Friday, 25 January 2019

The Strawberry Alarm Clock: The Story Behind "Incense and Peppermints" & The Band That Recorded It

The Strawberry Alarm Clock
circa 1967 publicity photo
Originally published in American Music Press (December 1993)

By Devorah Ostrov

In the fall of 1967 Lulu's theme from the film To Sir With Love had been the #1 song in the country for an astounding five weeks, successfully holding off both the Association's "Never My Love" and the Young Rascals' "How Can I be Sure." But the week ending November 25 saw Lulu knocked to #2 by six Southern California teenagers dressed in "psychedelic pajamas" with an absurd moniker: The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

"Incense and Peppermints," SAC's loopy "flower-power anthem" (as it was later termed), was released in May 1967 on Uni Records. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 in September and hit #1 eight weeks later. But the song for which the group is best known actually started out earlier that year on the All-American label as the B-side of the gimmicky "Birdman of Alkatrash" by Thee Sixpence.

* * *

Uni Records promo poster
In the mid-sixties the suburban Southern California music scene revolved around teenagers, and Thee Sixpence — a talented British Invasion/garage/surf cover band — ruled the teen clubs and pizza joints from Glendale to Santa Barbara.

The members of the group initially included vocalist Michael Luciano, guitarist Ed King, vocalist/guitarist Lee Freeman, guitarist Steve Rabe, bassist Gary Lovetro, and drummer Gene Gunnels. Their manager, Bill Holmes, also owned All-American Records, the small-time label for which the band recorded.

By the time they went into Original Sound studios in early 1967, Thee Sixpence had already released several singles, including covers of "Fortune Teller" and "Hey Joe," without garnering much attention.

This time, the plan was to record "The Birdman of Alkatrash" — a garage-punk nugget written and sung by the group's new keyboardist Mark Weitz — as the A-side of their next 45. Without giving it much thought, they also laid down a bouncy untitled instrumental written by Weitz and King for the B-side.

In the meantime, the group's producer, Frank Slay, contacted John Carter (co-writer of the minor hit "That Acapulco Gold" for psych band the Rainy Daze) to ask if he was working on anything new. This was the moment that Carter mentioned an idea he had for a song title: "Incense and Peppermints."

The Strawberry Alarm Clock with the Voxmobile
Slay loved the title and thought Thee Sixpence's instrumental track would be perfect for the melody. So, he asked Carter and his song-writing partner Tim Gilbert to put some lyrics to it. Sadly, due to a disagreement between the group's manager and their producer, Weitz and King never received writer's credit for their part in the creation of the song; only Carter and Gilbert were credited on the million-selling record. (Some recent comments by Mark Weitz regarding the writing of "Incense and Peppermints" and the erroneous credits can be found at the end of this article.)

Legend has it that Carter and Gilbert used a rhyming dictionary to string together the (as stated in the lyrics) "meaningless nouns" that make up the bulk of the tune:

Advert for the 1st Annual Sacramento Pop 
Festival with the Jefferson Airplane, the
Strawberry Alarm Clock & Spirit
October 15, 1967
Good sense, innocence crippling mankind
Dead kings, many things I can't define
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints the color of time...

While the verses really are just a nifty jumble of words that don't actually mean anything, the world-weary hook ("Who cares what games we choose/Little to win, but nothing to lose") gives the song some gravitas and is probably what elevates it to "anthem" status.

Shortly thereafter Carter was invited to hear Thee Sixpence record "Incense and Peppermints," and that's when things get a little convoluted.

Of this historic get-together, Carter has been quoted as saying: "It was the first time I met the band, and they resented the fact that someone had written a song to their track."

However, when I recently interviewed SAC bassist George Bunnell (who joined after the recording of "Incense and Peppermints") about the group's history, he related a very different scenario.

"They were all friends with John Carter," he insists. "The guys all knew him. Lee and Ed thought ['That Acapulco Gold'] was a great song and it would be great if [Carter and Gilbert] wrote lyrics."

14-year-old Sara Zito calls the Alarm Clock's music
"fire-rock" in this teen 'zine article.
(Of course, at that point it's likely the guys didn't resent the lyrics being penned by outside writers because they thought "Incense and Peppermints" would end up as the largely ignored B-side of their single.)

The story continues with a dilemma over who would actually sing the song. One report says Carter had originally recorded the vocals himself, but the band were dissatisfied with that version.

Another says Carter flatly told Freeman he was wrong for the song. Other accounts describe how various band members also gave it a go but struggled to get it right.

Supposedly, Carter finally chose a young guy he thought was a band member to sing lead on the track. But when he returned the following day and asked where the singer was, the band had a good laugh. "Oh, him? He was just a friend of ours," they guffawed.

The tale concludes with the mystery vocalist conveniently disappearing off the face of the earth.

Of course, that's not what really happened. Bunnell calls the above narrative a "nice" depiction of the day's events and hints at an Alarm Clock scandal when he reveals: "Lee thought the session was over and he disappeared with a couple of girls. Our manager was really upset with him and had Greg Munford sing it."

Incense and Peppermints LP (Uni Records 1967)
Wake Up…It's Tomorrow LP (Uni Records 1968)
Munford was the 16-year-old singer for Shapes of Sound, another band managed by Holmes. Interestingly, even though he sang the group's signature song, Munford never became an official member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and never sang "Incense and Peppermints" onstage with the band.

(Mark Weitz wants to ensure that the "Incense and Peppermints" vocalist receives some long overdue recognition. According to Weitz: "If it wasn't for Greg Munford's lead vocal track, the song never would've made it. His voice fit the part perfectly. We all tried to sing the lead, but none of us sounded right on the playback. Greg's voice was unique and I think he deserves a lot of credit!" And Munford didn't quite disappear off the face of the earth. The Shapes of Sound 45, "Lost Weekend" b/w "Twisted Conversation" issued on All-American, is now a sought-after collector's item.)

Advert for the Beach Boys, the Strawberry 
Alarm Clock & Buffalo Springfield at Lamar 
Tech in Beaumont, Texas - April 21, 1968
In April 1967, Thee Sixpence's new single was issued locally on All-American (there are rumors of an early pressing where Peppermints is misspelled). And thanks in large part to KIST music director Johnny Fairchild who flipped it over, the band soon found themselves with a regional #1 record.

"He played 'Incense and Peppermints' like it was the biggest hit in the country!" enthuses Bunnell of the Santa Barbara DJ.

On the strength of the song's local success, the band was quickly signed to Uni Records, a then-new subsidiary of MCA. But with the signing came the realization that there were other groups working under variations of Thee Sixpence, so finding a new band name became a priority.

The most repeated version of how they became the Strawberry Alarm Clock begins with Weitz turning to the Billboard Hot 100, closing his eyes and putting his finger down on the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." Which may or may not be true.

"It's one of those things I've never asked Mark," says Bunnell. "We used to make up different stories all the time just for fun!"

"Incense and Peppermints" picture sleeve 45 
released on the German Hit-ton label (1967)
The finger on the Hot 100 anecdote has some possible holes that need researching.

"I'm not sure if 'Incense and Peppermints' came out before or after 'Strawberry Fields Forever,'" admits Bunnell. (And was it in the Hot 100 during the necessary time frame?)

(Mark Weitz has confirmed that Strawberry did indeed come from "Strawberry Fields Forever." He says, "It's one of my favorite Beatles songs.")

At least the inspiration for the Alarm Clock portion is straightforward. "The whole group was sitting in Mark's bedroom trying to think of something to go with Strawberry," explains Bunnell. "Mark had an alarm clock that made a swishing sound when the second hand went across the 12, which you couldn't hear unless it was deadly silent. They'd all been throwing out names [Strawberry Toilet was allegedly rejected] and finally they were all quiet for a while, and everyone heard the swish of his clock. They all looked up at the same time and said, 'Alarm Clock!'"

In May, Uni reissued "Incense and Peppermints" as the A-side of the new Strawberry Alarm Clock 45. Almost instantly it became the most requested song (two weeks running) in Los Angeles, at which point it went national.

Lobby card for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
featuring the Strawberry Alarm Clock
It's a bit of an understatement when Bunnell raves, "It started to go crazy all over the place!"

On September 23, 1967, the band performed the song on American Bandstand, immediately after which it entered the Billboard charts at #88.

By late November it was the #1 song in the country, and by December it had gone gold.

But Uni didn't wait that long to capitalize on the success of the single. As soon as "Incense and Peppermints" began to take off in LA, studio time was booked for the Alarm Clock to record a full-length album.

This might have posed a problem for a group whose setlist was packed with covers, but prior to the band changing its name, several alterations were made to the lineup — one of which netted them a second bassist who was a prolific lyricist and his flute-playing co-writer.

All aboard the Strawberry Alarm Clock Special!
Vocalist Michael Luciano and guitarist Steve Rabe left Thee Sixpence around the same time that Mark Weitz joined, sometime prior to the initial All-American recording session. (Bunnell notes that Rabe went on to found SWR Engineering, a specialist manufacturer of bass guitar amps and speaker cabinets.)

And as soon as he'd finished recording the drum track for "Incense and Peppermints," Gene Gunnels quit the band. One account says his father insisted he go to college; another says his girlfriend insisted he get a job.

Poster for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, 
Country Joe & the Fish, and the Strawberry 
Alarm Clock at the Earl Warren Showgrounds
July 1, 1967
Either way, Gunnels replacement was a blond teenager named Randy Seol who would prove crucial to the Alarm Clock's future.

