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Time Again for the Strawberry Alarm Clock
The back pages of pop music history are littered with tales of one hit wonders. You know the equation: A band comes out of nowhere, hits the top of the charts hard, can’t duplicate the mojo that got them there and ultimately stumbles into obscurity. But Strawberry Alarm Clock keyboard player/songwriter Mark Weitz will be the first to tell you that it’s not as simple a concept as ‘here today, gone tomorrow.’
“Unfortunately, if you’re in a band and the average person only remembers one song, that categorizes you as a one-hit wonder,” relates Weitz during a conversation with Rock Cellar in the living room of his comfortable Sherman Oaks, Ca. home.
- Mark Weitz; Strawberry Alarm Clock (photo ©Savannah Cazanov; all rights reserved)
“The problem with having that one-hit wonder label is that you don’t have the credibility that you truly deserve. Yes we had one monster hit in “Incense And Peppermints,” but if you look deeper into the band, you’ll realize that Strawberry Alarm Clock had a lot more going on than the perceived notion of a one-hit wonder group.”
Point of fact, Strawberry Alarm Clock put out four albums in their first incarnation and a fairly potent follow up chart single in “Tomorrow.”
And now, nearly 45 years after their last release, Strawberry Alarm Clock — with a lineup that includes several original members – have released an album with new songs.
And although the album Wake Up Where You Are also includes reworked old favorites and a potent cover or two (how about Mr. Farmer by Sky Saxon and the Seeds?!) this album of mature and playful psychedelia is conspicuous by the absence of their “Greatest Hit.” Says Weitz:
We didn’t see any point in redoing Incense And Peppermints. There was no way we could improve on the original so there was no reason to redo it.
Rock Cellar: How did you come up with the name Strawberry Alarm Clock?
Mark Weitz: Wow, it didn’t take long to ask that one! I borrowed the ‘Strawberry’ from The Beatles’ song Strawberry Fields Forever. At the time there were a lot of bands like The Electric Prunes and Moby Grape that were named after fruits and vegetables so that seemed like a good place to start.
One day the band was sitting around after a rehearsal trying to come up with some words to add to Strawberry. Well it turned out that I had an alarm clock that had a second hand that would scrape as it moved around. The scraping sound was constant. One day band member Lee Freeman and I happened to look at the clock and we looked at each other, simultaneously, and said ‘alarm clock.’
The rest of the band liked it, our label Uni records liked it, and so we became the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Rock Cellar: The band was originally called Thee Sixpence?
Mark Weitz: Yes. As it turned out, there was another band called Thee Sixpence but when we were signed to Uni Records and were about to release our first record, the label asked us to change the name.
Rock Cellar: You answered an ad tacked up on a Glendale California music store bulletin board, right? Thee Sixpence were looking for a keyboard player, you auditioned and joined the band?
Mark Weitz: You got it.
Rock Cellar: What kind of band was Thee Sixpence?
Mark Weitz: They were primarily an English cover band. But once I learned the cover songs they were doing, I figured I could probably write some songs as well. So I wrote a song called Heart Full Of Rain and our manager Bill Holmes put the single out on his All American Records label. Everything seemed fine. But then something happened.
Rock Cellar: What happened?
Mark Weitz: Our manager [Bill Holmes] put his name on the record as the songwriter. I had no idea why he had done that so I asked him. He said ‘Well, I’m footing all the money for this so I’m putting my name on as the writer.’ He was thinking that, if the song was a hit, he’d get all the money for it. We were all pretty naive about things like rights and publishing. All we wanted to do was play music and write music.
Rock Cellar: And so you never saw a cent off “Heart Full of Rain.”
Mark Weitz: I don’t think the song ever went anywhere. It was just a good feeling that the first song I ever wrote was released.
Rock Cellar: Not long after came your greatest hit, “Incense & Peppermints.” How did that song come together?
Mark Weitz: I was sitting at the piano at my parents’ house and I came up with this Oriental sounding riff. I called our guitar player Ed King [who would years later gain notoriety as a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd and as the temporary replacement for the late Duane Allman in The Allman Brothers Band] and said ‘Hey Ed. I’ve got this idea for a song. Can you come over and help me out?’
I already had the intro, a verse and the ending. Ed came over and came up with the bridge. Within 45 minutes, we had the entire structure of the song down. Except for the lyrics. The rest of the band and our manager liked it and we went into the studio and recorded what we had. Originally our manager called the music The Happy Whistler. We had no idea why.
