It’s not every day that Cross Rhythms gets a chance to talk to the recipient of an MBE, but that’s what I’m about to do, as my taxi takes me to my designated meeting place – a cheap and cheerful café overlooking Prestatyn marina. Ever before Mike Peters received his MBE for services to charity, having raised thousands of pounds for cancer care projects in the UK and around the world, and for dedicating his life to giving hope for families affected by cancer, the Welsh seaside town of Prestatyn had given its own accolades to the veteran lead singer and songwriter of rock band The Alarm. I was a little disappointed that my taxi didn’t pass the statue the town has erected for its much-loved son.
Born in Prestatyn and growing up in Rhyl, Mike formed The Alarm back in 1981 and, down the years, he saw the band enjoy many hit records and perform in some of the biggest stadiums of the world. This year, The Alarm played over 100 concerts around the world and the tireless singer still organises The Gathering, an annual weekend of music which he first created 27 years ago.
A dedicated family man with two sons (Dylan 14 and Evan 11), the 59 year old made a recovery from lymph cancer in 1996, only to receive the devastating news that he was suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukaemia in 2005. Ever the pragmatist, Mike decided to set up a sponsored walk up Snowdon, Snowdon Rocks. Following the success of this event, Mike then co-founded the Love Hope Strength Foundations in the US and UK with wife Jules Peters, and Texan leukaemia transplant survivor James Chippendale. In the past decade, the Foundations have collectively gone on to raise over a million pounds for cancer projects through their international trek and events programme, with over £600,000 being raised by the charity in the UK. In addition to this, Mike spearheaded the By Your Side cancer care campaign for Awyr Las, the North Wales NHS Charity, which raised over £350,000 for cancer services in the region. Mike’s Snowdon Rocks, now in its 13th year, has morphed into Snowdonia Rocks and has become a popular annual pilgrimage for a legion of Love Hope Strength supporters, musicians, families and people affected by cancer.
As well as raising money, Mike has been an active campaigner and helped to established Love Hope Strength’s Get On The List programme over a decade ago. With the mission to “save lives one concert at a time” Mike’s Foundations partnered with DKMS, the international blood cancer charity, to help find potentially life-saving bone marrow or stem cell matches for people with blood cancer (or blood disorders), who need a second chance at life. Since setting up Get On The List, the Love Hope Strength Foundations have organised over 6,000 free Get On The List bone marrow and blood stem cell donor drives at concerts, festivals and events in the UK and USA. Thanks to the Get On The List programme, over 200,000 people have now been added to blood stem cell donor registries, which has resulted in more than 4,000 potentially life-saving matches being identified.
Amazingly, Peters’ ongoing battles with health has not, in any way, dulled his passion for music making. The Alarm continue to tour and many long-term aficionados have suggested that the current line-up (Mike Peters – vocals/guitars/harmonica; James Stevenson – guitars/bass; Jules Jones Peters – piano; and Smiley – drums) are every bit as good as the original ’60s line-up. From their last two albums, 2018’s ‘Equals’ produced Cross Rhythms radio hits “Tomorrow” and “Beautiful”, while 2019’s ‘Sigma’, featuring in part re-recordings of a number of band favourites, has brought the tracks “Can You Feel Me?”, “Psalm” and “Love And Understanding” to Cross Rhythms listeners.
Over a coffee, I talked to this most unassuming of rock stars. I began by asking him about his feelings on receiving the MBE.
Mike: Multitudes of Brilliant Efforts is how we describe it. It was an award on behalf of our charity and all the people involved in our life so I was very grateful to go up to Buckingham Palace, or down to Buckingham Palace from the north, and receive it from Prince Charles himself.
Tony: That would have been absolutely unimaginable when you were the lead singer of your pre-The Alarm punk band, The Toilets.
Mike: Yeah, especially in my God Save The Queen t-shirt when The Sex Pistols came out. But yeah, it was unusual to be invited into that circle and I was invited to be a deputy head lieutenant a couple of years ago here in North Wales and represent the county.
Tony: There’s a statue of you here. How long has that been up?
Mike: The statue at the Hub has been there for a few years now. I think this is part of the regeneration of Rhyl. It was ‘let’s focus on some of the good things that Rhyl has brought into the world.’ And somehow, the powers that be decided that I was one of those good things. And there’s a footballer and a scientist up there and its reminding people that Rhyl is a really creative environment. I don’t know how it is but we have this micro climate of sunny Rhyl and it’s an unusual place. There are some great people who come from here that I’m friendly with, that I went to school with and who succeeded in other walks of life.
Rhyl is a place where I’ve grown up in and out of, I always return to and there’s a lot of people like me from Rhyl. I think that we’re an interesting place because we’re almost like the Blackpool of Wales or the Las Vegas of Wales, if you want to look on a grander scale. But we’re changing into something else now, we’re a seafront town and seafront towns have a lot going for them and people do want to live beside the sea and experience it and when you stand on a beach in Rhyl and look back there’s mountains and there’s a beautiful horizon and it’s a great place.
Tony: Now, I told a friend that I was coming here and I mentioned Alarm and he immediately said, “Ah, ’68 Guns'”. How many times do you reckon you’ve sung “68 Guns”?
Mike: Well, hopefully enough to grow more brain cells. Apparently if you do something a hundred times in repetition you grow a brain cell. So hopefully singing it as many times as I have done has kept me alive. The interesting thing about a song like “68 Guns”, and maybe other artists say the same things, sometimes the more times you do it, more things in it get revealed that you didn’t realise were there.
Tony: Funnily enough that was the question he asked me. He hasn’t heard “68 Guns” in a while and I think he had heard it a previous week on the Beeb but he said, “What’s the song about?”
Mike: Well, in its true essence it started off as a bit of a joke to be honest. We were driving a car, my grandad’s old Ford Cortina, we used to drive it along the seafront here with cassettes that we’d make up, you know, mix tapes. And we used to love “I Fought The Law” by The Clash and there was a line in it that went “Robbing people with their six guns” and they used to drone on about the six beats on their snare drum. We always used to think, ‘what if it was more than six bullets in that gun? What if they were robbing people with their 68 guns, what would the drum beat [he mimics a fast drum beat] be?’ And then I thought, ‘That’s a great title for a song’ and went off to write the song. Along the way I was reading a book called the Glasgow Street Gang Observed, a classic psychology book where a teacher went undercover to run with the gangs of Glasgow and get into the mind set of why they were drawn together. They’re in that twilight zone between being kids and adults and there’s nowhere to go but the street corners. You’re not old enough for pubs, you’re too old for youth clubs and too outrageous for church, so you end up on the street corner and you bond; there’s clothes and music and identification with other people through those means. I thought, ‘That’s what a band is really.’ It was set in the year ’68 and there was a lot of violence and Kennedy was shot and Martian Luther King was writing in Paris and all this. And “68 Guns” seemed to be a good idea for a song based on belonging, and that’s how it came to be.
When it came to recording the song – as we’d play it live it was a very long piece and it’s got two or three sections, it’s almost prog rock in a way, it’s not just the pop single version you hear on the radio – but when we were making the song the producer and our A&R man at a record label said, “Look, this could be a hit if we shorten it down and join the choruses up and make it a bit speedier and get to the hook line faster.” So we created two versions, one for the album where we play it live, and a single version. The producer said, “Look Mike, to get to the hook line we need to get fast. So let’s take a verse out of the song.” So I thought, “Yeah, okay let’s do that.” So we dropped a verse and sang one verse straight to the chorus. But when it came to the 30th anniversary of that song and I looked back at the original lyrics I realised to my horror that we’d taken out the wrong verse! We took the verse out which gave the song its real meaning which maybe would have stopped people asking what “68 Guns” is about. Because there was a line in the song which went, “If they take our chances, we’ll create our own.” And that is really what the song is all about. But now, we often sing it with that line back in the song and it makes sense when we play it that way. But for me it’s not about 68 guns, it’s about what happens after the 68 guns [which] will never die. That is what speaks to me when I sing that song today; that is the emphasis for me because that’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life.
Tony: You’re so pro-life as opposed to anything which relates to warfare and killing and that sort of thing, isn’t it time now for you to record a new version called “68 Doves” or something like that?
Mike: It’s funny that you would say that, in this last couple of years with all the gun crime and the killing that’s gone on. I’ve almost found that we should change it to “68 Love” and delete the word ‘guns’ from the title of the song. That is something I toyed with last summer, especially when we went to America and certain incidents had happened, horrific incidents of people losing it, just getting lost in life and hitting back at life through innocence. It’s a terrible thing to see on the news especially when you’ve got young children yourself and seeing people going into a school with a gun and wiping people out, it’s tragic. And so, I almost felt that there’s no need for the title to say that anymore so it’s possible that this summer I might well sing it as ’68 Love’. Even if it’s just me singing it it’ll still move it on. It’s interesting, when I discovered the line in the song about “If they take our chances, we’ll create our own.” In 2013 I went to see Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall in London and it was the first time he’d played there since the infamous time in his career when he went from acoustic to electric and people were calling him Judas because he’d taken up an electric guitar. One particular song he sang that night was “Tangled Up In Blue”. When he started singing it I didn’t recognise the lyrics, I thought it was a new song. When he mentioned the line “tangled up in blue” I thought, “Wow, he’s just changed the lyrics at this time in his life” – for whatever reason he felt compelled to do that.
