I Write The Songs – Interview March 2014

I Write the Songs – Alan Thompson talks with Mike Peters … March 2014

Starts with an acoustic of Mike singing A New South Wales, fades and rises with fans comments throughout the song.

“I’ve been a fan of Mike Peters of The Alarm since I was 14, Mike’s voice captures you immediately.”

“It’s very rich, it’s very soulful.”

“Yeah, he’s got that, I don’t know if you call it a rasp, that rock voice, so you can’t help but get involved I think, really feel it and sing it.”

“Well, the style of music is powerful isn’t it, cos they’re like anthems.”

“It’s more the words I think than his voice, they make you think of life.

“Songs like New South Wales have got the politics and the history of South Wales and what’s happened here.”

“New South Wales is clearly saying you know, what we had before isn’t there any more we’ve got to recreate ourselves.”

“As a Welsh person you feel it in your soul as well, especially for people living the valley towns”

“This is just unbelievable, I just relate to them, us being Welsh, I just think he’s just a living Welsh legend.”

SH: I think The Alarm spoke very clearly to a national class issue, so the working class of Wales I think responded to The Alarm on pretty much every level.  So although they came from North Wales they could speak to the South Wales experience and they marked themselves as a Welsh band in a lot of ways that people hadn’t really thought of to do before.  But it’s one of those lyrics that’s a little bit caught in its own time capsule.

PC: I think New South Wales is of its time, but it also transcends its time.  Because the issues that the song deals with is still apparent today, you’ve just got to go to a place like Merthyr Tydfil to see the devastation that the pit closures caused.  I think those that hear it would immediately resonate with the lyrical content because they can be that person singing the song, they would be praying for a new South Wales, praying for a new way of making a living to support their family.  Y’know, it’s not a cliché, I think it’s a fact.

AT: There you heard some of the voices of the fans at the sold-out concert with Mike Peters from The Alarm at the Ebbw Vale Institute and also the voice of Dr Sarah Hill from the School of Music in Cardiff University and Dr Paul Carr reader in Popular Music Analysis at the University of South Wales.  Well, joining me, Alan Thompson backstage at the Ebbw Vale Institute, is the legend that is Mike Peters, and today on “I Write the Songs” on BBC Radio Wales, I shall be looking at the last track on The Alarm’s 1989 album “Change” which of course is titled “A New South Wales”.  Well, for Mike, for people who don’t know your story give us a sense of a young lad who was to walk down the precarious road to becoming an internationally well-known man.  What happened fella?

MP: I think I was brought up in a home of entertainers in their own colourful way, my father ran the local pub in Rhyl and the community rallied around and he was great at dealing with the ruffians as you say, in the public bar, y’know, the guys that come off the ships.

AT: Tough guy?

MP: Yeah, he’d hold his own but he was, he could also walk across into the lounge and deal with all the business people and the people that were a little bit more wealthy and he was a great mixer.  He could mix with people from all walks of life and that rubbed off on me.  He’d taken over the pub from my grandad who was another similar character, I idolised my grandad growing up.  He broke his leg once and I took the summer off and walked everywhere with him and his cups of tea and his cans of Guinness and he told me stories about the First World War and he travelled to America and he could play the piano.  He was one of those guys that if someone walked in with a song in their head, the guy in the pub will say I’ve got this song in my head, my grandad would work it out on the piano, next minute the whole pub’d be singing it and joining in.  He was just one of those guys and my grandad couldn’t read a note of music but he could play the piano by ear and instinct and er that’s what I think really rubbed off on me.

AT: Yeah, and how old were you when you did your first gig?

MP: I was about 14, it was at my sisters 21st birthday.

AT: Mike, I’m guessing you did cover versions in that band.  Can you remember any of them?

MP: If you think you know how to love me by Smokey, I seem to remember, and, I’m in with the in crowd (starts to laugh).

AT: So Mike, it was that Smokey track that was the musical influence that set you along the song writing path?

MP: (Laughing)  Not really but it indirectly playing music with other people that were in the band, you started to look further afield and through friends I found out about this rock club in Chester called Quaint Ways and I started going to that and then all of a sudden one day there was this advert from London the Sex Pistols and I thought that sounded intriguing and then I read the quote “We’re not into music, we’re into chaos” and I thought that sounds good and we went to the gig and they came on and it was, it was, just, you could, you could not be prepared for it.

