Posted on September 8, 2011
Developing The Alarm.com: 1995-2011
I was web master for http://www.thealarm.com for over 15 years. The Alarm were an 80’s band with hits like 68 Guns, Strength, and Rain In The Summertime. They broke-up in 1991, but soon afterward, lead vocalist Mike Peters embarked on a solo career, that led to the creation of one of the first web sites dedicated to a musical artist, in 1995. The Alarm reformed in 2001, and continue until this day as a functioning rock and roll band.
In that time, the web site has changed immensely: from a single page with news and rumors, to a fully dynamic web community. As I was writing this story, a couple thoughts occurred to me. Mike Peters and MPO had the foresight to get into the internet very very early. Their first site was also one of the first sites dedicated to a musician on the internet. The story of the multiple sites and how they evolved is also the story of how the internet itself has evolved in the past decade. However, there are more stories here than just that. There is also the very personal story of myself, developing these sites and growing-up from a rank amateur to full-fledged web professional and developer. However, but more importantly, it’s the story of how Mike Peters, a true survivor of the music industry and cancer, has grown and sustained his career by leveraging the internet at every turn. Long before MySpace.com, YouTube, and iTunes, Mike Peters (with a little help from his freinds) had been using the 20th century’s most important communication revolution in ways that few before him had even thought possible.
Vocalist and songwriter Mike Peters left the 80’s rock band The Alarm in June of 1991, and embarked on his own solo career. He went into hiding for about 14 months, and when he came back into public life with a new band, he wanted to radically change the way musicians interfaced with their fans. His goal was to make fans as much of the music creation process as possible. He started an annual music festival named The Gathering in December 1992 to celebrate the music of his old band The Alarm. The idea was to get “the fans” to go on tour, and visit Wales, the birth place of his legendary 80’s rock band. He also created the MPO (Mike Peters Organization) as a free, full-service club for his fans. The club dessiminated information on a timely basis and started a “hot line” that would take calls and answer questions from fans. One of the new ways he planned to communicate was with the internet.
The First Official Alarm Site
In 1993, Mike Peters’ wife Jules, and their friend Danny Cohen started writing a fanzine for Mike Peters’ music named 21st Century at just about the same time. After several singles, Mike Peters’ first solo album, Breathe, was released in late 1994. Soon after, long time fan Gary Freedman came to them with a plan to take “Mike Peters And The Alarm” on to the world wide web, still very much in its infancy. Gary created a web site for the MPO located at the url http://www.demon.co.uk/alarmpo. The site was launched in June 1995, and became one of the very first web sites dedicated to a rock artist on the internet. (unfortunately, no known archive of this first site is known to exist). Mike Peters and Gary Freedman were true visionaries when it came to promoting musicians on the world wide web, a fact that has long since been buried by time.
The First Alarm Fan Site On The Internet
The first web site dedicated to The Alarm was Mikko Hänninen’s Alarm, site, created some time in 1994. Hänninen was a long-time BBS operator, and he started the site after graduating from high school. You can still view the original site here: http://www.wizzu.com/alarm/index.html .
Steve Varty’s Alarm Digest
At the time all of this was going on, I was busy working my own plans for the web and The Alarm. I had been an Alarm fan since 1984, when I first heard their album Declaration. I followed the band all through high school and most of college. I began to seriously collect their records in 1989, and continued the pursuit after the band broke-up in 1991. For the next few years it became almost impossible to find any information about The Alarm or Mike Peters. In late 1994 I discovered an internet email mailing list for the band created by Steve Varty, the first real pioneer for getting The Alarm on the net.
Steve Varty had started the email list in 1993, and had been steadily, if slowly, building membership for a couple years. Soon, reading and writing to the daily digest of The Alarm emailing list became my favorite past time. There, I met other die-hard Alarm fans like the aformentioned Steve Varty, along with Stephen Darlington, Paul Hart, Peter Simmons, Dougieie Mueller, Dirk Horst and Gary Overington. Gary and I hit it off pretty well, and we started trading live Alarm tapes, and records. We both had the desire to find out if we had all the Alarm records in existance, but there were no really good resources available at the time. The best, but still very flawed, was a history and discography for The Alarm that I, myself had written and subsequently published in the May 1991 issue of the UK record collecting magazine Spiral Scratch.
The Alarm Archive
In late 1994, Gary and I decided to take the work I had done for the Spiral Scratch article, along with what we had collected in the years since, and create a CD-ROM named “The Alarm Archive”. However, When the official Mike Peters web site appeared in June 1995, Gary and I decided to change directions. Instead of a CD-ROM, we put our effort into creating a comprehensive web site for the band.
The first version, was no more than a single HTML page. The web browser I was using at the time, Net Cruiser from NetComm, only supported the most basic HTML. No HTML Tables were supported, so the entire first site consisted of centered and bold text, basic images, and hyper-links.
We had big plans for the site, as we wanted to catalog EVERYTHING The Alarm had ever accomplished. We wanted all tour dates and set-lists, every record and version ever produced, lists of articles and interviews, t-shirts, buttons, posters, etc. Since The Alarm did not exist any longer, our hope was to to memorialize our favorite band in the only way die-hard collectors know how to do it: complete and total obsession!
A Chance Meeting
In the summer if 1995, while seeing a Mike Peters solo show in the UK, Gary Overington had a chance meeting with Peters and his wife Jules. He told them about “The Alarm Archive” and they were intrigued that it was a world-wide project and he was working with someone half-way around the world. Gary told Jules Jones (Mike Peters’ wife) that he and I would be willing to help out the the MPO web site in any way we could. Gary told me this, but since I was so far away (in California) I was not sure if there was really anything I could ever do. Still, I really appreciated my friend looking out for me and trying to make me part of what I had considered a lucky break for him alone.
