By Richie Unterberger
When the Strawberry Alarm Clock recorded their third album in 1968, they were struggling to regain the phenomenal success they'd enjoyed in late 1967, when "Incense and Peppermints" shot to the top of the charts and their debut album of the same name stopped just outside the Top Ten. Despite featuring a Top Forty single in "Tomorrow," their second album, Wake Up...It's Tomorrow (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), had failed to chart at all. There had always been a number of musical directions at work in the band, but The World in a Seashell found them torn between their own brand of psychedelic pop and record company-instigated attempts to move them toward a softer, more orchestrated pop approach.
Dissatisfied with the group's recent output, the UNI label brought in some outside writers for the album. Also added to the recipe were some string arrangements by George Tipton, who also worked in the 1960s on recordings by Sam Cooke, Jackie DeShannon, the Sunshine Company, the Monkees, Nilsson, and others. "What they probably didn't like," speculates keyboardist Mark Weitz, "was that we wrote and arranged our own songs -- some of which, the lyrics were not to their approval. [Tipton] was brought in on the third album to try our luck on recording some original songs written by popular songwriters like Carole King. I guess UNI thought it might help us get on the charts again." But as so often happens when the bean-counters try to over-egg the pudding, "eventually we found out that it practically ruined our following. The songs weren't us! They weren't strong enough! I think it hurt our image drastically -- like we were 'selling out' to the 'Suits' and going soft rock."
Two of the songs penned on their behalf, "Sea Shell" and "Home Sweet Home," were by the team of John Carter and Tim Gilbert, the same duo whose songwriting credits had been attached to "Incense and Peppermints." Weitz backtracks here to explain why he was not exactly the best of buddies with Carter, despite the massive success of that hit single: "John Carter was a writer, a musician friend of Frank Slay's [who co-produced the Strawberry Alarm Clock with the band's manager, Bill Holmes], from a group called the Rainy Daze out of Colorado Springs. Slay produced them and had a novelty record released of theirs, 'That Acapulco Gold.' It had some L.A. airplay [in fact it made #70 on the national charts] until it was pulled because of the lyric content. Tim Gilbert was also in the same band, but I heard that he really didn't have much to do with the lyric writing; it was mainly Carter."
Back before the Strawberry Alarm Clock were even on UNI, they'd recorded a backing track to the song that eventually became "Incense and Peppermints." Guitarist Ed King writes on his website (www.ed-king.com) that "Mark Weitz wrote the bulk of the music and I wrote the bridge. We didn't have lyrics." Slay then mailed a small two-track reel of tape with the recording to Carter back in Colorado. Carter, Weitz continues, "mailed the tape back to Slay. Slay called us into a meeting in his office in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, and played the tape of Carter playing an acoustic guitar (of my music!) and singing [his] lyrics along with it. Carter from then on was not my friend! As well as Slay, and Holmes. John Carter showed up later on the third album submitting songs for us to play, probably through Frank Slay of course. Carter was not involved in the second album because it was too soon after the ripoff of 'Incense and Peppermints.' I guess he ducked out of sight until things cooled off!
"By the way, Bill Holmes had something to do with that ripoff also. He fought with Slay just before label printing. Holmes wanted all of the members' names on the record as writers, because he felt that all band members had something to do with the overall song. Slay asked him to pick only four names, which was the maximum limit that was allowed to be associated with a song -- according to Frank Slay. Holmes wouldn't back down on his request, so, as I heard it, Slay sent it to label printing with Carter and Gilbert's names alone. Leaving Weitz and King off! Slay's response when questioned was there was no melody line, and that without a melody line the lyricist gets the credit! That was the lamest response I have ever heard. And he was emphatic about the answer too! So this was now a toxic working environment -- a producer and manager that could not be trusted! Without [us] noticing at the time, it was probably the precursor to the ultimate demise of the Alarm Clock."
A rather more famous writer than Carter contributed to a couple of the other non-band compositions, "Blues for a Young Girl Gone" and "Lady of the Lake," both of which were co-written by Carole King and Toni Stern. "We were not in love with those songs," admits Weitz. "But, they were a challenge. Orchestra and all, we had to rise to the occasion. There was a lot of pressure on those sessions not to make any mistakes. We were playing alongside some accomplished studio horn [players] and violinists that were twice our age in experience. It was pretty tense for us; we were not used to playing live with orchestrations simultaneously. It was harder than any of the studio recording we had done thus far. The masters turned out great."
Summarizing the results of the band's work on orchestrated outside material, Weitz notes, "We did like the final product of some of the songs, and we were proud to have done well in that kind of studio environment, being our first time [with] a big production. On 'Home Sweet Home,' I sang the lead vocal, [and] they had to triple my voice. They said it was too weak. They even had the band sing along on another track and added that to the vocal mix too. I think we were trusting the 'powers' that it would work out. We were wrong. The songs were not single material. Not one of them."
Considering all the effort poured into enlisting outside writers, it's ironic that the first single to be released from the tracks that ended up on the album was a Strawberry Alarm Clock original -- for the most part. For while "Barefoot in Baltimore"'s music was penned by Weitz and King, the lyrics were by Roy Freeman. No relation to Strawberry Alarm Clock rhythm guitarist Lee Freeman, Roy Freeman had also been responsible for the words on "Sit with the Guru," a low-charting single that appeared on their second album. "'Barefoot in Baltimore''s sound track was great -- the lyrics were horrible!" feels Weitz. "Again, NOT US! When I came up with the idea for the music on that song, I did not write the lyrics. They softened the song up way too much. We were forced to record the lyrics; it was just wrong! They were 'sissy' lyrics to us -- 'heel and toe with you'?? We were pretty embarrassed to play that song on stage. Especially Ed and Lee, they really hated the lyrics. Also, it was a difficult song to play on stage with all the harmonies and hard chord changes. It was not akin to our image; we were rockers, and we could rock, play blues, cover songs, we were very versatile. There was always someone trying to bend us in another direction!" For all that, "Barefoot in Baltimore" did make the charts, albeit at a lowly #67.
The group were able to fill a little over half the album with their own material, and more of the psychedelic pop fans might have expected from the Strawberry Alarm Clock can be heard on tracks like "Wooden Woman" (with Ed King's distinctive thick sustain-heavy guitar tone), "Heated Love," and the waltzing psychedelia of "Shallow Impressions." "We had some songs, they had some songs," says Weitz. "They had to let us have some creativity on the album. So we did both. Again a compromise, as usual." He remains particularly happy with "Shallow Impressions," though "I couldn't play that again if my life depended on it. At that period, I was into my deepest creative music writing episode on the piano, and one night at home I came up with that tune. It was really hard recording the ending in the studio. I remember it was about 'take 24,' and 1am or 2am, until I got the piano part right. The timing was really difficult. I strummed the piano strings while holding down the loudness pedal to get that effect at the beginning; at the end it was recorded backwards, and a slight pressure was exerted on the reel as it went around on the tape deck to get that whooshing sound.
"I was always trying to write original material. I don't know what inspired me, except that I was better at writing instrumentals than songs with lyrics. I played that song by 'ear.' Eventually Ed wrote down the chord sheet for the rest of the band to play from. He was really good at writing chord sheets. I needed them to remember our songs -- I was not good at memorization on the other band members' songs. I would write them down on 3 X 5 cards for performing live on stage -- later it became an 'in' band joke. Mark and his 3 X 5s! After we recorded that song, I don't ever remember anyone in the band talking about it. We never played it again. It really wasn't in the band members' interest to go that direction. I think it was just an instrumental that I wrote, and the band was willing to record it."
Overall, Weitz emphasizes, "I was pleased about the production value and quality of the sound on the third album. But, again, it wasn't all us! Where were OUR songs on that album; [there were] way too few. Who was the Strawberry Alarm Clock? Why are they playing these songs by other writers? Why are they getting so far away from the sound that they were known for? We might have been getting a few new 'fans' from a different crowd, but not the record-buying public base SAC followers that we needed to get more record sales. Let us go down the tubes on our own, not by, what we felt, bad decisions of the people in charge of our musical careers!" And much of the third album wasn't at all consistent with what the band were playing live at this point, as "we never played any of the songs live that weren't ours. We were not that interested in them."
With The World in a Seashell album selling poorly and confusing or even alienating the band's supporters, then, the net effect was to shrink rather than expand their audience, at both the record stores and the concert halls. "If it wasn't for 'Incense and Peppermints' to keep us going, I don't know what we would have done," observes Weitz. "Then, we decided to play the Doors' 'Light My Fire' at some of our performances because people knew it and liked it, [and] we played it so well. It warmed up the crowd before we started in on our original songs that few people had ever heard before. Live we played 'Incense and Peppermints,' 'Tomorrow,' 'Wooden Woman,' 'Black Butter,' 'Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow,' 'Paxton's Back Street Carnival,' 'The World's on Fire,' 'Love Me Again,' 'Strawberries Mean Love,' 'Off Ramp Road Tramp'...and 'Light My Fire'!" In fact, as bassist George Bunnell notes on the Official Strawberry Alarm Clock Homepage, when the band toured with Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young "was so generous but, did lift 'Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow' for 'Down By the River.' He had me play my song over and over so he could jam to it."
Strawberry Alarm Clock would continue to play live through the early
Yet they'd only issue one more LP, which heralded another big shift in
musical direction -- a story that continues on Collectors' Choice
reissue of that 1969 album, Good Morning Starshine. -- Richie
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