Knocking on the door of 60, Mike Peters is just now getting his second wind. The indefatigable lead singer and sole remaining original member of Welsh rock powerhouse The Alarm, Peters hasn’t stop tinkering with the formula that made his band an alt-rock radio staple in the 1980s thanks to fist-pumping hits including “Strength,” “Sixty Eight Guns,” “The Stand” and “Spirit of ’76.”
His willingness to keep tweaking the secret sauce was on full display during a recent show at the intimate Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Nov. 8, where he sprinted between three microphones to make as intimate a connection as possible with fans and played not one, but two very different versions of “Strength” (more on that later). He also spontaneously busted into a mini-Storytellers-like bit featuring classic tales of getting slagged off by the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten as a 17 year-old starry-eyed punk and briefly thinking he was a member of The Clash.
“I’m so lucky to be in this position at my age, so lucky to have lived through a moment when we tried to make a connection that had some permanence to it,” Peters tells Billboard a week after the show as the band is resting up in New York before returning to Europe for more shows. Peters’ sunshiny attitude isn’t just down to a successful run of 50-plus U.S, dates in support of the band’s 2018 album Equals, though.
He’s literally gotten a second lease on life and he’s doing everything he can to make the most of it. After recovering from lymph cancer in 1996 and reviving his career, Peters was dealt a further blow in 2005 when he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which led to the formation of his Love Hope Strength Foundation to help cancer patients obtain life-saving treatments and provide them with once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences; Peters’ wife and Alarm keyboard player, Jules, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. In the years since, Peters has performed “the highest show ever” on Mount Everest to raise funds to buy medical equipment for cancer patients, as well as gigs on Mt. Kilimanjaro and in the Grand Canyon, where he hiked in with some fans for a special acoustic gig.
At the Cincinnati show, Peters emotionally described the Grand Canyon show, at which he’d planned to meet a father who was fighting cancer, but who, unfortunately, lost the struggle before the gig. “He was going to do the trek of his life, but he couldn’t, so his family came in his stead and spread his ashes down there,” the singer explains. During the special Canyon gig, Peters played a unique, unplugged acoustic version of “Strength,” which the band attempted to recreate for the 260 superfans packed into the Garage space, a revival of the legendary 1970s venue that hosted The Allman Brothers, The Kinks, Santana and many more in the 1960s and 70s.
But, due to some technical difficulties and feedback, the new version didn’t come off as Peters had hoped. Undaunted, and determined to give the people what they wanted (and deserved), he conferred with his bandmates and did something most acts never would: a complete do-over. “Music is a great communicator and when we’re on stage we go with the flow,” he says, explaining his decision to reboot, turn the volume up and play the rocking original.
Ever the storyteller, he describing a 1985 Wembley Stadium show he saw on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour. During the break in The Boss’ epic concert, Peters’ pal, E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent, handed over the show’s set list, which included songs Peters was psyched to hear. But when the Boss re-took the stage, the second set was completely different because, as Tallent later explained, Bruce read the crowd and realized he needed to give them more of what they wanted, so he pivoted and called a series of audibles. “Sometimes you go in with your best intentions… and I couldn’t pretend that [feedback] didn’t happen and it didn’t affect the audience,” says Peters.
The response at Ludlow Garage proved Peters’ point, as the largely middle-aged crowd yelled along to the 1985 anthem as if they were back in high school without one eye on their phones to make sure the babysitter wasn’t going into overtime on a school night. “I’m lucky enough that I’m going to turn full circle in life and get back to places where I played when I was younger,” the father of two says about the increasingly larger rooms the band has played as the Equals tour unfolded across the States. “I’m lucky to tell my story because some people get cut off in their prime and don’t get to see the fullness of what life has to offer.”
One of the other highlights of the Ludlow show was a moment that Peters says was also a result of spontaneously reading the room. “Sometimes I have a lot of stories, sometimes people shout things out and I hadn’t played Cincinnati since the original era, so I thought I’d bring people up to speed here and play to the moment when there was intimacy where I can see them and hear them laughing,” he says of the close quarters in the L-shaped room packed with big, comfy leather chairs he termed “airline seats.”
In addition to a tale about catching England’s Prince Charles sneakily tapping his foot in a sign of his Alarm fandom, Peters described seeing legendary first-wave punks The Sex Pistols at one of their early shows and getting the chance to approach singer Johnny Rotten afterwards to ask him a super important question: “what does ‘Anarchy in the UK’ actually mean?” The response was both a bit crushing to the then-teenaged rock wannabe, but also exactly what you’d expect: “fuck off!” That led to The Alarm busting into a quick, blitzing cover of “Anarchy,” followed by a second classic tale of starry-eyed punk reverie.
At another seminal show, this one from The Clash, Peters was so worried about having to go to the bathroom during their set that he ran to the facilities just before the band came on, only to find himself at a urinal with singer Joe Strummer on one side, guitarist Mick Jones on the other and the rest of the band beside them. “For a moment I thought, ‘wait, am I in the Clash now?'” he recalled, before busting into the Clash’s “White Riot.”
The night’s set also include the new single, “Coming Backwards,” which features guitars from Peters’ old friend Billy Duffy of The Cult. The new video for the song — which Billboard is debuting below — was shot in Florida earlier this year at one of the Alarms’ hugely popular Gathering events for fans and it perfectly captures the Alarm’s enduring rebel spirit.
Watch “Coming Backwards” below.