Little did I know that a series of events was unfolding that would pretty much change my life. Mike Peters had been diagnosed with cancer in 1995. He told no one about it, and instead embarked on a journey of healing. He tried to get The Alarm reformed, but even the prospect of Mike’s possible death could not lay to rest the issues that had shattered the band 4 years prior. As luck would have it, my second major article about The Alarm had just been published by Goldmine Magazine in November 1995 just as Mike Peters arrived in the USA. Mike was not scheduled to play any shows in California, my home state. His visit to the United States was to find a way to heal himself and record as much music as possible. However, on December 15th, 2005 the phone rang in my small apartment in Redondo Beach, CA. It was Jules Jones Mike Peters’ wife. She asked if my wife and I wanted to come down to San Diego that night. Mike was playing the 91X “Acaustic Christmas” show. My article about The Alarm appeared in Goldmine Mgazine at just the same time they had come to the USA, and they had found a copy on the news stand. Mike wanted to meet the man who had written “the article”. It just so happened that very day, I was laid-off of my first job out of college that I had held for nearly 3 years. I really needed something to cheer me up. My wife and I jumped at the chance to drive down to San Diego and meet Mike Peters and his wife.
On the 2 hour drive from Redondo Beach to San diego, my wife Dawn marvelled at the chain of events. She reminded me of something that I had long-since forgotten. In May 1991, The Alarm were on their final tour through the USA. I had seen the band at least 10 times since 1985, but I had never tried to meet them. It was just not something that I thought was necessary. They played the music, I listened , that was the extent of it. However, in 1991 I had just published the aformentioned article about The Alarm in Spiral Scratch magazine and for some reason, I was determined to get it autographed by the band. However, I had chosen the wrong time to try to make it happen. The Alarm were in their final death throes, and had ceased their long-time habit of showing up and talking to fans after their shows. After the last L.A. area show at which I failed at my mission for the 6th time (and received a parking ticket to boot!) , I told my (future) wife that I would quit there. “I never wanted to meet the band. I would never try again”, I told her , “if I was going to ever meet Mike Peters, he would have to contact me, because I was not going to contactl him”. “Steve”, Dawn said to me in a surprised voice as we made our way to San Diego, ” I thought you were crazy at the time when you said it, but that’s exactly what just happened.”
The meeting in San Diego went extremely well. Mike wanted to talk to me about my magazine article, about his fight with cancer (the first time) , and about the MPO’s need for a new person to run their web site. He told me that in January 1996, Gary Freedman had to stop working on the official site at http://www.demon.co.uk/alarmpo. The MPO needed someone very quickly to take over. I volunteered Gary O. and myself almost instantly. I figured that the opportunity to work on the MPO site would allow me to start rebuilding my own career into that of a web developer. I could not have been more correct.
In Early 1996, Gary and I officially took over the MPO web site. Gary and I quickly made some changes to the overall look and feel of the site, and came-up with this new site design. Our main aim was to get out of the “Centered text” look of the orginal site and bring some kind of nifty design into the process. Our first idea was to create an image-map that laid-over the background of one of the MPO’s post cards. It worked pretty well for the time. We used this style for many more versions of the MPO site, all based on the same basic design. For the rest of 1996 and into 1997, Gary Overington and I immersed ourselves into HTML and learned everything we could about web development on our own. At first, The MPO would fax us updates (tours, news, etc) and we would transcribe them onto the web site by hand. Since I did not have a Fax machine, I would have to wait up until the wee hours of the night when I expected a fax from the MPO. When the call finally came, I had to jump to my computer and start WinFax as fast as possible so that I would not miss any of the pages. I still recall the visceral thrill of seeing some bit of latest news slowing spitting out of my HP ink jet printer. I could not wait for it to finish so I could copy it down and share it with the world via the internet.
Early Non-Mike Peters Sites:Fringe
Just after taking over the MPO site with Gary O., I decided I wanted to make sites for the other guys in The Alarm. When some fans found out about Nigel Twist’s (ex drummer for The Alarm) involvement as the drummer for a San Francisco band named “Fringe”, I took it upon myself to write to the band, and offer to create their official site. The band allowed me to do it, and I did what I could with the available material. I never really heard much about Fringe after the first site went up. This was a common problem with these early web sites. After putting up an initial web site, bands had very little idea what to do with it. Unless they were constantly updated, they would die because fans would ever come back more than once. Thus was the fate of the “Fringe” site. One of the best things the MPO did was to always stay in contact with Gary or I. They would constantly email us with news reports, updates, etc. Even if they did not have content specifically for the web, the artwork and information from their frequent post cards issues of the 21st Century fanzine helped keep the web site as fresh as possible
Early Non-Mike Peters Sites: Dave Sharp
At just about the same time as the Fringe Site, I was working on the Fringe site, I was putting the finishing touches on a fan site for Dave Sharp. (ex Guitarist/song Writer for The Alarm). There had been very little news of Dave Sharp since 1992. Then, some time in early 1996, a fan found Dave playing weekly at the Kerry Irish Pub in New Orleans. He had been working on a new album for several years, and just about to release it. The fan’s reports of meeting Dave appeared on on Steve Varty’s mailing and they were compelling enough to get me to start my own fan site for him. I had collected some interesting Dave Sharp memorbilia over the year (buttons, live tapes, press kits) that I thought could have nice home on a site like this one. I finished the site just after Dave’s second solo album “Downtown America” was released in June 1996. I tried to be as enthusiastic about this site as I was for the MPO site and The Alarm Archive. However, news was sparse, and soon it became almost as dead as the Fringe site.
Early Non-Mike Peters Sites: The Spirit Of ’86
While working for the MPO, Gary and I also continued to try to work on The Alarm Archive. Since the MPO site was essentially a Mike Peters solo project, we still thought there was a need for a comprehensive, independent, site dedicated to The Alarm. The first real advance in this area was the site for 10th Anniversary of the Spirit Of ’86 concert The Alarm played on April 12th, 1986. I thought this would start a series of sites dedicated to anniversaries of Alarm events. Alas, this was the only one ever completed. While the site looks crude now, it was fitting for the time in which it was created.
The Evolution Of The MPO And The Web
Along with their web site, Mike Peters an the MPO embraced the internet through the main internet “community” for the Alarm at the time, Steve Varty’s Alarm Email List. By silently (and sometimes not-so-silently) following the emailing list, they were able to see trends in the wants and needs of their most loyal fan-base. For example, the idea for the Mike Peters’ 1995 album Second Generation, a collection of rare Alarm songs re-recorded, was born directly out of converstions between fans on this mailing list. Mike Peters and the MPO had figured out a direct way to find out what their fans were thinking. Since both Gary O. and I were members of the list, they had us use it, as well as the web site, to dessiminate information and get feedback that we posted on the internet.
Throughout 1996 Gary Overington and I continued to work on the MPO web site, making incremental changes as web browsers began to support more and more features. When we started, we could really only center text on the screen and embed images and links to other pages. However, as the years passed we were able to start supporting a more “stylized” look and feel. Nothing was dynamic, but we could finally get most of the important information on the home page, where it belonged.
In June of 1996, Mike Peters arrived in Los Angeles for a series of radio interviews to promote his new album “Feel Free”. He needed someone to pick him up at the airport, and he called me. I was only too happy to oblige. Dawn and I retrieved him from LAX, and drove him to the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, where we was attameding the MTV Movie Awards “Radio Roundtable”. While Mike waited around for hours, I started talking to him and picked his brain about The Alarm. It was a rare chance to catch him during some “down” time, and ask him all the questions I had collected about the band over the years. Mike seemed really interested in all the things I was asking him, and he requested that we repeat the process formally. For the next couple months, via email, I put together a mammoth interview named “76 Questions For Mike Peters“. It was the first really meaty content I created on my own to add to the MPO Web Site. I went on to conduct many more interviews like that one over the years, as they became regular fixture on the web site.
My Career Is Born
My projects developing the MPO site and the other Alarm related sites gave me enough experience to leverage that work into a solid full-time job. I was able to use the work to impress the hiring managers a couple different new web start-up companies. Even these basic web sites were impressive to them at this early stage of the world wide web. I was a programmer, not really an artist or designer, yet the web sites had been testing my “art” skills ever since I started working on them. One of the most impressive things to some of these hiring managers were the simple animated .gif images I had been creating for the MPO. Animated .gifs were a way to take several .gif pictures and save them into one file. Instead of the image staying static on the page, they would run through the animation. It was a very simple process, but in the era of a very static web, they were impressive to people who had no idea how they were made. One of these jobs I landed was at a company named Emanate/iMall. Even with my limited skills, I was hired as the Lead Programmer because there just were not many people at the time with ANY web skills. The technolgies I had used for the MPO and Alarm Archive sites were directly responsible for me getting the job. At Emanate I dove into extending static web sites through Perl/CGI, C/C++ CGI, Cold Fusion and did some very early work connecting databases to the web. I then plowed these new skills back into the MPO site.
Interactive Acoustic Tour
While Gary O. continued to work on HTML and create graphics, I started creating more and “interactive features” using my newly found CGI skills. We created forms for polls and for people to request songs on both the USA and UK legs of Mike Peters’ “Interactive Acoustic Tour”. Fans could go to the site and request any song, which we would them email (through back-end CGI/Perl program) to Mike Peters on the road. I can’t say this was the first time an artist like Mike Peters had tried to extend his tour through the web and give fans a say in the music at the shows they would be seeing, but it certainly was one of thr first times this was tried.
Another early feature created for the MPO site was an unmoderated “Chat” application. I had the idea for how to build a chat program with HTML and Perl/CGI. I used it first for one of the jobs I did for Emanate/iMall, “Pets Online”. We also created a very early “store” where you could purchase items. An email with your order was sent to the MPO, and they would respond and get your credit card or other payment details.
The Final Alarm Archive
As I continued to work with Gary Overington on th MPO site, I still wanted to work on The Alarm Archive, my own personal web site dedicated to The Alarm. I still felt the two sites were completely separate and even necessary. The MPO site was for Mike Peters news and events, and The Alarm Archive was dedicated to the original band. The final Alarm Archive, finished in late 1997, early 1998, was the culmination of every thing Gary Overington and I had been working on for years. (see can see a full archived version of the site here) Photo galleries, news, special features, chart information, articles, histories, interviews, Spirit Of ’86 section, a section devoted to Alarm superfan Barney Rubble (the only Alarm fan to ever have a song, ‘The Rubble Rap”, created especially for him). I was pretty proud of it at the time. All the graphics were designed by myself (again, since I was not an artist the process was very difficult), and I wrote most of the special articles and features.
Even though it was small, the traffic and feedback we received for the site was mostly positive. However some of the reactions to it, I could not understand. For example, George Gimarc, rock journalist and DJ, and early friend of The Alarm in the USA, dismissed the site out-right in a personal email to me saying “it had too many graphics.” I was kind of shocked at his words, but I suppose he might have been correct, especially for the slow connections, browsers and servers at the time. Still I liked the site myself , and even posted a gallery of Gimarc’s photos so it was not all bad. Even so, events like that did not fail to take some of the wind out of my sails. In fact, the 1998 version of The Alarm Archive was the best it would ever get. At about the same time, Mike Peters was preparing to release his 3rd solo album Rise. Gary and I wanted to go “All-out” for the Rise release, so we starting putting many hours into a brand-new MPO site that would reflect just how awesome we felt Rise was as an album. Because of this, I soon gave-up on The Alarm Archive to focus on the MPO/Mike Peters site. I never returned to it in any serious way.
Shortly after I had created the CGI/Perl Chat application for the MPO web site, I took my new web-skills bolstered resume and landed a job at Mattel Toys in El Segundo, California. Mattel was just starting to get into the internet in a big way, and they were trying to find anyone with web development skills to join their team. Since I had experience both creating CGI/Perl programs, and connecting databases to the web, they hired me almost instantly. My job at Mattel had me working on web site programming and design seriously on a daily basis in a high-pressure, fast-paced I.T. department. I honed my skills as I tried to satisfy the needs of multiple managers on multiple projects at the same time. As the years progressed, I was able to invest these skills back into the MPO Site when ever possible.
At just about the same time, my wife and I attended our first Mike Peters Gathering in Llandudno Wales in January of 1997. It was an awesome opportunity to meet some of the people I had been talking to on the internet for the past few years. Steve Varty, Doug Mueller (a fellow American from Texas), Peter Simmons, and especially Gary Overington. Gary was kind enough to provide transportation for my wife and I from London Heathrow Airport to Wales (a good 6 hour drive), and he also played host to us as we vacationed for a week afterward in the South of England. Together, Gary and I made plans for how to attack the MPO site and what we should do with The Alarm Archive. Gary wanted to continue working on it, as he had recently acquired a copy of the absolute pinnacle of any Alarm fan’s record collection: a mustard vinyl mis-print of The Alarm clear-vinyl The Deceiver UK 7″ single. The care and awe expressed by Gary as he took it out from his collection and presented it to me made me realize that we were two guys cut from the same cloth. We were seriously crazy die-hard Alarm fans that had grown-up 1000’s of miles apart, and would have never become friends without the internet. I promised to re-pay the kindness that he and his family had shown us that week. Gary told me he planned to visit the USA soon so I could get my chance.
When Mike Peters’ 3rd solo album, Rise was released in 1998, Gary O. and I took the MPO web site, still at http://www.demon.co.uk/alarmpo to it’s final version. This was a design that I had perfected for a web presentation I had developed for an I.T. conference at Mattel and reused for the MPO site. This site took all of the of skills I had learned creating web sites professionally at Mattel Toys, and rolled them into, what I thought at the time, was a “state of the art” web site.
We starting building the site content dynamically using a Microsoft Access database and ODBC. This meant we could did not have to create every web page by hand, but could filling template pages with dynamic data from a data store. This made the site much easier to update, and keep fresh and interesting, We created a very early online store and ran it through SSL for secure orders. The MPO Store remained in operation (with a few updates and redesigns) for over 13 years until it was replaced this past June. One of the reasons why it took so long to replace was because of it’s unique ability to support multiple currencies per item, something that many online stores are only just now adding as a feature.
One of the most unfortunate decisions we made was to create the site entirely with HTML Frames. The site consisted of 10 seperate frames. This was done to have the design take-up the entire browser window, but scale the main window for all the content. It would have worked nicely, if it was not for the fact that frames were not implemented well in either browsers or web servers at the time. Most browsers were very inconsistent in how they rendered frames, and web servers like Microsoft IIS could not aggregate multiple frames in a single browser to a single user session, creating 1 user session for each frame. This overloaded the server, and crashed the browser. It was pretty to look at though (for the time). At least I thought so.
The Best Of The Alarm And Mike Peters
In the summer if 1997, Mike Peters asked me to replicate the job I had done writing about the history of The Alarm for Goldmine Magazine, and write the history of the band as liner notes for the retrospective album “The Best Of The Alarm And Mike Peters”. To be honest, this task really stressed me out. I spent much of October 1997 with complete insomnia and writer’s block. I could not find the right words to get going on the project. For weeks I toiled with it, until I pulled out the text for the old Goldmine article and used it as the skeleton going forward. I sent several versions to Mike Peters, and he seemed very happy with them. However, when I attended the Gathering in 1998, Mike’s publicist John Reilly told me that he was trying to find a “famous rock journalist” to write the liner notes. Fat Chance. All those guys had always slagged The Alarm, so why would they write anything for a Best-Of album?
In April of 1998 The album was released with no liner notes at all. Either my work was not good enough, or something else transpired. I never found out the answer. Anyway, to lengthen an already too-long story, Mike helped salvage the situation by asking me to use what I had written as “virtual liner notes” on the web. I created a full site for the liner notes, and packaged them as well as I could. I supposed you could say that this was one of the first CD/Web tie-ins where some of the necessary content for the CD was extended to the web. Still, I was always a bit disappointed on how it all turned out. As a consequence, until very recently, I never sat down to write any kind of comprehensive history of The Alarm ever again.
The Coloursound Web Site was created in 1998 to help support the Mike Peters/Billy Duffy collaboration of the same name. I re-used the MPO store to create one just for Coloursound. As well, I created a very basic, Microsoft Access/ASP/VbScript bulletin board. It had user management, and threaded posts.
While Coloursound were on tour in the USA I received a nasty email from a USA based indie band also named “Coloursound”. They were pissed-off that someone was using their name. I understood their frustration, but when they asked me to take-down the web site, I refused. I tried to get confirmation, information from Mike Peters about it, but none ever came. The “other” Coloursound bothered me for a few weeks, and then gave-up.
It is interesting to note, that the Coloursound web site was pioneering in another way. Coloursound were one of the first bands to give an MP3 away for free on their site. I created a .MP3 file for the song “Under The Sun” and we let people download it in the fall of 1998. I was actually able to get Music News Wire to run a short piece on it, as it was not a normal occurance at the time. In the end, The Peters/Duffy collaboration in Coloursound was a great rock band, but never went very far. They lowered their profile and ended-up releasing their album only in the UK. Billy Duffy rejoined The Cult and Coloursound, as one of their best songs described it, “Faded In, Faded Out, and Faded Away.”
Growing Pains Of TheAlarm.com Crew.
In 1999 I was able to acquire the URL http://www.thealarm.com from a nice guy in Boston who had supported us for years by hosting the domain name. For a while I considered hosting a new version of “The Alarm Archive” at this location, but events were transpiring to make me re-think that idea. The most pressing problem at the the time was that my long-time friend and ally, Gary Overington, had gone AWOL. Emails from him were less and less frequent until they stopped altogether. It took a long time for me to find out the cause of Gary’s absence. At first I thought I had done something to make him upset.
Certainly, I had not been a completely available myself at the time. My first daughter was born in 1998, and my new found dedication to parenthood was taking up much of my time. As well, the constant grind of working full-time on web sites at Mattel Toys during the day, and near full-time on the MPO Sites at night, plus trying to please the ever-expanding legions of fans brought in by the growing popularity of the internet was turning making any all of my email communications short and too the point. In some cases you could probably have described them as terse and unfriendly. I did not mean to be abrupt with people. but I just simply did not have the time to elaborate with much more than the necessary information. With so much going on, I lost the ability to remember most names. Alarm fans who had emailed many times and submitted photos and other content to the sites would introduce themselves to me at live shows, and I would have no recollection of them at all. This put-off many people, as they thought I was “too full of myself” to remember them. The truth was, there was so much going on at that point, I could hardly remember my own name!
I was under the impression that Gary Overington was also one of the many people who had enough of me, but I was wrong. Gary was having personal trouble on all fronts, and simply could not find any time to help any more. Gary was too proud to ever describe in-detail, all that was going on with him, but I do know it culminated with a trip to hospital few years later with a serious heart condition. Gary has communicated with me a half-dozen times or so since, each time with an intense desire to “get back into it”, but every time he has not being able to do it. After the first few times I stopped wanting Gary’s help, and instead just wanted to make sure he was doing OK and feeling healthy. The last time I heard from Gary was in the summer of 2005. He told me he was just about to get his life back on track and wanted me to give him something to do…then I never heard from him again.
After Gary’s departure, the work on TheAlarm.com became a sort of solo project for me. For nearly a decade, I did most of the work by hand and by myself. However, there were some people that helped for a time. Among others, Katrina Copping has done a lot for work on the forums and trying to sort out tours and venues, Alarm fan Shaun Finnie was very helpful for a couple years as were the dozens of people who sent me photos and news updates. For a time I even enlisted my sister, Mari, to help keep miscreants and troublemakers off the official forums. Still, a proper partner was still a long way from being a reality.
The Alarm 2000
In the year 2000, After licensing the rights to his own music back from EMI, Mike Peters embarked on a mission to created the best boxed-set that had ever been produced (up until that point), The Alarm 2000 boxed set. To promote the set, and to accept orders for it at the MPO store, I created a brand-new web site dedicated to it. Mike’s “big idea” (and also one of his pioneering internet ideas) was to allow fans to select a song that he would personally dedicate and record for them, then insert it onto a special CD with the boxed-set. No artists had ever attempted this before. To support it, I had to totally re-write the MPO store so that it would not only accept orders, but accept dedications as well. It was a fun project, and the features added to the store kept it is alive and working until June 2011, giving the the “little store that could” a nearly 13 year life!
After releasing The Alarm 2000 Collection, Mike Peters made the decision to reform The Alarm with new members. He had made one final attempt to get the original Alarm members to reform for The Millenium Gathering (he had tried several times in the 90’s to do the same for various events), but he was thwarted once again. This time, he decided to go it alone, and reform The Alarm as new entity for the new millennium.
TheAlarm.com And The Web Community Explosion
When Steve Varty’s Alarm Email list began in 1993, the subscribers were mostly college students and technical or business people with access to email. Since the coming world wide web was still wrapped in Al Gore-esque future visions of an “Information Super highway”, they were the only people with access. This meant that most of the people on the list and web sites had a common frame of reference and (for the most part) got along very well.
However, by 1998, the World Wide Web had gone “global” and many new people from all walks of life were subscribing to the mailing list, and visiting the web sites. While 99.999% of these people were fine webizens and easy to get along with, there were the distinct few that started upsetting the virtual world for everyone else. Some people brought some pretty serious personal “baggage” with them, and they were only too happy to unload it upon others who, had for years, happily conversed about Alarm photos, live shows, and discographies, without any real conflict.
Things took a turn for the worse in late 2000, when it became clear that Mike Peters was going to go ahead and reform The Alarm on his own. Not only did this send shock-waves through the online Alarm community, but it split the fans into a couple very distinct groups. Most supported Mike’s work and understood that he was continuing in the spirit of The Alarm because the other ex band members were not keen to start it all over again. However, a very vocal minority began a virtual “scorched earth” campaign, attempting to take on Mike Peters in every corner of the web. This included TheAlarm.com and Steve Varty’s mailing list. At the time, I made the mistake of trying to diffuse situations with humor, not realizing the perpetrators were humorless, and thus invited some of the worst, most caustic attacks via email I have ever experienced in my life.
