By Richie Unterberger
By the time the Strawberry Alarm Clock made their fourth and final album in 1969, the group had changed considerably in both lineup and sound from the one that recorded "Incense and Peppermints." Considering what was going on behind the scenes, in fact, it's something of a surprise that the band were even able to survive as an act, let alone make it into the recording studio. When they did cut their final LP, a new lead singer and new bluesy hard rock direction resulted in some music that was far afield from their earlier albums and singles, though much of their idiosyncratic brand of psychedelic pop remained on some of the tracks.
The musical chairs started when drummer Randy Seol and bassist George Bunnell, who'd both been aboard for the band's first three LPs, left near the end of 1968 after the group's third album, The World in a Seashell. Confusingly, it wasn't quite the end of their time playing under the name Strawberry Alarm Clock. As keyboardist Mark Weitz remembers, "When we fired Bill Holmes for incompetence in managing the band, he went ballistic. He was so mad that he offered Randy and George, with three new members, a chance to form another SAC and go on the road as the Strawberry Alarm Clock. They jumped at it. We had to get a restraining order, after that an injunction, and served Holmes with this legal junk. And still he ignored all that, and sent them on the road again! Finally we stopped the fraud SAC by a judge threatening to put him in jail if he disobeyed the court order. Shortly thereafter, the promoters were so confused which was the real Alarm Clock that they were afraid to book any of us."
In the meantime, the group found replacements in singer-guitarist Jimmy Pitman and drummer Marty Katin. Pitman assumed lead guitar duties and Ed King moved from lead guitar to bass (though King in fact had played a lot of bass, as well as guitar, on the band's second and third albums, and would play some guitar on Good Morning Starshine). Katin would only stay for a few months, however, and never record as part of the Strawberry Alarm Clock. As Weitz recalls, "Marty had trouble keeping on the beat. We had to let him go a short time later." Taking his place was Gene Gunnels, who'd been the drummer with the band that evolved into the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Thee Sixpence, and played on the "Incense and Peppermints" single; as Mark points out, 'It was Gene's 'hi-hat' diddy that you hear at the break in our #1 hit."
Gunnels would be in the lineup for the Good Morning Starshine LP. Gone were Frank Slay and Strawberry Alarm Clock manager Bill Holmes, who'd been credited as co-producers of their first three albums; this time, the production was credited to "Mark Weitz, Ed King and Strawberry Alarm Clock." According to Weitz, "We were approved by UNI to record one more album on our own. Ed and I were convinced that we could produce and arrange our own album. I'm still vague on how we pulled that off. The band was hurting for one more album to see if we could manage to pull ourselves out of the ongoing slump in record sales. [We] tried our best to gel and make some songwriting history. We found out the hard way that without a producer overseeing the session, there was no check and balance system in place. Well, at least we did the best we could do on a relatively small budget. We really had fun making that album. The engineers on board were helpful; they let us do our thing, and made comments only when necessary. I wish they would have made some more comments!
"It was the first time Ed and I produced an album without any help. I say Ed and I because we were interested in doing it, and worked well together, right down to the mixdowns. It was the first time either of us had the chance of really controlling the sound from beginning to end. We made some mistakes here and there, but overall, I like the fidelity on the finished product, although honestly, a lot of the material was weak and underproduced. Listening now to the album, I cringe at decisions we made on the final mixes, but overall, it was surprising to us that we could actually pull it off on our own and without a producer telling us what to do. Maybe we needed that, and it was a hard lesson we learned. It's very difficult to produce yourself. It's hard to be critical/or criticize your own band members without hurting their feelings."
Pitman's impact on the album was substantial, not only as a singer and guitarist, but also as a writer or co-writer of most of the songs. "The move was deliberate," points out Ed King. "I think we were somewhat happy with it. I considered Pitman to be a very strong songwriter, though his songs didn't exactly fit our band's 'reputation' and style." Elaborates Weitz, "Jimmy played lead guitar and sang good. A more funky twang in his voice and guitar playing that was a little hard getting used to, but was accepted. Jim and we went on to write some new songs. We were trying to find a new sound with Pitman. It was totally different than what we used to do. We were trying to play what we felt like for once. With Pitman at the helm, it was hard not to play bluesy, so to speak. He had that style of singing that lent itself to blues; he liked to play blues. [Rhythm guitarist] Lee [Freeman] played great harmonica, Gene liked blues, so it was kind of natural progression. With me on the [Hammond] B-3 [organ] and Ed on bass, it seemed like it might work out. I think we were trying to get rid of our soft rock stigmata by showing our diehard fans that we could play some more powerful songs -- I think we were just getting warmed up when things fell apart. We needed some work and direction, were playing pretty well finally, but I think we felt doomed in the back of our mind with all the negative things that had just transpired."
