'When U2 feel that impulse... the results are devastating' - Mike Peters of The Alarm shares unique insights on U2
Mike Peters, front-man with Welsh band The Alarm, has had a ringside seat for U2's career for 40 years, including teaching Bono how to play the guitar and touring with the Irish band. He shares his unique insights with Richard Purden
U2 celebrate a significant anniversary today with the limited release of Gloria for this year's Black Friday Record Store Day. It's on the heels of two new limited vinyl editions of the band's classic long-player Achtung Baby, first released in November 1991.
U2's touring mates The Alarm also marked 40 years with their best-of compilation History Repeating. Front-man Mike Peters tells me his long friendship with the band goes back to a gig at London's Lyceum Ballroom just a few days before Christmas in 1981.
"I met Bono on the October tour, he couldn't play guitar, I had to show him chords," recalls Peters.
"The Edge was the same, he couldn't play (chords) either but he was amazing at what he could play. They learned as they went along, always striving to find something in the darkness, none of them had any training when I met them, particularly Bono."
The Alarm musician and songwriter soon discovered both bands had an opposite way of working.
"We would arrange songs before the band played but U2's creativity started with nothing, a bass-riff or a drumbeat was how they would arrive at a destination. We were more like The Clash in approach, Mick Jones or Joe Strummer would say: 'It goes like this'.
"With U2 there was no starting point but they came up with incredible solutions."
As Peters suggests it was an unknown element that harnessed much of the band's early output, the experimentation and mystery only added to the band's early allure.
Gloria, with its liturgical chorus sung in Latin, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo", is a notable early blueprint of the anthemic quality U2 brought to the new alternative.
"They are swimming in this river of music, there's nothing pre-mediated about it," says Peters.
"I think U2 were a better band when they were struggling as musicians. Now that Bono has achieved his ambition of being a songwriter they are not quite as distinctive as they used to be, they are obsessed with finding a big hit record to drive the U2 juggernaut, but what they have achieved is incredible."
Both The Alarm and U2 shared a kinship and continued to play dates together during the 1980s. The Welsh band would be invited to support U2 for American dates after the release of War (1983).
Due to inclement weather, the Alarm's slot at Red Rocks, Colorado was cancelled but U2 eventually made it on stage. The accompanying video and mini-album Under A Blood Red Sky crystallised the band's growing reputation on both sides of the Atlantic when Sunday Bloody Sunday was singled out for constant rotation on MTV.
Rolling Stone magazine included the performance as one of the '50 Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll'. It was the first of many U2 moments to become embedded in popular culture.
Peters was also there during the Lovetown tour when Bono delivered an often-quoted line that paved the way for the band's reinvention while at the Point Depot, Dublin on December 30 1989.
"He said they were going to have to go away and 'Dream it all up again' and they did exactly that when they made one of their most interesting records to date. Not a lot of people can get to where they need to go but when U2 feel that impulse they can pull out an Unforgettable Fire or an Achtung Baby and the results are devastating."
Despite Nirvana seizing rock's goalposts overnight with Nevermind, U2 had already moved house with Achtung Baby, recorded in Berlin. When The Fly was released ahead of the album it heralded U2's most dramatic reinvention.
The instantly affecting, pitch-black industrial riff and hip-hop beats made way for Bono's falsetto vocal, which delivered a hymnal quality, jarring brilliantly with the darkness.
While many embraced the shift, realising that The Fly created new textures and changed the conversation around U2, it was a shock to the system for many. Bono looked every inch the rock star with a charity shop leather box-jacket and wraparound shades introducing his Fly alter-ego while The Edge delivered a full-throttle, out of character guitar solo, the most thrilling he ever cut.
When The Fly promo was broadcast on Top of the Pops - knocking Bryan Adams banal (Everything I Do) I Do It For You from the No.1 spot after 16 endless weeks - U2 took over the space while summoning the quintessence of a punk spirit that gave them succour when forming in 1976.
U2 were still a young band at the end of the Lovetown tour, but they were squirming with backs up against the wall. It wasn't the first time Mike Peters saw the band almost reach the end of themselves and it wouldn't be the last.
"I was at the Trafalgar Square show (as part of the Songs of Experience promo tour)," says Peters.
"It felt like their gig but as soon as they came on, it didn't. Tickets were part of a ballot, they were playing before the superstar DJ David Guetta.
"It was apparent Bono was trying to get the audience to sing along and they weren't... that was the first time I saw that happen since the War tour in the Midwest of America - it felt like they were the support act rather the headline band.
"I almost liked seeing U2 in that moment where they had to respond, they had to dig deep and come outside of the showbusiness element which they are amazing at; no-one can drive an arena show like U2; no other band on the planet.
"The whole thing was compelling and they probably got a sting; those are the moments that will drive the next record."
The Alarm front-man adds that U2's touchstone albums have arrived when the band's only competition is themselves.
"U2 don't have to chase anyone; they are so singular and always have been. I just want to see them make a U2 record rather than compete with anyone; let's just have another great U2 record that echoes Unforgettable Fire or Achtung Baby; not sonically but an album that takes them to a dangerous place again.
"If I was producing U2 today I would lock them a room with a Vox AC30 amp, a delay unit, a drum kit and bass and be like 'Right, come out when you've got 10 songs'.
:: Achtung Baby 30th anniversary vinyl editions are out now and a new digital box set is due for release on December 3.
:: A 40th-anniversary 12-inch coloured vinyl version of Gloria is out today for Black Friday Record Store Day.
:: The Alarm's History Repeating: 1981-2021 is out now.