I felt really challenged and sort of unsettled by that because I didn’t recognise this great song sung by this incredible artist, but he feels he still has the right to be able to go back to his art and give it another brush stroke. So when I went to look at “68 Guns” on its 30th anniversary I felt, well, I’m gonna do what Bob Dylan did, I’m going to reinvent it or reposition it or reimagine it or bring out another element to it that people didn’t realise was there, that’s still part of its creation but has been hidden. So I’m always in that mind-set now, that you can go back on everything you’ve created and adapt it. Being in a band, being a musical artist it’s like being dumped in the river, it’s flowing all the time. And sometimes you don’t know why you’re in that water until you’ve pushed out into the sea and you think ‘Ha, this is where I’ve been traveling to.’ So I think there’s a lot to be learnt from “68 Guns” and I think, like you’ve mentioned, the word “guns” needs deleting so possibly this summer we’ll have a new version to sing.
Tony: The Alarm‘s ‘Equals’ album has the song “13 Dead Reindeer”, which has a distinct EDM flavour. Also there are one or two other things on there that don’t sound like you’d expect The Alarm to sound.
Mike: It’s really important to stay creative, with respect to where you’ve come from, but part of it for me is that I’ve never wanted The Alarm just to sit back and rest on its laurels because that’s the kiss of death for an artist I think. As it’s happened to us as a group at times or individually. At times I’ve had to sit back and think I need to kick myself and move forward. Because sometimes you get drawn into alleyways in your musical career that have a dead end to them and sometimes the way to get back on track into the main artery of the flow is a big kick to do that. And sometimes you’ll do that by bringing in a producer or taking up a new instrument or challenging yourself to write a different kind of word that you’re maybe not used to before and to sort of see those dark passages coming and head them off at the pass if you can. But with this new album, it came from a very challenging point in our life for all of us involved in The Alarm, especially for me and my wife Jules. And so I felt that there was new music being created in the turmoil of what was happening and I felt it was best to leave all the doors and windows open to receive whatever was going to blow my way.
Something like “13 Dead Reindeers”, obviously it’s an unusual title for a song as it is. It came because I was travelling in Norway at the time and there was a movement from some people there who are offended by the idea of what Christmas has become or becoming, the real message of it is getting lost. Also there’s certain people in Scandinavia, they would go into stores and rip all the Christmas trees and the decorations down. These things started off as an innocent direct action protest that doesn’t hurt anyone then somebody takes it to an extreme and they started killing reindeer. I thought that that was a tragedy. I felt compelled to write the song about how an innocent thought can be turned into something really dark and sometimes the internet allows really dark thoughts to flourish and to gain speed and traction and end up in really harmful places for individuals and communities. To give it that extra edge and to colour that we felt that we really needed something pulsating through it, would give an edge, so when The Alarm fans were listening to it in their comfort zone and thinking ‘Here’s another guitar track’ they’d go ‘What’s this?’ And it would throw the whole thing out of order so we could create a new listener experience for our fans and a new experience for us musically.
Tony: Having said that, I don’t believe that any songwriter is going to be content just to write up songs. You’ve written some very dark material in your time. Talking of playlists, I suspect you may be surprised to learn that the most played track from your solo career on the Cross Rhythms stations is “The Message”, a cover version and you outdo Grandmaster Flash on that. It’s such a brilliant cover and it’s a quintessential angry song – “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge”.
Mike: The lyric of the message is incredible. It’s one of the greatest lyrics written. It’s such an observation and everyone’s been there, being pushed to the edge every day. We get pushed to the edge, get tested, get challenged, all day long by everything. And more so than ever before in the world we live in now. Sometimes you can’t even post a message like, “Oh I love my wife.” If you post that on the internet now people are going to reply “Shouldn’t it be ‘partner’.” Anything you say about somebody today you’re going to get challenged. I stay off the internet and I stay off the grid and I carry on my life I chose to live and the way I’ve been brought up.
Tony: Possibly because of my age I don’t want to go on social media.
