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Turn On, Tune In, Turn Your Eyes Around: Strawberry Alarm Clock’s First Two Albums Return to CD

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Strawberry Alarm Clock - Tune-InAlthough the Summer of Love has long passed, the sound of The Strawberry Alarm Clock has never really left the American airwaves.  Thanks to oldies radio, “Incense and Peppermints” – which spent sixteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 including one week at pole position – remains in frequent rotation on terrestrial and satellite stations.  Though the California-based band released four albums and numerous singles on the UNI label between 1967 and 1970, the success of “Incense” was never matched or bettered.  Cherry Red’s all-psychedelic Tune-In label celebrates the group with the single-CD reissue of debut Incense and Peppermints and its 1968 follow-up Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow with three bonus tracks.

The Incense and Peppermints album (which reached No. 11 in the U.S.) masked all of the turmoil that went into its creation.  The personnel changes that would plague Strawberry Alarm Clock throughout its short lifespan began early when founding member Gene Gunnels departed the group at his girlfriend’s behest prior to the 45 release of “Incense.”  (Gunnels founded SAC with bassist Gary Lovetro, guitarist Steve Rabe and vocalist Mike Luciano as The Quaker Oats; guitarists Ed King and Lee Freeman expanded the group to a sextet.  They morphed into Thee Sixpence, and Luciano was eventually replaced by keyboardist Mark Weitz.  Then Steve Rabe followed Luciano out.  Got that?)

“Incense” was originally penned by Weitz and King, who laid down a backing track for their pop-psych nugget.  Producer Frank Slay then sent it to the songwriting team of John Carter and Tim Gilbert, who shaped it into the catchy yet sufficiently lysergic ode everybody knows.  But when the song was released by Thee Sixpence on co-producer Bill Holmes’ small All-American label, the names of Weitz and King were nowhere to be found on the label.  The producers assured the band that this simply was business as usual, though Weitz and King weren’t quite convinced.

As if those problems weren’t enough for the young band members to face, the song’s vocals were also “farmed out” to Greg Munford of The Shapes.  Munford was brought in by Slay and Holmes, as was second vocalist Randy Seal of the Waterfyrd Traene who soon replaced Gunnels in the band line-up.  The All-American 45 was released under the Thee Sixpence name; it was reissued on UNI (to whom Holmes sold All-American) as by the very au courant Strawberry Alarm Clock– and the name stuck.

By the time of the release of the Incense album, bassist George Bunnell and flautist Steve Bartek had joined the group although Bartek was too young (14!) to participate full-time; the duo was initially brought on from the Waterfyrd Traene as songwriters.  Despite the behind-the-scenes fracas, however, Incense and Peppermints boasted a number of strong, well-played songs with distinctive guitar, organ, vibes and flute sounds lending a psychedelic air.  The lengthy, trippy opener “The World’s on Fire” set the stage for gentler harmony-pop songs like the Association-esque “Birds in My Tree” as well as jazzy workouts like “Unwind with the Clock.”  Garage rock energy also permeates many of the colorfully titled cuts (sample titles: “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow,” “Paxton’s Back Street Carnival”).  Bartek and Bunnell shared credit for five of the album’s cuts, with Bunnell also contributing to another two tracks.

Hit the jump for more, including the full track listing for both albums!

Perhaps surprisingly considering the “Incense and Peppermints” credit situation, producers Slay and Holmes returned to helm the SAC’s sophomore album Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow.  (Among the many choice tidbits in Gray Newell’s detailed liner notes essay, Ed King asserts, “On the subject of Slay and Holmes, let me make it clear, they had nothing to do with our production.  Those two clowns just sat there.”)  Weitz and King wrote – and received credit for – the bright and breezy “Tomorrow,” which would become the group’s second and final Top 40 hit when it reached No. 23 on the Hot 100.  The second single, “Sit with the Guru,” reached No. 65.  The album followed the template of its predecessor, though overall the sound was more polished.  Songs still ranged from the offbeat (“Curse of the Witches,” “They Saw the Fat One Coming”) to the sweet (“Soft Skies, No Lies”), touching on baroque, psychedelic and sunshine pop styles.  “Pretty Song from Psych-Out” referenced the Dick Clark-produced B-movie that featured the band.  George Bunnell surmises today that the title of the song likely torpedoed its chances for success.   “Sit with the Guru” implored listeners to “stretch out your mind to humanity, how many tomorrows can you see?” A three-part suite entitled “Black Butter” closed the album in oddball fashion.  Ed King contributed to most of the songs on Tomorrow, often working with lyricist Roy Freeman.  Bartek, later of Oingo Boingo, only co-wrote one song (the ever-shifting “Sitting on a Star”) as he had been unable to remain in the band.  Before Tomorrow arrived in stores, bassist Gary Lovetro was also out of the band, shuffled to the position of road manager.

Tune-In’s reissue adds three bonus tracks: “Incense” B-side “The Birdman of Alkatrash,” and single A-sides “Tomorrow” and “Sit for the Guru.”  The single mixes are quite different from the stereo album mixes in terms of the instrumental arrangements, hence their inclusion here.  Simon Murphy has remastered all tracks.  Gray Newell’s essay features the vivid recollections of George Bunnell, Steve Bartek, Gene Gunnels, Ed King, Greg Munford, Randy Seal and Mark Weitz.

Incense and Peppermints/Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow is available now from Tune-In and can be ordered at the links below!

Strawberry Alarm Clock, Incense and Peppermints/Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow (Tune-In CD 010, 2013) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

  1. The World’s on Fire
  2. Birds in My Tree
  3. Lose to Live
  4. Strawberries Mean Love
  5. Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow
  6. Paxton’s Back Street Carnival
  7. Hummin’ Happy
  8. Pass Time with the SAC
  9. Incense and Peppermints
  10. Unwind with the Clock
  11. The Birdman of Alkatrash (Single)(Bonus Track)
  12. Nightmare of Percussion
  13. Soft Skies, No Lies
  14. Tomorrow
  15. They Saw the Fat One Coming
  16. Curse of the Witches
  17. Sit with the Guru
  18. Go Back (You’re Going the Wrong Way)
  19. Pretty Song from Psych-Out
  20. Black Butter: Past
  21. Black Butter: Present
  22. Black Butter: Future
  23. Tomorrow (Single Mix) (Bonus Track)
  24. Sit with the Guru (Single Mix) (Bonus Track)

Tracks 1-10 from Incense and Peppermints, UNI LP 73014, 1967
Track 11 from UNI single 55018, 1968
Tracks 12-22 from Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow, UNI LP 72025, 1968
Track 23 from UNI single 55046, 1968
Track 24 from UNI single 55055, 1968

Written by Joe Marchese

December 2, 2013 at 13:36

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