Photo of Mark Peters by @markheybo via Flickr
From 1981 to 1987, Welsh alt-rock band The Alarm was the opening band at 33 U2 concerts. Only four other acts have opened more times for U2.
So Mike Peters, The Alarm’s lead singer, spent a LOT of time with U2, not only on stage during concerts, but also in the off hours. He has stories galore to tell about U2, and not a single one has even a tinge of tawdry rock ’n’ roll backstage wildness.
Instead, Peters said, U2 were constantly focused on becoming better musicians and creating the best experience for their fans. That’s not to say they didn’t goof off. But behind-the-scenes jam sessions with The Alarm and other musicians gave U2 a chance to hone their musical skills, Peters said. The Alarm learned from U2 as well — not just about music, but how to treat fans and colleagues, and work together as a group.
That might sound more like a cozy camp gathering or campy work retreat than a gathering of rock stars, but Peters is grateful for the deep musical and philosophical camaraderie The Alarm developed with U2.
Although The Alarm split in 1991, the band has since come back together with different members, releasing new music and touring.
Since the 1990s, Peters has fought cancer. After recovering from lymph cancer in 1996, he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2005 and had a relapse in 2015, around the same time his wife Jules, The Alarm’s keyboard player, found out she had breast cancer. (Peters co-founded a charity, the Love Hope Strength Foundation to support people with the disease.)
Now, thanks to modern cancer drugs that have given Peters new energy and don’t require him to stay close to a hospital for treatment, he’s able to venture out more to perform. This year The Alarm released a reissue of their 1985 album Strength, and will drop a new album, Sigma, on June 28. The albums coincide with a 2019 summer North American tour The Alarm will take with Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel, called the Sigma LXXXV Tour, starting in July.
The Alarm will also play solos set and festivals in Norway, New York City and the UK from April through July.
Peters spoke with ATU2 at length on the phone from his home in Wales about The Alarm’s time with U2, a friendship that didn’t end when their 1980s touring partnership stopped.
The First Times
The first time he heard U2, Peters said, was at London’s Marquee Club in September 1980, when he was in a band called Seventeen with future members of The Alarm.
“I wasn’t prepared for what U2 gave from the stage,” Peters said. “I was just transfixed. It was a revelation seeing a band like that; they were so different from everyone else. They had this really high positive energy … and made you feel special as soon as they walked on stage.”
The first time The Alarm opened for U2 was at the Lyceum Ballroom on London in December 1981 on the October tour. Peters said they were invited to play through their manager Ian Wilson, who had worked with U2.
He and Bono got along immediately. “During sound check, Bono walked on stage and tapped me on the shoulder,” Peters said. “I was playing acoustic guitar, and he asked me about it. We struck up a rapport right there. I realized at the time Bono couldn’t play guitar, and I helped him with some chords. None of them could really play outside of U2, even The Edge. He could only play what he knew himself; he didn’t know the basic stuff you pick up from guitar teachers. He picked up the instrument and found some things to play and it sounded great. That was the basis of his playing, and why he’s such an original player.’
The War Tour: The Alarm Discovers America, and Vice Versa
U2 then left the UK for the North American leg of the War tour. Peters said they invited The Alarm to join them after the tour was extended.
It was The Alarm’s first time in America. Their first gig with U2 took place at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on June 1, 1983. And The Alarm were late. They had arrived by plane in Los Angeles that day and thought they had hours to drive up to San Francisco, but the truck they rented was restricted to going around 55 miles per hour, so they barely arrived before show time.
“Bono and Edge were waiting at stage door and helped us carry our equipment onto the stage,” Peters said. “They were so kind to us on that tour.”
Bono and Edge were also extremely generous at radio station appearances, he said, asking DJs not to play a U2 single, but instead to spin The Alarm’s “The Stand.”
“It’s how people in America discovered The Alarm for the first time,” he said. “We had no hit records or fans there.”
Peters said U2 “were very focused on their show, unlike other bands. When they came off stage, it wasn’t, ‘Let’s go out and meet everybody and party and bask in adulation.’ As soon as they walked off stage, they were focused on, ‘Where are we playing tomorrow, and how will we engage the audience and make it special for them.’ They were so dedicated to their art, and their presentation and communication.”
Off the concert stage, Peters said, “Adam was probably the most outgoing. He was the one with the record player in his hotel room, and had vinyl albums wheeled up to his room, playing all kinds of great music. We could go there and hang out and talk for hours.”
Bono, he said, “was obsessed with music and learning. He liked taking people aside and seeing what made them tick. He’s a very good listener. We spent hours talking about music and the groups we loved.”
U2’s ‘Collective Process’
The members of U2, Peters said, are “all individually very strong characters, but they’ve all arrived at the same point of their musical ability together; that creates a bond that’s very different than in a lot of groups. In U2 they all contribute on some level. Songs can start with Larry’s drums, or Adam’s bass line, or Bono’s words or Edge’s guitar. It’s a collective process all the way down the line. That doesn’t happen equally in other groups. Together they have a massively strong musical identity, and it wasn’t because of one person. They all made the sound of U2 together.”
(Left) Bono and Mike Peters at a radio station in Dallas on the War tour in 1983, photo by George Gimarc; (right) Peters with Larry and Edge backstage at Red Rocks in 1983, photo by Gareth Jones
On the Sidelines at Red Rocks
Peters also clearly remembers the famed rain-soaked U2 concert at Red Rocks. “I’ve never seen rain like it in the UK,” he said. “I was standing at the side of the stage the whole time, and it was an incredible concert.”
At Slane Castle for The Unforgettable Fire
Peters had the opportunity to watch some of the recording of The Unforgettable Fire at Slane Castle.
“It didn’t seem to me to be very focused,” he said. “U2 were still trying to discover something about themselves. There was a very open end to the music they were creating.”
After the recording session, Peters said, he got a few calls from Bono. “He was throwing album titles at me. He would talk about his record to you; it was his way of coming to terms with what he’d been part of creating — how to communicate it to people outside U2’s circle.”
The Music-Making Didn’t Stop With a Record
Peters said he admires U2 for always continuing to fine-tune their songs while on tour. “When U2 made a record, it didn’t stop there,” he said. “The creativity of it carried into the tour, because they weren’t traditional musicians. They kept adding to it on the road. It was this endless flow of creativity.”
Even after U2 and The Alarm went their separate professional ways, they never truly parted, Peters said.
“When they make friends, that’s it — you’re friends for life. U2 are always on the lookout for you, and never forget. They still have time for everybody, say hello, make sure you get tickets to their shows.
“Whenever I went to Ireland, I was invited to stay in Bono’s house, and he drove me around Dublin in a wacky old car no one would expect Bono to be in, wearing a baseball cap.”
After he was diagnosed with cancer, Peters said, “I got messages from Bono, asking if there was anything he could do, even when they were on tour or in the studio.”
Bono paid tribute to Mike and Jules Peters in a BBC documentary about the couple’s cancer struggles, “Mike and Jules: While We Still Have Time,” that aired in 2017.
In 2014, all the members of U2 appeared in a pre-taped video for a BBC Radio Wales special that celebrated the 30th anniversary of The Alarm’s album Declaration. In the video, U2 sings “Happy Birthday,” then sings The Alarm’s “Blaze of Glory.”
Peters said if Bono “walked in the door in Wales where I’m living, we’d go have a pint. He’s still obsessed about music, and that’s what we would talk about all night long.”
For more information about The Alarm’s upcoming tour and new album, visit www.thealarm.com.
(c) @U2/Lindell, 2019