George Bunnell, of the Strawberry Alarm Clock: Something Else! Interview

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Boasting one of the most hilarious monikers in rock ‘n’ roll history, the Strawberry Alarm Clock has returned with Wake Up Where You Are — their first new album in more than 40 years.

Emerging out of Santa Monica, California, they chalked up a No. 1 winner with “Incense and Peppermints” during the waning months of 1967. Governed by the piercing cry of a pulsating keyboard, the single was absolutely magnificent. Early 1968 witnessed the band seizing the charts again, as they notched a No. 23 hit with the creamy, lightweight “Tomorrow.”

Originally featuring lead guitarist Ed King, rhythm guitarist Lee Freeman, bassists George Bunnell and Gary Lovetro, keyboardist Mark Weitz and drummer Randy Seol (who never failed to shock audiences by playing his instrument with his hands on fire), the Strawberry Alarm Clock were eventually stripped bare of their zesty garage/psychedelic mode — against their wishes — and evolved into a perfectly polished pop act. Although further efforts were quite likable, action on the charts amounted to practically zilch. Nevertheless, the group remained in the spotlight in other ways, as they popped up in a pair of movies: Filmed in 1968 in San Francisco, “Pysch-Out” was colored with them, as was “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” from 1970.

The Strawberry Alarm Clock eventually dissolved, leaving behind for a time this interesting catalog of psychedelic bubblegum music. By the 1980s, however, the group had reformed behind original members George Bunnell and Lee Freeman, and they continues today — despite the 2010 loss of Freeman to cancer. In our latest Something Else! Sitdown, we caught up with Bunnell — who is part of a modern lineup that includes Seol and Weitz, as well as Gene Gunnels and Howie Anderson …

BEVERLY PATERSON: There have been several different stories surrounding the origin of the band’s name. Where did Strawberry Alarm Clock really come from?
GEORGE BUNNELL: I know there’s been a lot of different stories about how we got our name, and I think I’ve heard them all! The most popular one is, we were all sitting around, looking at Billboard, put a finger on a song, and picked “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But that record wasn’t even released at the time we started calling ourselves the Strawberry Alarm Clock! Our record company kind of picked our name for us. They wanted to use “strawberry,” because I guess it was just a sign of the times. Peace, love and strawberries! So, that was already picked out. And we were over at Mark Weitz’s house one day, and his alarm clock suddenly fell down and broke. And we looked at that, and decided “alarm clock.” So, we called up our record company, and told them we were going to use the name the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

BEVERLY PATERSON: What came next?
GEORGE BUNNELL: We became the Strawberry Alarm Clock the same week Uni got our record. Our manager ended up ripping us off, but he did a good job of promoting that record. He did all the work behind that record as far as getting it airplay, and turning it into a No. 1 hit like that. He went to all the radio stations pushing it like crazy. There was a station in Los Angeles at the time called KBLA, which was “the” psychedelic station. The DJ there was a guy by the name of Dave Diamond, who liked to be called “The Diamond Mine.” Well, he was a secret producer of “Incense and Peppermints” — money-wise, that is. And the reason why, was because he was going to really help us. He was going to play all our records and everything. So after the single took off, he got a nice, big fat check of about 80 grand. But then he ran with the money, and we never saw him again! So, our single became a No. 1 hit while it was still on the All-American label, but only in Los Angeles was it a No. 1 hit. You couldn’t get away from it! Then Uni hears our single, goes “wow!” and went with it. So it blitzed all across the country, and went to No. 1 everywhere! It sounds easy to get a No. 1 record, but you have to have promotion in order to get one — and lots of it. If you don’t have promotion, it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Parked between the Doors’ freaky frequencies and the Association’s beautiful vocal pop, Strawberry Alarm Clock’s ‘Incense and Peppermints’ is a stunning album.]

