Close, The Alarm, And U2: The Words I’ve Been Holding In For Too Long

The song “Close” was released for review in the UK in mid-December 2004. It’s little late in the album cycle for “In The Poppy Fields”, and without a single to sell in the stores, it’s kind of a wasted effort. Still though, it’s nice to see The Alarm MMIV get some press, even though it’s not really the kind that does the much good. Why? Because reading through most of the reviews of the single (Google ‘”The Alarm Close” review’ to read what I mean) you might think it was 1986 all over again. With a new U2 album out (the satisfyingly but light mega-hit “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”) the same year as a new Alarm album (the unsung adventurous comeback “In The Poppy Fields”), comparisons have arisen again. Almost every review, good or bad, says “Close” sounds like U2. It’s funny though, because if you asked any one of those people to tell you the specific U2 song “Close” sounds like, they probably could not. Why? Because, really, it doesn’t sound like U2 at all. It sounds like an idealized burst of rock and roll , ardent in its obvious love for the medium, while gripping with simple lyrics of yearning and hope. It’s what people think U2 “should” sound like, but have not for many years now (sorry, not even on their new album). Furthermore, “Close” has none of the signature guitar sound of U2 or even much of Bono’s vox style. It sounds more like a cross between Icicle Works and Echo And the Bunnymen, shouted from the roof-top of decaying building somewhere in the dystopia of cold-war Europe. Funny though, that “Close” was written in 2001, long before the current U2 album was even being considered…but then that’s not really the point. The point is, The Alarm and U2 have never really much sounded the same. They were friends and confidants with similar ideals who played guitar rock at time when it was patently unfashionable to do so. They might have affected each other in various ways, but that the influence was definitely not a one-way street.

The early 80’s were an interesting time for music. Poverty, unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, the cold war, and armed conflict around the world were jettisoning us right into the post-modern age. The promise of punk rock, championed by music critics with The Damned in 1976, had became a Bow Wow Wow dog of epic proportions by the 1980. However the need for punk still existed, and it’s influence had taken hold around the world. Passionate bands with roots deep in punk and protest began springing-up all over the place. Australia had Midnight Oil. The USA had R.E.M. Scotland had Big Country, Ireland had U2, and Wales had The Alarm. Many of the UK based bands (including other stalwarts such as Echo And the Bunnymen, Cactus World News, New Model Army, The Waterboys, and Icicle Works) would exemplify this “80’s Sound” that is commonly, but mistakenly attributed solely to U2:, a passionate mix of guitars, big ideals, and earnest vocals. Many of these bands knew each other, and traveled in the same scene. They borrowed from each other, but each were able to etch-out their own identities that they took to various levels of success. However, as U2 broke out of the pack, and rose towards world domination, all this was forgotten. In the eyes of popular thought, U2 had started it all, and everyone else was simply following-on behind.

The one band that seemed dogged the most by U2 comparisons was The Alarm. While most of the other bands seemed to wriggle out of the “just like U2” comparisons, music critics seemed to load-up both barrels and aim them directly at The Alarm. However, besides the obvious passion in the songwriting, there are really not many songs from the early Alarm era that you could put side-by-side any U2 songs any definitely say “The Alarm ripped-off U2”. But the comparisons persisted. Why? Well, U2 and The Alarm started out as friends. In late 1981, Ian Wilson, who was working with U2 at the time, discovered The Alarm, and both bands started playing with one another. Wilson would soon become The Alarm’s long-time manager. At the time, the only real similarities were that each band had four members and used guitars. The Alarm certainly did not come from the same place as U2. Far from being Irish art-rock boys with a Christian bent, The Alarm were raised on the punk of Liverpool, Manchester, and London, while working the seaside fun fairs of the Welsh coast. Their main influences were early punk and the power-pop of the Rich Kids, mixed with the politicized skiffle of the Stray Cats . Their cowboy outfits made them look a bit like The Clash, but they never sounded much like them. Stiff Little Fingers would have been a better comparison, if anyone had been wise enough at the time to make it. By the way, why was it OK for a band like Rancid (who I really enjoy) to not just echo The Clash, but sound EXACTLY LIKE The Clash in the mid-90’s, yet still get the kind of critical consideration that befits a band whose sound is completely original? Where is the parity in the critical world? But, I digress.