- Strawberry Alarm Clock. Far left is Mark Weitz, far right is Ed King
Rock Cellar: Did somebody in the band eventually write the lyrics?
Mark Weitz: No. Frank Slay, our producer at the time, had also produced a band called Rainy Daze who had a hit with Acapulco Gold – written by John Carter and Tim Gilbert. Slay mailed a copy of our finished music track to Carter and it wasn’t long before it came back with the lyrics to the song that would be titled Incense And Peppermints.
Rock Cellar: Did you end up changing any of Carter’s lyrics?
Mark Weitz: No. The song was Carter’s lyrics as written. The only thing we changed was that, originally, the song had four verses. We cut that to three because radio wasn’t playing anything over three minutes in those days.
Rock Cellar: There’s a long-standing urban legend that the person who sang lead on Incense and Peppermints was not in the band. That he was somebody that nobody knew who literally walked in off the street, sang the song, and disappeared into the night.
Mark Weitz: It’s not a myth, and the guy literally did walk in off the street. But you’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that it was some derelict who walked in off the street, sang the song and then disappeared back into an alley. I don’t know how these rumors get started.
Rock Cellar: So what is the true story?
Mark Weitz: The guy’s name was Greg Munford. He was this 15-year-old kid who was managed by our manager and who had his own band. He was hanging out at the studio the night we recorded the song. When it came down to recording the vocals, everybody in the band took a shot at singing the song but nobody was satisfied.
Rock Cellar: What was the problem?
Mark Weitz: We were singing lyrics that somebody outside the band had written. It was kind of like auditioning and nobody seemed to have what the song needed. Finally we decided to let Greg try. Greg had this nasal, almost English to his voice that actually sounded the best with these lyrics. We thought ‘Well Greg sounds the best on the song but he’s not in the band.’ Frank Slay said that was okay and that we should just let him do it.
Nobody seemed to care a whole lot because nobody felt it would be a number one hit.
Rock Cellar: Was there ever any suggestion that Greg join the band?
Mark Weitz: I don’t think that ever came up. Besides he was pretty insistent on doing his own thing.
Rock Cellar: OK, almost afraid to ask. Who got songwriting credit on the song?
Mark Weitz: When it came time to press the label, we asked our manager Bill Holmes what four names he wanted listed as writers on the song. He said ‘I want my name, all the members of the band names and John Carter and Tim Gilbert’s names.’ Frank [producer] said that we couldn’t have nine writers names listed as writers on a song. But Bill insisted on all the names and a battle ensued.
Finally Frank said that if Bill didn’t give him four names, he was going to add the names himself. He ended up putting his name, Bill’s name and John Carter and Tim Gilbert’s name. He was sure he could use their names because they lifted a melody line off the music. I didn’t write sheet music out, I didn’t copyright. I just gave the music to Frank.
I told him ‘What are you doing? Ed King and I wrote the music.’ He said ‘No you guys wrote chords, Carter and Gilbert wrote the melody line. I threatened to sue Frank and Bill. I hired an attorney and was ready to go to battle over this.
Rock Cellar: So what happened next?
Mark Weitz: We had just signed with The William Morris Agency and they had come up with this big money tour for us with The Beach Boys and The Buffalo Springfield. We were told that if we went ahead with the lawsuit, the band would dissolve. All we knew at that point was that we were all set to go on this big tour. And again, to be perfectly honest, nobody thought the song was going to be a hit.
Rock Cellar: But the song would eventually go to number one.
Mark Weitz: And that was because the band really beat the pavement on that song. We went up and down the state of California for six months, going to every radio station and playing every club to push the record. It was six long months but finally Incense and Peppermints did go to number one.
Rock Cellar: At what point did you record your first full-length album, Incense and Peppermints?
Mark Weitz: The minute that Uni Records saw that the single was going up the charts, they said ‘Ok you guys, you’re going to have to do an album.’ George Bunnels had joined the band at that point and had become one of the main songwriters. We recorded that album in ten days. The songwriting had basically split into two camps: Bunnell and Steve Bartak, and Weitz, King and Freeman. Everything on that album was kind of thrown together pretty quick.
Rock Cellar: Did the idea of going out on an extended tour with the Beach Boys and the Buffalo Springfield make you nervous?
Mark Weitz: We knew we were going out with two very established bands, so we knew we were going to have to be on top of things as musicians every night. We could not make mistakes. Our goal was to play the music right every night and to gain the respect of other musicians for being a very good band.
Rock Cellar: What was it like when the groupies were all over you on that tour?
Mark Weitz: I just couldn’t believe it. I was this kid who grew up in Van Nuys, and now all of this was happening to me.
Rock Cellar: By ‘all of this’ you mean the sex, drugs and rock and roll benefits of a big tour with big bands?
Mark Weitz: It all seemed to come into play. The girls were everywhere. There was pot and all kinds of recreational drugs. We were a low-key band when it came to drugs; what we indulged in was done in a very low key manner. And I can honestly say that when we went on stage, we were straight at all times.
Rock Cellar: Is it true that the Beach Boys got your band into Transcendental Meditation during the tour?
Mark Weitz: Yeah. All the bands kind of got into it. We had our own mantras and we would do a silent group meditation kind of thing every night before we went on. And I would have to say that it worked because we would go on stage and put on real good shows.
- Mark Weitz & Lee Freeman – Strawberry Alarm Clock
Rock Cellar: This being the 60’s, did the band encounter any hostility or violence while on tour?
Mark Weitz: 1967 was the Dark Ages for that kind of thing. Because of the way we dressed and our long hair we got hassled a lot, especially in the South. A lot of hotels would not even let us check in. They would flat out tell us ‘Sorry but we don’t serve your kind here.
When we were in Peoria, Illinois we were actually arrested for marijuana possession . It was an event staged by a local politician so he could go back to his constituents and make like he was trying to save their children from drug addicts. We ended up hiring the famed attorney Melvin Belli and he got us off.
Rock Cellar: You have to admit that you probably came across as everything the older generation feared …
Mark Weitz: We may have looked the part to a lot of people but the reality was that we were actually a very well grounded band. We flirted a bit with marijuana and LSD and mushrooms but the drugs were never something that drove the band. Everybody was experimenting at the time – it’s what you did. We were rebellious but we weren’t rebels. All we tried to do as a band was to be a band, write songs, and to be accepted by people.
Rock Cellar: Well not only did your single go number one but the album went to number eleven on the U.S. charts. Going into the studio for the second album, Wake Up It’s Tomorrow must have put you in a good place with your label … ?
Mark Weitz: At that point, they were pretty much leaving us alone. All Uni told us was that they wanted another Incense And Peppermints. So Ed King and I got together again and came up with the song Tomorrow. Only this time I wrote the lyrics. I felt like I was a pretty smart guy and could pull it off.
Rock Cellar: Tomorrow appeared to be a worthy follow up but it didn’t come close to making it to number one. What do you think was the reason?
Mark Weitz: There was only one problem. There was no distribution for the single. Uni simply didn’t get the record into the stores and they weren’t spending a lot on publicity. Consequently we’d be touring and come to a town, people heard us and wanted to buy the single. But it was not in the stores. Tomorrow actually cracked the top 30 but it should have gone much higher.
If we had somebody who was actually looking out for us, I’m convinced we would have been far more successful. As it was, things were getting out of our control by the time we went in to do the third album The World Is A Seashell.
Rock Cellar: And by “out of your control” you mean …
Mark Weitz: All of a sudden Uni decided that they didn’t really like the direction the band was going in. They wanted us to go in a more commercial direction and the band wanted to stick with what had brought us our fan base. If they had just left us alone to do our own thing, who knows how big this band would have been.
Rock Cellar: This sounds like a familiar story …
Mark Weitz: Corporate decisions ultimately carried more weight than what the band had to say. The result was that the label brought in a lot of outside writers. One of them was Carole King. I don’t even remember what she wrote for us. We were becoming increasingly unhappy with our manager and, basically, there was a falling out within the band. George Bunnell and Randy Seol left and were replaced by new people.
Rock Cellar: How was your fourth album, Good Morning Starshine, received?
Mark Weitz: On that album we added a new guitarist who brought a bluesy Southern edge and essentially took the band away from its original sound. Our first single was set to be “Good Morning Starshine” from the musical Hair. Unfortunately Oliver came out of the box with his cover of that song first and it was a hit for him. Had he not come along with his version first, we might have had the hit we needed. We’ll never know.
Rock Cellar: You left the band after the fourth album failed?
Mark Weitz: We fired our manager after the fourth album failed. He was incompetent, had been overbooking the band and was basically treating us like cattle. After we fired him, he took the name and started a whole new Strawberry Alarm Clock band. We took him to court and filed a restraining order against him over the new band situation. I tried to sue him but our attorneys were suing us at the same time because they had not been paid.
