Glory of the ’80s
The Alarm and Prince Refuse to Get Old

It’s my sister Emily’s birthday this week. She’s 29.

This seems impossible to me, because if she’s 29, then I’m almost 32, and that’s… wrong. It has to be. I spend a lot of digital ink here bitching about how old I am, and I won’t do that again, but seriously. My little sister is 29? What the hell?

I don’t feel to bad about it, though, because I know age means nothing. It’s all attitude. And like a musical miracle, just when I’m feeling down about my advancing years, here come a couple of actual old people, partying like it’s 1982. Granted, neither of this week’s contestants are as old as David Gilmour and Ray Davies (and thank God neither of them sound as old as Gilmour), but still, we’re not talking young, fresh fellows here. And yet, if you didn’t know it, you’d never guess.

Start with Mike Peters, all of 47 years old. I can’t overstate just how important Peters’ band, the Alarm, was to my formative years. Some people glommed onto U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree around the same time, but I identified more with the expressive anthems of Eye of the Hurricane and Strength. I can’t tell you why, but the Alarm moved me more.

I’m beginning to think that it may be because I sensed the absolute earnestness and strong integrity of the band’s leader. Peters gets compared to Bono all the time, but while the erstwhile Paul Hewson hides behind a fake name, wraparound sunglasses and an undeniable messiah complex, as well as heaping tons of irony, Peters has never been anything but straightforward. The Alarm, during their time, wrote nothing but anthems, every song reaching for the brass ring, every song a showstopper. And it’s become obvious to me in the intervening years that Peters believes every word of them, and that lends them power.

Put simply, I don’t trust Bono, but I believe in Mike Peters.

I do realize that I just spent three paragraphs propagating the Alarm-U2 comparison, which has always been an unfair one. The Alarm lived in U2’s shadow, especially after touring with them in 1987, but since the ‘80s, Peters has stayed the course and turned out one great record after another, while U2 has gone astray (for 10 years!) and come back again. In terms of consistency, there is no contest. And in terms of personal importance to my life, there is again no doubt – the Alarm is one of my very favorite bands, and Peters one of my heroes.

In recent years, Peters has resurrected the Alarm name, despite the fact that three-fourths of the band are gone. His new band, including guitarist James Stevenson, ex-Cult bassist Craig Adams and Stiff Little Fingers drummer Steve Grantley, is all wrapped up with his old one, and has as much of their blessing as Peters could expect. And he certainly isn’t doing the name wrong – in 2003, the Alarm released In the Poppy Fields, a five-CD, 54-song opus that contained nary a weak moment.

They even hoodwinked the music industry, releasing the first single from the album under the name The Poppy Fields and hiring teenagers to fill in on the video, to prove a point about image and popularity. It worked – the song, “45 RPM,” hit big in Britain, and the music press fell all over themselves praising it before discovering its true authors. It was the most revealing scam I can remember, and slightly out of character for the ever-honest Peters, who quickly revealed the truth.

Life seemed good for Peters, until December of last year. While working on the follow-up to Poppy Fields, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a form of cancer. His prognosis is favorable, but since this is his second bout with cancer, the outcome is never certain.

But here’s why Peters is my hero – he gets hit with cancer, and it barely even slows the man down. Since the diagnosis, Peters finished Under Attack, the second album by the new Alarm. He booked an extensive tour on two continents, and shot videos for every song on the record (included on a bonus DVD). And now he’s out promoting it, and playing his heart out every night, as is his custom. I have missed several opportunities to see the Alarm live, but I’m going to try not to miss this one.

Part of my determination here is that Under Attack is absolutely awesome. I paid import price for it (it doesn’t come out here until May 30) because it’s the Alarm, and I couldn’t wait for it. It was worth every penny, the most furious and committed album Peters has made in many years. For all its sprawl and stylistic breadth, In the Poppy Fields now stands as the timid first step of this new incarnation. Under Attack makes it sound like a James Taylor album, so wonderfully loud and bracing is this new music.

Under Attack kicks off with “Superchannel,” the first single, currently doing gangbusters across the pond. It’s an explosive way to start, a caustic indictment of modern culture with a great hook. From there, the record never falters – it’s one anthem after another, each one immensely singable and uplifting. Peters sings semi-trite lines like “Everyone is someone to somebody” and “You only get one life” from the heart, elevating them from cliches to truisms to rallying cries. And pretty much every song contains at least one “Whoa-oh,” an Alarm tradition that still never fails to make me smile.

Under Attack contains four songs from the full Poppy Fields (the album was released commercially with only 12 of its tracks), and they’re completely different. Especially re-worked is the great “Rain Down,” an acoustic ballad on Poppy Fields that bursts forth here as a jagged rocker with a terrific arrangement. Also fantastic is the new “Be Still,” faster and louder and more stirring than the original take.

But it’s the new songs that shine. “Without a Fight” is a perfect Alarm anthem, its title preceded by “I’m never giving up,” and it takes on new meaning in the context of Peters’ medical condition. “It’s Alright/It’s OK” should be a hit – in fact, each of the first six songs could be hits, I think, and they ought to be. The album gets deeper and more minor-key after that, reaching its volcanic apex with “Something’s Got to Give,” which could be this band’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

But thankfully, it ends on a perfectly positive note with “This Is the Way We Are,” another in a series of semi-acoustic epics like “Spirit of ‘76” and “The Drunk and the Disorderly.” This one will stay with you, a decidedly Alarm-ish sendoff that feels absolutely right. And that’s the best part of Under Attack, to me – even though the amps are cranked for this one, and the punk influences are more evident, all of these songs sound like the Alarm to me, and like classic Alarm at that. You can’t ask for anything more than that. Even though Peters still hedges a bit by adding the date next to the band name – this one’s billed to the Alarm MMVI – I have no problem thinking of this as the next Alarm record, and a damn good one at that.

And I hope the relentless positivity, the all-out go-for-brokeness of this album is a good sign, both for the Alarm and for Peters in his fight with cancer. It would be more than a shame to lose a musician this passionate, this committed, this important, especially since he’s as good now as he’s ever been. Under Attack makes me feel 16 again, ready to take on the world, and to say that it’s a feeling I need right now would be an understatement. So thanks, Mike, and here’s to your health and a long life.

* * * * *

It seems weird to switch gears like this, to go from talking about a guy with not one trace of artifice to a guy who spent most of a decade using an unpronounceable symbol for his name. But if we’re talking about ‘80s artists experiencing a renaissance in the Aughts, well, we have to mention Prince, don’t we?

Prince is 47 as well, and he’s transformed himself in his old age from randy soul-funker to classy master of his craft. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Prince explored jazz and funk like never before, expanding his sound with strange, beautiful records like The Rainbow Children and NEWS. In 2004, though, he staged a massive career comeback, releasing Musicology, his most popular and acclaimed album in many years, and launching an incredibly successful tour.

Musicology was old-school Prince, a timid attempt at commerciality, and it left me sort of cold. I knew what he’d left behind to make this record – most notably his amazing band, the New Power Generation – and I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon. It was a decent, funky, unremarkable Prince album, and while I was glad for his renewed success, since I think he’s a stone genius, I haven’t really played Musicology since it came out.

So now here’s comeback part two, 3121 (pronounced “thirty-one twenty-one”), and I was expecting more of the same. In a way, I got it, but where Musicology sounded rote, this one sounds inspired. This is a great Prince pop album, and while his flights of fancy are reined in, his melodic sense and gleaming production are at full force. There are 12 songs on this album, and at least eight of them are hits, and better than anything on pop radio at the moment.

Start with the title song, a classic Prince track, with a relentless beat and processed, sped-up vocals. Prince self-harmonizes, but uses variable pitch effects, so it sounds like he’s singing with munchkin and demon versions of himself. He played all the instruments on most of this album, once again forsaking his terrific band, but I don’t miss them as much this time, for some reason. Part of it is the dark, spacious production – it’s as minimalist as his best ‘80s work, and yet as full as it needs to be.

This record is much more varied than Musicology, too, including Latin-tinged balladry (the single “Te Amo Corazon”), guitar rock (“Fury”), and sweet soul-pop (“Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” a duet with Tamar, his new protégé.) “Lolita” is like stepping in the wayback machine, so ‘80s are its grooves and drum fills. And closer “Get on the Boat” is a jam and a half, a great funk workout with horns by, among others, the awesome Maceo Parker.

For all that, it’s the atmospheric spiritual piece “The Word” that really does it for me here. With a tough beat and an appealingly dark acoustic guitar part, the song expresses Prince’s always-present faith through one of the best melodies on the record. It’s a bit of an island amidst all the love and sex songs – 3121 is Prince’s most sensual album since becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 – which only adds to its impact. It’s the kind of moment that was sorely lacking on Musicology, and only one of the reasons that this is a superior effort.

If Prince is going to make pop records – and it seems like he is – then I hope he keeps making ones as good as 3121. It’s a varied, versatile album that finds him at the top of his game, and it betrays not one trace of his age. For nearly 30 years, Prince has forged a career path unlike anyone else’s, and he refuses to slip into mediocrity. Credit his restless artistic spirit, and his devotion to his craft, for making even a stab at pop radio like 3121 sound fresh. Forget Musicologythis is the commercial comeback, and a welcome one it is.

Next week, I catch up on a ton of 2006 records, before the spring flood hits on April 4. Operation: Mindcrime II, baby! Really, how bad can it be?

See you in line Tuesday morning.