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One-Hit Wonder … Or Not? A Chat with George Bunnell of The Strawberry Alarm Clock About “Incense and Peppermints”
In our newest One-Hit Wonder … Or Not? entry, bassist George Bunnell of The Strawberry Alarm Clock discusses his band’s career and whether he and his band mates consider themselves a “one-hit wonder” regarding their No. 1 single, 1967’s “Incense and Peppermints.”
What determines if a song is a “one-hit wonder”? This is a subject that’s become somewhat difficult to define, as there doesn’t seem to be one clear answer. Many people define it as an artist or band best remembered for one “signature” song that achieves mainstream popularity, especially one that stands the test of time, or a track that landed at precisely the right time and made an undeniable impact that is felt decades later. Even if the artist had other hits, that one single still seems to be the most widely known by the general public.
From the artist’s standpoint, there can certainly be a stigma associated with the phrase “one-hit wonder,” especially when many have had successful careers highlighting other charting singles, albums, tours, have produced or written notable songs for other artists, and have cultivated a devoted fan base around the world that helps them remain in the public eye. But the truth is, thousands of artists, both old and new, would give their left arm to have that one big hit.
Whatever your definition of “one-hit wonder,” there’s a nuance to the term that often goes overlooked and underappreciated, and it’s with that in mind that we present this new column.
Rock Cellar: Do you consider your band to be a “one-hit wonder”? Why or why not?
George Bunnell: We fully understand the tag “One-Hit Wonder” as it applies to our band. Sometimes we’ve just let it go by, but given a fighting chance we may beg to differ.
The why? element is obviously because of the magnitude of our first hit reaching the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 and Cashbox.
The why not? That’s not so obvious. When your first single goes to No. 1, it’s a hard act to follow. Our first album Incense and Peppermints made it to #11 on The Billboard Album chart. Our second single, “Tomorrow,” made it to number 23 on Billboard and number 14 on Cashbox. Third single, “Sit With The Guru,” No. 65 Billboard, No. 56 Cashbox.
Fourth single, “Barefoot In Baltimore,” No. 67 Billboard, No. 54 Cashbox. (but No. 1 in Baltimore!). Fifth single, “Sea Shell,” No. 98 Cashbox.
Sixth single, “Miss Attraction,” didn’t chart. Seventh single, “Good Morning Starshine,” No. 87 Billboard No. 85 Cashbox.
Five more singles were released after that but none charted. We released a total of five albums, but only the first one charted.
Rock Cellar: Were you able to recognize the impact your song was having at the time of its success, and did you imagine it would span the test of time like it has?
George Bunnell: We knew it was spreading like wildfire. It had a somewhat of a slow start until CBS decided to run with it on all their rock radio stations across the country. We had no idea it would have the life it has. In the years since it has come to define a certain aspect of the era, but nothing we foresaw.
Rock Cellar: What was your greatest moment performing this song?
George Bunnell: We did two tours with the Beach Boys and The Buffalo Springfield and we played in large venues. The first night of the first tour was at Constitution Hall in D.C. When we got to “Incense and Peppermints” in the set, the audience exploded. Girls screaming … the whole bit. We were in shock!
Rock Cellar: Did you write the song with the intention that it would be a hit?
George Bunnell: Mark Weitz and Ed King originally wrote the music as an instrumental. They went into the studio and recorded it that way. Then the producer mentioned that one of the writers in his stable had a working title “Incense and Peppermints” that he thought fit the music. So he asked him [John Carter] to finish the body of lyrics.
The rest is history!
When it came time to publish the song, the producer, Frank Slay, told the band’s manager, Bill Holmes, to decide who besides John Carter and Tim Gilbert were to get credit. Well Bill said he wanted everyone’s name, including his, on it. Frank said no way and to choose two names. Bill made a fuss and wouldn’t do it. So Frank sent in the copyright with only Carter and Gilbert.
Mark Weitz and Ed King (who later co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama”) ended up with no credit. Nada! Zip!
Rock Cellar: What was the initial reaction to the song? Did people take to it immediately, or did it take a while before catching on?
