Strawberry Alarm Clock band shot, circa 2008

Strawberry Alarm Clock — classic 1960s psych with a dark side

Strawberry Alarm Clock band lineup, ca. 2008 Source
Strawberry Alarm Clock band lineup, ca. 2008
Source

(The) Strawberry Alarm Clock was a psychedelic/pop/blues band that released four albums and numerous singles between 1966 and 1971. The band is remembered mostly (well, nearly only) for their 1967 song “Incense And Peppermints”, which was on the charts for several weeks and at #1 for one week. Lacking a strong, charismatic lead singer, the band had a few more minor hits but never achieved widespread success again.

Thee Sixpence

The band was originally a garage-punk outfit called Thee Sixpence; under this moniker they released several songs on various singles in 1966-7, mostly on the All American label. (These are all collected on a great 1998 compilation album called Step By Step.) The band then consisted of guitarist Ed King, Mark Weitz on keyboards, Lee Freeman on rhythm guitar, Randy Seol on drums, and Gary Lovetro on bass.

Thee Sixpence’s singles were trashy garage-rock numbers, though they became increasingly psychedelic and mature as time went on. Highlights include their bizarrely dark-psych “In The Building”, Arthur Lee covers like “My Flash On You” and “Can’t Explain”, and “Heart Full Of Rain”.

“Incense And Peppermints”

Thee Sixpence recorded an instrumental song that an outside writer, John Carter, wrote words for: Carter called it “Incense And Peppermints”. The band was embarassed by the lyrics, agreeing to record it but reticent to sing it themselves; their friend Greg Munford, sixteen years old and hanging out in the studio, recorded the vocals instead. This version, destined to become the classic one, was released on All American as the b-side to an old-school garage punk raveup called “The Birdman Of Alkatrash”, just before the band changed their name to Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Disc jockeys began playing the single’s b-side though; the band was signed to MCA’s Uni label and the single was re-released with “Incense And Peppermints” designated the a-side. (It wasn’t re-recorded; technically, the well-known song is actually a Thee Sixpence song.) As the single was climbing the charts on its way to number 1, the band wrote and recorded a companion album also called Incense And Peppermints.

The first album

This first album showed Strawberry Alarm Clock to be an adventurous, multilayered proponent of flower power, the California hippie scene, and the audacious new lysergic mysticism that was being explored at the time. Tracks like “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow” and “Strawberries Mean Love” explored a gentle pastoralism of drug-induced catatonia, but there was something else hidden between the blissful trips and good vibes: a dark cynicism, introduced for balance — an intriguing counterpoint not often found in 1960s pop psych.

“The World’s On Fire”, especially, was an eight-plus minute slab of hot paranoia, relentless repeating an itchy riff while the band’s singers wailed feverishly. “Lose To Live” jumped around at a manic pace, like a three-minute opera in ten movements, with all the attention span of a gnat. “Hummin’ Happy” featured a cheerful melody and lyrics with a deceptively violent streak. Incense And Peppermints is a classic album; the only complaint one might reasonably lodge against it is its short just-over-thirty-minutes length.

Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow

The next year, 1968, Strawberry Alarm Clock released a new single called “Tomorrow”, followed up weeks later with a masterpiece, the album Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow. Compared with the first album, this new album did a remarkable thing: it took the duality of the sunny/cynical vibes and refused to pick a side, instead increasing both. The pop songs are more sweeping on Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow (thanks in large part to some wonderfully harmonic vocal choruses) while the strangeness has gotten very, very weird indeed.

And so, the anxious “Tomorrow” and goofy pop of “Go Back (You’re Going The Wrong Way)” and “Sit With The Guru” are mixed with the minor-key dirge “They Saw The Fat One Coming” and the notoriously nauseous “Curse Of The Witches”. Experimentalism paid off for the band on this album; it’s another classic.

The World In A Sea Shell

Having, however, failed to recapture the success of “Incense And Peppermints” with “Tomorrow”, which stalled at #27, the band’s management took over and booked studio time for the band alongside a large orchestra. Relying on outside writers (like Carole King on two songs), the band recorded schmaltzy tracks with a great deal of lushness but a minimum of passion; “Sea Shell”, Carole King’s “Blues For A Young Girl Gone” and “Lady Of The Lake”, and “Home Sweet Home” are examples from the album that arose from these sessions and feature the suddenly barely-psychedelic new SAC. The album was called The World In A Sea Shell (also 1968).

Elsewhere on the album, the band was allowed to so its own thing though, and the band originals are really good. “Love Me Again” features great playing and songs like “Eulogy”, “Wooden Woman”, and the great “Shallow Impressions” are all lost classics — lost because nobody was interested in the new soft pop of the lead single, “Sea Shell”. “Barefoot In Baltimore”, written with outside lyrics, was a fun single from the album, and has made it to several anthologies since.

Good Morning Starshine

In 1969 Strawberry Alarm Clock re-asserted their control over their music, getting a new singer/song writer/guitarist in Jim Pitman, replacing drummer Randy Seol with Thee Sixpence’s Gene Gunnels, moving Ed King to bass, and releasing Good Morning Starshine. The album, except for the grossly atypical title song, was more successful artistically than The World In A Sea Shell; there is some great experimental stuff on the album, along with shockingly hard blues rock on several of the Pitman tracks. “Miss Attraction”, “Small Package”, “Me And The Township” and “Hog Child” are some representative standout tracks from Good Morning Starshine.

The singles-only era

This version of Strawberry Alarm Clock released a few more singles in 1969, including the excellent “Starting Out The Day” and the really excellent “Desireé”. Pitman soon left however, and Paul Marshall was brought in (and Ed King moved back to lead guitar). This was an uninspired choice though; Marshall just didn’t have a commanding voice, and though he seemed to fit well enough with the band’s music otherwise, much of this era’s SAC music falls a bit flat. There were a few songs released by this version of the Clock, the last being for the 1971 Russ Meyer cult film Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. “I Climbed The Mountain” was one of the band’s lesser songs, though the Marshall-led “Three” and “California Day” sounded better. The band was broken up by 1971.

Post-breakup compilations

In 1970, MCA released The Best Of Strawberry Alarm Clock, and the companion piece Changes in 1971 (which covered the later career of the band, where the former collection concentrated on the first three albums). The late 80s and early 90s saw some more Strawberry Alarm Clock collections, including an album confusingly titled Incense & Peppermints but different than the 1967 LP. All four original albums were released in Japan on CD with bonus tracks, though none of the bonus tracks were actually new (being single mixes, non-LP singles and b-sides, and soundtrack songs).

To get everything Strawberry Alarm Clock released, you’ll also need the Thee Sixpence compilation Step By Step, the four original albums (including the Japanese bonus-track CD version of Good Morning Starshine), and the soundtrack to Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls for the one track only available there (“I’m Comin’ Home”).

More recent band activity

Strawberry Alarm Clock reformed from time to time in the 1980s and 90s for reunion tours. In 1995 they released a new song called “Love Story” on a compilation album called World Jam. In 2012, the band released its first new album since 1969: Wake Up Where You Are featured some new songs by the band alongside new recordings of SAC classics.