“Anarchy in the UK” starts to play

MP: They started Anarchy in the UK and it was just, it was just out of control, it was just so focused and direct, it stopped you dead in your tracks.  You knew you weren’t listening to just anything, it was like another tribe from another world had come, y’know, they looked so different.  Rotten had that sort of orangey hair at the time and a black bondage suit on.  There was just an element of danger.  The language was new, I didn’t know what anarchy was, they didn’t teach you about that in Rhyl High School, I didn’t even know what the word meant, and yet here they were saying ‘anarchy in the UK’ ‘I am anarchy’ ‘I’m the anti-christ’, it was provoking.  As the show progressed you realised that they were a similar age, they weren’t playing cover versions and they played pretty vacant, and wasn’t about flowers and goblins and castles and lost worlds, it was direct, right, it punched you in the face, the music.  After the show I went and I saw Johnny Rotten at the bar and I actually went up to him and asked him what anarchy in the UK meant and he told me in no uncertain terms where to go (laughing).

AT: Did he?!

MP: Absolutely yeah!  And it was with all this mixed emotion.  I left the gig and I was so alive, this band made me feel like somebody, y’know, they, I had an energy walking out of the room.  It wasn’t just, it was just something else altogether.  I knew I need to channel it straight away and I thought I’ve got to start my own band and I’ve got, y’know I carried a bit of weight in those days, so I’ve got to really get myself sharp, I’ve got to really focus who I am.  Got to make a decision ‘what am I going to be?’ and I thought I want to be in a band, I want to write.  I want to be like The Sex Pistols, I want to influence people and I want to send them home with the same feeling that they sent me home with.

AT: And you’ve certainly done that Mike, in the last 30 odd years.  The band went through several main changes and eventually got signed and went on to record 5 studio albums, but before we go on to talk about the fourth one entitled ‘Change’ and a track called ‘New South Wales’ I believe you hold the record for gigging in the highest concert ever performed on land?

MP: That’s true, yes, that’s something that stemmed from a later stage of my life, unfortunately I’ve had to deal with cancer twice in the journey I’ve made through life and I started a charity called Love Hope Strength Foundation in 2007.  And one of our missions was to support cancer centres around the world that don’t have the access to the treatments and the medical teams that  we have in our parts of the world and we went to Nepal to do an event called Everest Rocks and we took musicians like Glen Tilbrook from Squeeze, Slim Jim Phantom from Stray Cats and others, with the aim of performing the highest gig in the world on Mount Everest, which we did.  We raised a lot of money to support a cancer centre in Kathmandu called the Bhaktapur Cancer Centre, so, it was the start of a whole other journey in life and we found over a 1000 life saving matches for people who suffered with blood cancer that need a transplant to stay alive.  The charity’s really making a difference and saving lives one concert at a time.

AT: Were there any yeti in the audience?

MP: There was a lot of yeti (laughing) Yaks!  Millions of yaks.  In fact, we christened our band ‘The Yaks’.

AT: How important is the lyrical content of the song to you?

MP: I think that’s what really brings a song into focus, otherwise it’s an instrumental with some colour.  I think the lyric really elevate a good song into a great one. People don’t respond to instrumentals in the same way when it’s a song with a great lyric that everyone wants to sing at the top of their voice in that concert.  That’s the pinnacle of the great rock and roll moments.

AT: And as a writer, is that the sweetest thing for you when you’ve met fans, kids, whatever who have said ‘that song that you wrote I totally relate to that and I know what you are talking about’?

MP: Absolutely.

AT: As a writer that must just be gold?

MP: When someone comes up to you and say that line has sustained me through this moment in my life, you can’t put a price on that, it’s so life affirming, it gives you so much energy back and it gives you the will and the ambition to go on and write more and people say to me ‘what’s your best song?’ and I say ‘I haven’t written it yet!’ (laughing)

AT: A lot of the lyrics of The Alarm songs during most of the Thatcher 80’s years were overtly political but yet your push for popularity was against a backdrop of catchy pop songs, which were an antidote to, rather than a comment on, the hard times that were around about that particular period.  Do you think this is why you didn’t get as much exposure as many thought you should?

MP: We were a band of our time very much so and we grew up in a Britain, like you just described, it was Thatcherite Britain.  It was pressure on all our communities, and we were vocal in expressing what was happening all around us and we did get tagged as being a political band.  We came through the year with Red Wedge, kind of thing, Billy Bragg was happening, we’d lived through the Shotton steelworks closure in North Wales and we’d seen people in our own streets where the dad was out of work, it was almost unheard of in our part of the world, that y’know, the figurehead of the family wasn’t going to bring ‘em any money, and then all of a sudden somebody would be taking a dinner around the road for someone to help them through the hard time.  It was, they’re the things that stay with you as a kid, ‘cos they’re the things that you sort of build your life on, that your dad and your mum are always going to have food on the table for you for when you come home from school or after school jobs, or whatever you are doing in life, and all of a sudden you see that not happening for other families.  You start questioning everything around you.

