As we barrel towards Oscar night, I feel the need to share this true story:
The newspaper I work for holds an Oscar contest every year, offering some form of fabulous prize for the readers who predict the winners in the Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress category. We run a multiple-choice ballot in the paper that lists the nominees in each category, so readers can fill it in and mail it back to us.
Well, we goofed a bit last week and ran last year’s ballot. That means the choices printed were up for Oscars last year – Best Picture listed Gladiator, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Chocolat, for example. It didn’t take long for people to start sending these ballots in with their “predictions,” and we all wondered how we would handle the situation. Would we credit last year’s ballot, considering it was our mistake? If so, how would we separate those who actually predicted the winners from those who (if they didn’t already know) looked them up on the internet?
Turns out, we needn’t have worried. We’ve received several ballots from several readers to date, and all of them failed to predict last year’s winners. One guy guessed Gladiator, then crossed it out in favor of Traffic. One woman selected Juliette Binoche for Best Actress. We’ve contacted each of these people and sent them new ballots, and I wish them all the luck in the world, because apparently, they’ll need it.
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I don’t care what anyone says, the Alarm was a great band.
The Welsh quartet was around for 10 years (1981-1991), and in that time, they never got the respect they were due, but by all accounts, they never achieved the height of their capabilities, either. They were always unfairly and unfavorably compared to U2, whom they shared a stage with on numerous tours. The sonic similarities are there to support such an argument – it’s possible that both bands discovered punk, reverbed pop and American traditional blues-rock at roughly the same time in their respective careers, but it’s unlikely. The way the bands explored those influences, however, was vastly different.
The real difference lies in the way both bands approached their own passion. While U2 has long been about giving the people a voice to look up to, the Alarm was always about being amongst the people, and singing with their voice. While their five albums are all wildly different from one another, that philosophy remained constant.
Lead singer Mike Peters has carried that torch through his solo career. He’s a successful artist in his native Wales, although he could walk down any street in America anonymously. The passionate fury of his voice is, along with Dave Sharp’s blistering guitar work, the defining characteristic of the Alarm, and the man’s commitment to his fans is legendary. There’s no other way to explain the existence of the Alarm 2000 box set, a phenomenally comprehensive document of a band few have ever heard. The Alarm’s sales never warranted such a retrospective from their label (or any label, for that matter), so Peters took it upon himself.
What he’s done with this set should be the blueprint for boxed compendiums. I have never spent so much money on any one piece of music – in United States dollars, the Alarm 2000 set is $180. That, my friends, is an absolute bargain. It’s almost as if someone handed Peters a handbook on creating the perfect box set. Here’s what he did:
First, he included every song from every album. Box sets are notorious for mixing and matching, providing random samplings of an artist’s career. This is crap. If an artist’s work is worth releasing in a deluxe set, then most likely the albums are meant to be heard as a whole. Expensive box sets shouldn’t be marketing tools, they should be lasting monuments. You shouldn’t have to seek out the albums afterwards to get the complete picture.
Hence, all 67 tracks from the Alarm’s career are present, in digitally remastered form. Each album appears on its own CD as well – none of that non-chronological scattershot technique you find with most sets of this nature. That alone would have been enough to get me excited about this project, but that’s just the first step.
Next, Peters filled out each CD with unreleased tracks, live versions, acoustic renditions, b-sides and more. Every album here benefits from this insight into the process and overall sound of the band during the period in which it was recorded. Most notably, the self-titled EP that launched their career in 1981 has been expanded to 22 tracks and more than 77 minutes, offering a full measure of the Alarm in their early stages. Even the six-track EP Electric Folklore Live has been transformed into a true live album, with 14 tracks over 78 minutes. All told, you get 128 tracks, nearly double the running orders of the original albums.
After all that, you’d never expect that there would be an additional eighth CD of rarities, but there it is. Rare Tracks includes 18 previously unreleased goodies, and offers another 78 minutes of music. All together, the Alarm 2000 collection serves up 146 songs, many of which appear in extended, previously unreleased versions. But of course, that’s not all.
What would a set like this be without detailed liner notes? These are more detailed than most, offering a complete history of the band from the first rehearsal to the final show, most often in the words of the four band members. (Besides Peters and Sharp, the Alarm included bassist Eddie MacDonald and drummer Nigel Twist.) Each album comes with its own extensive booklet, including the original cover art to each and lyrics to every song. Plus, since Peters dispensed with the original running orders on these discs (sequencing them in the order they should have appeared in the first place), each booklet offers information to program your CD player to duplicate the original sequences. All of this comes packaged in a deceptively small travel case, with sleeves for each disc and booklet.
But just you wait, because I haven’t mentioned the coolest thing of all. When you order the Alarm 2000 set (only available at www.thealarm.com), you can select your favorite song, write a dedication, and Peters will perform that song and dedicate it to you on a ninth CD. This is the ultimate extension of the Alarm’s commitment to their fans. Peters swears that he performs each of these requests individually, no matter how many people ask for the same song.
I asked for “No Frontiers,” a soaring anthem off the Change album from 1989, which has always been my favorite Alarm song. I requested no dedication, because I’m uncomfortable with the concept of music being tied to an individual, or of imposing that much of myself on Peters’ art. But I thought of one, and I mentally say it to myself whenever I play the disc. Peters performs “No Frontiers” like a world-weary songwriter looking back and trying to capture the youthful innocence of a forgotten time. His solo acoustic version trades the original’s ambition for an earthly realism, and somehow it suits the way I hear the song now, more than 10 years since I first fell in love with it. Plus, he kind of screws it up at the end, which is nifty.
Despite all my concerns about branding Peters’ version of “No Frontiers” with my own words, I confess a certain reverent thrill upon pressing play for the first time, and knowing that I was only the second person alive to hear that particular rendition. While that’s faded over time, I still get tingles when I hear it, and that feeling alone justifies the price for me. It’s the perfect icing on such a huge cake.
The Alarm 2000 set is exhausting to plow through, but ultimately more exciting than anything I’ve bought since the Choir’s similar comprehensive box, Never Say Never. It starts with both sides of the band’s first self-financed single from 1981, the ragged acoustic “Unsafe Building” and even more ragged electric “Up For Murder.” Amazingly, the passion is there from the start, with Peters’ often erratic voice riding on pure emotion and Sharp’s wrist-breaking acoustics setting the tone. The first disc jumps through five early demos before plunging into the meat of the eponymous EP and a seven-song mini-concert. (It’s a startling feature of this set that you often get multiple versions of songs you’ve never heard before, like “Reason 41,” which appears in demo, live and studio renditions, but never made an album.)
The Alarm is an angry, rough recording of anthems and rebel songs, especially the charmingly naive “Marching On.” The Alarm was a band that knew the value of a good “whoa-oh” in the chorus, something they likely nicked from the Clash, and that fist-pumping stridency reached its apex with one of the band’s best-known songs, “Sixty-Eight Guns,” which appears in demo and single versions on this first disc. Despite its thunderous chorus (“Sixty-eight guns will never die, sixty-eight guns our battle cry”), the group’s later maturity is hinted at even here in the plaintive middle section: “Through all the raging glory of the years, we never once thought of the fears for what we’d do, when the battle cry was over…”
“Sixty-Eight Guns” made its full appearance on the Alarm’s first album, Declaration, in 1984. Produced by Alan Shacklock, this record smoothed out the ragged edges while leaving the rough intensity of the EP. Performed almost entirely on furiously played acoustic guitars, Declaration is a slice of folk-punk that feels like a flower coming into bloom. (The Alarm’s trademark symbol, which appeared on every album cover and on the cover of this box, was an exploding blood-red poppy.) It manages to be diverse and unified at once, another trait they learned from the Clash, and it delves deeper into the spiritual side of the band’s rebellious nature.
Declaration jumps from the finger-pointing rage of “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke” to the menacing throb of sniper tale “Third Light” to the crunchy electric blues of “Howling Wind,” but if any one song defines this period of the Alarm’s history, it’s the epic “Blaze of Glory.” It’s a twisty number that incorporates military drums, trumpets and banjos seamlessly, fades off into a mournful fanfare midway through, and comes charging back for Dave Sharp’s rousing finale. With lyrics about picking yourself up and learning how to fight back, it may be the ultimate rebel song.
This disc also includes seven unreleased contenders for the album, including the bluesy “Reason 41” and the surprisingly pop “The Chant Has Just Begun.” You also get covers of traditional folk tune “Bells of Rhymney” and Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory,” as well as the single version of the song the band released with visions of stardom, “Absolute Reality.” It’s a precursor to (and appears on) one of the most consistent Alarm albums, 1985’s Strength.
The band went electric for their second full-length, and they wrote some of their best songs. The title track is a standout, as is the epic “Spirit of ’76,” the pure punk “Deeside,” the sweet “Walk Forever By My Side” and the masterful, heartbreaking “The Day the Ravens Left the Tower.” You get a couple of unreleased cuts (“Majority” being the best), a roughshod electric version of later standout “One Step Closer to Home,” and a quartet of live tracks, but mostly, the highlights are the 10 fantastic, invigorating songs that made up Strength. Some maintain they never got better than this.
While I can’t join in that opinion, I will concede that they sort of lost their way on 1987’s Eye of the Hurricane, but since it s the first Alarm album I heard, I have a sentimental attachment to it. Eye is the most altered of the discs, since it turns out that the band was only partly to blame for the way the original release sounded. This album found the band caught between trying to make a hit record and an Alarm record, and the results were predictably strained. Synthesizers and drum machines took over, especially on pseudo-hit “Rain in the Summertime,” and the band sounded unconvinced that this was the right way to go.
Well, surprise surprise, the version of Eye I’d been listening to all these years is a poorly edited mix the label foisted on the group, with the guitars mostly removed or subdued. The Alarm 2000 set corrects this blight by offering the mix the band gave the label, intact. And it’s a bit of a revelation – “Newtown Jericho” now sounds like the anti-anthem it was always meant to, “Summertime” is more of a full band groove than a computerized one, and “Shelter” cranks up the electric guitars over sections that were once just acoustic. Sure, the songs are still poppier than they’d been, especially the ballad “Presence of Love,” but the sound is less tentative. Finally, Eye sounds like an Alarm album, like the band is as invested in it as they are the rest of their catalog.
The Alarm were a bit of a rarity in the ’80s: a great live band that also made great records. The stage, however, is where they shone, and Electric Folklore, expanded to a full document of the Alarm’s stint with U2 on the Joshua Tree tour, is the proof. I’d almost recommend new listeners checking this out first, because this is one hell of a live album. I’d always been bothered by the sequencing of the original release, and apparently Peters has been too, because he corrects every one of my concerns. Rightful opener “Strength” now kicks off the set, “Blaze of Glory” nests comfortably in the middle, and the one-two punch of extended renditions of “Rescue Me” and “Spirit of ’76” now appear in the showstopper positions they always should have. In many ways, this is the height of the collection.
Fresh from the biggest tour of their lives and determined not to make the same mistakes they made with Eye, the band huddled down with producer Tony Visconti and in 1989 released their finest work, the lengthy Change. Here they explored American blues and English pop, traditional folk and Welsh choral arrangements. It’s a stylistic departure, and yet the semi-hit “Sold Me Down the River” sounds like a direct descendant of “Howling Wind,” off of Declaration. Change lives up to its title, but it progresses nicely from what came before. Most impressive, though, is Peters himself, who finally learned to harness that powerful voice of his to suit the various styles.
Peters has called this album “the double album that could have been,” and here he gets the chance to rectify that a bit. Many songs on Change were edited down to fit on one piece of vinyl, but the original versions appear here, including Dave Sharp’s wonderful jam outro to “No Frontiers.” Three unreleased tracks join the 14 originals, and if you’ve never heard the album, you’d be hard-pressed to pick them out. They’re just as good as the album tracks. Change concludes with one of the band’s finest moments, the fully orchestrated “A New South Wales,” performed with a Welsh male voice choir.
In essence, Change was the band’s swan song. Their final album, Raw, released in 1991, is not so much an album as it is a slipshod collection of the final studio tracks the Alarm recorded. Dave Sharp took over vocals on several tracks, heralding his upcoming solo career. The recording is, in fact, quite raw, considering most of it was done live and self-produced. The original album consisted of three new Peters tracks, three new Sharp songs, three old numbers the band had been playing for years, and a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
But as released here, Raw takes its place as the band’s sad farewell. Peters bumps the running order up to 15 tracks, including two that were recorded for the best-of collection Standards. With the full picture, the lyrics to “Moments in Time” take on resonance as a wave goodbye. As a capper on their career, the band recorded updated versions of both sides of their first single (“Unsafe Building” and “Up For Murder”), and covered John Lennon’s wistful “Happy X-Mas (War is Over).” The final track, and most heartbreaking, is a newly discovered recording on “the last few inches of tape on the last reel of the last recording session,” an acoustic duet between Sharp and Peters on “Walk Forever By My Side.” Rarely has a band made their final album so final.
And the Rare Tracks disc? All intriguing stuff, especially for the longtime fan. My favorites are an impromptu acoustic version of “Absolute Reality,” a demo for an unreleased song called “Firing Line,” a live version of “Rivers to Cross” with a jamming violin player, and a hushed and caustic acoustic reading of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Rare Tracks ends with an acoustic version of “No Frontiers,” which, when paired with Peters’ version on my dedication disc, adds a nice symmetry to the whole set.
It’s rare that a band will offer up such a complete version of itself, with none of the edges smoothed out. The Alarm 2000 set is the ultimate example of a band having nothing to hide. If you think, as I do, of musical entities as living, breathing organisms that change and grow over time, then a set like this is a dream come true, the total evolution of a musical entity in a single box. Most importantly in my mind, a set like this, so lovingly and painstakingly crafted, signals that the music of the Alarm is as important to Mike Peters as it is to me and thousands of others, and thanks to his efforts and commitment, Alarm fans new and old will always be able to enjoy it. So thanks, Mike.
“There are no frontiers
That we can’t cross tonight
There are no borderlines
To keep us apart…”
See you in line Tuesday morning.