Seol and his friend Bunnell were seniors at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, where they had a band called Waterfyrd Traene (which included freshman Steve Bartek on flute).

The drummer had first met his future SAC bandmates when Waterfyrd Traene shared a bill with Thee Sixpence at a party in Northridge. He was recruited into the band in time to add some background harmonies on "Incense and Peppermints."

From the beginning Seol lobbied to bring Bunnell in on bass, but the group wasn't keen to replace Lovetro. However, he was able to bring in several original Waterfyrd Traene tunes co-written by Bunnell and Bartek.

Perhaps Waterfyrd Traene's most important asset, the Bunnell/Bartek team had been collaborating for three years, amassing an impressive catalog of over 100 songs.

"We read dictionaries, encyclopaedias, novels and poetry to find ideas," notes Bunnell, explaining how the two youngsters came up with such inspired weirdness as "Paxton's Back Street Carnival":

"Incense and Peppermints" picture sleeve 45
released on the Mexican Gamma label (1967)
Ferris wheels spinning round
From the sky to the ground
While your mind's swirling down
Caught within all the sounds
Of the joy at the back street carnival...

Bunnell is adamant there was no LSD involved ("We didn't even know about that!") and claims, "We didn't even know what we were writing about!"

(There's a funny story about a girl at Taft High who approached Bartek and gushed, "I really know what you're talking about in these songs." To which he replied, "You do?")

When it came time to record the LP, Bunnell and Bartek were asked to play on the songs they'd written, and then invited to join the band. Both boys said "Okay," but Bartek's mom said "No!"

"He came back and said, 'My mother says I can't do it,'" chuckles Bunnell. (Although the 15-year-old wasn't allowed to join the group, Bartek did play flute on several album tracks. And when he grew up, he became the lead guitarist and producer of Oingo Boingo.)

The Strawberry Alarm Clock on the
 cover of Cash Box - July 20, 1968
Curiously, at this point Bunnell didn't replace Lovetro. The album credits list Lovetro as first bassist and Bunnell as second bassist — something which must be peculiar only to the Alarm Clock's lineup. But while they did sometimes play dual bass parts, Bunnell describes himself as more of a "utility guy."

He reels off a long list of job duties: "I was singing, playing guitar and a minimando [small mandolin], maracas, tambourine..." Bunnell also mastered the art of banging wood blocks together, which falls under the mysterious album credit of "special effects."

Titled after their hit single, the band's debut LP (which reached #11 on the Billboard album charts) was recorded in just two weeks. "The record company had to have it right away," emphasises Bunnell.

The album featured nine originals, most credited to the band as a whole, although four — "Birds in my Tree," "Strawberries Mean Love," "Paxton's Back Street Carnival" and "Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow" — also singled out Bunnell and Bartek. One tune, "Hummin' Happy," (a charming ditty about squished dead birds and ladies falling into manholes) gives credit to Bunnell and Seol who wrote the song when they were (to quote Bunnell) "teenage sadists."

Almost all the tracks can be classified as "psychedelic," but in a way you won't hear elsewhere. For instance, the "weird sounding guitar thing" (as Bunnell calls it) at the beginning of "Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow" was achieved by Seol picking out the guitar chords with his drumsticks!

The World in a Sea Shell LP (Uni Records 1968)
Good Morning Starshine LP (Uni Records 1969)
Bunnell partially attributes the album's unique trippiness to the spontaneity of working quickly in the studio. "We were rehearsing and recording at the same time," he says, "inventing while we went along, bouncing ideas off each other, and we were real open!" However, he also acknowledges the varied influences each band member contributed: "Mark's background was mostly classical; Randy's was jazz..."

Surprisingly, although Bunnell states that Uni exercised typical total creative control over the band ("They said what went and what didn't"), the label was pretty lax about the placement of the LP's title cut.

The Strawberry Alarm Clock circa 1967
If Weitz and King weren't upset by ripped-off royalties, outside writers and a non-band singer before, they were certainly smarting now that the song was a massive hit.

Or maybe they were just trying to be cool when they buried "Incense and Peppermints" deep into side 2 and opened the album with "The World's on Fire," an almost 8⅟² minute epic — something even Dick Clark mentioned during the group's American Bandstand appearance. "It's kind of an oddball thing," agrees Bunnell, "but that was what we wanted to do."

Once they'd finished recording the album, all that remained was finding a suitable image — apparently Uni didn't dig the "long-haired, rock 'n' roll, garage band-type thing" the group already had going on.

Bunnell recounts how they came upon the colorful East Indian attire which became the group's trademark look: "We took a photographer and went to a bunch of different clothing stores and tried on stuff — silk shirts, shirts with big collars... Everything looked horrible! We thought, we're not gonna do this; we're not gonna wear uniforms. We just couldn't deal with it."