AT: Now Mike, on the 1989 album ‘Change’ you moved away from the previous class-based lyrics to ones that heralded a new sense of Welsh identity.  For example, in the song ‘Rivers to Cross’ you sing… (plays the song) “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?”.  That’s very powerful stuff, what brought about that change in focus from international to nationalistic politics and where were you emotionally at that time?

MP: Well, at the time, The Alarm had been given the opportunity to tour the world and our ambition when we started the band was to break out of the confines of the small town that we lived in and the travel and the rock and roll gave us a chance to look outside ourselves for the first time.  I’d finished a lot of touring with the second album in particular when we finished the Strength album, it was a real pinnacle for us, we played this huge massive shows in California to 25,000 people, we played with Queen at Wembley and then it was then we had our first little bit of time off and I just didn’t feel like getting on an aeroplane and going to a beach in a hotel with a suitcase, it’s just didn’t, we’ve been doing that for 5 years, why bother with that?  So, I just had this instinct that I wanted to see Wales, I wanted to see where I came from and see who I was, and erm, when I came home off tour, in all my friends I could see myself, they were the same, they had the same opportunities in life, gone to the same schools, similar families.  It made me fall in love with where I came from, it was a journey for me like, swimming back up the river if you like.  I literally got in a car and I went off on my own, with a cassette tape and a video camera and I thought I’m just going to go off and I’m going to write about what I see. I remember I really wanted to go and see where Dylan Thomas came from, went down to Laugharne. I remember sitting on a park bench and I had a guitar and a gig bag and I started writing some music and I had a cassette tape with a recording style, that’s how I was putting all my ideas down and first time I really went to the South Wales valleys and I remember sitting above the Rhondda and looking down and seeing all the pits and everything there and I started to become aware of my Welshness really. I started reading Alexander Cordell and all this and it started to make me really really proud of where I came from.  I was making this connection back to my grandad, who was so proud of coming from Wales and that he couldn’t stay in America because the Hiraeth dragged him home in 1921, and here I am going through the same rites of passage he’s been and I’ve travelled around the world.  All I really want to do is be in Wales.

AT: Right Mike, let’s turn to A New South Wales, which is The Alarm classic that we’re looking at on ‘I Write the Songs’ this week.  You’re gonna play an acoustic version for us.

MP: Yes, I’ll play it for you now and it’s probably more in the key that it’s originally written, where it’s easier to play on the guitar, it’s slightly lower than the recording on the piano.

Mike then plays an acoustic set, only part of the song:   

Pit shaft wheels turn for the last time
In the Rhondda tonight
The Davey lamps that shone so brightly
There’s no more need for their light
As the last piece of coal is cut
From the belly of the black seamed hole
A man walks home alone
Past a church full of mourning souls
Throughout his lifetime he has fought
He has given his life
In tears the congregation sing
Cwm Rhondda Oh my Lord
Great is the rape of the fair country

AT: Tony Visconti is of course production royalty Mike, working with just about everyone that is anyone in the music business.  What influence did he have on A New South Wales in particular?

MP: When we got to work with Tony Visconti for the Change album it was pretty mind blowing for all of us because we all had a record collection full of his productions.  When we were doing 68 Guns it was Tony’s studio, it was almost ‘(intake of breath) Tony’s in his office!’. (Laughing) You never saw him but you saw aura coming out of the gold records, again, it was inspiring.

AT: So, you sat with Visconti, you got to meet him obviously and you got on well with him.  What was his involvement and his input into A New South Wales?

MP: Well with the Change album I actually had a massive amount of songs to choose from and I think we had about 40 or 50 songs and so he had a lot to get through and then I said, right at the end really, I said there’s one more song I’d like to play to you and I think you will be the only person in the world that would get this.  It’s not your usual Alarm song and I played him a cassette demo of it and he went ‘Mike, that’s got to go on the album, that’s beautiful, you’ve got to do that’ and Tony said ‘that completes the album for me’ and we sat down and said how are we going to do it though?  Because there’s no drums, no guitar solo for Dave, no bass part and there was a little bit of resistance in the band because everyone thought the album was complete, with Sold Me Down the River, and all the big tracks that were on there, No Frontiers and everyone was ‘we’ve got the big songs’, but Tony was ‘this is not just about the singles, this is about making a piece of art, an album that people are going to be able to come back to and this song you’ve got here is the heart and soul of the record and we’re going to do it’.  That was it, it was going to be on the album.

AT: Um, what was Tony Visconti’s input Mike with the orchestral arrangement on the track?