BEVERLY PATERSON: What did you think of the single the first time you heard it?
GEORGE BUNNELL: The first time I heard it, I went “uh oh.” We were so into writing our own lyrics, and that song just wasn’t us. We wouldn’t have written lyrics like that ourselves! But I think they’re a good set of lyrics, and are actually pretty funny. I like the song!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Is it true that the final recording of “Incense and Peppermints” had a few verses cut?
GEORGE BUNNELL: Yeah, the record company did that. We went into the studio, and recorded all these songs we believed were hits. The record company tells us they’re all real nice songs, but wouldn’t touch them. And the reason why, was because they weren’t commercial enough. We didn’t sound pop enough, and that’s what they wanted. Like I wrote a real good song called “What’s It Made Of,” and the record company messed around with it, changed it completely, and turned it into “Strawberries Mean Love.” That song is on the first album. Well, up to that point, that was one of the worst things that ever happened to me! The record company took my song away from me. And they continued doing that all along. We had no creative control at all. They forced us into being a pop band, and I don’t know why they did. We had our own style of music, and just wanted to be ourselves. All groups go through that, though. Either your record company controls your sound, or you have a manager ripping you off. Well, at least more artists run into these things. I know way back then, it happened to just about every band in one way or another. Even the Beach Boys, I’m sure, have lost a lot of money. But because they made millions, they never noticed it! The big groups can take beatings like that, but when you get a band that’s had only one hit like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, it’s noticeable!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Why did you stay with the Strawberry Alarm Clock, even though you weren’t happy with the recorded material?
GEORGE BUNNELL: I really only stuck it out for their first three albums. I played on Incense and Peppermints, Wake Up It’s Tomorrow and World in a Sea Shell. So, it was after those three albums, I decided to finally quit. It was at that point that I really decided I just couldn’t stand the music we were being forced to record anymore. We kept telling our manager we were a rock ‘n’ roll band, no pop. So we did try to get out of playing music like that. It’s not like we didn’t say anything at all. We were all sick of our image. We wanted a rougher image, because that’s what we were. And another reason why I quit the band was, because we got busted. We were on tour when it happened. We were in Peoria, Illinois, and got busted at 3 o’clock in the morning. We were caught with a lid of grass. They also arrested me for Bible burning, but I wasn’t doing anything like that at all! We lit a smoke bomb off as a joke, and the pages of a Bible just happened to be open at the time, and got torched. Our big bust was big news, too. All the papers read: “The Strawberry Alarm Clock Busted in Narcotics Raid.” That was a real nightmare for us. Our whole tour was cancelled, and were were blackballed from everything. We were scheduled to go on the Johnny Carson Show, Dick Cavett, Ed Sullivan and things like that, but all of that was cancelled too. We figured our manager framed us. We had absolutely no drugs on us at all! Our manager thought that if we got busted for drugs, it would make us seem real heavy. So, that was a publicity stunt that backfired real bad.

BEVERLY PATERSON: So what did you do after leaving?
GEORGE BUNNELL: I played in a band called Buckington Rhodes. That was the band I played with in high school. … Buckington Roads rehearsed and rehearsed. We must have rehearsed for about two years! And we played 12 gigs. We played with Ten Years After, Procol Harum, Love, Chicago and a bunch of great groups. We got rave reviews, and kept every single one of them. And we even recorded, but the tapes were stolen right out of our manager’s house. Dave Hassinger, who worked with the Rolling Stones, engineered our stuff. Well, we got another engineer, and recorded more stuff, but those tapes were stolen, too! After they stopped playing, I had a band called Little Red Rocket. We were one of the top bands around. All our material was original. Then the Strawberry Alarm Clock kind of started up again.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s 2012 comeback album ‘Wake Up Where You Are’ duplicates and expands on the brand of psychedelic zest they are defined by.]

BEVERLY PATERSON: Why did the Strawberry Alarm Clock ultimately reunite? Do you feel the name may hold you back?
GEORGE BUNNELL: I’d always been pushing it. All of us had been playing behind other people for so long, and it just makes you want to go: Argh! And the reason why is, everybody in the band writes. We have original material. It’s not like we’re just getting up there to play “Incense and Peppermints,” “Tomorrow” and all of the hits. As for the name, we have a vehicle, so why not use it? Our name’s already famous — and, besides, we own it!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Would you like another hit single?
GEORGE BUNNELL: More than anything! But we were never ones to write hit singles. “Incense and Peppermints” was anything but a hit single. That song was all wrong. The chords and everything were wrong! It was so quirky. At the time we were writing that song, we had no idea it was going to be a hit. We were just putting some music together. It was just a mistake that song became a hit. And we were never really able to come up with a follow up of any kind. What we’re recording and playing now is probably commercial in the same sense as “Incense and Peppermints,” only because we’re not trying to sound commercial. I think groups that try to be commercial aren’t really trying to formulate a hit record. I guess, there’s just something magic about what makes a record a hit.

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