the lyrics seem to oversimplify complex political issues?

Eddie: "We're presenting the issues as they stand. I think you have to over-simplify just so that people can understand and see what you are about. The lyrics aren't complex but they do make good points."

Dave: "There's millions of ways of looking at a certain thing. It's good if you can get people to realise that it does a lot more than simply saying, 'You've got to do this'."

Mike: "I think the issues are clear cut. You can definitely differentiate between right and wrong. I don't want the Alarm to argue about the small points, we just want to state our case. Last night people threw coins at us but they sang along with the Jam. They've read the Paul Weller lyrics but they haven't taken them in and thought about what he's trying to say."

The Alarm must tread carefully. It is easy to become thoughtless slogan shouters if the formula becomes successful. An electric song from the live set called '68 Guns' (about Glasgow gangs could easily fall into the trap that has plagued others (Stiff Little Fingers spring to mind) where a 'message' can be turned into an anthemic glorification of the violence it is meant to ridicule.

They need to rethink and strengthen their somewhat immature strategies. Right now, particularly with the acoustic material, the Alarm are welcomingly fresh and vibrant which so far compensates for their obvious naiveté. I probe them on how their beliefs can be fully equated with the capitalist splendours of the music industry, which they seem to embrace with open arms, and their answers are vague and indecisive. I bet they don't know.

To be honest, neither do I.


© mick sinclair

any use of the text on this page is subject to permission

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