Mike: I think if you listen to what people are saying about you on social media then you become confined to that, you respond to that and you’re not living free. It’s like if you’re an artist or a soccer player, the worst thing you can do is read what the people are saying about you in the press, all it will do is inhibit you. You’ll start to respond to the negatives, you’ll start to overthink things you don’t need to overthink and you’ll stop being yourself. You’ll start wanting to be liked by the people who dislike you. So you change your stance on life and you don’t say certain things that you want to say in case you offend somebody who doesn’t like you or make them compound what they don’t like about you and so you start to become less of yourself. I’ve always wanted in my life to just be myself and to be the person I’ve been brought up to be and to be part of the community I wanna belong to.
Tony: I’ve been reading through some interviews about your life story, and I’ve written here, “Your life’s had more ups and downs than a scenic railway.”
Mike: Did I say that, did I?
Tony: It’s just something I observed.
Mike: I wouldn’t change one thing about the life I’ve lived. Jules and I sit back sometimes and we feel so lucky to be alive and we have two great boys and live in a great part of the world. And we have survived some really intense times. I would never want anybody to go on the journey that I’ve been on, it’s a train ride for this one person only, I hope. I’m grateful that we’ve lived through these experiences and to tell the tale. When Jules and I were faced with some of the challenges, when the word we probably don’t want to talk about, cancer, came into our lives for the first time, all I wanted to do was find a good news story about somebody who had what I had and survived and I couldn’t find it. I went on the internet – all the nursing staff had said, “Mike, don’t go on the internet.” I got home and started searching and all I found were facts and figures that showed I wasn’t going to be alive in a year or something like that and it was terrifying. I’m actually glad I’ve been able to go through those experiences and then amplify it a bit in my music or talk about it in interviews, or by organising treks and hiking mountains, so somebody out there who find themselves in a position that Jules and I were in can say, “Well, he survived it so I’m going to too.” I think that’s all we wanted to get out of these experiences, to be able to live to tell the tale.
Tony: Has your Christian faith survived, died or deepened?
Mike: I think all of those at the same time. Faith is like a river and it’s affected by the seasons. Just last year, we went to the Grand Canyon to raise some funds for our Get On The List bone marrow drive and we took some supporters, some musicians in to the Grand Canyon. We went into Bryce Canyon. We had one chap who had signed up to come and do the trek and he lost his life to cancer before the trek took place and his family came in his stead to uphold his memory and feel close to him. We had a sort of service for his memory down in the heart of Bryce Canyon and I was stood there giving a talk about him and the words were right, but I realised that we were stood in a dried up river bed. I said, “Look, we’re in this dried up river bed and it’s dried up now, but it will always be a river and just like the Father will always be the Father of those children and loved ones.” And that’s how I think faith works, once you’ve accepted it into your life, it’s always going to be there. Even though it might dry up from time to time it never goes away and it’s always there when you need it, when you have to call upon it. So faith is all those things to me. It can be strong and it can be weak, but it’s still faith and that’s what carries you through life.
Tony: Do you sustain it daily, do you pray every day?
Mike: I’m not a religious person in that sense, but my faith carries me through life always and every day. I always see the miracle of life when I wake up in the morning and to me it is a blessing to be alive. I often say to my kids we’re so lucky to look at the sun come up and burn on our skin, it’s an incredible feeling and the love we have for each other is a miracle and we should be so grateful for it, and that carries me through to tomorrow and that makes me want to stay alive. I’m really lucky and blessed and I feel blessed every day.
Tony: What about your feelings about the changes in music and how people are saying “it can only be a hit if there’s a video to go with it”?
Mike: You need to have some vehicle to put it out to YouTube and all that kind of thing and that’s where a lot of it gets driven from. People want to see it on their phone, not just hear it. My friend Red worked for Bob Dylan since we toured with them. He had a thing where Bob Dylan at the start of the tour would say to his team, “I don’t want any lights anymore. I don’t want any lights, I’m tired of light at rock shows” and all this kind of thing. And they said, “But Bob, people are paying to come and see you.” And he said, “No they’re not, they’re paying to come and hear me.” And it’s true, isn’t it?
But now we don’t listen to artists, we watch them. And that’s a different experience and it is a shame to have your song get any traction, to get out there in the world, it has to have a video, because most people, their first listening experience is watching you on video. That’s a fact of life. The downsides and the upsides now are there’s no producer who says you can’t be on YouTube anymore, which there is at radio. There’s always somebody who says “Your song’s not good enough to go on here.” In the old days, when there were a hundred-thousand radio stations to approach, if one radio station producer didn’t like your song you went to the next, or the next or the next until you found one that did. And then you could go back to all the others and convert them again. But now it’s so narrow, the window, to get on radio. One or two people control the radio in America or the format that you listen to in America. It’s very hard to get on the radio in this day and age, but it’s easy to get on YouTube. So make videos, peop