The Strawberry Alarm Clock really shouldn’t be a band that people are talking about, much less writing about, in 2017. The psychedelic rock group formed in Los Angeles in 1967 and had a smash Billboard No. 1 hit that same year with the trippy “Incense and Peppermints,” and that was as good as it ever got.
But it was far from the end of the story. The band have taken a few breaks over the years, with members coming and going, but they are 50 years older and relatively intact. Since 1969, there has been only one other album, 2012’s Wake Up Where You Are, but the old hippies regularly play out. Today The Strawberry Alarm Clock are practically synonymous with SoCal ’60s psychedelia, and cited as an influence by many. It hardly matters whether most people can name a song besides the big hit — the guys in the band just do it for the love of the music.
“Nowadays when we look at each other, especially when we’re playing music, it’s a feeling of the playing that’s basically identical to what we felt when we were kids,” says bassist/rhythm guitarist George Bunnell. “Until you walk by a mirror and see your reflection. What? Who’s that? That’s how it is. But we have the same personalities. Our keyboard player [Mark Weitz] and one of our drummers [Randy Seol] rub each other the wrong way and always have. We get through it all the time. But that dynamic has never changed.”
There are five people currently in The Strawberry Alarm Clock who were also in the band in 1967: Bunnell, Weitz, Seol, drummer Gene Gunnels and guitarist Steve Bartek. Most legacy acts, particularly those from the 1960s trading on a small amount of commercial success, have maybe two true members and complete their lineup with session players. But the members of Strawberry Alarm Clock can't help but gravitate to one another.
“We were all songwriters from the beginning,” Bunnell says. “That’s how the whole thing came about. We were songwriters, and all groups in the ’60s had to be cover bands. Even The Beatles and the Stones started off that way. When Randy got in the Alarm Clock, they got the deal to do an album [which was also called Incense and Peppermints]. They made me a fully fledged member of the band during that album recording.”
The current lineup of the band has six members; lead guitarist Howie Anderson joined the ranks in ’86, filling the role that had long since been vacated by Incense and Peppermints–era guitarist Ed King, who left the band to join Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1971. One person who has never been in the band is the man who actually sang lead vocals on the original recorded version of “Incense & Peppermints,” Greg Munford. However, the band plan to rerecord the song, and the man who sang the song for The Strawberry Alarm Clock basically as a favor is being pulled back into the studio to do it again.
“That’s a whole other ridiculous story,” Bunnell says. “One of those things where nobody thinks that at the moment, what you’re doing is going to be successful. The song wasn’t fitting anybody. Greg Munford happened to just be sitting there in the session, and Greg also had the same manager and producer. He was doing his own project simultaneously. They asked him to try it, and it was right in his wheelhouse. So he did it and it was exactly how you hear it. He was not in the band, and then the song started to have success. Then they asked Greg Munford if he wanted to be in the band and he didn’t. He had his own thing. The band went off and never had the lead singer of that song in the band. Completely stupid.” (When the band did the song live, drummer Seol sang the lead vocal — or lip-synched to Munford's vocal on television appearances like the one below.)
Without Munford, the band was never able to replicate the success of “Incense and Peppermints.” By the time they appeared in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970, they had already become a cult band. That hasn't changed, yet somehow they’ve clung to their career like a pit bull with a rope toy. Who even turns out to watch them live anymore?
“Well now, our audience seems to be mostly young,” Bunnell says. “There’s a few old hippie types that will show up. But mostly people my age don’t go out that late. On a Thursday night at the Whisky, we don’t play until 11:30-ish. Last time it was packed, and it was all young people. A couple of friends of mine showed up and they didn’t stay because they didn't want to be out that late.”
The band have something a little different planned for the set at their upcoming anniversary show at the Whisky, to celebrate that half-century of existence. Rather than going the tried-and-tested “best of” route, they’ll be playing their debut album in order, plus a selection from the other records.
“We always goof around with the song list,” Bunnell says. “Usually, we save ‘Incense and Peppermints’ until the end, but if we do it in the order of the album, it comes right in the middle of the show. Let’s see what that’s like. The last five songs will all be brand-new. We’re always writing, even when we’re not recording.”
Maybe they are always writing, but there were 43 years between Good Morning Starshine, the group's last flower power–era album, and 2012’s Wake Up Where You Are. That’s hardly prolific. Bunnell doesn’t think the gap will be quite so lengthy before a new record emerges. In the meantime, fans of vintage psych-rock have the Whisky show to look forward to.
“When I was 18, people would ask the name of the band and it felt so weird,” Bunnell says. “Now it just rolls off my tongue. But it’s done a couple of things. The band had a very colorful image. The first album cover was very colorful, the name of the band is colorful, the name of the song is colorful, and the whole thing was memorable. Whenever you have something vivid in a title, it doesn’t get forgotten.”
The Strawberry Alarm Clock play the Whisky a Go Go with Write Minded, Three / Sides, Return of the Leech, The Junglecats, Full Safari and Crane Song on Saturday, July 22. Tickets and more info.