The Alarm: Marching On
Once in a great while, however, an album appears on the time/space continuum that moves along nicely, continuing to speak as loudly to the hopes, dreams, and longings of the present generation as it did when it first came out. When that happens, it deserves a periodic standing ovation, a celebratory shout—yes, even an anniversary tour.
Case in point: The Alarm's Declaration album, which has reached the 30-year mark. It's hard to believe, really—but I can't deny it, since the 30th Anniversary Declaration Tour made a stop at Philadelphia's World Café in August. My wife and I went and had a foot-stomping good time. Mike Peters, the heart and soul of The Alarm, was a one-man wrecking crew that night. He sang every song on Declaration and more, making long-time Alarm fans very, very happy. The only thing that would have made me happier that night was if his original bandmates—Eddie McDonald, Dave Sharp, and Twist—were also making noise with him. Peters, however, valiantly invoked their spirits via his brilliant work on guitar, harmonica, vocals, drum kit, and loop machine, all by his lonesome self.
Playing the familiar tunes one after another, Peters took me back in time to the year 1984. On the strength of a rumor that The Alarm was the opening act for U2's War tour, I went to the local record store (remember those?) to get my hands on Declaration. "It's as good as War," a friend had told me. My music budget was limited, and The Alarm was unknown to me as yet, but the band members' long, unruly, damaged hairdos, pictured on the back of the album cover, won me over. If their music is as rebellious as their hair, I reasoned, it's got to be good. I know—pretty shallow.
But it turned out I was right—their sound was every bit as big as their hair! The noise they made was so different from anything I'd heard before. Far from being a cheap, U2 imitation, The Alarm rode their acoustic guitars on the New Wave that was sweeping Europe at the time and in so doing invented a signature sound. They were balladeers, telling stories via distorted punk riffs and noisy drums.
As I became more intimate with the album, I discovered that The Alarm did in fact have something in common with U2: smart, spiritually infused, socially conscious lyrics. The album's first track was the title song. Beginning with an energetic, hypnotic drum roll, Peters' raspy, on-the-verge-of-breaking vocals followed: Take this song of freedom / Put it on and arm yourself for the fight / Our hearts must have the courage / to keep on marching on … Thirty seconds into the song, I was marching in place to the beat. And every song that followed was equally march-able. Those 20-something punkers from Wales scream-sang what are now Alarm classics: "Blaze of Glory" (about commitment to peace in the face of death), "The Deceiver" (a warning not to let greed overtake you), "Sixty-Eight Guns" (on solidarity and community), and "We Are the Light" (a call to hope amidst the despair that surrounds us).
Never claiming to be a Christian band, The Alarm defied their public silence concerning matters of faith with overtly Christian lyrics: Come on down and meet your maker / come on down and take the stand ("The Stand"); Live your life as it should be lived / follow your heart for the truth is everlasting / It is finished ("Shout to the Devil"), and more. After listening to the whole of Declaration, you feel emotionally shredded but spiritually high, as if you just got back from the last day of a revival meeting. Thank you, spike-haired, punk-rock Jesus!
The Alarm released a handful of other albums between 1985 and 1991, securing a faithful following (including me) that went beyond those years. Peters and Sharp also enjoyed solo careers for a brief season. Then Peters resurrected The Alarm with new band members, releasing Under Attack in 2006. In 2014, Peters and the new Alarm completely rerecorded Declaration, giving the songs a more straight rock feel. After all, punk is dead. Admittedly, it's difficult to listen to much-loved songs when they're done even slightly differently, but for diehard Alarm fans the new album is still a must-have. To this follower, however, the original 1984 version of Declaration remains The Alarm's finest moment.
Beyond the Declaration remix project, Peters has embarked on other noble endeavors. A two-time cancer survivor with a faith-informed social conscience, he founded Love Hope Strength, an organization that seeks to raise awareness of the need for bone marrow donors. One fascinating campaign that Peters' nonprofit has begun is Pledge for Peace, the proceeds of which go to the world's only Arab bone marrow registry, which is located in Jerusalem at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center. The hope is that people will realize that Israelis and Palestinians (and everyone else) have the same needs and dreams—and these include good healthcare and long, fruitful lives. (Learn more at PledgeMusic.com/projects/theScriptures.)
These last 30 years have seen a few changes. Punk rock is an historical artifact. The band members have changed. Declaration has been re-declared in a new way. But The Alarm's commitment to peace, justice, hope, and faith remains the same. And they just keep marching on.
Al Tizon used to have some pretty big hair himself. He wonders if returning to that 'do would affect people's perception of him as co-president of Evangelicals for Social Action and Ronald J. Sider Associate Professor of Holistic Ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University near Philadelphia, Pa.