When the band was still called Thee Sixpence they recorded and released the song “Incense And Peppermints”; shortly afterwards a bigger record label (Uni) signed the band and re-released the single under the band’s new name, Strawberry Alarm Clock. This single became a worldwide #1 hit, and led to the recording of Incense And Peppermints.
Curiously, the hit song that would seem to be the centerpiece of the LP was slotted in as the second-to-last song on Side 2; otherwise, the album is an impressive and varied showcase for the inspired lunacy and stately psychedelia of an unfairly maligned band. SAC was much more than their image would suggest, and Incense And Peppermints is a true psych classic, one of the premier releases of 1967.
The Dark Lining of the Silver Cloud
One of the most striking characteristics of Incense And Peppermints is its frequently dark (some might say pessimistic) lyrics. The fact that “Incense And Peppermints” (the song) is generally seen as a dated 60s nugget best appreciated by nostalgic hippies who haven’t moved on is unfortunate, and a slander against the song and this album. Overlooked is the band’s outright weirdness and acknowledgment of certain negative sides of modern society. Much of the raging chaos and unexpected angularity of the album seem to stem from a lysergic disintegration of the mind, and a restless paranoia that is never fully explained but remains unnerving even to today’s listeners. (The obvious darkness and unorthodox structure of “Incense And Peppermints”, shamefully but consistently glossed over by so many 60s anthologists and essayists, are more fully explored on the album’s ten songs.)
Examples of this are the famous opening track, the eight-plus minute “The World’s On Fire”, which (true to its title) has the shocking feeling of an unstoppable global conflagration from the point of view of a curiously numb-cum-catatonic observer; “Lose To Live” which on the surface is an ode to experience as the best teacher, but tends towards deep existential dilemma; and “Hummin’ Happy”, in which a series of unrelated misfortunes befall a cast of characters to an unsettlingly jaunty tune.
The Silver Lining of the Dark Cloud
That said, there is plenty uplifting and pleasantly lilting on Incense And Peppermints. Strawberry Alarm Clock’s lush vocal harmonies, sounding straight out of the more earnest of the early 60s collegiate quartets, are already firmly in place, lending an air of professionalism and commanding respect for the album in a way that bands like the Lemon Pipers or Big Brother & The Holding Company (for example) were unable to do. Instrumentally, there are as many flutes and xylophones as fuzzy guitars, and for every twisted, fragmentary jumble of a song there is a lovely, often genuinely psychedelic, piece of California pastoralism in reliably no-frills 4/4 time. Examples of the band’s softer, more conventional side include “Strawberries Mean Love”, “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow”, and “Birds In My Tree”.
All in all, Incense And Peppermints is absolutely recommended to fans of psychedelic music, though it is an unfortunately short experience at just over 30 minutes. Poppy when it has to be and adventurous throughout, the album captures the best side of the original California psych era, with its buzzing guitar runs, youthful flights of fancy, outrageous arrangements, soft rounded edges, and secretive cynicism.
And if you like this album you’ll love the band’s next album, Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow, which manages to increase both the experimental weirdness level and the poppy lushness at the same time.
The compilation album that shall not be named
In 1990 MCA released a Strawberry Alarm Clock compilation album, maddeningly called Incense & Peppermints, which today is inextricably confused with the 1967 album. This compilation shows an ampersand on the front in the title while the 1967 LP is And but that’s a small difference, and not enough to clear up anything for many buyers (and sellers).
The I&P compilation isn’t bad per se (even if it’s not the recommended one these days), but should never have been named the same thing. (And it certainly shouldn’t have also used the same front cover photograph).
When buying the 1967 debut album, be sure the cover has a green border on the sides and bottom.