"Small Package," "(You Put Me On) Stand By," and "Dear Joy" were much more reminiscent of the band's older psychedelic pop sound than the rest of the album's harder blues-inflected material, though Weitz doesn't think this caused tension or confusion within the group. "The band was versatile, we liked all kinds of song styles. Jim was doing a lot of writing then, and sometimes we wrote together at my house in Sherman Oaks. Again, we were trying to appeal to the record-buying public demographics and were willing to try anything at that point. We were getting desperate. We needed a hit, or it was over for us. I guess we had no choice but to back Jimmy, and we put a lot of faith in him. He was trying very hard at that point, like all of us. His voice was our only chance, so we experimented by trying different song styles, trying to find one that would work for us." He concedes, however, that while King, Freeman, and Pitman were happy with the greater concentration on blues-rock, "I really didn't care that much for blues. I didn't want to be in strictly a blues band, which is kind of the direction it seemed to be going."
That doesn't mean that Mark doesn't have some good memories of some of his favorite songs on the LP. "I liked 'Me and the Township' because it was a strong solid song from beginning to end, but it just didn't have the Alarm Clock 'feel.' 'Off Ramp Road Tramp' was a smoker! Lee's voice was insane! He had never sung a song where he had pushed his voice so hard, and I loved my solo on it, too. It had more of the Alarm Clock 'feel' and sound. 'Changes' -- good blues song, good arrangement, good organ, good guitar, good vocals, great all-around sound. 'Miss Attraction,' on the other hand, was supposed to put us back on the map -- we thought! We were going for a single. The lyrics were weak; that was Pitman. But we put our faith in him. After all, he was our lead vocalist, and in the old Alarm Clock, we really didn't have a 'stand in front' lead vocalist if you don't count Lee, whose voice was not 'HIT' lead vocalist quality, I thought. The music was a little muddy in places, but it had some of the hottest instrument solo breaks on the whole album." As to why both the LP and 45 single versions of 'Miss Attraction' were included on the album, "We thought 'Miss Attraction' might be a single, so we did short and long versions for airplay reasons. I like the long version much better. Some great jamming on that song."
There was, however, one song on the album that was not produced by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and not at all typical (if there could be said to be such a thing) of what the band recorded on any of their other releases. Taken from the musical Hair, "Good Morning Starshine" actually limped up to #87 in the charts, but was soundly beaten by Oliver's version, which went to #3. Rues Weitz, "[UNI's] attitude at the time was, 'Let's give them one more chance to squeeze out a hit. If they fail, then it's over.' I think it was a miscalculation on 'Good Morning Starshine.' We played well on the music track, we all personally disliked the song as not being our style -- that's an understatement -- [but] recorded it anyway. Oliver's version came out before ours, and we were killed! That was the end of the line. UNI pulled the plug and it was over." And who was the mysterious "Julius Zabadak" credited with producing that track -- the only one on Good Morning Starshine not produced by the band? "Julius was Russ Regan, UNI Records' president," reveals King. "It was his idea to do the song." Says Weitz of Regan, "He was a big wig at UNI, and used a pseudonym for legal reasons. We knew him well."
A much more famous hit single by the Beach Boys (with whom the Strawberry Alarm Clock toured in 1967 and 1968), incidentally, is quoted elsewhere on the album on the tag of "Small Package." "I had the idea to do that 'California Girls' ending," says Weitz. "The key we were playing in was perfect -- it just flowed into it. We had been on tour when they played that song, it was in my mind, and I just started playing it during rehearsal on the Hammond B-3 I was using on that song, just for fun. We kept it in. Jimmy and I did the harmony at the ending fadeout."
