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Strawberry Alarm Clock
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- Blurt: "Strange Stage Stories" · Dec. 23, 2008
"There was an article in [the Reader] about a guy living in a trailer who was supposed to have been the drummer for Strawberry Alarm Clock," says Randy Seol, the band's drummer in the heyday of their 1967 hit "Incense and Peppermints." "I live in a motor home in a boatyard right now, so I guess it's not too far off, but that wasn't me."
Seol played at various times with the group. Gene Gunnels drummed on "Incense," but Seol sang backup on the single and replaced Gunnels as drummer on the album of the same name (the song's 16-year-old lead singer was a stand-in who never officially joined the group).
"I've been living in San Diego most of the time since then, or I keep coming back," says Seol. "My family's from here. Right now, I'm a shipwright; I work on boats doing electronic and lighting systems, fiberglassing, and I'm developing some solar-power projects."
The band is best known for their 1967 hit "Incense and Peppermints." The group took its name as an homage to the Beatles' psychedelic hit "Strawberry Fields Forever", reportedly, at the suggestion of their label Uni Records.
Originally named Thee Sixpence, the band initially consisted of Ed King (lead guitar, vocals), Michael Luciano (vocals), Lee Freeman (rhythm guitar, harmonica, vocals), Gary Lovetro (bass), Steve Rabe (guitar, vocals), and Gene Gunnels (drums). Randy Seol (drums, vibes, percussion, vocals) and Mark Weitz (keyboards, vocals) joined to replace the departing Gunnels and Luciano just as the name change to SAC was occurring. It was Seol that would eventually bring in songwriters George Bunnell and Steve Bartek.
Their first and most famous single "Incense and Peppermints" was produced by Frank Slay and initially released by Thee Sixpence on the record label All American. The band was not impressed by songwriter John Carter's singing, so Slay chose Greg Munford, a 16-year-old friend of the band who was from another group called Shapes of Sound, to sing lead. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1967.
Shortly after recording "Incense and Peppermints," the band added George Bunnell (bass and rhythm guitar, vocals) before making their first LP in 1967, also titled Incense and Peppermints, which hit #11 on the US album chart. Bunnell would also become their main songwriter. Some early Strawberry Alarm Clock songs were penned by Bunnell with Steve Bartek (who would much later join Oingo Boingo, as well as orchestrate Danny Elfman's film scores). Bartek played flute on the first two albums and would continue to be involved with SAC in its later incarnations.
During the band's short life it saw many lineup changes. Since Bunnell had become the main writer, it was he that the band had play more and more of the bass parts since he already knew the songs. Gary Lovetro was gradually moved over to the road manager's position leaving Bunnell as sole bassist. Lovetro was then bought out of the group after conflicts with the others before the second album, Wake Up...It's Tomorrow, was released. The single "Tomorrow" from this album was a minor hit and their only other Top 40 appearance, reaching #23 in early 1968. "Sit with the Guru" charted at #65 and "Barefoot in Baltimore" peaked at #67, but both songs had lyrics that were written for them.
On January 20, 1968, the Strawberry Alarm Clock played downtown's Community Concourse. Though they performed their hit "Incense and Peppermints," the record's 16-year-old lead singer, Greg Munford, was not onstage.
"He was never in the band," says bassist George Bunnell. "He was only around long enough to sing the song. It was supposed to be a demo. Lee [Freeman], the singer, didn't want to do it...Greg happened to be in the studio that day. He had the same manager as us, and he ended up being the guy on the single."
Seol denies culpability for a late-'60s melee at another Community Concourse show, where the band was booked but never appeared, resulting in the venue getting smashed up.
"Our manager double booked us. We didn't even know; we were on tour with the Beach Boys at the time. The promoter got sued and then came after us for the money.... I ended up remodeling the promoter's house, doing the woodwork and painting to pay it off."
Bunnell and Seol left the band in late 1968 at the end of the sessions for the third album, The World in a Seashell, because of disagreements with the band over their manager Bill Holmes' mishandling of their business affairs. Bunnell and Seol formed a new band, Buffington Roads, with Steve Bartek. Holmes was fired by the remaining band members.
Drummer Marty Katin then came aboard along with new lead singer/guitarist Jim Pitman and there was a shift to a more blues rock style. Ed King moved over to bass, as he had been playing many of the bass parts in the studio anyway. In early 1969 Katin, whose drumming style never quite fit the band, left and original "Incense and Peppermints" drummer Gene Gunnels rejoined.
In July 1969, Pitman left after the Good Morning Starshine LP failed to sell and was succeeded by Paul Marshall, who would remain with the group until they disbanded in 1971. The title track, "Good Morning Starshine", peaked at #87 in 1969 but was beaten out by Oliver's version, which scored the bigger hit.
Weitz, discouraged over the band's falling fortunes and the lawsuits leading to a sharp drop in demand for gigs, quit by December 1969 to spend more time with his family. The group continued on as a quartet; Ed King, Lee Freeman, Gene Gunnels and Paul Marshall.
By this time the band's audience had mostly disappeared. They kept performing for awhile and toured the South in 1970 and 1971 with Florida band Lynyrd Skynyrd opening for them. In the latter part of 1971, the group, now without a record label and in conflict over musical direction, opted to disband, with Ed King deciding to relocate to the South to fill the void after the death of Allman Brothers Band guitarist Duane Allman. King was invited to join Lynyrd Skynyrd in November 1972.
In 1974-75 there was brief reunion of SAC with Bunnell, Seol and Steve Bartek (guitar, flute). The trio played some shows and contributed the theme song to ABC's In Concert. They also appeared at the first California Jam on April 6, 1974 on one of the smaller stages.
Seol recalls “We got to play the big music festival, Cal Jam II, on a side stage. It was a big production, with modern dancers and backing singers. For some reason, we had our keyboard player playing from a hot-air balloon tethered to the stage. A woman ran out of the audience and started tugging at the rope and just about tipped the gondola over while our keyboard player screamed for someone to stop her.” The band then splintered for a period.
In 1982 Strawberry Alarm Clock reunited once again after guitarist Lee Freeman spotted a newspaper ad promoting an appearance by the group at a Los Angeles music club. Freeman knew nothing about this gig and went to the club to investigate. There he discovered that the advertisement had actually been a plot by the club's owners to get the real band to reunite. At this point, Freeman, Bunnell, Weitz and Gene Gunnells got back together as Strawberry Alarm Clock. They were joined in 1983 by singer Leo Gaffney and Lee's brother, Doug, to work on new material.
Later in 1983, the SAC lineup became Freeman, Bunnell, Peter Wasner (keyboards) and James Harrah (guitars) and there was a re-recording of "Incense and Peppermints" the same year with a line-up of Freeman, Bunnell, Harrah, Steve Bartek and Clay Bernard (keyboards), with Bob Caloca on lead vocals, that was produced by Dennis Dragon (brother of Daryl Dragon), who played percussion on the track.
After that, Freeman, Bunnell, Harrah and Bernard continued on with Randy Seol rejoining. In 1984 Seol left once again and Harrah and Bernard were replaced by actor/musician Jon Walmsley(guitars, keyboards, vocals). Bruce Hubbard, who'd earlier played with Bunnell in Buffington Roads, took over percussion duties at this point. By 1986, Walmsley was out and guitarist Howie Anderson was in. Anderson also handled keyboard parts via his synth guitar after Bernard left to relocate to New Mexico at the end of the 1980s.
During the 1980s, the band began performing on oldies concert tours, usually alongside Moby Grape, The Seeds, and It's a Beautiful Day. The Freeman, Bunnell, Hubbard, Anderson grouping was their longest, lasting from 1989-2001. During this time period the band became a part-time thing as the members continued to work on some new material and make occasional concert appearances, all the while pursuing their other individual careers.
On June 16, 2001 the group appeared in San Diego's Balboa Park with Jefferson Starship, Moby Grape, Iron Butterfly, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Country Joe McDonald. Randy Seol and Gene Gunnells joined Freeman and Bunnell for this show.
On October 23, 2003 the above line-up were joined by Steve Bartek and Paul Marshall for an appearance at Amoeba Records in Hollywood to celebrate the DVD release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
In December 2004 Mark Weitz and Ed King were slated to reunite with Seol, Freeman and Bunnell along with original "Incense" singer Greg Munford for a PBS special on 60s rock but Bunnell said in interviews that proper contracts via PBS were never sent to them.
By 2006 Weitz, Bartek, Bunnell, Seol and Howie Anderson were back playing shows with the group. They were joined by Ed King, Lee Freeman, Paul Marshall and Gene Gunnels to perform at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois on April 29, 2007. The event was part of the last day of Roger Ebert's ninth annual Overlooked Film Festival and was preceded by a screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Freeman, Weitz, Bartek, Bunnell, Seol, Gunnels and Anderson then continued on that year making further concert appearances.
In 2008, an ill Freeman was sidelined and in 2010 Bartek began to cut back his appearances with the group.
In January 2010, the Strawberry Alarm Clock started recording new material for the record label inaugurated by Billy Corgan. SAC keyboardist Mark Weitz said, "We’re picking up where we left off, but with a modern sound." The band also reworked some of its 1960s songs.
On February 14, 2010, founding member Lee Freeman died, at the age of 60, from complications arising from cancer. Around the same time, Seol was drumming locally with Cool Fever, a 1950s through 1970s cover band.
As of 2012, the band included Mark Weitz, Randy Seol, George Bunnell, Gene Gunnels and Howie Anderson. A new band full-length was recorded in Big Bear by Randy Seol and George Bunnell, produced by longtime Alarm Clock collaborator Steve Bartek (Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman). They performed at that year's Adams Avenue Street Fair (held September 29 and 30).