The Normal Rules Do Not Apply
On Glenn McDonald and the Alarm
I’ve been thinking an awful lot about big corporations lately.
I’m not sure why – maybe it’s because I work for one, so I get to see first-hand the doublethink and the layers of useless terminology and processes posing as innovations. I get to participate in soul-numbing multi-step procedures every day, procedures which could be simplified with the application of a tiny bit of common sense, but which are blindly and unquestioningly carried out because that’s the way things are done.
Part of my stultifying job is assembling wire harnesses for air conditioning units. These harnesses come in boxes of 50 or so, and each wire is masking-taped together at the ends. Hence, an essential part of my preparation for my job is removing each tiny piece of masking tape, one by one, box by box. This takes hours. These strips of tape are so small and tightly wound that it’s impossible to imagine a machine adhering them, which means that somewhere there’s a guy whose job it is to tape the ends of the wires together, one by one, box by box. That guy and I are likely being paid similar amounts of money to counteract each other.
And it should be the simplest thing in the world for me to call that guy and ask him to stop taping the wires. Surely he has better things to do with his time. I know I do. Yes, taping the wires prevents them from tangling up during shipment, but once I remove the tape, the wires get tangled on my end anyway, so what would be the difference? Thing is, I can’t call that guy – I have to go through my bosses, who then have to go to that guy’s bosses, because we’re talking about two enormous corporations communicating, and nothing will change because taping the wires is just how it’s done. The tape guy and I will still be paid to accomplish absolutely nothing.
Naturally, this made me think of the record industry.
I realized this morning that last week’s column offered a lot of problems without clear solutions. I feel the need this time to offer up a few more positives, to show that there are people out there trying to swim against the tide and make a difference in a soulless, plastic musical climate. There are people who are actively discovering new ways to reach people and connect with them, bringing undeservedly obscure music to light. In fact, I want to mention two of them by name: Glenn McDonald and Mike Peters.
Glenn and I have a bit in common – we both run a weekly online music column that often diverges into personal terrain. Glenn’s is called The War Against Silence and can be found at www.furia.com/twas. He also lives in my once-and-forever home state of Massachusetts, no more than an hour’s train ride from where I was born. That, however, is where the similarities seem to end, because Glenn and I hardly ever agree.
It’s not just our taste in music, although there’s a pretty impressive gap between us there, too. In the very rare cases in which our tastes intersect, we always seem to like a particular artist for completely different reasons, and never agree on which particular albums are any good. I loved Marillion’s Anoraknophobia, for example, largely because it sounds so un-Marillion and it shows their undying willingness to grow and change. Glenn, conversely, seems to have given up on the band entirely after repeatedly trying to like Anoraknophobia and failing. I hated Tori Amos’ Scarlet’s Walk, going so far as to call it a boring waste of time. Glenn, on the other hand, called it the “best album ever.”
But that’s why I read him – to get a different viewpoint, and to read about artists I’ve never sampled. I also read TWAS every week to marvel at Glenn’s writing style, which couldn’t be more different from mine. I tend to focus on the music itself, going into often ridiculous detail about instrumentation and tone and theory. Glenn talks about how music affects him personally, and he does so with engaging eloquence. You can’t deny his palpable desire to connect his love of music with his readers, and while he sometimes misses the mark, he’s usually successful at drawing you in to his pocket universe, and communicating his one-on-one relationship with music in a universal way.
Glenn’s is the only online music column I read faithfully, and also the one from which I’ve learned the most. The highest compliment I can pay him is that he’s held on to his passion for music, a passion I sometimes find myself lacking when it comes to writing my own weekly missive. Reading his work helps me refresh and revitalize my own, and whether he’d take that as a compliment or not I don’t know, considering how often we disagree, but I owe him. So thanks, Glenn. And everyone who isn’t Glenn, go check out his column.
I really wanted to mention Glenn this time because he’s also the only online reviewer I’ve encountered who has as much love and respect for the Alarm as I have. It’s apparent that we both encountered the Alarm at similar points in our lives – those idealistic years when soaring anthems of hope and struggle connect with some unexplainable spark within. To most of America, the Alarm is a tiny blip of a band, most commonly known for their supporting tour with U2 in the late ‘80s. To some of us, though, the Alarm fulfilled the promise of U2 with more sincerity and less ego.
In one form or another, the spirit of the Alarm has continued through the efforts of singer/songwriter Mike Peters. The band officially broke up in 1992, but Peters has slowly staged a comeback in his native Wales, organizing a website (http://www.thealarm.com/) which treats the Alarm like the most important and influential band ever to walk the earth, and evolving his blossoming solo career into a vehicle for his newly formed version of the original foursome. He’s toured with the new guys for three years, getting old and new fans used to the name Alarm again, and now he’s reached the linchpin of his plan – a new Alarm album called In the Poppy Fields.
Peters is kind of a take it or leave it proposition, especially for newbies – he appears to carry out his life and career as if he’s never heard of irony. Everything Peters has ever done has been done passionately, and he puts himself on the line regularly. His self-serious, save-the-world-through-music persona invites laughter, but only until it becomes clear that it’s not a persona at all. Unlike Bono, for example, Peters truly believes every word that he sings, and he seems to have no patience for frivolity. I couldn’t imagine him taking an entire decade to ironically comment on the artificiality of fame, as U2 did – he’s got more important things to discuss, like hope and peace and rock ‘n’ roll.
Which brings me to the main reason I wanted to mention Glenn and Mike at the same time. Glenn beat me to the punch by reviewing Poppy Fields weeks ago, and he delivered the most accurate and insightful description of Mike Peters I’ve ever read. It’s bloody perfect, and I hope he doesn’t mind if I reproduce it here in its entirety:
“Gradually, over the past few years, Peters has morphed into a sort of hyper-cuddly reinvention of the fundamental archetype of the rock star as a new and inexplicable creature capable of taking himself monumentally and encyclopedically seriously without ever being detectably dour or egotistical about it. Far from any delusion that he’s some kind of King of Pop, Peters more often appears to labor under the delusion that he has somehow inherited the post of Town Singer in a village that has, and has only ever had, just one. He cheerfully sets out to entertain the townspeople with the mixture of senses of responsibility and entitlement that arise from the apparent assumption that people come to him for entertainment in the same way that they visit the town’s only blacksmith for horseshoes.”
Of course, Glenn and I disagree on the specifics of our shared love for Peters and his work. My favorite Alarm album is Change, their startlingly ambitious opus from 1989, and I like it for the same reasons Glenn seems to dislike it – it often sounds nothing like the Alarm. Unsurprisingly, our views on Poppy Fields differ sharply, for the same reasons. This album rarely sounds like the Alarm. Rousing, hopeful anthems only make up a small percentage of the record. But that stands to reason, since despite Peters’ insistence on using the name, the band that recorded Poppy Fields isn’t, in fact, the Alarm.
This is my main quibble with Peters, and it stems from the same place as my objections to the new Jane’s Addiction album. To my mind, the Alarm was four guys – Peters, guitarist Dave Sharp, bassist Eddie MacDonald and drummer Nigel Twist. The new Alarm retains only Peters, and even though guitarist James Stevenson, bassist Craig Adams and drummer Steve Grantley have the blessing of the original members, they’re not the Alarm. I don’t doubt the purity of Peters’ intentions, or the deliberate nature of his process, but it’s a misnomer to refer to this Mike Peters solo album as the work of his one-time band.
One thing I can’t fault Peters for, however, is his willingness to try new avenues of fan interaction and distribution. Poppy Fields is a bold step forward for ’net-based music, as it’s currently available exclusively from the Alarm website, and it incorporates a level of interactivity that seems like a logical progression, but is in truth a great leap. Most albums emerge from the studio at four or five times their intended size, and the artist usually undergoes a weeding-out process, throwing two-thirds to three-fourths of the recordings away. Peters and the band recorded 54 tracks for Poppy Fields, but rather than shelve more than 40 of them, he released the whole thing online as a five-CD set.
But that’s not all. Those who purchased Poppy Fields in its entirety before March were asked to vote on the track listing for a more traditional 10 to 12-song album to be culled from these songs. It’s based on the often correct assumption that the fans know how to turn new people on to the band better than the band does. Think about it – how many times have you bemoaned the selection of a first single that puts a bad face on an otherwise terrific album? Here’s an Alarm fan’s chance to design the album most likely to win new fans. It’s a very cool idea.
There is one flaw, however. You get the sense listening to the unedited Poppy Fields that Peters absolutely considers the 54-song version to be the official one. Unlike Glenn, who managed with ease to select 10 songs, I’m having difficulty imagining any version of In the Poppy Fields that runs less than two hours, so excellent is the vast majority of the material here.
