The Alarm sold 5 million records but they were never cool. Even in the early 1980s, when they were singing punkish rebellion songs like 68 Guns, the band never won the critical acclaim of the music press. Instead, they were derided as pretentious and inferior imitators of U2. Even their big hair was mocked.
Perhaps it was just easier to be cool if you came from Dublin rather than Rhyl but even in Wales those who take their rock and pop music seriously have not accorded The Alarm much credit. Books on Welsh music history overlook or deride them (although David Owens’ Cerys, Catatonia and The Rise Of Welsh Pop is a notable exception). The contrasts with the feting and celebrations of the Manic Street Preachers could not be greater.
The Alarm released five studio albums between 1984 and 1991, although the name was revived by singer Mike Peters in 2000 and he continues to tour and record under it. Peters’ health problems and his continuing musical and charitable work mean that the band continue to have some profile in Wales at least. The derision that was sometimes aimed their way has faded but it has not been replaced with popular affection or admiration.
The Alarm, however, do deserve some recognition and even analysis. Music does not have to be original or innovative to say something and touch people and the Alarm did both. Their popularity alone means they deserve a mention in the contemporary history of Wales. But more than that, The Alarm also offer a window into wider trends in that history, not just in what they did but also in how they ran against contemporary currents.
The band’s early albums captured the anger and frustrations felt by so many young people in a period of mass unemployment. Most young people may not have been rioting or even been particularly politicized but there was a certainly a resentful sense that affluence and opportunity were not being equally shared out. As The Alarm sang in Father to Son (1985) ‘How many years must I waste? Today I can’t find nothing nowhere. Tomorrow I might find something somewhere. Give me a future now. I need it so badly now.’
Much of the associated blame and anger was aimed was aimed at Mrs Thatcher, who became hated by many people in a way that no previous Prime Minister had. The Alarm’s Marching On (1984) did not name her but its angry accusations seemed to be aimed at her and it demanded ‘You’d better look at what you have created and think of all the people who hate you’. This may not have been poetic or subtle but it did sum up how many felt.
Yet rock bands like The Alarm were a minority taste. Far more popular in the 1980s were catchy pop songs that were an antidote to rather than comment on hard times. One purveyor of such tunes was Shakin’ Stevens, one of Wales’ most successful modern musicians. Although he came from a deprived Cardiff council estate, his most popular songs were ditties about love, a green door, and Christmas. In this, he was more in tune with popular sentiment than The Alarm and others whose anger was politicized. Indeed, overt faith in the political system was fading and being replaced by apathy and cynicism.
While some turned their backs on party politics, others began to weave a sense of nation into their political views. This was significant because Welshness had largely been a matter of sentiment rather than politics in working-class urban Wales. The changing attitudes were evident in the Welsh iconography of banners at the 1984-5 miners’ strike. One social scientist claimed that Welshness was stepping into a void left by a fragmenting sense of class consciousness.
Theses shifting attitudes to Wales were evident in the output of The Alarm. In 1989, they moved away from their class-based lyrics and released Change, an album inspired by the lead singer’s new found sense of national identity.
Peters learnt Welsh and a version of the record was also released in that language, making it probably the first fully bilingual album. Change brimmed with a sense of anger and frustration at the state of Wales: ‘I saw a land standing at a crossroads, I saw her wrath in a burned out home, saw her tears, in rivers running cold, her tragedy waiting to explode’ and ‘I see the proud black mountain, beneath an angry sun, under drowning valleys, our disappearing tongue, how many battles must we fight, before we start a war? How many wounds will open before the first blood falls?’
This open sense of Welshness did not help the band’s image outside Wales and their use of a male voice choir on the track New South Wales drew some mirth. Even in Wales, it left the band vulnerable to accusations of clichés. But to me, a teenager at the time, this was all heady stuff and it gave my sense of nationality a distinctly political twist. I surely was not alone.
The Alarm still sounded indistinguishable from so much of western rock music, even with the new lyrics about Wales. Yet that is no reason to dismiss them as part of Welsh culture. Understanding those facets of our culture that are shared with other nations is just as important as appreciating what marks us out as different. Besides, ultimately, there is little in Welsh popular culture that is unique to Wales. When The Alarm sang about the pull of Merseyside, they spoke for the Welsh majority whose cultural inspirations and aspirations did not stop at the border.
Popular music is a powerful social force. It can entertain, inspire and anger. But sometimes it’s nothing more than part of the humdrum of everyday life, something in the background, barely heard or noticed. The Alarm were all this. Yet, whether they were singing about social trends or were just another tune on the radio, the band are a part of the story of modern Wales.
Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Wales since 1939.