The Good Morning Sunshine album, like all Strawberry Alarm Clock LPs save the first, failed to chart. Although a few singles on UNI (as well as an appearance in the movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) would follow in 1969 and 1970, the band never regained their initial popularity. "None of the singles we recorded [after Good Morning Sunshine] were smash hits," Weitz recalls. "I'm not blaming UNI, don't get me wrong, we really did try. We just didn't have a mouth-watering hit on our hands, and knew it was inevitable that they were going to lose interest." In fact, the lineup that had recorded Good Morning Starshine didn't even last too long. Pitman left in mid-1969, with Paul Marshall coming in as lead singer and King switching back to lead guitar.
Weitz himself left in late 1969, as "I was married in February 1969, starting a family. I had to make a decision. The fraud SAC was killing bookings all over. It seemed hopeless, and I felt it was time to leave. Not to mention the horrendous lawsuits flying left and right. Our attorneys sued us for their share (7.5%) of our earnings, which they were not receiving. Bill Holmes, our ex-manager, sent the creditors of all his unpaid bills prior to his being let go to me -- all $50,000 worth! Also, [former Strawberry Alarm Clock bassist] Gary Lovetro sued me for $17,500 of unpaid monies owed him when he was released out of the band...and guess who had to pay up? That's right, me! I had a sour taste in my mouth, and I was through being raked over the coals. All I had wanted to do is play keyboards. I got sick of the whole music biz and felt it was too toxic to hang around anymore." Without Weitz, the band struggled on as a quartet for a couple more years until calling it quits in late 1971. It wasn't the end of the line for Ed King, though. He'd become friendly with an emerging southern rock band who'd opened for the Strawberry Alarm Clock during a Southern tour, and in late 1972, he was invited to join them. The band were Lynyrd Skynyrd, and King played on their first three albums before leaving in May 1975.
Looking back on the Strawberry Alarm Clock's career, Weitz and King agree that the band often didn't gel and work well together. Remarks Weitz, "There was always difference of opinions on what songs should get recorded, whose material was better, and not liking how the other member was playing a part of the song -- stuff like that. Randy and George sometimes had totally different ideas about songwriting. Some of us didn't like their stuff, and sometimes they didn't like ours. Also, I was always trying to keep the band in line -- you know, more serious. They were only eighteen and had very little discipline as far as how they behaved on the road -- like NOT professional. I liked to laugh and have a good time too, but not to their extent. They didn't like that. I just always felt I was more serious about everything when it came to music. They wanted me to lighten up." King feels that the third and fourth albums in particular "were pieced together and there was no unity anywhere about the content. Actually, the only unity that existed was on the first album. But the second album 'sounded' better."
On the other hand, Weitz notes, "Ed and I seemed always to see eye-to-eye on our music. We knew each other's limitations, and were not critical of each other's playing. Funny, when I played a solo or certain part of a song, I was always hoping Ed would like it more than anyone else in the group, like we tried to outdo each other in a way. Kind of funny, since I didn't play guitar...In other words, Ed respected my playing, and I respected his (more than anyone else in the group)." The respect is mutual, as King observes that "Mark was really ahead of his time...his parts were so creative. Too bad he was in a bad band, because he was really the only talented one in it." Weitz and King also agree that the Strawberry Alarm Clock were handicapped by the fluke circumstance in which their big #1 hit, "Incense and Peppermints," was sung not by a member of the band, but by a friend, Greg Munford, who happened to be at the recording session. "We had to have Randy sing it on stage," laments Weitz. "It never sounded the same as Greg. That was hard to swallow for me all those times we played it live." Contends King, "It wasn't really A BAND, and it was NEVER going to work because we didn't have the right lead singer -- the guy who sang the #1 hit."
years, the breaking up of the Strawberry Alarm Clock -- I was
for most of that name, too! -- has had a profound effect on my
I felt I was cheated. We were so close, we had a #1 hit that I wrote
musical idea to, and to this day I wish that I could have stayed in
for a living. But it was my choice to leave, and I have regretted it
since. Recently, I felt like writing an album on my own and putting it
out under the name of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, with some of the old
members contributing. Anyway, it was just a crazy idea. Or was it?"
-- Richie Unterberger
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