Gary James' Interview With George Bunnell of
Strawberry Alarm Clock
If their name sounds strange, then the title of their hit record sounds even stranger!
Strawberry Alarm Clock enjoyed a big hit with the song "Incense and Peppermints" back in 1967. What's the story behind this "Flower Power" era rock group? We'll let bassist George Bunnell fill you in.
Q - George, are you still involved in music in someway today?
A - Yeah.
Q - Would that be in Strawberry Alarm Clock?
A - We do occasional things. We were going to play in December (2004) with the entire original line-up. We were going to be part of the PBS Special that's actually on right now. The Sixties thing that they have going, with the guys from Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf...that bunch. We were slated to do that show. What ended up happening is. when they sent us all of our contracts, nothing was what we had talked about over the phone before and we agreed upon was in the contracts. So, we called 'em back and said nothing's here. What's going on here? And they said can't you just take our word for it? We said no. We need everything! So then a couple of days go by and they said OK, we'll do everything. We'll send you the new contracts. And it was like eight days before the show. So we said, no, we're not going to do that on a short notice. (laughs) They couldn't believe that we actually turned them down. (laughs)
Q - A smart band. They weren't expecting that.
A - Yeah.
Q - Good legal advice, or someone in the band knows about the law.
A - We've all had our experiences. Over the phone they were telling us "this could've been a good thing for you guys. You could've gotten a lot of work out of it." I think what they were thinking was that we are all in desperate need of doing it, whereas we were doing it as a reunion. In our minds, it was a fun thing. I mean, a legitimate, class reunion sort of thing. We haven't had the original line-up back together since the old days. This was actually with the mysterious lead singer of "Incense and Peppermints", Greg Munford, the guy that was never in the band, but sang the song. He was in the band as long as it took him to sing the song.
Q - What happened to him?
A - He was never in the band. It was supposed to be a demo. They couldn't get Lee, who was actually the lead singer at the time, to sing the song. They wanted it to come out. Lee didn't like it. So, he wasn't putting forth his best effort. Then, Randy Seol, the drummer, was brand spanking new in the band. He was having a lot to do with harmonies, but they hadn't fully considered him to be a lead singer because they had a lead singer. And, Randy was a drummer, and it wasn't the traditional spot for the lead singer. Greg Munford also had the same manager, Bill Holmes. Greg Munford happened to be in the studio because he was there doing his own thing. He was kind of like one of those guys who could play all the instruments and write and sing all the parts. A real talent. And so, they had him sing it. He sang the track that is actually the record. Like a one or two take thing. Nobody ever thought anything of it because it was really just the B-side of the record. The record was actually the keyboard player, Mark Weitz, which was the flip side of "Incense and Peppermints", singing this gimmick song called "Birdman Of Alcatrash". It was kind of an imitation of Sky Saxon and The Seeds. At the time, people did novelty songs to try and make a hit record. This was actually happening before I was in the band. I got in the band right then and there, because they didn't have any other songs and I was a writer. I had a song-writing partner. So, I got in the band right after this 'cause they needed to record an album. Before this, all they had ever done was cover tunes and a couple of original things. The cover tunes were like "Loves My Flash On You", and "Hey Joe" and "Fortune Teller" by The Stones, "I Can't Explain" by the Who. They put out singles on the manager's label and nothing ever came of it.
Q - Is there a Strawberry Alarm Clock that tours and records?
A - There had been. The last time we did something that was like a touring thing was in 2001. That was done in San Diego, in Balbon Park. It was a concert with Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and The Holding Company, which is kind of what we had been doing anyway. It was a big concert. From 1987 to 2001, we had been going around touring with Lee Freeman, original lead singer, Randy Seol, the original drummer and myself. We couldn't get our keyboard player, Mark, to do it. He's never been in another band since the old days. He left Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1970 or something. He went into the tropical fish business and he's actually prominent in it, here in California anyway. So, we couldn't get the entire original band. And then Ed King was in Lyryrd Skynyrd right after the Alarm Clock. He went through the whole turmoil, then didn't want to do anything musically either, and didn't need the money. (laughs) Then occasionally, we would have the guy I wrote songs with back in the old days, Steve Bartek. He would come out and do some of these shows with us. But, he was busy 'cause he does film scores with Danny Elfman. He's Danny Elfman's orchestrator and arranger and producer. He was also the lead guitar player for Boingo Boingo, Danny Elfman's band. He played flute on our first album and wrote all the songs with me.
