“Incense and Peppermints” by the California-based Strawberry Alarm Clock will forever be associated with 1967 and The Summer of Love. It’s easy to understand why; it’s exotic, with a hypnotizing keyboard melody over a crunchy garage-rock melody and some great vocal harmonizing. Released at the beginning of 1967, it signaled that something different was coming. This collection compiles the band’s first two albums, 1967’s Incense and Peppermints, and 1968’s follow-up, Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow.
In many ways, Strawberry Alarm Clock’s success with their very first single was a mixed blessing. Yes, it established them in the charts and with the country, but it rushed the band’s natural growth, forcing them to quickly produce material and develop a repertoire. That’s not to say that Incense and Peppermints is a bad record; at times, it’s refreshingly raw, as on “Pass Time With The SAC” and “Paxton’s Back Street Carnival.” Occasionally, they dip into less familiar-sounding territory; the album opens with an epic psychedelic jam, “The World’s On Fire,” which is a call to arms, while “Unwind the Clock” is a jazz/blues/garage hybrid that closes the album quite nicely. Of course, there’s the title song–one that still sounds fresh, forty six years later. It’s obvious, though, when you hear “Strawberries Mean Love” and “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow,” that they were trying to replicate their unexpected success. Overall, Incense and Peppermints is very much a 1960s debut album: the hit single, a few creative diversions, and a diversity that’s indicative of a band trying to define itself in a short period of time.
If the band’s obvious leanings towards psychedelic rock were meant to be an indicator of the style they would develop, then 1968’s Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow is a shocking about-face to the debut’s wild rock sounds and recklessly joyously abandon. Opening song “Nightmare of Percussion” is a clear link with their debut, a rollicking, hard psych-rock jam. But…that’s it. The next song, “Soft Skies, No Lies,” is soft, harmonic sunshine pop, a la The Association, and is followed by…more of the same. This dramatic change in direction is owed to one major reason; the band’s rather complicated origins and line-up and collaborative changes (detailed to great extent in the excellent liner notes) meant that the songwriters for Wake Up were not the same as those on the debut. Members Ed King and Lee Freeman shared hotel rooms while on tour, and thus formed a collaborative bond that came to the forefront on Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow.
Setting aside the drastic-sounding changes, it’s not to say that Wake Up is an unsatisfying listen. One wonders if the focus on harmonies and softer sounds is a result of touring with the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield. It’s not hard to hear the mellower sounds of Wild Honey and Friends within the album’s melodies, especially on “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” and “Sitting On A Star.” Songs like “Sit With The Guru” and the “Black Butter” make a stylistic nod to the debut’s psychedelic style, but for the most part Wake Up…It’s Tomorrow is pure and gorgeous soft sunshine pop.
Strawberry Alarm Clock would continue on, but they’d never come close to the high peak of their first single. Perhaps they realized this early on and decided to simply explore the sounds they liked, irrespective of commercial expectation; these two albums definitely show a band ready to explore sound, and they do so with aplomb.