“They Saw The Fat One Coming” is a standout track from the Strawberry Alarm Clock album Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow from 1968. A psychedelic tone poem with shimmering guitar and a ghostly chorus delivering the unusual poetry of the lyric throughout, it features an acoustic guitar (rare for the band) and a meditative, funereal pace.
As on several other Strawberry Alarm Clock songs, “They Saw The Fat One Coming” sports lyrics with a sickly, negative bent, but ones that remain disquietingly unspecific. A story is being told, but only an obscure middle portion of it, presented out of context and with few expository clues. It’s like finding an ancient scrap of paper with an Old English poem fragment on it, and having to guess at the motivations and situations of the characters. This guessing game is established by the song’s opening lines:
“They said they saw him in the morning
But they just couldn’t understand why he was crying”
Who are ‘they’? Who is this guy crying? With each line following the same simple melody, the song becomes a slow-moving chant, and each detail revealed only raises more questions. In the song’s references to dying (and killing) it would be easy to define it as being about the Vietnam war — but then other details take a religious bent and seem to allude to an ill-conceived lynch mob and a mysterious and possibly supernatural outsider.
The identity of the ‘fat one’
Ultimately, “They Saw The Fat One Coming” is about someone — the ‘fat one’, apparently — who shows up in a town and greatly confuses and worries the citizens. The ‘they’ of the title evidently refers to the townspeople, i.e. those singing, while the identity of the lyrics’ ‘they’ remains the big mystery of the song — especially when the melody takes a temporarily different tack and speculates on a collusion between the ‘fat one’, ‘it’, and ‘them’:
“Why did it spare him?
Why’s he here?
Who’s this stranger that walks among us?
And why’s he here?
Why did he live?
Maybe a deal’s been made between them…”
From whom he was spared and what kind of deal he might have made are all tantalizingly open to interpretation. A low-key sitar and a prominent lead guitar, in which you can just hear the future ghost of Lynyrd Skynyrd in Ed King’s playing, contribute to the maturity and compelling sound of the track.
In fact, some sources claim King himself is the Fat One, but an email from bassist George Bunnell to UnwindWithSAC.com clears up the actual intention of the band on this song:
“The ‘fat one’ was just a lighthearted band joke about Roy Freeman (not related to Lee Freeman) who was brought in as a lyricist. He was a nice guy but the band had not welcomed the intrusion.” — George Bunnell
‘Lighthearted’ in the sense that they didn’t mean to slander Roy Freeman necessarily; but the feel of this song is anything but!
Tipping into violence
Matters come to a head (or threaten to) in the final verse, when the townspeople, or at least certain ones of them, meet and vow an unspecified but clearly ignoble resolution to the unrest they feel: they are going to kill someone, probably the ‘fat one’. The song’s chilling final lines:
“We gathered at the church on Sunday
And turned the house of God into a place of violence
With guns and clubs we met on Monday
And swore before the day was done there would be silence”
The overwhelmingly elegiac tone of the singing, the woeful but resigned nature of the voices themselves, and the curious, organically psychedelic instrumental touches all add up to one of Strawberry Alarm Clock’s best and most engrossing songs. By the end of “They Saw The Fat One Coming”, no answers have been offered, and the song’s intangible horror is underscored by this lack of resolution — in this it’s similar to the lesson-free bummer “Nightmare Of Percussion” that opens the album.