Q - What do you do these days it there's no Alarm Clock?
A - I sell BMWs actually. I started selling cars in 1986, but kept playing...the band kept playing. Then I'm also in another band called Grey Dogs.
Q - What's that? A local Band?
A - Yeah. A couple of guys I grew up with. They're songwriters. They were staff writers at Capitol Records. We did an album in 2000. We just finished our second album, "Slow Motion". (laughs) The band moves in very slow motion.
Q - I say local band, you're in the San Fernando Valley area?
A - Actually, I'm just out of the valley. I live in Calabasas. I kind of live in the very end of Malibu Canyon.
Q - Strawberry Alarm Clock had two bass players didn't they?
A - Yeah, sort of.
Q - Why two?
A - The reason?
Q - Yeah.
A - It came about because I was not gonna be in the band. I was in another band, with Steve Bartek and Randy Seol, the drummer. I had no intentions of being in The Strawberry Alarm Clock, 'cause I was busy with this other band. I thought it was a better band anyway, and I wanted to be in that band. Then the Alarm Clock got a record deal and asked for me and Steve to come over and teach them our songs 'cause they knew we had songs. The Alarm Clock's drummer, who played on "Incense and Peppermints" was not on the first album. He had already left the band. His name was Gene Gunnels. They got Randy Seol to play drums in the meantime.
Q - So, before you recorded your first album, you were asked to join the band?
A - Yeah. That's what happened. They got the contract to do an album through Uni Records. They really didn't have songs and they asked Steve Bartek and myself to come over and play all of our songs. So we did and they said "ok, let's do them all." (laughs) So, we said "Ok, cool." So they rehearsed stuff and asked us to come into the studio with them. I was teaching Gary (Lovetro) the bass parts. He was the other bass player. We were arranging things and coming up with stuff. Then we go into the studio and the bass parts weren't coming out quite right to Ed King's liking. What ended up happening was Ed said "Well, look, you already know the songs. Just play bass on it." I went "OK." So, I played bass on one, then I played bass on another, then another, then another. Then Ed played on a couple of songs. Steve Bartek played flute. The next thing you know, they said "Hey, why don't you join the band? You want to be in the band?" I said "Wow. I'm in this other band. They'll have a fit." They said "Well, here's the opportunity. We'd like you to join the band and be the bass player...the second bass player. But then you can play guitar and other stuff too." So I thought about it and said "I'll do it." (laughs) So, I went for it. Gary and I occasionally play bass at the same time, but it was only me doing special effects while he was playing a bass part. I would do funny things on the bass, and not use it really as a bass. I had a couple of different bass guitars, one with fuzz tone in it. Then I had a little electric Vox thing called a mini mando. It was like a little twelve string guitar. I has a really funny, high little sound. So I would use that and play rhythms. Then I had an electric guitar too, and I would play some other guitar parts, riffs and other things. No soloing or anything like that. Kind of like bass parts on the guitar. It was weird. We were just experimenting. That's all we ever did with that band. Total experimentation.
Q - And you could get away with it in that time of musical history.
A - Yeah. Everything was new.
Q - Had you played songs with other acts before you joined Strawberry Alarm Clock?
A - I was eighteen years old when I got in the Alarm Clock. I had started writing with Steve Bartek when I was fourteen. We wrote everyday, all day. We lived next door to each other. Every single day after school. During the summer, it was like playing all the time, rehearsing and writing. We were already fully capable of crafting a song, coming up with an arrangement. Most people were doing cover tunes and learning other people's stuff and learning their arrangements.
Q - I recall seeing this band on a syndicated TV show on a Sunday morning, but I can't remember the name of the show. Do you know what show that would've been?
A - We did a lot of 'em in '67 and '68. Some of 'em were local. We did American Bandstand. There was this one called Groovy. I think where we played on the beach, on the sand. There was another show called Ninth Street West and we were on that a couple of times. We did a lot of different shows...Joey Bishop, Jonathan Winters and then when we were touring around, we did local shows...more local shows.
Q - Who came up with the group's name?