Uni ad for "Incense and Peppermints"
Bunnell continues: "But then Mark came upon this shop called Sat Purush and they had what they call Kurtas, a traditional East Indian dress — psychedelic pajamas! The whole outfit was really funny... drawstring pants. Nobody wore drawstring pants! Nobody wore the Nehru collars yet either, except for East Indians. So, we put all this stuff on. We were laughing hysterically! But we liked it, the clothes were real comfortable."

The LP's cover pic was snapped by noted rock photographer Ed Caraeff during a photo session at the Sat Purush shop in Westwood.

"They put us all over these pillows," remembers Bunnell, "and they had these rattan chairs, fans... all this weird stuff that we sat amongst. They took our picture in the store, and that was the album cover!"

On the minus side, Caraeff's iconic photo firmly cemented the group's psychedelic-chic image, and the band that hated the idea of uniforms now had uniforms (albeit super comfy ones). "And we did it to ourselves," laughs Bunnell.

On the plus side, the guys got to go barefoot! "We were the only band playing barefoot," points out Bunnell. "The clothes looked funny if you wore shoes with them."

"Tomorrow" picture sleeve 45
released on the Italian Durium label (1968)
Around Southern California the Alarm Clock earned a reputation as the best support band for the big touring acts of the day. They opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara, the Yardbirds at the Santa Monica Civic, and for the Herman's Hermits/Who concert at the Anaheim Convention Center (where they were famously carried through the audience while sat on Persian rugs).

But when "Incense and Peppermints" went national so did they, playing 120 shows across the country on a bill with the Beach Boys and the Buffalo Springfield, which kept them busy for several weeks during November 1967 and April 1968.

"It was the biggest thing we ever did," says Bunnell excitedly. "We were flying in Lear jets and riding in limos, doing TV shows, staying in suites. It was unbelievable!"

"Unbelievable" is also the adjective rock writers began to throw at the band about this time. While the thousands of screaming teenyboppers at their shows probably didn't notice, it didn't escape the critics' attention that the vocalist on the group's television appearances wasn't the one who sang on the hit single.

Uni advert for "Tomorrow" b/w "Birds in My Tree"
"There were all kinds of rumors that the band wasn't the band," confirms Bunnell. "It was a very confusing mess."

According to Bunnell, reproducing "Incense and Peppermints" live wasn't a problem, at least musically. "And vocally it wasn't really a problem either," he adds, "because Lee sang the song just like Greg Munford. But our manager decided that on these TV shows Randy should lip-sync the song because he was cute, and all the girls would go crazy. So, everybody thought that the drummer sang the song."

Poster for the 1968 film Psych-Out
 featuring the Strawberry Alarm Clock
Seol might have been the group's designated sex symbol — "Every girl screamed his name everywhere we went," grumbles Bunnell — but the drummer was also famous for playing with his hands ablaze!

Publicity reports made it sound like he did it all the time, but Bunnell says the stunt was only done once and only during one song.

"It was at the Who show," he says. "Randy had gas jets coming down his sleeves, and when he played the bongos during 'The World's on Fire' flames would come up through the vibes. It almost became something he had to do at every show, but the gas jets got real hot and left pipe burns on his wrists, so physically he couldn't do it."

While "Incense and Peppermints" was in the charts, teen 'zines ran "Win A Date With The Band" competitions. ("Some girl got to go on a Universal Studios tour with me and Randy," vaguely recalls Bunnell.) There were "Win the Kurtas Off Their Backs" contests. ("To tell you the truth, I don't know whose clothes they gave the winner," he states.) And there was a lot of fan mail. ("Most of it was about Randy," sighs Bunnell.)

Throughout 1968 the group guested on several TV variety shows including Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Jonathan Winters Show; Seol won an episode of The Dating Game; and they even popped up in the Dick Clark-produced hippy/teensploitation flick Psych-Out.

The group meet Jonathan Winters during an
appearance on his TV variety show
But the hysteria was relatively short-lived. The week after it hit #1, "Incense and Peppermints" fell to #3, displaced by the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" and the Cowsills' "The Rain, the Park & Other Things." And it was all downhill from there.

In early 1968, the band's second album was issued with surprisingly little fanfare. Wake Up...It's Tomorrow found the group not only whittled down to a five-piece lineup with the departure of Gary Lovetro, but also taking a more polished almost easy-listening approach to their music.

Although many now consider this LP to be the Strawberry Alarm Clock's finest achievement, at the time it didn't trouble the charts.

To make matters worse, in a bid to capitalize on the success of "Incense and Peppermints," Uni rush-released the (sort of) title track 45. "Tomorrow" — a breezy pop tune with mild psychedelic leanings — preceded the LP by several months and reached a respectable #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. But by the time the album was released, the single had exited the charts and taken any momentum with it.