While U2 were deep into the electric sound of their instruments (and experimenting with Middle Eastern sounds on October), The Alarm played all acoustic guitars. Three acoustic guitars and bass drum were their main musical weapons. Harmonicas might make an appearance as well, and sometimes an electric bass, but little else. The band even helped create a new sound by building guitars out of hollow-body acoustics and electric pick-ups. Yeah, you read that right. When these bands met, neither even played the same type of instruments. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1987 that U2 would pull-out acoustics and harmonica…oops, long after The Alarm had done it first.

However, acoustic guitars and harmonica were hardly the only things that U2 might have barrowed from The Alarm. While U2 had just released the introspective and outwardly religious “October”, The Alarm were deep into their “war” mode. Martial drumming, and battle scenes in songs like “68 Guns” (written in 1979) “Marching On” (released as a single in 1982) and “Third Light” echoed the world weary war ravaged times. Funny though, that U2’s next album, 1983′ “War” would echo much the same sentiment. U2’s entry might have been a more directed effort, but then they had the hindsight to focus their anger more than the broad statements of The Alarm’s songs. U2 might not have been original, but they certainly showed the talent for taking influences and improving on them. Still, U2 might still have needed The Alarm to get them “over the edge”. In an interview in the May 1991 issue of Stereo Review, Eddie Macdonald of The Alarm said that Bono once told him that with songs like “The Stand”, they would have never been able to write “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

In 1983, U2 had The Alarm open for them on their tour of the USA. It was probably the greatest gesture the band could have bestowed on The Alarm at the time, and they owe much of their early breakthroughs in the USA to that tour. However, it also had its dark side. It was the first time that many people would see The Alarm, and that experience colored their perception of the little known band from Wales and band they were supporting. “How could The Alarm NOT have been heavily influenced by U2?” people must have thought. They both had similar passion, and they both sing songs that echo current events and spirituality. No one knew the history of either band, or how The Alarm might have had influence the other way as well. Yet, again, during that tour, another Alarm song would appear that U2 might have barrowed from. In a joint radio interview in Texas, Bono insisted that the DJ play a new Alarm song on the air. Mike Peters sheepishly went the tour van to get the tape. It was “Blaze Of Glory”, an early version recorded at The Town House, 29th April 1983, almost two months before The Alarm joined U2 in the USA. Apparently it was one of Bono’s favorite songs at the time. The DJ commented that that Bono looked like the “the bar has been raised” or something to that effect. The Alarm had written the song as a defense against the Irish band’s growing critical press backlash in the UK. Later that year, Bono would sing the lyrics to that song live in concert on the War tour, in the middle of “Out Of Control”. If that is not “influence”, I don’t know what is.

After 1983, the paths of The Alarm and U2 would diverge quite a bit. Both would gain sizable hits on “modern” radio stations, and both felt the backlash that any band with international success might feel. The Alarm’s “Declaration” released in1984 was a collection of songs they had been playing since they formed in 1981. Still, critics latched onto the “war” and “spiritual” themes that appeared on the album, and instantly compared it to U2. The Alarm’s crime was not copying U2, but releasing their first album far too late. However, even on that album there were things that U2 had not yet tried, but would soon make into household names. The Alarm song “Howling Wind” that ends Declaration, was a sweeping, ethereal corker, not unlike the type of song U2 would make famous with “Bad” and most of Joshua Tree (yet without the signature Edge guitar). This song, and the remarkable “Tell Me” pointed towards band that was much more than a rip-off. Why couldn’t anyone get by their prejudice to notice?

Later, in 1983, The Alarm started covering Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” in concert. It was a song they would continue to play as an encore for years to come. It was also a song that U2 started playing live soon after, and it was The Alarm’s influence that led them there. During one live concert, Bono told the audience something like “this is a song Mike Peters wrote”, before U2 broke into the Dylan epic. Later in 1985, Mike Peters would tell live audiences, just before starting the song, “this is a song we taught Bono how to play”.