A - The keyboard player, Mark. Yeah, he came up with basically everything. He was older than the rest of us. He was twenty-one. We were all eighteen. He had the concept in his mind. The record company told the band to change their name and make it more contemporary. He kind of modeled it after "Strawberry Fields Forever".
Q - What was the group's name before Strawberry Alarm Clock?
A - The Sixpence.
Q - Specifically, why Strawberry Alarm Clock?
A - It came about with the band sitting around trying to think of things to go with Strawberry. Mark's parents had a guest house behind their house. That's were the band rehearsed. He had an old alarm clock in there. When everybody was real quiet after they thought of a bunch of names and they were all thrown out, everybody was kind of silently thinking. The only thing you could hear was that alarm clock making some kind of whacky noise 'cause it was semi-broken. And they all looked at it at the same time really, and that's where it came about. What they did was call the record company after they came up with it and said "how's Strawberry Alarm Clock?" They liked it! They said "That's weird!"
Q - Who wrote "Incense and Peppermints", the keyboard player?
A - Actually, he did, but he got ripped off for it. Ed King wrote the music to the bridge. Mark Weitz is the keyboard player. He wrote the body of the music. It was an instrumental. It was supposed to be the flipside of this stupid gimmick record that they made, the "Birdman" record. They weren't paying attention to it. The producer however, Frank Slay, really liked that track and said "It really should have lyrics. Why don't you guys try to write something to it?" Mark and them tried writing lyrics to it and couldn't come up with anything. So, they just said "let's leave it as it is." No, he said, John Carter, one of his other writers...Frank Slay was a publisher besides being a producer, and he had a couple of other writers, these guys who were in another band called The Rainy Days. They had actually had a title "Incense and Peppermints", but no lyrics to it. So, Frank Slay said "You know that title Incense and Peppermints? I want you to write a set of lyrics to it and use this music." He sent them the track of the music. So they wrote the lyrics and sent it back and that was it. They wrote a little melody to it. The melody follows the music to the song...the chord changes. They wrote the lyrics and then everybody in the band was going to have their name on the instrumental, 'cause everybody had their part of it. The drummer came up with the ending part. So, it was just gonna be a band instrumental on the flipside of it, with everybody's name on it. The it came with the names of these two other guys writing the lyrics. The producer said "We're not gonna put all these names on it. Who's the four people you want on it?" So, they came to a conclusion, so the producer sent it in. Copywrote it with just the guys that wrote the lyrics. So, they got all the credit and Mark and Ed never got any credit. They never got a penny. John Carter and Tim Gilbert (who wrote the lyrics) were a song-writing team just like me and Steve Bartek were. John Carter wrote the whole set of lyrics all by himself. They had an agreement that anything they sent in and published through Frank Slay, they would automatically put both names on it, no matter who wrote it. So, the one guy, Tim Gilbert did nothing and got half the song. (laughs) It makes a lot of money still.
Q - Why didn't you and the other guys do something about it immediately?
A - I don't know. I didn't have any part of it. So, it wasn't my concern. Even to this day I say "Why didn't you guys do something?" It's a sore subject. The answer is never really an answer. It's just beyond comprehension why they would just let it happen, but they did.
Q - Who was booking Strawberry Alarm Clock in the early days.
A - We were with the William Morris Agency.
Q - Did you tour behind "Incense and Peppermints"?
A - Oh Yeah, big time.
Q - Who did you tour with?
A - Oh, everybody. The big tour we did was with the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield. We played all over the place.
Q - You probably opened the show.
A - They would have four bands on that tour. It was Buffalo Springfield, then The Strawberry Alarm Clock, then The Beach Boys were the main deal. Then we would have a comedy act open called The Pickle Brothers. They kind of went around with us. Then, they had different other opening acts that would play before we played like Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and the Soul Survivors and Bobby Vee. It was interesting.
Q - Your drummer Randy actually played bongos with his hands on fire? Is that true?
A - Yes, but we only did it three times. The first time we did it, we were playing with The Who here in L.A. We were at the Anaheim Convention Center. Everybody was like telling us "you're going to have to step it up, you can't go out there and play. Your playing with The Who! So you better put on a show." It was our L.A. debut...not debut, but that's where we started once the record was a big hit. That show was Herman's Hermits and The Who. A band called The Sundowners actually opened the show.
Q - Strange mix, but I used to love the pairing of different styles of music on a bill.
A - I know. They're really funny. I was a big Who fan. To me, they were like the band of life at the time. The Sundowners were neither here or there. They were like a real clean cut kind of surf band. Herman's Hermits were like a bubblegum kind of thing. But, they were the headliner over The Who. (laughs) I thought "how crazy. How can they be the headliner?" Then, when they came on after The Who, the audience went berserk. That's when the audience kicked into high gear. They just started screaming and going nuts. It was like they didn't even know what was going on during The Who show. It was really bizarre. That was a lesson learned, (laughs) about what really is mainstream and what isn't. At that show, Randy was the willing participant, but we had a special effects guy that the manager hired. We were also going to fly into the show in harnesses and ropes, but we didn't. They built those gas jets for Randy that go down and link on his sleeve and come out on the top of his hands. He had to light 'em. He had a butane tank sitting there. He had to light the gas jet. He would sit there and play bongos with his hands on fire. He did do it. Then we had the vibes set up so the flames would come up when he was playing the vibes on "The World's On Fire". But he stopped doing it 'cause it was burning his hands. The things would get hot.
Q - And that's not good for a drummer.
A - No. It was crazy. The whole thing was crazy. On that show, our entrance ended up being that we had like pallbearers bring us in on these magic carpets. We were throwing out incense and peppermints to the audience. They brought us down the aisles of the Anaheim Convention Center to the stage.
Q - Your stage show has been described as a "psychedelic stage show." Besides what you've already described to me, what else was going on?
A - Basically the music itself was done with total abandon when we were in the "live" setting. In the recording studio, we had governors. We had producers. They were both like Pop producers. Frank Slay was connected to The Four Seasons and Freddie Cannon. So, they had total control of us in the studio, whereas "live", we were more like wild. What they would capture in the studio is like the sweet side of the band. We had a vocal coach and we could all sing and harmonize. We were almost like the Andrews Sisters of acid rock. (laughs) But, when we got on stage, we were free and we felt like we could just be crazy.
Q - How long was the band together?
A - Let's see...about a year and a half. Then I quit with the drummer.
Q - You recorded how many albums?
A - I did the first three; "Incense and Peppermints", "Wake Us Up Tomorrow", "The World In A Seashell" and then the band did "Good Morning Starshine" after I left. And they had another one. It's not really an album. It was called "Changes". It had a couple of songs on it that weren't anywhere else. It was actually a "Best Of" kind of album. Kind of a mixture of a couple of things. There was even an album with The Who. Half of the album is The Strawberry Alarm Clock and the other half is The Who.
Q - It sounds like the band was pretty successful, yet the personnel was coming and going. What was the problem there?
A - The other bass player, Gary Lovetro, they had like demoted him. They didn't want him playing bass at all. They wanted me playing bass. I wasn't pushing for anything. I was just there. The drummer didn't like Gary. Nobody did. They had all known him for a long time. I didn't. So, I didn't have any grudge against him. I kind of felt band for him sometimes. Apparently, when they were growing up, he caused a lot of grief for the guys in the band. They all grew up together. So what ended up happening is, they kind of pushed him out of the band and made him a road manager. While he was the road manager, there was a gig we did at a Catholic girls school. We were supposed to get paid before the gig. The head Nun came over and said "We're still collecting money. Is it OK if we pay you after the show?" He opened up his briefcase and he had a gun in there. He would have to guard the money. He opened it up and showed her the gun. She got all nervous and freaked out and called and told the agency...the William Morris Agency. So, the band said "that's it, you're done, you're out. You're too much of a liability." Then he sued us and won for breach of contract. He was under contract with us.
Q - Did he get a lot of money?
A - Yeah. Shortly thereafter is when I quit. There were too many problems. Too many lawsuits. The manager was crooked. He was double booking the band. There were shows that we booked in Hawaii and in Miami on the same night. One tour was a Dick Clark tour in Hawaii and the other was The Beach Boys tour we were on. So, there we were stuck between the two most important people of our lives at the time, 'cause Dick Clark had done a lot for the band. It was kind of crazy.
Q - I imagine you got sued for that too.
A - Yeah. There was a lot of 'em like that. That was half the trouble with the band. The manager getting us in all kinds of trouble.
Q - What's the immediate future for the group? Are you going out on the road?
A - No. The band really has no intention of it.* Everybody is really very complacent.