According to Bunnell, the group's stylistic shift with Wake Up...It's Tomorrow was an "experiment."

Magazine pin-up of the band circa 1967
"The first album was an experiment and so was the second," he says, "it was just a different experiment. We were more crafty about the studio. By that time, we could come up with incredible effects and we were trying to use them, sort of leaving song writing in the dust at least for me, and mostly coming up with instrumental-type things. It threw everybody off."

You could say that. With most of their audience having wandered away to listen to "Honey" and "Lady Madonna," Uni showed amazing fortitude and continued to issue SAC records.

Uni advert for "Sit with the Guru"
A second single from Wake Up...It's Tomorrow — "Sit with the Guru" b/w "Pretty Song from Psych-Out" — was released in March 1968, but it only climbed to #65 in the charts.

Bunnell and Seol stayed for a third album, The World in a Sea Shell, which once again saw the involvement of outside songwriters, including Carter and Gilbert, on several tracks.

Following their departure, Bunnell and Seol joined up with some friends to form Buffington Rhodes, although they don't seem to have released anything.

Meanwhile, the Alarm Clock reorganized and kept going. Ed King switched from guitar to bass, original drummer Gene Gunnels returned, and former Nighcrawler vocalist/guitarist Jimmy Pitman was brought in.

In 1969 they released Good Morning Starshine, SAC's fourth and final album on Uni. The LP went mostly unnoticed, and the title track single — the same song released at the same time as Oliver's version — peaked at #87 in the Hot 100. It was a dark day for the Strawberry Alarm Clock when Oliver soared to #3.

By 1970 it was pretty much over. A regional tour of the South (as replacements for an imitation SAC put together by the band's ex-manager) introduced King to his future bandmates in Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Advert for the Strawberry Alarm Clock
at the Cheetah in Venice, California, circa 1967
And that same year, the group (now a foursome fronted by vocalist Paul Marshall) appeared in the Russ Meyer-directed trashy cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. "I've been to parties where they dance to records by the Strawberry Alarm Clock," announces Dolly Read's character Kelly McNamara, "but this is the first time the Strawberry Alarm Clock have ever been to the party!"

And other than a couple of "best of" compilations, everyone thought that was it. Until 1982 when the Music Machine club in LA advertised an upcoming Strawberry Alarm Clock show, which came as a complete surprise to the former band members! "So we called," says Bunnell. "They said, 'We figured we'd get you. We want you to play.'" And various incarnations of the group have been playing the rock revival circuit ever since!

* * *

Wake Up Where You Are
released by Global Recording Artists (2012)
But wait! There's more...

In 2012 — a full forty-three years after their final Uni LP and nineteen years after this interview — the Strawberry Alarm Clock released a new album! Produced by Steve Bartek, Wake Up Where You Are (subtitled "It's About Time") combines new songs with reinterpretations of the group's classic tracks and side project material.

As well as "new" guitarist Howie Anderson (who joined the band in 1986), original SAC members George Bunnell and Mark Weitz were involved with the project. And as a funny foot note, Bunnell points out, "This time around we have two drummers!"

Yep, both Randy Seol and Gene Gunnels took part in the recording. After all, it just wouldn't be the Strawberry Alarm Clock without two of something!

Bunnell notes that he, Weitz, Anderson and Bartek have continuously performed as SAC since 2006. He adds that, "Lee Freeman was also with us till early 2008 when he became too ill to continue."

The band pose for an updated pic of their 1967 LP cover
To bring the story fully up-to-date, Bunnell says: "Last year we recorded a new version of 'Incense and Peppermints.' We haven't released it yet because we did it for licensing purposes. The cool thing is we had all the original [band members]: Ed King, Greg Munford, Gene Gunnels, Mark Stephen Weitz, Randy Seol and myself. Bartek's schedule didn't allow him to participate. (His day job as Danny Elfman's chief orchestrator and then some, takes precedence.)"

* * *

Also, many thanks to Mark Weitz for supplying the following information about the creation of "Incense and Peppermints" and some important details surrounding the song's erroneous credits. Mark writes...

A couple of fine points that somehow never get reported properly that I'd like to clear the air on... The musical idea for the yet unnamed song "Incense and Peppermints" was solely mine. I sat down at the piano one day and knocked out the majority of the music.

"Heart Full of Rain" 45
All-American Records (1966)
It was the second original song that I wrote. The first one was titled "Heart Full of Rain" (which was recorded and released on the All-American label that our manager Bill Holmes owned).

When the label [for "Heart Full of Rain"] was pressed and I saw the 45, I asked [Holmes], "Where is my name on this record? I wrote the music and the lyrics and sang it!"

He put his name on as the writer and told me he was paying for the session and all the costs of making the record — so that's what you have to do. I couldn't believe it!