While Steve Varty did a very good job “editing” his mailing list to excise out messages that were upsetting or damaging, he sometimes let some through just so the other mailing list members could see what was going on. On TheAlarm.com, the simple chat program I created for the site became a late night battleground, sometimes of epic proportions. Soon after, the chat program was removed from the site, and I began to limit my time on the mailing list. Seeing something that had started in such a positive way go downhill so quickly was shocking too me. However the events were a microcosm of the internet itself. People were starting to visit the “net” in droves, and they brought with them all the same problems they had in the real world. Worse though, was the anonimity and distance of the world wide web gave these people an outlet in which they felt safe to show their true colors.
The Remergence Of Dave Sharp
At about this time (2000), I attempted to contact Dave Sharp via email and through fan friends of his to get an interview or content for the site. I was still running the Dave Sharp site (I had folded much of it into TheAlarm.com) and I still felt some loyalty to the ex Alarm guitarist. However, I never really got much out of him or anyone else connected with Dave. As it turned out, there was (and still is ) a legion of Alarm fans who were so dedicated to Dave Sharp as the guitarist for The Alarm, that they could not fathom that anyone who worked with the MPO and had their “head up Mike’s arse” (as some of these people described myself to me on several occasions) would run a Dave Sharp web site. It was blasphamy to Dave’s loyal following if you supported both Dave and Mike at the same.
To them, Mike had ruined The Alarm and you HAD to choose their side, or none at all. I was working for Mike, and I believed wholeheartedly in what he was doing, so I became the enemy. Worse still, I had not been an original member of “The Alarm Family” that followed the band to every show in the very early days. I really did like Dave’s music , but I could not deal with this kind of attitude, especially when the work on the Thealarm.com had been so interesting and exciting.
When the fans split over The Alarm 2000, a couple of people that had been helping me with thealarm.com took off and built a web site for Dave Sharp. I was relieved when Dave got his own official sites running (davesharp.org), as the pressure was off a bit and I could concentrate on Thealarm.com. Or so I thought.
After attending Mike Peters Gathering in 1997 and 1998, I skipped 1999 and 2000 because my daughter was very little. However I did plan to attend the Gathering 2001. While I was making my plans, some of my remaining friends on Steve Varty’s mailing list tipped me off that a group of “old Alarm fans” were looking to “kick my ass”, if I showed up. “Huh?” I thought, “How did things get this bad?” The whole Alarm 2000 thing and my attempts to try to diffuse the situation had taken me to place that I personally did not want to be. Again, how had something so positive had turned so ugly so quickly?
When I read that email about someone wanting to “kick my ass” if I visited Wales, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. It was late at night, and my three year old daughter was sleeping beside me. My brother had just since had his son born prematurely and die in the hospital. It seemed to me that I had more important things to take care of at home. I decided that day to lower my profile among The Alarm fans online. I opted to not attend the Gathering in 2001, and in the 10 years since, I have never returned.
A few years later, it was encouraging hear some songs related these past internet incidents between Alarm fans among Mike Peters’ songs. Coming Home, the 5th album from the ITPF bond in 2003 included the tracks Innocent Party, Safe Houses and Your Only Young And Innocent Once that indirectly addressed the issues in such a mature way, that I could only feel proud to hear them. Better still, A few years later, the song Thought Police, a b-side from the Under Attack album took this subject on directly, in a very amusing way.
Children Of The Revolution Xmas Tree Designer
While I was spending less time on the mailing lists and in the chat room for The Alarm, I was spending more time coding more and more interactive features for the web sites. I taught my self Flash ActionScript in late 2000 at Mattel, and created an interactive Christmas Tree Designer/E-Card to help promote the Children Of The Revolution CD and Christmas Time track. 100’s of e-cards were created and sent that December, and the experience proved to me that Flash was going to be a major force on the internet in the years to come.
In 2002, the largest addition to TheAlarm.com was 21st Century Radio, one of the first Flash/Audio streaming applications on the internet. Mike Peters asked me to create a “Radio” Station that would only play music from the bands he was touring with at the time (The Alarm, Pete Wylie and Spear Of Destiny). I thought it was a cool idea. At the time, there were lots of “Internet Radio” outlets, but nearly all of them streamed audio using Real Media or a similar socket-driven technology. There were several problems with this. One, the amount of possible listeners were goverened by how many streams you could afford. Second, the need for use of a non-HTTP port meant that people who worked at companies with Firewalls and Proxy Serevers would most likely not be able to hear your audio. My solution was quite simple. It was developed in Flash 5, long before Flash supported .mp3 streaming. I converted each song to a .swf file. I inserted some code into each .swf file that would not let it play unless it was loaded into the 21st Century Radio player. Then, all people needed was the Flash player and they could listen to our radio station. This project was a huge success and for a long time and was one of the first solutions of its kind (that I know about) on the internet to solve the streaming audio issue. Years later, most web sites would start to use Flash for streaming audio and video in much the same way. A good example is youtube.com: but we did it on the TheAlarm.com first.
From 2002 to 2003, Mike Peters and The Alarm MMIII Recorded the 5 albums of the In The Poppy Fields Bond, an ambitious attempt to create a foundation of songs that would lead to the reemergence of The Alarm as functioning rock and roll unit. We re-themed the main site with a yellow hint, and then created a completely seperate web site, that was password protected to coincide with the In The Poppy Fields Bond. Cunstomers who bought the Bond could log-in and see updates, get lyrics, download demos and read Mike Peters’ recording diary.
In this new section of the site, we started to experiment with more interactive features. This was the first area where we streamed video in Flash, and it was the first place we created and interactive puzzle game to help promote the album. We also held a poll where fans could vote on the songs they wanted to see on the final, In The Poppy Fields Album. The response was overwhelmingly positive which was a nice change after so many years of turmoil within The Alarm fan-base.
45 RPM and ThePoppyFields.com
When Mike Peters was preparing the first commericial album with The Alarm name to appear on it in 13 years (In The Poppy Fields) he came up with a deviously cools plan to make the release into a story. He called me up in early 2004, and told me that we needed to quickly create a web site at ThePoppyfields.com, and make it look like it belonged to band filled with teenagers.
Mike had created a video for the new Alarm song 45 RPM with a group of kids lip syncing and miming to the song, as if they were playing on their own. His plan was to release the single as if this band The Poppy Fields had written it, and see how the press and public would react. We put the video and song on the site, and create a very “modern” home page with images rotating in a 3D space. Mike’s plan worked very well. the song got a lot of airplay, and reached very high in the charts before he revealed the truth. The stunt got Mike on many TV shows (including a spot on the CBS evening news with Dan Rather), and helped put The Alarm back on course. The jury is still out on whether this event really helped the band or not, but the story has been fictionalized into a movie named Vinyl that should be out sometime next year.
2005 was a very tough year for Mike Peters, as it was revealed that he was battling cancer for second time. His battle and subsequent victory were chronicled on the album Under Attack, released in 2006. To support the album, we totally recreated the web site in red, moved 21stCenturyRadio to the top of the page (in a window that would follow you as you visited the site), and added more features than ever before, including brand new forums hosted by groupee.com. When this site was completed, I truly felt we had finally accomplished something great. The site was slick, it looked good, it worked well, and I felt the freedom to add even more new and interesting content.
At the time, my job at Mattel Toys had progressed to the point where I was managing a group of web and web game developers, plus making games on my own. Viral web games were really coming into their own in 2006, and felt that The Alarm could benefit from the exposure of some of these games. For Under Attack, I created two viral web “singles”, that incorporated game play and music at the same time. The first was “Raindown Fireworks Show”, a play on the name “Raindown”, this interactive toy allowed users to blast fireworks as they listened to The Alarm’s second single from Under Attack.
The second game I made was called Brickbasher No Way Out, breakout style game that used the b-side, No Way Out as the background music. Both of these games were played 1000’s of times, and each time, the user heard the music of The Alarm from Under Attack come though their computer speakers.
Other games were planned as well, including a game for the 20th Anniversary of the Spirit Of ’86 UCLA show named Nigel Twist Drum Kit Defender, but they remained unfinished. As interesting as the games could have been, there was not a lot of support to continue, so I stopped making them for TheAlarm.com by the end of the year. Still ,they gave me chance to explore the world of viral web games, and this experience helped me launch a new phase of my career.
It was just about 2007, when things started to overwhelm me me at TheAlarm.com. The MPO and The Alarm had stepped up their online efforts considerably after Under Attack, but my time was getting more and more precious. At that point, all three of my kids were running around the house, and they all needed dad time. I could no longer simply hole myself up with the computer and work all day and night on TheAlarm.com. Still lacking a true partner to work with, the burden of site updates became overwhelming. However, I stayed the course and continued with it. I’d been working on the site for 12 years at that point, and I simply could not see myself giving up. I’d found a few ways to alleviate some of the burden. I convinced Mike to find a better way for us to send mass emails, and he came-up with MailChimp, the service we still use today.
However, my stuffing was still showing through the seams. In early 2007, Mike Peters asked me to help out with his new venture, a web site for the Love Hope Strength Foundation. I agreed to do it, but try as I might, I simply could not find the time or energy to get the site up and running. Frustrated, Mike and his partners at LHS found someone else to do the site. I was crushed, but felt terrible at the same time because I had let Mike Peters down…for the first time. It would not be the last.
Later in 2007, the Counter Attack Collective was started, with The Alarm recording and releasing multiple EPs throughout the year. I had been working on a retro audio player for my own personal web site. I showed it to Mike, and he thought it would be a good look for some of the Collective art. The player was an interactive retro tape recorder. You can see versions of it and other inspired art all over the Counterattack Collective cds.
For most of the Counterattack releases, we used large Flash overlay pop-ups that would display as soon as the site was loaded. This was a practice that continued until just this year. These became like mini web sites used to promote new releases, tours and special offers. they became so important to the site, that the main site below started to lose focus. Users would skip from the large promos directly to the forums, and the rest of the site would be missed. This was Okay, except for one important fact: It allowed me to let my guard down.
We planned a big push for the 3rd new Alarm album of the 21st Century, Guerilla Tactics for the summer of 2008. We designed a brand-new look and feel that matched the album, and we were preparing for everything to go live, when disaster struck. A new internet hacking wave hit at just the same time affecting sites that used Microsoft technologies. I had fought off these hacker attacks previously, but this one was new and different. TheAlarm.com got knocked off the web for several days, and when I assessed the damage, it was too much to bear. I had just moved out of my house and into a hotel for a month until moving to a new house. The hotel’s internet access was dreadful. The speeds were so slow, that I had to come-up with a quick plan or risk affecting the album’s release. Instead of rebuilding TheAlarm.com, I took all the old content offline (1000’s of photos, news items, tour dates, etc. taken me 13 years to amass), and basically started new with a shell web site that used the Groupee.com forums to manage the news and tour dates. It was ugly, and clunky, but it was just a stop gap. The new site would be finished soon…
At the same time, my job at Mattel Toys suddenly got more complicated. My boss was fired, and they put me in her place temporarily. It was not a good fit. Since I’m more of a “hands on” type of guy, the machinations of middle-management drove me crazy. With less hard-core work to do on my own, my mind kept wandering and wondering what would be my next career move. By the end of 2008 I had begun writing a book about programming games in Flash (with my brother), and that project began to take-up most of my free time.
In the meantime, we resorted to even more Flash pop-ups as a way to promote tours and releases. on TheAlarm.com In fact it got to the point where that was all we were doing. The Flash pop-ups became more and more complicated, and with so many of them, any extra time I might have had to rebuild the site dwindled to nothing. I needed help, but I had no idea how or whom to ask for it. It had been years since I attended a Gathering. Most of my old friends from the early days were long gone. I wasn’t even sure who I could trust, and I was afraid to tell the MPO “no” because I felt they just might decide to give the whole thing to someone else, just like the Love Hope Strength project.
The Breaking Point
In 2009 I was determined to get a new version of TheAlarm.com up, no matter what happened. I had been building a simple web CMS (content management system) for my own web site, and thought it would be a good idea to to base the new thealarm.com off that code. Both projects appeared similar. My personal site had categories for content and news, it had forums and comments, and a blog. I felt that if I could alter the code just right, I could make it work. I started work in earnest in the summer of 2009. At the same time at Mattel, we were building a brand new, very important web sites that was supposed to launch in September. As well the first 1/2 of my Flash Game Development book was due to the publisher in September. At the same time, my oldest daughter was starting Jr, High School, my wife was starting a new job, and my dad fell sick with Dementia.
Mike Peters had asked me to have the new site done that month, so he could promote The Alarm 21, best of The Alarm in the 21st Century album. I managed to make the date with something, and I felt it was pretty good at launch. However, problems started to show very quickly. It turned out, trying to cram 8000+ pieces of content into a site architecture designed for blog just did not work. Content was out of order, or sorted wrong, or without titles, and hardly anything displayed correctly. Most of the old links were broken, and the site simply looked like a complete mess. However, I did not have time to fix it. Mattel went crazy. My book work went cray. My home life went crazy. My dad, literally, went crazy.
I fell into a deep depression about TheAlarm.com. For all those years I was so proud of what we had accomplished. All the pioneering things we had done, all the ways we had connected people together who would have never met each other. Even the bad times were good learning experiences. All that time and energy, and they site was now a disaster.
That, and I had no plan or time to get out of it.
In 2008, Mike Peters enlisted Andy Labrow to help take photos and video for The Alarm and the MPO. Mike had Andy contact me several times to help out with the web site, but I was too stressed out to understand what he wanted, or why he wanted it. However, in January of 2010 The MPO asked me to host some pages for a Gathering web site Andy was creating for them. I suggested that we host them on thealarm.com, and I gave Andy the passwords and ability to update the site himself.
A few months later, when Mike Peters was ready to update thealarm.com with the promotional materials for the Direct Action album, he did not send them directly to me so I could create an ad or Flash splash page, like I had done for every record he had produced since 1995, Instead, he sent them directly to Andy, and he updated the main site himself.
At first, I did not like this idea at all. I had been a lone gun for so long, and even while I complained about not having help, I secretly liked it. Who wouldn’t? The MPO acted like the “needed” me, it’s always nice to feel needed. My regular job at Mattel did not give me that kind of satisfaction, so it was great to get it some place. However, after a couple days, reality set-in. Andy’s work on the site was really good. His skills as a photographer , video-grapher and artist surpassed mine in spades. A wild , overly verbose technical person (have you seen how long this piece is?) like myself always works better with someone who can make things look good and help edit content down to the essentials.. After stepping back for a bit, the situation started to look pretty good..
After some confusion about who was supposed to update what, and when on the site, it became clear to me that Andy was the partner I had been searching out for nearly a decade. Andy continued to update the site news, and I updated the MPO store and built more Flash splash pages, while we both made plans for the future.
A New Chapter
Instead of trying to fix the broken site I had created in 2009, or update the 12 year old store, Andy and I decided to do something that most web sites had already done: move to an open source CMS system. You see ironically, while thealarm.com was pioneer in a number of ways, it was also very backward in important area: personnel. We operated the site in 2010 the same way the site operated in 1995: The MPO sent the updates, and someone (one person: Gary F, Gary O, myself, and now Andy) hand entered or worse, hand coded them into the site. The process was stone age in internet years, and only a few steps away from the MPO faxes I used to received in the middle of the night oh so many years ago . When Andy started to make heavy updates to the site, it was no different for him. Something had to change if we were going to move forward.
Andy and I started with the Joomla CMS, but it proved too clunky for what we needed, so we moved over the much more flexible WordPress. I was able to import most of the old content from the original site so we would have something to start from, and we have been working on a new version of the site ever since. Andy molded the template into something Mike Peters was happy with, and we set-off to get this thing done. It took us the better part of a year to get the WordPress site where we wanted it, but now that is has launched, and the Alarm store has launched, we can look back and see just how far we have come. It feels great to finally have the right technology, the right partner, and the right mindset to get this all working again.
Personally, my life has settled down. My father’s battle with Dementia is now over. Even though Dementia won, I’m happy that he is no longer suffering. I quit Mattel and middle management hell and now work hands-on building games on daily basis. My kids have settled into their schools and are getting amazing grades, and my wife is doing well at her new job. I published my book on Flash games in 2010 ,and a second one on HTML 5 this year to boot. However, the one hole I felt missing for the last couple years is now filled again. TheAlarm.com has always been part of me, and I have always been part of it. I’ve worked on the site longer than my longest job, longer than my marriage, longer than I have raised children. I’ve spent more years on it than all my education, more years than I played on baseball, soccer and track teams combined. TheAlarm.com is important to me, and I’m happy finally be back in the fold once more. What’s more, I’m excited about what comes next. For all the things TheAlarm.com accomplished in the past, we’ve still got a lot of work to do. The mind of Mike Peters is forever voyaging. What kind of interactive scheme will he dream-up next that we have to find a way to support?
I can’t wait to find out.
Steve Fulton -September, 2011