George Bunnell: At the outset “Incense” was the B-side and a novelty song, “The Birman Of Alkatrash,” was the A-side. Well, the DJ (Johnny Fairchild, KIST Santa Barbara) who broke the record thought differently and started pushing the B-side. It became the most requested song two weeks in a row.
Then the band’s manager took the success to other SoCal radio stations and that success was repeated until it got to LA, the big market, and boom it took off.
It was around for several months before catching on across the country.
Rock Cellar: What do you think was the reason for the song’s success?
George Bunnell: To me the song was very colorful, the title was odd, the name of the band was also colorful and odd, the clothes and album cover were odd and colorful. For sure the signature Farfisa organ sound, the fuzz guitar, the nice harmonies, the drum fills complete with cowbell, they were all part of its charm.
That coupled with the fact that nobody could figure out what the song was about or even recite the lyrics correctly, kept it in the conversation.
We’re not the kind of group that sets out to write a commercial/hit song. We first are trying to find a groove we like and then we take it from there.
The song has since appeared in several movies, which propel it into new decades — films like Psych-Out, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Austin Powers and Recess: School’s Out.
Rock Cellar: Apart from your loyal fan base that is familiar with all of your music, what would you say is another song of yours that people may know?
George Bunnell: The movie Psych-Out (1968 Dick Clark-produced) had a few of our songs in it and has become a cult classic. The theme song, “The Pretty Song from Psych-Out,” “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow,” “The World’s On Fire.”
These songs were all featured on the soundtrack album.
And mostly the song “Tomorrow,” which was a No. 23 hit.
Rock Cellar: Separate from that, what’s another song of yours that you would want people to know, either because it’s a personal favorite of yours or because it didn’t quite catch on as a single in the way you would have expected it to?
George Bunnell: Two songs. “Birds in My Tree,” which was the flip side of “Tomorrow.” I personally thought it should’ve been the second single. It actually was getting more airplay in SF than “Tomorrow” and it was from the first album, while “Tomorrow” was from the second album.
Another is “Pretty Song From Psych-Out,” which was the flip side of “Sit With The Guru.” It’s really a beautiful song and it was the theme song of that movie.
Rock Cellar: Are you familiar with any notable covers of your song? If so, what did that feel like to see/hear another artist pay tribute in that fashion?
George Bunnell: There have been a few covers of “Incense and Peppermints” and some covers of other songs. One fun bit is Todd Rundgren doing “Incense” live and off the cuff.
There was a girl band called Adult Net that did “Incense.” Most notably is an instrumental version of “Incense” by Martin Denny from his
Exotica Lounge LP. Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons did a dance music version. German band Vibravoid did “Incense” on their album The Politics of Ecstasy … A
Timothy Leary reference.
“Birds in my Tree” was covered by a Latin American group called the Buttons. “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow” was done by the group Stay from Spain. “Sit With The
Guru” was done by the Japanese group Shinowa. “Barefoot In Baltimore” was covered by a group who’s name escapes me.
Rock Cellar: What are you up to these days with your music career? Are you touring, recording new music, producing, anything like that?
George Bunnell: We’ve continued to write and record new music over the years. We released an album in 2012 called Wake Up Where You Are which has new songs, and we also revisited some of the old songs on it.
In 2017 we decided to recreate the iconic Incense and Peppermints album cover. We had our original seamstress, Cathy Scarms, make the clothes and pillows that were on that cover which was originally taken in her shop, SatPurush in Westwood, CA. There was a whole crew on hand for the new shoot.
Robert Jacobs captured the shot we ended up going with. There were a few cameras clicking away.
We also have a new batch of songs ready to release this year. We just played live at The Whisky A Go Go on November 13th, 2021.
We will be doing a set at the Get Together Foundation’s annual benefit concert event at The Palace Theater in Los Angeles on April 23rd, 2022.
There is a documentary/book being done by our own Robert Jacobs (Midnight Sun Light Show, an account of the band’s history.)
June 17, 2022