Back to the story: I got stuck on the "bridge" of ["Incense and Peppermints"] and I asked Ed King to drive over and help me come up with some chords. We knocked it out in about 45 minutes and the basic music was finished.

For some reason (and I know this is a small detail to some people), I always see song credit going to Ed King's name first, then mine, like it was his idea. The intro, verse and ending were written solely by me. Ed came up with the bridge, that was it!

"Incense and Peppermints" picture sleeve 45
released in Japan on MCA Records (1970)
Anyway, I will always be sensitive to the credit given for writing "Incense and Peppermints." Especially since I never received a penny on it. Over $500,000 in royalties went to Carter and Gilbert due to that infamous argument between Frank Slay and Bill Holmes over who exactly the writers should be on the song.

Holmes insisted his name should be on the song, too. Slay turned him down and said, "I need four names only," which should have been Mark Weitz, Ed King, John Carter and Tim Gilbert.

But Holmes disagreed and Frank Slay went ahead on his own (for some reason which I will never know) and put Carter and Gilbert's names only as writers and released it — never expecting that track would go to number one!

(At least I got my name on the B-side, and I made a small amount of money on "The Birdman of Alkatrash" — which I wrote in the studio in about an hour! Lee Freeman helped with the lyrics on that song.)

The Strawberry Alarm Clock - publicity photo
The process was similar on the songs "Tomorrow," "Sit with the Guru" and "Barefoot in Baltimore." I had the idea for a song (the majority of the music) and would ask Ed to help come up with some chords that I was missing. In essence, Ed and I were co-songwriters — a team so to speak.

But I wanted to bring attention [to the fact] that the four songs which charted on the Billboard Top 100 were all musically my ideas. Ed King helped me complete the songs. Without Ed helping me, those songs probably would've never been completed. Ed was great to work with. He always seemed to come up with the music to help finish the songs! He was very talented musically, and remember he was only 18 years old (I was 21 at the time). I miss him a lot. I had this fantasy of getting back together and writing some new songs, but we know the rest of the story and that's not going to happen.

For the record, only three of us played on the basic music track [for "Incense and Peppermints"]. I played organ and piano; Ed played bass and lead and rhythm guitar; and Gene played drums. The rest of the band performs the vocal harmonies. Ed pointed this out to me about a year ago. I'd completely forgotten about it.

* R.I.P. Lee Freeman who passed away February 14, 2010
* R.I.P. Ed King who passed away August 22, 2018

Follow the Strawberry Alarm Clock on Facebook. Here's a link:

For more information, check out the band's official website:

Monday, 14 January 2019

Head On: These San Francisco Rockers Have A Plan!

If we'd been CREEM magazine, this pic of  Mark, James
and Frankie would've been used for a "Star's Cars" 
feature and it would have a funny caption.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov 
Originally published in Rave-Up #7 (1983)

By Devorah Ostrov

Not many bands can incur wrath the way Head On seem to do. One particularly nasty oldster (whose band we won't mention 'cause they're crap) had the nerve to compare Frankie's hair to something resembling a "bird's nest." Meanwhile comments like, "What the fuck do you wear eyeliner for?" and "You look so '70s," are common.

Still, in much the same youthful, drunken, fuck-it-all tradition of the New York Dolls, Head On pay no attention to these idiots and carry on having fun!

* * *

D.J. and Frankie
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Rave-Up: With the plan being to land a major record deal soon, are you hoping to break out of the San Francisco club scene?

Frankie: Oh, God yes!

James: Yeah! Clubs are okay sometimes, but we just play too many of them all the time. We get tired of it, and people get tired of seeing us. But since we don't have any product out, it's kind of difficult.

Frankie: I'd like to just see how we do with a crowd we've never played for, 'cause we've played and sort of manipulated a lot of these people in the Bay Area.

Rave-Up: How did it go when you were opening for groups like Ted Nugent and Cheap Trick?

Mark: It all depends on where it was. When we played in Stockton with Ted Nugent it was like... We were expecting to be massacred! But those people don't get shows out there that often, and so here's somebody called Head On that opens up for Ted Nugent — they must be SOMEBODY! Then, when we opened for Cheap Trick... I mean, how often does Humboldt get shows? The crowd went NUTS! This sounds kind of conceited, but there were girls over on James' side of the stage and they were screaming, shaking their heads, and putting their hands on their cheeks. It looked like Beatlemania!

Head On circa summer 1983
L-R: Mark Berglund, Howard Teman, D.J. Nicholson
James Ray and Frankie Wilsey.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Rave-Up: Since it was going so well, why didn't you keep going in that direction?

