“Curse Of The Witches” is the fifth song on Strawberry Alarm Clock‘s 1968 album Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow. By far the longest track on the album, it’s arguably the most adventurous and certainly the most epic in scope. The song boasts some of the most unusual sonic excursions ever undertaken by the band; “Curse Of The Witches” is arguably the centerpiece of the album, with its daring grandness and highly idiosyncratic subject matter. Whatever else may happen on Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow, this unbelievable seven minutes of sludge and gloom leaves a lingering aftertaste that even the slightest of sunny pop songs can’t fully eradicate.
The track opens with a simple militaristic drum beat, slowly increasing in tempo (and becoming just a long drum roll) as a single organ note fades slowly in over it. The true excitement starts when the band suddenly erupts in full, with a dark, fuzzy bass doing its best to cloud the picture with gloomy, half-hearted swipes beside a prominent xylophone sound.
Ah, that xylophone! Actually there is one in each speaker — and thanks to them, the intro of “Curse Of The Witches” is one of the most psychedelic things ever committed to tape, certainly in Strawberry Alarm Clock’s oeuvre. They clump uneasily up and down the scales, at odds with each other and both soaked in echo. The xylophones actually manage to unhinge the track from the relatively reliable bass and drums, at least in the listener’s ear. If you concentrate on the song’s beat, you’ll be distracted by the xylophones; if you concentrate on the xylophones, you might lose it altogether.
But if you stay with it, here come the vocals: mournful voices crying and pleading “why? why? whyyyy?” Yes, it’s another somber, painful dirge from these otherwise purveyors of groovy psych-pop. “It was twenty-one years ago…” begins the lyric, and the story is spun; be forewarned, it ain’t pretty.
The story of “Curse Of The Witches”
The narrator’s family has been accused of having Satanic elements within it — “proved and condemned by the Quakers and Puritans” around the time of the Salem witch trials in the seventeenth century, to be specific. The singer’s mother is burned at the stake by the rabid religious followers; however, as awful as that is, the young narrator can at least take solace in his belief that the mob has been satisfied, and the family is now in the clear.
Not so fast. He grows up, gets married and has a child of his own. One day the six-year old daughter starts arguing with a schoolmate and wishes him dead — and the next day the boy indeed dies. Whether this is by chance or by actual demonic power, the people of the town are predictably moved to burn the little girl at the stake. Despite the vociferous cries and objection of both parents, a dubious judge is unmoved and the parents realize they have no choice — even when confronted by their confused, incredulous daughter. (Here, the same uncomfortably peppy music from the mother’s demise — “she was sentenced by her accusers / to be secretly burned to the stake / ‘Til death comes” — is repeated, a fantastically inappropriate leitmotif.)
Musically, there is then a brief guitar and xylophone solo — but, oddly, the fuzzy guitar blends almost imperceptibly into the background, supporting the much higher-mixed xylophone, rather than the other way around you’d expect. The effect is not a little off-putting (this is a great headphones song).
Things don’t get any more cheery from here on out. After the death of the daughter, the narrator’s wife dies of grief, and having thus lost his last friend in the world, he finds that “the love I had for the town had completely turned to hate”. He even turns his back on God and his religion.
The narrator’s fate is somewhat unclear, as he either leaves town, stays and lives the rest of his days in lonely misery, or kills himself: he merely sings “I knew I would leave”, which in former verses served as a euphemism for death. Whatever actually happens (and it’s probably the unfortunate last option, as evidenced by the emergence yet again of the heartlessly buoyant death leitmotif) the final lyrics are:
“Living hurts so much I can’t take it
To be happy I’ll have to wait
‘Til death comes”
And that’s the end.
Dense and repetitive, there is nothing at all uplifting or happy about “Curse Of The Witches”. The only time the music takes a break from brooding is during a brief period in the beginning when the man grows up and gets married (and things seem like they just might work out after all, for a few hopeful seconds), and the previously mentioned death scenes in which the juxtaposition of the happy music and the horrifying lyrics only serves to further the aural unrest. Certain words and phrases are also repeated, most effectively when the “why? why?” cries from the intro creep back when the daughter is burned alive. This repetition gives the song a kind of cruel inescapable feel, mirroring the melancholic dead zone of the protagonist’s psyche.
“Curse Of The Witches” follows “They Saw The Fat One Coming” on Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow, and the two songs serve as quite the wicked duo. Fortunately, for music fans who are into this sort of thing, they are also two of the most fantastic examples of dark psych from the 60s, replete with an unreal sense of time, references to death and Satanism and the supernatural, and transportatively psychedelic instrumentation.
Somehow, despite being an obviously major recording by Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Curse Of The Witches” has not shown up on any compilations.
LP: Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow (1968)