The next Alarm, album, “Strength”, released in 1985 could not be confused with the latest U2 album, “Unforgettable Fire” at all. While U2 was busy mining Civil Rights territory, The Alarm had returned to their roots writing songs about where they came from, and where they were going. After extensive touring with The Pretenders The Alarm had developed a solid “rock” sound that far different than that of U2. “Spirit Of 76” was more Springsteen than anything Bono and co. were playing. The punk skiffle of Deeside was like nothing U2 had ever produced. However, there was a U2 influence on that album. Bono recommended that Mike Peters to start writing songs from a personal perspective. That advice helped take the album from the depths of “Declaration 2”, into the higher plains of transcendence. Even so, the sound of the band and the lyrics of the songs hardly matched U2 at this stage. The Alarm pushed toward a powerful rock sound, not unlike The Who at their high point. U2 on the other had dove right into the signature sound of “The Edge”, which eschewed hard rock chords for deft electric guitar “note bending” (as BB King once called it). Only The title song “Strength” really echoed U2, and only in the way it matched the Irish band’s emotional zeal note for note. But then U2 did not have a patent on emotion did they? From what people were saying at the time, you would have thought they had invented it.

U2 broke through in early 1987 with “Joshua Tree”, and that pretty much signified the end for The Alarm in their original form. No matter what they attempted afterwards, they would always walk in U2’s shadow. Even though Dave Sharp never even attempted to play like the Edge, he would be compared to him. Even though Mike Peters and Bono had been influenced by the same things, and filled with similar passion, it was always Mike who be called a “copy cat”. Even on the album that most people say is the most “U2-like” (1987’s Eye Of The Hurricane), you’d be hard-pressed to find any one song that actually is similar to any U2 song. Did U2 ever write a song like “Shelter” or “One Step Closer To Home”? Perhaps “Presence Of Love”? That one always stuck me as more Police “Every Breathe You Take” than U2. However, there are places on “Eye” where The Alarm beat U2 to the punch. “Rain In The Summertime” experimented with techno and synthesized drums almost 1/2 a decade before U2 attempted it. One of b-sides to “Eye” is a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures Of Plenty”. U2’s America obsessed “Joshua Tree” was released about 7 months before “Eye”, so The Alarm must have been influenced there, right? No. The Alarm first covered Guthrie in 1984 with “Bound For Glory. At the same time, they released “The Chant Has Just Begun”, a techno remix song, roughly 12 years before U2 would do the same on “Pop”. However, all of this would be soon forgotten. U2 broke out of the pack of 80’s bands, and everyone else would be seen as followers. Such is the spoils of the war that U2 had won. They would have their own battles to fight as they ascended to world domination, and they were far from what The Alarm would experience.

After 1988, all bets were off. Internal squabbles in The Alarm hobbled the band, and there was no way they could match the dominance of U2. Still, the “Change” album in 1989 was far from a “Joshua Tree” knock-off. How could critics call again to say The Alarm was ripping off U2 when it was so apparent they were working back towards the rock footing they had started with “Strength”. “Sold Me Down The River” was more Rolling Stones cum “Howling Wind” than anything by U2. “Devolution Working Man Blues” aped AC/CD more than “In God’s Country”. There are places on “Change” that do sound similar to U2 (“The Rock”), but again, both bands had influenced each other, so how could they not? The Alarm’s problem was not that they were aping U2, but that they needed a real “Change” to survive. U2 now dominated, and the Alarm needed to redefine them selves. A return to their punk roots would have been a good choice, but the band was too disjointed to follow-through. Longtime manager and “5th band member” Ian Wilson had been fired, and with him went much of the direction for the band. Dave Sharp was interested in slowing everything down to a blues pace, Mike Peters had his own ideas of where to go, and no one was talking to each other. By the end, The Alarm could not make the switch, and they fell apart. Attempts to go “Raw” in 1991 did not go far enough. The Alarm were had taken their tour with Bob Dylan and their friendship with Neil Yong to heart, and tried to take their rock sound back to its basic roots, but it was simply not enough. U2 had similar problems trying to fight an almost universal press backlash against their “Rattle And Hum” project. U2 though, overcame their problems as only great rock band could. They turned everything on it’s head with “Actung Baby!” in the early 90’s. They pissed-off tons of fans, but gained more credibility than they knew what to do with. That’s when the real domination started. The Alarm had no voice at all, and U2 had ascended to rock royalty. History would be rewritten, and not in the Alarm’s favor.