Mark: Well, it's really hard to say. People try to pin that thing on us: "Well, you had the ball and you dropped it." But I don't know where we would've gotten more shows like those. Those shows that we got were LUCK!
Howard and James
Photo: Devorah Ostrov

James: Every year that we've been together we've set a goal and we've made it. When we first got together we said, "By February," or whatever, "we're going to be playing the Old Waldorf." So, we did. Then we said, "Let's open up for somebody big," and we got Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick and Joe Perry. Then we said, "Let's put out some kind of a product," and we did a flexi-disc. We wanted to sell out a club, so we sold out a club. But those steps seem to have come a lot easier than this step [putting out an album]. A lot of times the public doesn't realize that a band is taking steps, and if it takes them a long time they'll forget about you. All you know about a band is what you read about them or see about them.

Rave-Up: Still, you are one of the few local bands with a strong following.

Frankie: Which surprizes me! It's weird. We play dancy music, but nobody dances. We always discuss it... "This song had a good dancy feel when we were writing it." We'll play it pretty dancy, but NOBODY will bop or anything. It seems like they just sit sort of bewildered. Just like, "Wow, these guys are weird!"

Rave-Up: Do you guys get harassed because of the way you look?

Early promo photo featuring bassist Rick Tweed
Head On logo designed by Ricky McMinn
Photo by: Dennis Callahan
Mark: Oh, God do we get shit! I work at a record store and it's fine while I'm in there, but once I set foot out of that store... Yesterday, some lady came into the store and asked my manager what ear [for an earring] it was that meant gay, right? He goes, "Well, I don't know." And she goes, "Well, I'm not coming any further!" And she turned around and walked out of the store.

Rave-Up: She thought you were gay?

Frankie Wilsey
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Mark: Yeah. It kind of gets unnerving. You get really caught up in it, y'know. If you're in a bad mood and somebody starts laughing at you... I mean, you'd think that people would not be that cruel to outright laugh in your face. But it happens.

James: I even get it and I look normal! But when I go out people just look at me like, "God, you're fucking weird!" It just bugs me when you go into a place and you get, "Queer! Faggot! FREAK!"

Frankie: Myself, I wear make-up all the time. I wear eyeliner practically every day. It's just a habit. It's something I've done for a long time. People will notice it more if I'm not wearing any. They won't say nothing when I'm wearing it, but when I don't wear it, it's "HEY!"

Rave-Up: Has the band always been as image conscious as it is now?

Frankie: We were something acceptable in the beginning. We were a little more acceptable in the way of say, dress and our sound. We were a little on the "macho" side. Not so much metal, it was more of just a "macho" thing. We've changed to appeal to ourselves.

Mark and James
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Mark: It's kind of funny, the whole look thing. I used to have really long hair and everyone was, "Hey! Rock 'n' roll!" Then I cut it off, and EVERYBODY gave me shit! They're all going, "Where's your defiance?" I'm going, "You're looking at it right here!" I defied THEM by cutting my hair! And they really got all bent out of shape 'cause I didn't look like them! People still ask me, "Are you gonna grow your hair long again?" I just go, "Fuck off, pal!" I look the way I wanna look. That's the way rock 'n' roll is to me!

Rave-Up: Do you have a hard time separating your real personalities from the way your fans see you — always partying, always drunk, living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle?

James: We're not ALWAYS drunk! That's Frankie! He's living the rock n' roll lifestyle for all of us.

The band hold a meeting in the vacant lot adjacent to Rave-Up HQ
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Mark: He's living the cliché rock 'n' roll lifestyle — on the street, in the worst part of town. But it all depends on what side of rock 'n' roll you want to live. I really live for the music. I write lots of songs, not just songs that we play. My songs are my emotions because I have a hard time displaying my emotions. The music for me goes a lot deeper than... I live at home, and for me that's fine. I like living in a nice surrounding. I like having a place to call home. I live rock 'n' roll when I'm playing, and my home life is very different.

Mark & D.J.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Rave-Up: One last thing, tell us about your version of the New York Dolls' song "Trash."

Frankie: "Trash" was a little bit shaky in the beginning. I said, "The kids are gonna love that!" Just hearing the word "TRASH!" They don't even care what I'm singing during the verses, as long as they hear "TRASH!" They can relate to that. It reminds them of their girlfriend, or their day, or their job, or school... A lot of the time I don't even know what David [Johansen] is saying in the verses. I say the same thing over and over. I had it down in the beginning, but we've done it so many times that I've lost it. I just start babbling anything. I used to love it when they [the fans] thought I'd wrote it.

Rave-Up #7
Cover boy Frankie Wilsey 
made our readers swoon.
Photo: Devorah Ostrov

* Many thanks to Rave-Up pen pal Connie Wallace who kept her copy of issue #7 and very kindly forwarded this interview to me.

* For more information about Head On, check out their Facebook page. Here's a link:

Sunday, 6 January 2019

L.A. Guns: The 1989 Release Of Cocked & Loaded Kept The Censors Busy!

L.A. Guns - promo poster for Cocked & Loaded 
Originally published in Rave-Up No. 18 (1989)

By Devorah Ostrov

"We better watch this one with a magnifying glass!"

L.A. Guns vocalist Phil Lewis laughs while he imitates the fear and loathing with which MTV inspects the group's videos.

Calling from Texas, where the band is kicking off a U.S. tour in support of its second album, Cocked & Loaded, he continues: "To give you an example, when we did 'Sex Action' [from their eponymous debut LP]... Kelly [Nickels, bassist] has a tattoo on his arm of a girl with big boobs. A guy came down from the record company and was actually serious about drawing in a bra."

Cocked & Loaded
Vertigo Records (1989)
"Rip and Tear," the first single/video release from the new album, has garnered its own share of scrutiny, but not because of tattooed boobs or even the comic violence of the notorious "One More Reason" video. This time it's because of the background scenery!

In the video, the guys play live in front of a set based on a "red-light district," with painted signs depicting tattoo parlors and porno theatres announcing "live nude girls."

When I spoke to Kelly Nickels, he was just as fed up with MTV's time-consuming paranoia.

"Every time we took 'Rip and Tear' to them, they would make us re-edit it," he complained. "They were freeze-framing every shot and making us take out every scene where you can see what's written on the backdrop. Cher can have half her fucking ass hanging out, but we can't show the letter X in sex! But hey, what are you gonna do?"

However, with Cocked & Loaded the censors have a bit more to worry about than just the videos. The album cover — which depicts a nearly nude female cartoon caricature happily straddling a gun — has also raised some eyebrows.

Phil Lewis
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
"I've seen ads in certain magazines which don't show the cover," says Kelly. "They just put the top of the bullet where it says Cocked & Loaded."

"We've had a few reviews which says it's a sexist cover," adds Phil. "But it really isn't. The fact is, she's [the cartoon lady] having a great time! It's not like she's being put under any strain or being abused."

Two factors saved the album cover from certain doom: the art work itself was executed by a woman (Maxine Miller) and the figure, which was initially nude, is now kind of covered up.

"Certain chain stores wouldn't want to carry the album if she were naked," says Kelly, explaining the last-minute addition of the patriotically colored bra and chaps. "K-Mart won't carry it, and you sell a lot of records through them."

Cocked & Loaded is the first album that all five current band members have contributed to, as drummer Steve Riley was still a member of W.A.S.P. when L.A. Guns recorded their debut album.

Originally formed by guitarist Tracii Guns in 1983, by '85 the group's lineup included vocalist Paul Black, bassist Mick Cripps, and former Weirdos drummer Nickey "Beat" Alexander.

L.A. Guns - promo poster
But by the time the band began recording their first LP, Phil Lewis (ex-vocalist for British glam/pop group Girl) had replaced Paul Black, and Kelly Nickels (one-time member of Faster Pussycat) joined on bass. Steve Riley took over from Nickey Alexander shortly after the album was completed.

"Steve joined the day before we took the picture for the back cover," notes Kelly, "and most of the first album had already been written by Tracii, Mick, and the old singer. Phil came in and rewrote all the lyrics, but there wasn't really an emphasis on writing new songs."

Kelly Nickels
RIP Teaser photo
Perhaps it's because the group was finally able to collaborate on the material for Cocked & Loaded (as well as the top-notch production team of Tom Werman, Duane Baron and John Purdell) that makes it one of the strongest albums of the year.

Recording the new album took "a massive amount of work," points out Phil. "The first album was put together very loosely, without that much attention to detail. Cocked & Loaded is much more structured and thought out."

"I think the album came out great," offers Kelly. "It kicks ass!"

Phil agrees. "I'm really, really happy with every song on it," he says. "But what I like most is the way it starts with 'Letting Go,' then it goes into this musical hyperspace, then into 'Slap in the Face,' and then into 'Rip and Tear' — which is so confident. I just love it! It gives me chills!"

L.A. Guns have spent the better part of the last two years on the road, headlining clubs and opening shows for the likes of Cheap Trick (Robin Zander provides back-up vocals on some Cocked & Loaded tracks), Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Ted Nugent — who, Phil mysteriously tells me, "supervised the recording sessions in his own special way."

Phil Lewis
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Kelly clearly recalls the group's last club date, the night before they hooked up with AC/DC.

"It was at the Nick in [Birmingham] Alabama," he says. "I can't forget this because there were like 200 people and the floor was covered with sawdust. The next night we played to 14,000 people in Portland, Maine!"

This year, L.A. Guns is once again headlining smaller venues, but they insist it's not the backwards move it seems.

"We'd probably get to a lot more people if we went out with a band who has a Number One album," admits Phil. "But we don't want to be the eternal support band. We don't want to go off on someone else's success; we've got to earn it."

* In Rave-Up #15, Phil Lewis talks about his former band Girl and how he came to join L.A. Guns. Here's a link: