The First Time: Alasdair Fotheringham – The Alarm + Kissing Bandits + Mercenary Skank (Exeter University, 24th January 1984)

Warning to all The Alarm fans so they can stop reading this now – I didn’t enjoy their part of this gig at all. But weird as it sounds, no matter how disappointing (to me) the main band were, the concert as a whole did open my eyes to the joys of stonkingly loud, electrified live music. It also taught me one very valuable lesson about concerts right from the word go: don’t bother forking out money to see a band if all you really want to hear is one song.

Way back in a freezing cold winter of 1984, it didn’t help my pre-concert nerves that this was my first gig without my parents, who’d taken us to a fair number of very good jazz and blues concerts. I did go to this gig with my elder brother, which helped, but I was very much in a spotty, ultra-selfconscious, jittery teenager phase – ie very much not really sure what I was doing, but absolutely determined to make it seem like that the complete opposite was true.

The thing was my brother and I had both heard and liked ’68 Guns’, The Alarm’s biggest hit and we decided we’d take the live music plunge. This being a Tuesday, as my family didn’t live in Exeter but we both went to school there, I’d imagine it’d have been a question of hanging around after class in the central city library until they kicked us out, then have the usual glamorous mid-week evening-out meal of the time: a sausage-in-batter, way more affordable than fish even back then, and chips. Finally, off to the Exeter University Great Hall we went, being so inexperienced as rock concertgoers (my brother had no idea of what was in store either) that I recall we got there as doors opened.

I also remember being so nervous (and probably so strapped for cash) I refused to check my coat in at the door and then standing as far back as possible in the hall as I had no idea what I was going to see, except I knew we got two bands before the main act.

First off were Mercenary Skank, described on the concert flyers that evening as “a five-piece punk band from Rhyl”, the same town in north Wales as The Alarm. Music apart, what I mostly remember about them is being impressed they had three guitarists and a bassist when most bands I’d heard of had two guitarists at most, and marvelling as well at their Goth-like haircuts of the Jesus and Mary Chain variety and (I think) leather trousers.  (In Exeter, very possibly one of the claustrophobically conservative of West Country cities at the time, I honestly don’t think anybody would have dared to have that kind of haircut or outfit, given they’d have likely have been tarred and feathered by one of Exeter’s multiple cider-drinking, bored-shitless cohorts of local good ol’ boys, then dragged out of town behind the next available combine harvester.)

However, I also recall that the sound for Mercenary Skank’s part of the gig was terrible and cranked up to ear-splitting levels and although they had a pretty tight set-up of the sombrely thrashy guitar punk variety you couldn’t hear a word of what the vocalist was singing. So in a real mix of feelings, while I was blown away by the sheer volume and spectacle of it all, equally, I was very glad when they stopped.

The Kissing Bandits, hailing from Glasgow, were a very different kettle of fish, much more melodic and poppy and with words you could actually understand and some good chorus lines. While I subsequently didn’t bother with The Alarm’s merchandising on offer at the entrance, and couldn’t really get to grips with the miserable, glowering, incomprehensible Mercenary Skank, I still have a single by the Kissing Bandits that I bought that night: ‘Shake Some Action’, a kind of catchy, thumpy dance tune that (though I had no idea at the time) was a cover version of a Flamin’ Groovies song.

The Alarm were, well, all right, but barring a couple of standout numbers, I’d say they were a Marmite band: either their incredibly passionate, earnest sing-along anthems had you hooked or they didn’t. In my case, although I knew and liked their biggest song, ’68 Guns’, barring another one of their songs they played that night,  ‘Where Were You Hiding When The Storm Broke?’, I genuinely couldn’t work out what the fuss was about. If you want to intellectualise it a bit, there’s an article in The Guardian that says The Alarm “always came across like a baby Clash mixed with a dose of mini-U2, while never having the musical breadth or ability to change the shape of either.” But even if The Alarm really had a lot of fired-up power to them back in Exeter, 1984, and  they’d got about 20 really loyal fans at the front who were singing their hearts out and a massive poster with a poppy on it, the band’s symbol, behind them, too,  I simply couldn’t relate to their lyrics as much, say, as I did at the time to The Jam or The Undertones or (particularly) The Specials. Once that mental Rubicon had been crossed, even if The Alarm had some pretty cool spiky haircuts of the Mercenary Skank variety as well and clearly knew what they were doing musically, being fond, like most kids of that age, of instant generalisations and snap judgements, I felt Mercenary Skank might be impossible to understand – but they still said it better. 

So we patiently waited for ’68 Guns’, which, annoyingly, they played last or almost last. And if the concert was uplifting as an experience, by this point I’d kind of got as much out of it as I could and just wanted to go home. Anyway my brother being paranoid about the risks of casual violence afterwards (us being scared country boys on our first night out in the big metropolis), I don’t think we even stuck around for the encore.

And that was it: as an introduction to live music of the sort that definitely didn’t involve parents (wahey), on one level it didn’t work at all but on plenty of others – like how exciting concerts could be –  it did. The Alarm had helpfully set the bar very low, too, which in a way was great: for a long time afterwards, everything else I heard in a live concert almost couldn’t help but sound brilliant.

So I soon found my way into night after night of beer-soaked pub rock (The Junkyard Angels, an Exeter band headed by the late, great,  Julian Piper, were a huge favourite of mine) and punk of the truly scary variety (I remember going to see The Damned in Exeter, and watching hundreds of people wildly pogo-ing at once, which had me terrified and enthralled as well as idly wondering –  as only teenagers convinced of course they’ll live forever can do –  if the floor, already buckling dangerously, would actually collapse as a result.) I even saved up the money to get to some serious stadium gigs, like Dire Straits and David Bowie, up in London, subsequently getting home at 5 in the morning after bus trips from hell down the M5 –  and concerts to remember for a lifetime.

Weirdly enough there was an epilogue to this Alarm concert, when a couple of summers back I ran into a friend of a friend I hadn’t met for roughly 30 years and he reminded me that he and I had met up there at the gig –  and me, he and my brother were very likely the only three people from our school to go to it. By yet another weird coincidence, this friend of a friend, in turn, ran into the ex-Mercenary Skank singer, Scratch, long after the band split up when Scratch was working somewhere in mid-Devon as an antique furniture restorer.

Anyway, digging up their music on Youtube now, it turns out if you like thrashy, noisy punk, Mercenary Skank were actually just as talented in their own way as the Kissing Bandits. Put it this way: if the Bandits or ‘The Skank’  as they were known to their hardcore fans, were playing somewhere near my current home, I’d go back and happily see either again. As for The Alarm, though – probably not.

About Alasdair Fotheringham 63 Articles
Alasdair Fotheringham is a freelance journalist based in Spain, where he has lived since 1992, writing mainly on current affairs and sport.
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Paul Kerr

Ah! The Kissing Bandits. I knew the band well and saw them numerous times. They supported The Fleshtones in Glasgow, perhaps the best gig I ever saw.


I’m good friends with ‘Scratch’ and it’s really interesting reading about the band he wrote lyrics for but sad to say I can’t find any live recordings.