“Pretty Song From Psych-Out” represents perhaps Strawberry Alarm Clock’s all-time high point. Dynamic and strong, the unimaginatively-titled but otherwise excellent song was composed by Strawberry Alarm Clock for the 1968 movie Psych-Out, and appeared on the band’s 1968 album Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow.
One of Strawberry Alarm Clock’s finest songs, “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” is exactly as its title would suggest: its very pretty melody is full of soaring phrases and quirky, minor-key diversions, with some real moments of grandeur poking through the faint haze at the most dramatic of moments. This website may be accused of being SAC apologists from time to time, but “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” is a genuinely fantastic song any way you slice it.
The bliss and the fear
The lyrics describe elements from the movie in a hyper-poetic and resolutely non-linear fashion; “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” has the general feeling of occupying a wondrous paradise where friends and circumstance are protective and comforting forces. References to one of the film’s main characters, a deaf runaway who has come to California to look for her missing brother, are made as the opportunistic protagonist (in the film played by Jack Nicholson) offers solace to the frightened young woman:
“You are on the run and of your problem I’m aware
In the silent world you see the words I say to you”
The enveloping sense of peaceful bliss present throughout the song, so intoxicating and inviting, has a slightly unsettling air of surreality and even danger to it, as if this is a world in which no one is in charge and no one’s actually minding the door. This is underscored by the frequent minor chords, mixed poignantly throughout. At any rate, it can be somewhat alarming to be asked to surrender all ones psyche to any group that promises eternal happiness:
“Put your trust in me and try to see
That all you need is here”
Another worrying aspect of the lyrics is the self-assumed importance and power of the protagonist, who speaks with real wonder about his ability to change the world’s (or at least his world’s) colors with a wave of his hand:
“I am lost in a poet’s dream where skies are burgundy
Just to raise my hand and say the word they will be blue”
He may actually believe this, which would seem to take some of the sinisterness away… and hey, it may actually be true. So powerful is the sweeping majesty of the song that one wishes the world were actually as described — as the protagonist promises and perhaps believes himself. (The characters in the film are of ambivalent-at-best personality, with Nicholson’s Stoney in particular focusing on climbing the music-business ladder with his band — and being accused of selling out — while offering comfort to the runaway until his sexual interest in her wanes.)
Relationship with Psych-Out
Ultimately, for a listener who has seen Psych-Out, this track may have an entirely different meaning compared to one who hasn’t. Like much of the band’s material in this period, Psych-Out the movie isn’t all rainbows and love; there are dark and scary elements throughout, and the film refuses to play it safe within its obviously exploitative framework. The lyrics of “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” really have no intrinsic duality; it’s all pretty much light and rapturous ecstasy. The twist comes from a realistic and sober interpretation of the lyrics and a memory of the haunted aspects of the movie’s characters.
The song is on the Psych-Out soundtrack album, but not by Strawberry Alarm Clock; a band called The Storybook performs it there, in a valiant but not-as-satisfying attempt at a note-for-note copy of SAC’s iconic version.
The bass guitar
Musically, “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” is fairly conventional, with Strawberry Alarm Clock’s strikingly lovely harmonic vocals washing through the background and featuring some goosebump-inducing chord changes. Above all though, the bass guitar is the star here, instrumentally speaking: tuneful and thankfully mixed high enough to be clearly heard, the bobbing of the bass (apparently played by lead guitarist Ed King) give the song much of its inscrutable pathos.
LP: Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow (1968)
45: “Sit With The Guru” b/w “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” (Uni 55055) (1968)
LP: The Best Of Strawberry Alarm Clock (1970)
CD: Strawberries Mean Love (1992 compilation)
CD: The Strawberry Alarm Clock Anthology (1993 compilation)
LP: Psych-Out soundtrack (1968) – performed by The Storybook, not Strawberry Alarm Clock