Part of my positive reaction stems from my undying love for U2. Problem is, Bono’s boys have had a spot of trouble lately sounding like U2 – let’s say, for the last 13 years. Peters appears to have noticed this as well, and he’s set out to fill that vacuum retroactively. Here’s enough earnest, honest, wide-open landscape music to replace U2’s entire ‘90s output, and there’s no denying the connection this time. One listen to rousing opener “Close” and it’s clear – Peters couldn’t have made this sound more like U2 if he’d tried.
But listen beyond the “infinite guitar” trappings and atmospherics, and you’ll hear melodies the likes of which U2 haven’t written in ages. “Alone Together” gets the most out of its dramatic chord changes, “The Search for the Real Life” drops off surprisingly into spoken word at just the right times, and “How Long and How Much Longer” achieves orbit. This is a much mellower record than I expected, punctuated by moments of pulsing electrics (“Coming Home,” “Trafficking,” “45rpm”) that gain power through contrast. Best of all, for a 54-song collection, this thing is paced perfectly and sequenced brilliantly. Aside from a slow stretch of songs at the end of the third disc, it’s never boring.
There are definite highlights, which I suppose could aid in whittling this thing down. If I had to pick a favorite disc, it would be the second one, perhaps the mellowest of all. But “New Home New Life” is beautiful, gliding on Peters’ falsetto, and “Rain Down” is even more so, all passion and acoustic guitars. “45rpm” is a surprising punk raveup, leading into “Everafter,” a great rock song. The disc concludes with “The Unexplained,” a moody acoustic mantra unlike anything the Alarm has done.
Elsewhere, Peters sets the bar high with “The Drunk and the Disorderly,” the most Alarm-like song here. (In fact, it bears perhaps too close a resemblance to “Spirit of ’76.”) It’s a singalong fist-pumper, sequenced exactly halfway through, and it leaves little doubt that Peters still has the old fire. The fourth disc is given over entirely to a 30-minute song-suite called “Edward Henry Street,” and it’s the most impressive chapter in Peters’ ongoing autobiography in song. He leads the band through styles and sounds of his youth, and the songs amazingly recapture that sense of innocent power that infused the first few Alarm records. “Edward Henry Street” ends with “It’s Going to Be a Good Year,” reason enough to fall in love with Peters’ work all over again.
And In the Poppy Fields ends well, too. It’s rare to sift through this much material and still find mini-masterpieces like “Free Inside” sequenced at track 51. The record ends with three psychedelic experiments disguised as epics, and here Peters pulls out the late-period Beatles influences and takes them for a ride. It’s gratifying to me that he concludes such a mammoth work with three songs that break new ground for him, that push his personal envelope beyond his admittedly narrow purview. It’s a good sign for the future that he’s still willing to grow and change.
Throughout Poppy Fields, in fact, older fans of the band may think he’s changed a bit too much. Quite a lot of this set is slow, acoustic and moody, and while these songs would probably have been axed (or at least revved up) by the Alarm of old, here they serve to further separate the eras. Peters has grown, both as a person and as a songwriter, and if he’d churned out 54 variations on “Strength” or “Sixty-Eight Guns,” it would have been laughable. Poppy Fields sounds like what it is – the work of a mature songwriter who knows how much the world sucks, and who keeps the fire alive anyhow.
I admit that part of what I like about Poppy Fields is its sheer mass, its inescapable ambition. But I also like that it provides a comprehensive, crystal-clear picture of Mike Peters, one which justifies the place I’ve reserved for him in my personal pantheon. How easy would it be for Peters to live off the past, to fade away into an anecdote on VH1’s I Love the ‘80s? Instead, he pushes himself to excel musically, and pushes the model of internet distribution forward at the same time.
In the Poppy Fields is an imperfect collection, to be sure, but it simply burns with the desire to connect, to reach out and ignite everyone it touches. Far from the impersonal product of a massive corporation, it’s an intensely personal expression, delivered directly from Peters’ heart to yours, with no interference. It’s an attempt at a one-on-one dialogue, a stab at revitalizing music by bringing it back to its original purpose. That alone is worth supporting. That it’s very, very good is just icing.
Remember to check out Glenn McDonald – www.furia.com/twas. Next week, the new 6gig.
See you in line Tuesday morning.