There Are No Frontiers
295 · 21 September 00
The Alarm: Alarm 2000 Collection
I have learned this about myself, hopefully early enough for the awareness to be of some use: I am willing to expend emotional energy in the service of doomed causes. In fact, in a bit of circular self-opinion therapy, as soon as this sentimental weakness occurs to me I begin suspecting that it is another way of explaining the fundamental willingness to live. A person who does only the things they know will work is either a bully (if they're right) or an idiot (if they're wrong). Many of the bullies prefer to think of themselves as pragmatists, but this is just a crossword-puzzle variation on "coward", which is the diminutive of "bully". The rest of us are romantics. We move the world forward a tiny bit every time we defy our own expectations and succeed, and we move it forward even further every time we execute an inevitable failure with unanticipated aplomb.
And so, when Mike Peters, launching into what is either the first or last song in this epic account of the Alarm (depending on whether you're playing the nine discs in the order of the eras they represent or the order in which they sit in the box), says "Maybe, just maybe, the internet really will change things", he explains not only why I took the time to mail-order this special edition of the band's complete catalogue directly from Wales, rather than simply buying the individual remastered albums from a record store here in Boston, but also why I'm willing to devote enormous amounts of my personal life to running an insular and obsessive web site even though I believe that this is only a short historical window during which such a thing seems faintly reasonable, and why I'm willing to spend my weekdays designing collaboration software even though I think mechanical intermediation is the chief obstacle to meaningful human interaction, and how I can simultaneously sustain a cosmology based on human creativity and a vehement conviction that most human endeavor amounts to a tacit endorsement of nihilism. Our history is an incredible litany of short-sightedness, unintended consequences, brutality, incompetence, poor luck and disastrous timing, but that only makes it more heartbreakingly glorious that we haven't given up yet. If I had to deliver a state-of-the-species address, it would probably begin "Things are, today, slightly better than they have ever been", and if that doesn't sound like a triumph to you, you've forgotten too much statistics. I have no idea whether Mike Peters' attempt to carry on a music career outside of the structure of the old music industry will be successful or not, even on its own carefully constrained terms, and the collected works of the Alarm are hardly a fair test of the net's potential for artistic independence, anyway, since the band had a decade of major-label help in building up what Peters hopes still constitutes a receptive critical mass. And I haven't liked any of his solo albums as much as I liked the Alarm, and I even did my share of vacillation as an Alarm fan. But if Mike is willing to try to reconceive the relationship between artist and audience, then I want to be part of the experiment, and when it fails, I want to know that I was part of the failure. To live responsibly is to become a vessel for the noble impulse that motivates each catastrophe you survive.
The Alarm were a minor band. This a subjective contention, technically, but I'm going to stand by it. They neither invented nor epitomized anything, they never played that well, they weren't brilliant songwriters or lyricists, their career arc is depressingly familiar, and then they collapsed. This box, which uses the leftover space on remastered CDs of their five albums and two EPs (plus an eighth disc of b-sides and demos available only as part of the box) to include every official recording the band ever produced, is an unflinching and frequently unflattering biography. If you want to believe that the Alarm were consistently inspired champions of humane and heartfelt anthemic fervor, get Standards, their fifteen-track best-of, and program your player to skip tracks one and nine through thirteen. And if you want to believe that your friends are flawless and enigmatic, try to avoid hanging out with them in favor of looking at professionally taken photographs of them in formal clothes. The point, of course, is that the Alarm were minor, but so are almost all of us. Arguably we are all minor, intrinsically, and majorness is imposed externally on a few unfortunate victims. The history of the Alarm is significant because it's emblematic, and this painstaking reconstruction is worthwhile precisely because it makes it so difficult to sustain any illusions about the band. Anybody can adore a few singles. To embrace a whole, erratic, oft-ill-advised totality like this, to accept a self, requires profound and comprehensive empathy. To understand someone you must temporarily stop being you. Stop trying to judge. All "major" means is that people who don't know much about an artist still think they understand them. "Minor" is an invitation, and an opportunity, to care. Sure, this story has slow parts, and disappointing parts, and irrelevant parts and strange pacing and a bad ending. But if you are afraid of stories with contours, you reduce literature to Encyclopedia Brown.
The box, then, consists of 147 songs on nine CDs, housed in a single travel-style case, with an extensively annotated booklet for each disc. Seven of the discs are centered around the band's seven records, with b-sides and demos and outtakes added to make each disc account exhaustively for that period in the band's life. Disc one, nominally devoted to the five-song 1983 EP The Alarm, is twenty-two tracks long and covers three years of tumultuous early history, so in historical terms it's easily the most revealing. There are thin, clanky demos of "Lie of the Land", "Reason 41", "The Deceiver", "What Kind of Hell" and "Sixty Eight Guns", frantic and thrilling live versions of "For Freedom", "Reason 41", "The Deceiver", "Third Light", "Life of the Land", "Legal Matter" and "Marching On", the short and long versions of "The Stand", the shiny re-recorded version of "Sixty Eight Guns", the long version of "Blaze of Glory", the five EP tracks (out of order; one obvious clue that Peters doesn't intend the albums to bias the history is that he dispenses with the original track sequences) and a couple b-sides from early singles. It begins, though, with the Alarm's first single, "Unsafe Building", which is not the declaration they would end up becoming known for, but in retrospect seems more indicative to me. "Marching On" is a naïve uprise anthem, "The Stand" sags under the weight of dueling Stephen King and U2 references, "Blaze of Glory" is too generic, "Sixty Eight Guns" too self-conscious; "Unsafe Building" is actually an anti-anthem, a profession of powerlessness and an exhortation not to vanquish unnamed enemies but to extricate yourself from the very value system that meters victories and oppositions. Many of the early Alarm songs are ostensibly about youth, but this one, with Narnia and Snakes & Ladders references and the decidedly unrock demand "Come out of the cupboard", evokes youth where most of the others merely mention it.
By Declaration, the first full album, things are much more organized. The rousing, echoey "Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?" is usually my mental one-song reduction of the Alarm, furiously shouted and essentially content-less, the chorus getting derailed by its own metaphor and never really arriving at a point. Producer Alan Shacklock's Hammond now seems like a particularly obtuse imposition, but the wheezy guitar/harmonica doubling is an inspired touch. And amidst forgettable lyrics is one real insight: "Selling out is a cardinal sin, / Sinning with a safety net". My moral calculus, ever since I first heard the song, has included the postulate that the worst sins are the ones that incur no risk. The three songs that define this era, though, to me, come near the end. The only one from the original Declaration LP is "Howling Wind", expendable but for a morbid, pulsing bass synthesizer that presaged not only the band's later studio-gadget conversion but changes in my own tastes. The second is the between-albums single "Absolute Reality", the Alarm's correlate to Big Country's "Wonderland", maybe both bands' best moments in pure pop songwriting terms. But the biggest revelation was a simple acoustic-guitar-and-tin-whistle cover of "Bells of Rhymney", which was the first time (the Byrds' version, for me, came later) I'd ever heard one of my bands do a song my folk-singing parents had taught me, an experience that abruptly altered my understanding of the relationship between the "adult" musical world and my own.
Strength was the only whole album the Alarm really got right, in my opinion, so it's fitting that it ends up being a pretty straightforward reissue. The new order interpolates a couple b-sides and a stunningly ragged demo of "One Step Closer to Home", destined eventually for Eye of the Hurricane, and appends a few representative concert recordings, but otherwise, it's just the album. My favorite Alarm song, then, and at worst my second favorite today, is their surging abandoned-mining-town elegy "Deeside". "To build the ships, / To set the sails, / To cross the sea of fools", starts the chorus, which doesn't seem nearly as brilliant to me at thirty-three as it did at eighteen, but I remember the way it used to make me catch my breath, all the anticipation and terror of setting out upon some dangerous, arduous and unknowable course wrapped up in those three lines. This is how I felt every fall when college started again, and how I felt the first day of my first three jobs, and how I haven't quite felt since, but intend to again. It is not enough to be casually foolish, every once in a while. The great foolish enterprises, like carving the heads of presidents into the side of a mountain, or teaching orphaned geese to fly by letting your daughter buzz them with an ultralight, require both monomania and planning.
To me the Alarm began unraveling, long in advance of the end, on Eye of the Hurricane. Keyboards started taking over, much like on Big Country's Peace in Our Time, but the Alarm weren't prepared or able to embrace the transformation, so the combination just sounded goofy (other people than me thought it sounded goofy when Big Country did it, too). The redemptive "One Step Closer to Home", largely acoustic, retained the band's own charm, but I thought overdubbing a fake audience onto it was an embarrassing error in judgment. The bubbly "Rain in the Summertime", mostly drum loops and keyboard runs, would have been a decent Mr. Mister song, but catered to none of the Alarm's strengths. I was twenty by this time, and my musical horizons were expanding rapidly, so a little inattention was all it took for the Alarm to drift out of my primary consciousness. As I had no idea until now, the band was only partly to blame for how Eye of the Hurricane sounded. The new notes for this album are a wearying saga of clandestine remixes and label contentiousness, but Peters finally gets his way, basing the remaster on an early mix of the album, rather than the keyboards-forward/guitars-back version IRS badgered the band into accepting at the time. It certainly sounds more Alarm-like, now, but I think this revisionism is ultimately a mistake. Without the synthesizer excess of the IRS version of Eye of the Hurricane, for example, the overcorrection of Raw, later, no longer makes the same sense. As appealing as it always is to edit individual scenes from your past, you end up undoing a few mistakes you made that people had already forgiven you for, which makes you look ungrateful, and you end up isolating the mistakes you don't fix, which used to have a logical context and don't any more, which makes you look more inexplicably oblivious than ever. Better to learn to live with who you were, even when you weren't who you wanted to be.
On paper, a live album seems like an obvious antidote to the production missteps on Eye of the Hurricane. Electric Folklore Live was only an EP, with three of the six songs from the preceding album, and while I think the precedent was supposed to be U2's Under a Blood Red Sky, that EP came in U2's charged youth, while the Alarm's came, at least according to their compressed time-line, in their troubled middle age, and it did little to recapture my interest. The reissue is quite a different record, though, eight more songs from a Chicago show in late 1987 interwoven with the six from the original 1988 Boston concert to make a much more substantial live album. The EP started with "Rescue Me", but the new version defers it to near the end, beginning instead with "Strength" and a raucous rendition of "Knife Edge", which for me do a much better job of setting the tone. "We Are the Light" makes a more haunting finale than "Blaze of Glory", which seems more comfortable here in the middle of the set. The prize of the new songs is yet another deliriously frayed performance of "One Step Closer to Home" that suggests, quite a bit more vividly than the remixed Eye of the Hurricane, what the songs from that era might have amounted to.
Change lost me within three songs. It started with "Sold Me Down the River", which was wrong in all the same ways that Eye of the Hurricane was wrong, plus I hated the chorus, and although there wasn't anything horribly wrong with "The Rock", track three was "Devolution Workin' Man Blues", which I disliked so violently I felt like they weren't even trying to please me any more. The reissue adds two b-sides and one outtake, and restores the full versions of a couple songs that had to be edited to fit on the LP, but retains much the same flow of the original. I'm more patient now, though, so I get through the garrulous mock-blues tracks with enough equilibrium remaining to properly appreciate at least three of the other songs. "A New South Wales", with the Welsh Symphony Orchestra and the Morriston Orpheus Male Voice Choir, is hopelessly solemn and pretentious, but fairly eloquent if you don't mind the premise. The simmering "Where a Town Once Stood" sounds like an attempt to simultaneously channel the Call and Bon Jovi, but now that my obstinate insistence that the Alarm sound forever scruffy doesn't seem as crucial I don't mind the cognitive dissonance. And somehow, in the ten years since I first heard it, the soaring "No Frontiers" has become the arena-enveloping love-song I always wanted "Because the Night" to be, and "Deeside"'s competition for my favorite Alarm song. I usually misremember the chorus as being more interesting than it is ("There are no frontiers / We can cross tonight", where in fact the "can" is "can't", and "There are no borderlines / To keep us together / Or apart", in which the "together / Or" is entirely a product of my imagination), but there's plenty of room in the world for heartfelt generic love-songs, otherwise each of us would have to write our own (although, come to think of it, that might be better).
And then there's Raw. The band was obviously falling apart, the few good parts in the songs seemed to me to have been stolen from earlier, better songs, the ponderous remake of "Unsafe Building" was particularly depressing, and all I remember from seeing them on the subsequent tour was a) how much distance Mike and Dave Sharp managed to create between themselves from one end of a small club stage to the other, and b) how mind-bogglingly awful the fashion sense of the opening band's lead singer was. That opening band was the Leslie Spit Treeo, one of the two or three best discoveries I ever made by showing up on time for a rock concert. The album still sucks. The reissue tries to atone by tacking on a graceful acoustic version of "Walk Forever by My Side". Nice song. The album still sucks.
Only the most fanatic Alarm devotees would need a bonus eighth disc of miscellaneous alternate versions after all that, but the fanatics are the audience for this whole project, so I expect the few people who will buy the individual remastered albums in stores don't realize that they're missing two discs by not mail-ordering. The highlights of this one, for me, are Peters' solo acoustic version of "Absolute Reality", an interesting full-band acoustic performance of "Howling Wind", the martial live recording of "Bells of Rhymney" from the "Rain in the Summertime" single, and a tense, skeletal acoustic radio version of "No Frontiers". "No Frontiers" is the last track, which matches my re-experience of the Alarm's history perfectly, and instead of the lines between people, I can imagine that Mike is singing about the lines between years, and between our selves, when we convince ourselves we've become different people. Of course we haven't. All this past fits in such a small plastic box, and small plastic boxes are only getting smaller and more exhaustive. Every year some new device makes our pasts harder to escape, our lives more self-documenting. The net ought to be a perfect tool for dynamic revision and constant currency, but in practice it exacerbates the problem by collapsing the universe of information along the time axis. If all this machinery has one great potential, it might be that we are on the brink of the disintegration not of privacy but of unaccountability. If everything we do is recorded and replayed, then maybe shame will finally spur us to what philosophy and theology haven't been able to instill. Maybe we will decide that if everything we do is witnessed, it all must matter, and a day during which you take no chances is an irreplaceable day squandered.
The ninth disc in the box has only one song, so I play it at both the beginning and the end. "Maybe", Mike says again, "the internet really will change things", and no matter how many ways I think he's wrong, I'm still with him. Or not him, exactly, since it wasn't his idea to say that. If you mail-order the box set, you get to pick one Alarm song, and supply a dedication, and Mike will record an acoustic version of that song, so introduced, specifically for you, and put it on a CDR. It's an absurd idea, but he insists that he fills every request separately, no matter how many other people already asked for the same song, and I can't think of any reason not to believe him. I asked for "Deeside", and he plays it like it's a Dylan song he learned long ago and barely, but fondly, remembers. And I asked him to say that maybe the internet really will change things, even though he represents exactly the way I don't think the internet will change things, because it's the way I wish the internet would change things. I wish every record I bought began with the singer greeting me by name and acknowledging my fond and unreasonable idea of what they could mean to me. I wish every defunct band I ever briefly cared about would assemble expensive retrospectives spanning the records I loved and the ones I loathed, and offer me a way to feel like I'm part of what makes their lives possible, and by extension what made their music possible. A music business in which the artists and the audience know each other presents logistical problems, but is emotionally viable and vital in a way that I'm not sure how much longer the mainstream culture industry will care to be. So I follow minor artists even though I know it won't make them superstars, and I buy thousands of records even though I know it will never perturb the sales charts, and I learn to love songs that aren't perfect because that's the only way to let art touch you. I subscribe to ridiculous schemes that could only operate in better universes, because every time one fails, it takes a piece of impossibility with it.