Bill Holmes threw all the bills for money he owed people in our lap and said ‘Here! You want to manage yourselves, you pay the bills.’ The rest of the band disappeared and went underground. By that time, I had a home and a family so I was the sitting duck for all the lawsuits. I ended up filing bankruptcy. At that point, I just threw up my hands and left the music business.
Rock Cellar: After you left Strawberry Alarm Clock, you tried getting production work. How did that go?
Mark Weitz: I knocked on a bunch of doors but I couldn’t even get a foot in. At that time, if you had three or four hits under your belt, people would talk to you. But with my name not even on the one hit the band had, I had no calling card. By 1968, I had gotten married and had a daughter. I had been living out of a suitcase for two and a half years. I had gotten to that fork in the road. I loved music but I had also loved family. I chose the family route.
Rock Cellar: What did you do to make a living at that point?
Mark Weitz: I got into the tropical fish business. In fact, I’m still in it.
Rock Cellar: But the Strawberry Alarm Clock continued …?
Mark Weitz: The band resurrected itself in 1985 with four original members and two new guys. I came on board strictly as a keyboard player. I wasn’t calling the shots. We played a couple of Los Angeles shows and actually came up with 25 new songs. The problem was the rest of the band wanted to go on the road again and I wanted to go into the studio and record a new album. I just didn’t want to go on the road again and do that life. So I quit again and that lineup of the band quit shortly after I left.
In the 90’s and early 2000’a, George Bunnell had kept the band alive with different members coming in and out.
I had been asked to join at that point but I still had some bad feelings about what had come down before. Finally I was asked to join again in 2007 when George Bunnell called up and said Steve Bartek – whose day job had been working with Danny Elfman – wanted to be involved and to record an album. I was interested again.
- photo by Savannah Cazanov; all rights reserved
Rock Cellar: You started recording your current album in 2007 and yet it did not get released until this year?
Mark Weitz: Yeah, it sat for a while. The recession hit, we all had our day jobs and we really didn’t have the budget set aside to do an album. Finally we said ‘We’ve gotta do it.’ Steve (Bartek) offered us the use of his studio and his time for free. It took until sometime in 2010 before we finally put the finishing touches on it.
- Strawberry Alarm Clock studio 2012. Current lineup is Mark Weitz, George Bunnell, Randy Seol, Howie Anderson, and Gene Gunnels, with help from Steve Bartek
It had been Steve’s idea for the band to try and play together again. He said we should try and re-record some of the old songs as well as some new stuff and a couple of covers. His idea was to record everything pretty much live in the studio. We tried to do it like we did in the old days.
Rock Cellar: Recently you worked with Billy Corgan. How did that come about?
Mark Weitz: Billy Corgan had been trying to record Sky Saxon in his last days on earth. They had gone in the studio and Sky was pretty far gone. I met Billy and ended up meeting Sky’s widow Sabrina at a memorial for Sky that was held at The Echoplex in Los Angeles. Billy Corgan put together a band called Spirits In The Sky and I was asked to be a part of that band which played at the memorial.
- Spirits in the Sky – with Billy Corgan, Dave Navarro, and Mark Weitz (Strawberry Alarm Clock)
Rock Cellar This new album is the first recorded Strawberry Alarm Clock album in more than forty years. Is there concern that you might not be taken seriously or appear to be as relevant as the band once was?
Mark Weitz: Relevance? I don’t really how to answer that one. Well maybe I do: I think we’re as true to our music now as we were back in the day. We were lucky enough to be in that experimental phase of music that was coming out in ’65 and ’66. That was the peak of psychedelic music. People were taking chances and the Strawberry Alarm Clock was right in the thick of it, taking chances as well. Our attitude hasn’t changed.
Rock Cellar: Which finally brings things full circle and to the question of Incense and Peppermints. How do you see its legacy?
Mark Weitz: I think it’s an iconic song of the 60’s. We hear that from guys who went to Vietnam and were fighting a war while listening to that song. If guys who put their lives on the line are remembering that song, that’s pretty heavy. I consider it an honor to be in that group of songs that those guys were listening to.
Ed King on the new Strawberry Alarm Clock album “Wake Up Where You Are”: The guys play better than ever and the addition of Steve Bartek makes it now the way it should’ve been. ‘Mr. Farmer’ is my favorite track. Mark Weitz NAILED it.
Mark Weitz performing with Billy Corgan and Dave Navarro:
August 17, 2022
August 15, 2022