Mike Peters went solo in 1991, and released his first songs in 1994. Obviously the U2 comparisons had taken their toll. On his first single, (the decidedly non-Alarm sounding rap-rock of “Back Into The System”) Mike sang:

“U2 against Sellafield and all atomic dread
Me I’ve been compared to them so many times
I wish somebody would nuke those suckers Instead”

Mike went on to forge a solo career out of the ashes of the band that made his name in the 80’s. He took chances at every turn. He covered “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash years before it was cool to reference “old school” anything. He resurrected his long-forgotten punk sound on “What Is It For” from the Feel Free album, and “Ground Zero” from the “Rise” album. He wrote Zeppelin-like rock with Billy Duffy in Coloursound, and musical scores like “Flesh And Blood”. By the time Mike Peters had decided to re-launch The Alarm in 2001, he had enough experience and songwriting under his belt to write 50 new songs for a record. Mike, along with new band mates went ahead and created some of the best songs that ever wore the name The Alarm.

I’m tired of waiting for “in the know” rock critics to discover that Mike Peters is, indeed, one of the best unsung songwriters of his or any generation. There are just so many times that I read a music critic extol the virtues of their next darling that needs “discovering” by the public (see Steve Earle, Conner Oberst, and Jeff Tweedy) before I start thinking “why can’t Mike Peters and company get at least one critic to do the same for them?”. It’s not like Peters doesn’t have the songs. For every song one of the current singer/songwriter critical favorites has in the pipe, I throw to you: “Broken Silence”, “High On The Hill”, “House Of Commons”, “The Normal Rules Do Not Apply”, “The Life You Seek Does Not Exist”, “Swan Song”, “Rain down”, “When Everything Was Perfect”, “Waiting For Summer”, “Your Only Young And Innocent Once”, “In The Poppy Fields” and “Contentious Objector” to name just a few.. Listen to them, and then tell me these tracks are not just as good or worthy of merit of at least an inkling of the press these other artist get. You simply can’t do it.

So here I am, today, writing to an audience that I’m sure will never read this, about why comparing The Alarm with U2 is simply an easy way-out for critics to dismiss The Alarm. Hey guys, just jump on the band wagon, everyone’s doing it. Your editor will not be disappointed. I realize, being a music critic is a crappy job. Free CDs don’t pay the bills. You have to listen to 100’s of albums, and they all start sounding exactly the same. When a record with “The Alarm” name comes through, they must feel relieved. Just talk about: big haircuts, U2, or The Clash for a few sentences, skim the tracks, and move on to the next CD, a cool $25 bucks in your pocket and no harm done. However, it’s time that, at least a few major rock critics learned the error of their ways. I’m not asking them to pretend to like the band or the songs, but to simply to listen with the knowledge that The Alarm never really copied anyone’s style. The style of The Alarm and Mike Peters was always their own style, and that style and changed and evolved over the past 25 years, but it’s still their own. I mean, who in their right-mind could listen to “In The Poppy Fields” and say that a song like “Federal Motor Voter” or “The Drunk And Disorderly” sounds like U2 or The Clash. It simply boggles my mind.

What I’d like to see, just once, is the same critical stroke applied evenly to both bands when their records are reviewed. U2 seemed to get good reviews for “How To dismantle An Atomic bomb” simply because they took the trouble to record and release an album to the adoring public. The Alarm on the other hand, had to prove it’s worth with the exceptional “In The Poppy Fields”, simply to get people to realize that they can, indeed, write good songs. Here are a few sample reviews and comments for the “In The Poppy Fields” album:

  • Leeds Music Scene “In its way, The Poppy Fields is a triumph”
  • Manchester Online : “…Whatever reservations you may have about them are often blown away by their ability to, erm, kick ass.”
  • Get Ready To Rock “Good to see another band back on form”
  • BBC Wales “The Alarm are back on form, harking back to their golden days yet feeling fresher than ever”
  • Designer Magazine “The Alarm may have produced the best album of their long and illustrious career”
  • Rock-City-UK.com “There’s passion on the record that was present when they were top of their game in the 80’s”
  • thisisull.com “In The Poppyfields is my favourite album of all time”
  • Logo Magazine “45 R.P.M.’. That single made us listen properly, and it was worth it.”



Not bad eh? Yet most of them sound surprised at the quality of the album, which is telling. If they had taken the time to look past the clichés about U2 rip-offs and hair cuts, they could have discovered this years ago. But it goes further than that. While several reviewers noticed that “The Drunk And The Disorderly” from “In The Poppy Fields” sounded a bit like The Who’s “Substitute”, I’ve yet to read one person that realizes the definite similarities between U2 new single “All Because Of You”, and the verses of that very same Who song. I think it would be simply cool if anyone would make the connection that good rock and roll is timeless, and by reaching back for The Who, both bands are trumping the current en vogue mid-70’s “Television” fixation to show new bands where “alternative” really started. But alas, I wait in vain. I’d like for once, one person (besides myself) to stand-up and say ”You know what, Bono sounds like MIKE PETERS” on ‘All Because Of You’, not the other-way around.” Go back and listen to “Regeneration” and “What Is It For?” from Peter’s solo album “Feel Free” in 1996, “White Noise”, Ground Zero” from “Rise” in 1998, and tell me that Bono does not sound like Mike Peters. Not the sweeping voiced Mike Peters of the 80’s, but gravelly, hard-fought voice of Mike Peters from the 90’s and the 21st century. While U2 was musically masturbating with the “Pop” album in 1997, Mike Peters was making the same kind of music (and much more) that U2 now tries to call their-own. Who sounds like who in 2005? Furthermore, now must Mike Peters abandon his own solo music style because U2 has adopted something similar, or lest he be damned to comparisons forever? Will he have to continually change his music because U2 is on his heels until one day he’s allowed to only play polka songs on a harpsichord because it’s the one style U2 hasn’t tried?

So, in conclusion, this is what I’m trying to say. U2 is a great band. They deserve all the success they have achieved. However, it’s high time people realized that U2 might not have done it all first, and The Alarm made some significant contributions of their own to the new wave musical landscape of the 80’s. It’s not The Alarm’s fault that U2 came from the same era that they came from. It’s not their fault that the massive machine of U2 barrowed bits from The Alarm (as they did from countless others) on their way to the top. The fact that U2 became the most popular of the early 80’s passion-fueled rock bands does not mean they were necessarily the best of the bunch. It also doesn’t mean they own the sound, or the passion of the era from whence the came. Just because they grew into the biggest kid on the block doesn’t mean others didn’t live there, or have anything worthwhile to offer. Just because U2 emerged as the kings of transcendent, emotion filled rock, doesn’t mean they own, or single-handedly created it. The Alarm, the original, and the current version, deserve to be recognized as a worthwhile and influential band that helped lay the foundation of alternative rock upon which thousands of bands have since built their careers. It’s high-time the tired old clichés and “two word reviews” of the past be laid to rest. The Alarm should be measured on the merits of their music, and not on the loose-lipped, quick quips from early 80’s rock critics who never really knew what they were talking about in the first place. When the new Alarm album is released in the autumn of 2005, we’ll see if anyone out there is actually listening…

Steve Fulton
Webmaster for http://www.thealarm.com
steve@21stcenturyradio.tv

The previous comments are those of Steve Fulton and Steve Fulton alone and do not represent those of The Alarm, The MPO, or for that matter, anyone else

Note: in 2014 U2 paid tribute to Mike Peters and The Alarm during a BBC special called “Poppies Falling From The Sky” (8) U2 pay tribute to Mike Peters and The Alarm – YouTube

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