MP: Tony, because he was a string arranger, and he’d done all these great arrangements on the T-Rex records, that was a given that he would write the arrangement.  But, Tony had more to give to The Alarm, he was American, but married to Mary Hopkin, he understood Welsh!  And so Tony when he heard the song he said to me, ‘I hear the song I hear the choir, this is an album about Wales, let’s bring Wales to this song, let’s get a male voice choir, let’s do it properly” and he, ‘cos he’s aware of all that stuff through the Mary Hopkin world and he’d lived in South Wales with her and he’d travelled around Wales so it was just the right combination all coming together and our battle was we’ve only got 24 hrs to do it because this was right at the end of the album and I said ‘well look, I know a guy at the BBC and I’m going to phone him’.  We phoned a gentleman called Gareth Morlais and I said ‘this sounds strange Gareth but I’m with Tony Visconti and we’ve got to record a song for The Alarm album but want a male voice choir in it, could you find us one, by tomorrow?’ (laughing) and an hour later he came back and said ‘I’ve got one!’.  It’s the Morriston Orpheus and Tony was kind of grabbing me off the phone saying ‘and we need a string section too!  As I’m going to write the arrangement overnight.’  Gareth got a small string section from the Welsh National Orchestra to arrive for the next day and Tony literally spent all night and wrote the arrangement and came in.  No-one had heard it until it was placed in front of the string players, I think he was still working on some of it on the train to Cardiff in the afternoon.

An extract of the song is played: 

Pit shaft wheels turn for the last time
In the Rhondda tonight
The Davey lamps that shone so brightly
There’s no more need for their light

PC: The song resonates not only with South Wales but also with places such as my hometown of Newcastle where entire communities were being destroyed by pit closures. 

AT: Dr Paul Carr from the University of South Wales on the cultural significance of the song:

PC: I think Peters’ cry for a new South Wales has actually proved to be accurate, there’s still many people who are still struggling to make a living and find their identity.

Music continues: …Great, great change in the fair country…

PC: It’s an interesting juxtaposition the idea of having working class-based lyrics against a classical string section.  In terms of signification, you’ve got working class culture on one side and middle/upper class on the other.  In fact, there’s one section of the song where it goes into an instrumental section.

Music continues: …Instrumental string section…

PC: And it just seems to me to signify really nicely that antagonisms that were happening at the time between mining communities that were being destroyed and policies that people just did not understand.  So in some way the classical section is alien but it does depict what the main thrust of the song was about, praying for a new South Wales.

Music continues: …Great, great change in the fair country…

AT: Coincidentally, I was actually at that recording.  There was a small audience there, you recorded it in the orchestral studio at Broadcasting House in Cardiff.  Um, I remember it as being quite a tense situation actually, because it was a live environment, everything was new, the choir where there, the strings had just been written, how nerve wracking was it to record that session?  Because it was all done live wasn’t it?

MP: Oh, it was terrifying for me.  I’d never done anything like that before, I’d only ever sung in a band, and so all of a sudden, I was singing with these amazing singers behind me, a pianist, and a conductor.  I didn’t even know how conductors counted in music as they didn’t go on 2, 3, 4.  They just waved their baton and everyone came in as, I thought ‘wow, where’s that come from?’.  And Tony Visconti’s there and an audience and it was very, very tense, and the rest of the band were in the seats, not even on stage, looking at me.  So, it was so difficult.  Everyone wanted to make it work by this point, everyone got, everyone knew this album was coming to its moment where it’s gonna give birth here, it was the big moment.

Music continues: Choir …Someone hear my prayer. Oh-oh someone hear my prayer, for a New South Wales …

AT: You pulled it off, I remember that day very well and I thought what an amazing song and a performance.  Did you realise when you were making that record that the power of the Morriston Orpheus choir behind you that you were hitting gold?

MP: Yeah, I think we all realised we’d stumbled into something that was bigger than the band if you like.  It wasn’t just an Alarm song, this was a people’s song, this was something that belonged to a nation almost.  It was bigger than what we were all about and I think it summed up all that we were and all that we hoped to be.

AT: When you are writing a song like that, the song was about building a new Jerusalem, a new South Wales in the shadow of industrial decline, but you used choirs, as we just heard there, and lyrical references to pit shaft wheels and Davey lamps.  Was there any danger in being over sentimental and calling on old stereotypes do you think?  Were you aware of that risk?

MP: There, there was, but I still don’t think there’d really been a record like it before or since, in a way.  Because it was still a rock song at the core of it.  It had to look back to go forward, and I think that’s what the song did for The Alarm and for the community it was addressing, and on a wider scale, we were using Wales as a mirror to the world.  It was, we were a microcosm of what was going on in the world.  The Berlin wall was about to come down, Europe was going to change, countries like Wales were about to be born, and we’d been a small country for eternity, and we’d had to fight for our roots and fight for identity and fight to hold our communities together, and our language.  And even though some of it had disappeared it was still in the heart of everybody in the country.  I felt that people around the world would relate to our story in Wales because it had parallels for everyone on a global scale.

AT: Did you think it was going to be a bigger hit?  So, I thought it was going to be top 10 that one certainly, and even maybe a No. 1, it was such powerful piece

MP: It was, I mean, at the time Simon Mayo on Radio 1, he was the big driving force of playing it on the radio, but I think, there was that element in the 80’s BBC national media that it was colloquial, it was about Wales, they didn’t, maybe they didn’t see it being as large and as wide, and as all-encompassing as we did or as Simon Mayo did.  But, I think Britain has a difficulty that America doesn’t, when you could be Bruce Springsteen and singing about New Jersey but you can’t sing about Liverpool or Wales in Britain in the same way without it appearing as if it belongs on BBC Wales, not on the BBC, and that, I think that’s something we’re still trying to overcome in this country.

AT: What are the essential elements to a Mike Peters Alarm song, do you think?

MP: Strength and melody, that is the core.  It has to resonate somewhere deep to me.  Got to have heart and soul to it and a lot of that comes from the lyric.  I can only sort of write about what’s happened to me, it’s I, I have to be able to think I’m going to stand on the stage can I sing it with conviction and stand up in front of my audience in the company of all my other works and add this to the cannon and think it still belongs.

AT:  And Change is full of anger and frustration at the state of Wales, circa 1989.  Will you have to write another album do you think for Wales in 2014?

MP: Well, I’m not sure if I see it that way because yeah there was anger and frustration in the record but there was optimism in there.  I think we were writing about the future, but we had to document what was, what we could see first.  I think if you look at the record sleeve for the Change album, I think that gives us a story in itself, because it had a cut out in it, and whichever way you put the inner sleeve in it changed.  It was either black and white or it was green and colourful and I think that was expressing what we were trying to get across in the record that we weren’t saying change is going to come.  We were saying change has happened, the future is here and the Wales we now live in, I think that is still in the Change album of 1989, and the Wales of 2014 is here and it’s still in the music.

AT: Mike, it’s almost 40 years now since you saw The Sex Pistols and you realised you could write about the things that matter to you, do you still have that inner need to create?

MP: Absolutely yeah, it never goes away.

AT: You haven’t lost it?

MP: I’m grateful to be alive, ‘cos of what’s happened in my life and every day is a gift and every song that I can write or every chord change I can find, I still see the beauty in that.  Y’know my kids all play music, we’re a very musical household.  I always have been and I live for the opportunities I can go on stage and play and I realise I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to make a life out of this beautiful thing called music.

AT: Over the career Mike, you’ve played in vast stadiums with 80,000 fans singing your songs, small venues like the one you’re in tonight in Ebbw Vale, what draws you to still perform?

MP: Well, I still enjoy it.  I still think it’s um, beautiful art form, and I like playing gigs, small and large, in that they all have their challenges.  A month ago, I was on stage with Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey.

AT: Yeah?

MP: Singing with him, yeah, now I’m here in Ebbw Vale and er, so, life has always thrown up surprises, music takes you to some amazing, amazing places and er, you have to keep remembering where you come from.

AT: And is the Mike Peters that appears on stage the same Mike Peters that is at home with the family and er with friends?

MP: I’m not sure really.  I wrestle with that sometimes, I think so but, (intake of breath), maybe the things, more things come out in the music than I say as a human being to the family or the kids.  Y’know I probably get more angry in my songs, more emotional.  At home, I have to be strong for the family, y’know, you can’t let them down by weakness.  My role is to be strong and sometimes I show weakness in those songs, I show my fears but I don’t want to show the fears to the kids, I don’t want them to think they’re growing up into a horrible world or talk to them about things they don’t need to hear about, but on stage I will say what I’ve got to say and I’m not afraid to er, as Mick Jagger said ‘It’s only rock and roll and stick the pen deep in the heart, and let the blood spill over the stage’.

Music continues, fading out to the end:

Mike singing … Say, say a prayer for the fair country, great is the need for a new South Wales…
…Woah, someone hear my prayer, woah, someone hear my prayer….

“I Write the Songs” was presented by Alan Thompson and produced by Terry Lewis. 
The series is a Parasol Production for BBC Radio Wales.

(Transcribed from the original radio broadcast by S J Henry)

Audio Link – Audio of original 28 minute interview can be heard here.

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