Sunday, June 3, 2012

June 3: Strawberry Alarm Clock, "Incense And Peppermints"

Artist: Strawberry Alarm Clock
Song: "Incense And Peppermints"
Album: Incense And Peppermints
Year: 1967

All across the history of recorded music, one can label each decade as having a rather specific sound that was new and fresh to that time period.  This sound or musical approach often defined the culture of the time beyond music, and this was perhaps no more clear than when one looks to the end of the 1960's and the emergence of the "psychedelic" sound.  While one can find a wide range of examples as to how the different themes and sounds of the psychedelic movement were worked into music, there is rarely a question of whether or not something fits within this style once heard.  Many bands found unique ways to deploy the sound, and yet there is no arguging that one of the finest and most impressive came from the unknown Los Angeles based band, Strawberry Alarm Clock.  Strangely, many believe that the band would fall under the category of "one hit wonder," and yet the fact stands that they charted a number of times, cementing their place among the finest bands of their era.  Yet at the same time, both history and chart success make it quite clear that in terms of their appeal to the general public, one of their singles stands far beyond the others, and there is not another song from any point in music history that has quite the same tone and feel as Strawberry Alarm Clock's classic 1967 single, "Incense And Peppermints."

Moreso than almost any other track in the entire history of music, the reality behind the recording and release of "Incense And Peppermints" stands in a category all its own.  Even the actual recording of the track is as unbelievable as one can find anywhere, as the truth of the matter is, the lead vocalist was not actually a member of the band.  When recording began on the song, the two lead singers did not like the lyrics, and instead of handling the duties themselves, they asked their friend, Greg Munford, to take this role.  Munford had been attending the recording session to observe his friends at work, and yet this would end up being the bands' best selling single.  Furthermore, when the song was first released as the b-side to the song, "The Birdman Of Alkatrash," the group was still calling themselves Thee Sixpence.  However, due to the runaway success of the single, the group had to change their name as Thee Sixpence was already being used by a similar sounding group in the area.  When the single was released a second time, this time under the label of MCA, the group had taken on the moniker of Strawberry Alarm Clock, and yet few listeners were aware that the song's vocalist was not technically a member of the group.  The single would go on to sell more than one million copies, and it remains today an unmistakable piece of cultural history.

Yet even without these rather odd circumstances to create a lore around the song, the reality remains that "Incense And Peppermints" is one of the most catchy and captivating songs of the entire generation.  The moment that the song begins, it is the sound and tone of the keyboards that instantly make it clear what time period the song was from, as it perfectly defines the psychedelic sound in terms of the pitch and mood of the keyboard.  "Incense And Peppermints" seems to almost spin around the listener, giving a classic feel to the song, and the melody found on this track has been reused and slightly altered a number of times over the course of music history.  Along with this, the variance in the percussion of the song set it apart from most other singles of the era.  From cow bells to hand claps to a rather sparse use of "standard" drums helps to make the overall impact of the song even more unique, and there are many moments on the song where one can hear just how heavily the influence of the "surf rock" sound had on the psychedelic movement.  At the same time, there is an ample level of tension and perhaps a bit of a darker feel at times, and this juxtaposition to the rest of the musical work is easily one of the most intriguing aspects of the track.  It is the way that all of the sounds and moods work in such perfect balance with one another that allows the track to become so much larger, as well as enable it to sound just as fresh and exciting more than four decades after its first release.

Along with the rather odd circumstances around the recording and release of the song, many are unaware that "Incense And Peppermints" was actually based around a melody written by band members Mark Weitz and Ed King.  The duo were not given credit for their work, and while this would lead to its own issues, most miss the connection that King would go on to become quite well known as a member of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.  However, had he not done this, there is no question that he had already written one of the most unforgettable melodies of all time, and one can find the song being used in a number of films, perhaps most prominently in 1970's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, as well as in the 1997 comedy, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery.  The fact remains that when one considers exactly what it means to play psychedelic music, there are a number of examples to which one can turn for a number of different reasons.  However, when looking for the core of the sound and an understanding of exactly why it gained such a rapid and wide appeal within the youth culture, there are few songs that serve as a better example than "Incense And Peppermints."  From the swirling guitars to the exciting rhythms to the almost disjointed vocals, there is simply no other song in history quite like Strawberry Alarm Clock's 1967 classic, "Incense And Peppermints."

No comments: