The Strawberry Alarm Clock, of course, is best remembered for their iconic 1967 hit, “Incense and Peppermints.” It’s well known the song was intended to be only a B side for their “Birdman of Alcatrash” single and the lead singer, 16 year old Greg Munford, wasn’t even a member of the band. Such is the stuff of rock and roll lore.
But after their auspicious debut, SAC never again captured the magic of “Incense and Peppermints.” In part, that’s because the song wasn’t really representative of their sound. In addition, the group never nailed down a consistent musical direction. They fell into duels with their management which led to a series of line-up changes. After cranking out a series of unsuccessful albums, other than various live re-unions on the nostalgia circuit, SAC called it a day. At least, in terms of the recording studio.
Forty years later, SAC goes back to their past in Wake Up Where You Are. The long-awaited collection features long-time members Mark Weitz (keyboards, vocals), George Bunnell (bass, rhythm guitar), Randy Seol (vocals, vibes, percussion), Gene Gunnels (drums, vocals) and Howie Anderson (lead guitar) who joined the band back in 1986. The producer is Steve Bartek who, back in the day, co-wrote many of the SAC’s songs along with his partner, Bunnell.
The first clue that the collection is a bit of a time capsule is the title, an obvious reference to the group’s second album, 1968’s Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow. The second clue is the opening song, the band’s reworking of The Seeds’ “Mr. Farmer,” a cover that will be included on a tribute anthology to the late Sky Saxon. (The Electric Prunes version of The Seeds “Pushin Too Hard,” also planned for the tribute, was released last year.)
Mainly, the strongest signal we’re going back in time is that the bulk of the offerings are re-workings of album tracks from SAC’s own past. From their first album, Incense and Peppermints, we get the Bunnell, Bartek-penned “Strawberries Mean Love,” “Hummin’ Happy,” and “Birds in My Tree” which ended up as the B-side for the Clock’s second single, “Tomorrow.” Speaking of, while I’m not familiar with many of the original versions of these tracks, I do know “Tomorrow” and the redo here is a more organ oriented arrangement showcasing Weitz.
Other songs from 1968 include “Sit with the Guru,” featuring sitar-like guitar lines. “Barefoot in Baltimore” was culled from the SAC’s third album, The World in a Sea Shell, a co-composition of Weitz and two early mainstays of the band, Roy Freeman and band founder Ed King. But other songs don’t need to be from the ‘60s to sound like they could fit on old fashioned vinyl releases. “Charlotte’s Remains” begs to be heard under strobe lights while inhaling, ah, your favorite incense. “Lose to Live” is a joyous bit of bubblegum that bounces around from one rhythm to another with an overt psychedelic middle. In fact, the psychedelia is one of the most alluring aspects of the production, with guitar work that emulates leads from fellow California axmen from the Airplane and Quicksilver.
Then and now, the Strawberry Alarm Clock doesn’t benefit from strong vocal leads although their harmonies are polished and professional. Their lyrics, as with “World Citizen” and “Drifting Away,” are less than subtle flower power dreamscapes. Their strengths are their individual talents as players. It’s evident the SAC is a full band and not one or two leaders with backing instrumentalists. You can hear this on the two songs serving as bonus tracks, an extended version of “Mr. Farmer” and an even longer version of “Sit with the Guru” with a lengthy drum solo. What has changed most for the band is the fact each of the gents has matured and progressed on their various instruments over the years. Not all the material is perfect psych-pop, but it’s fun to re-visit the innocent, AM side of trippy music. Wake Up Where You Are is something of a full circle project, a statement of one band saying this is where we are now and we’re still in a good mood after all these years.