This song, and the band itself, has a rather convoluted history that Mark S. Weitz, who was the original keyboard player of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, helped sort out. Prior to the release of “Incense and Peppermints” the Strawberry Alarm Clock had already issued four singles on All-American Records under the name Thee Sixpence. None of those charted, even though they did a version of “Hey Joe”. “Hey Joe” was copyrighted in 1962 by folk singer Billy Roberts and has been recorded by many artists including the Standells, the Surfaris, the Byrds, and of course Jimi Hendrix.
It went from Thee Sixpence right into the Strawberry Alarm Clock. I was instrumental in coming up with the name. I borrowed the Strawberry from Strawberry Fields Forever and then right down to the noisy Baby Ben electric alarm clock (in my bedroom/guest house where we used to rehearse) that we hooked up with name Strawberry to come up with the new name. We were asked by [producer] Frank Slay to come up with a new name because when we did a name check to clear it for label printing, Thee Sixpence was already used somewhere by another band at the time and there would be too much confusion.
The writing credits of “Incense and Peppermints” are listed as John Carter and Tim Gilbert, who were not part of the band, and based on an instrumental idea by band members Mark Weitz and Ed King, the group’s guitarist. (In 1970, an unknown band called Lynyrd Skynyrd opened some shows for The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and King got to know them. In 1973 King joined Skynyrd on guitar, ultimately writing the riff for “Sweet Home Alabama”).
Weitz gave this account of how the song was written:
I came up with the idea and actual music to the then untitled song that ultimately evolved into the #1 national hit, ‘Incense and Peppermints.’ I wrote the intro (the oriental sounding riff), the verses, and the ending (the major sevenths) while Ed King, at my request for some help on completing the song, co-wrote the bridge (the F # part) and of course the lead guitar parts. At the time when the music was recorded at Art Laboe’s ‘Original Sounds’ studio in Hollywood, there was only a temporary title to the song, and lyrics had not yet been written. Our producer Frank Slay decided to send the fully mixed music track (recorded on 8 tracks of mono!) to John Carter; a member of the band The Rainy Daze, who Slay also produced at the time. John Carter was solely responsible for conjuring up the lyrics and the controversial melody line extracted out of the finished musical track. Frank Slay ultimately credited that melody line solely to the writing team of John Carter and Tim Gilbert. To this day, they have received 100% of the royalties.
The lead vocalist on this track was also not a member of the group. It was Greg Munford, a 16-year-old singer with a group called The Shapes, who sang lead. Bassist/rhythm guitarist George Bunnell explained:
That’s a whole other ridiculous story. One of those things where nobody thinks that at the moment, what you’re doing is going to be successful. The song wasn’t fitting anybody. Greg Munford happened to just be sitting there in the session, and Greg also had the same manager and producer. He was doing his own project simultaneously. They asked him to try it, and it was right in his wheelhouse. So he did it and it was exactly how you hear it. He was not in the band, and then the song started to have success. Then they asked Greg Munford if he wanted to be in the band and he didn’t. He had his own thing.
King, Weitz, guitarist Lee Freeman, bassist Gary Levetro, drummer Randy Seol were relegated to playing the instruments and singing harmonies and backup vocals. Steve Bartek, a non-member at the time, played flute on the song. Levetro left the group shortly after recording the song with Bunnell taking over on bass.
When the band did the song live, drummer Randy Seol sang the lead vocal — or lip-synched to Munford’s vocal on television appearances (as in the opening video of this article). According to George Bunnell, they were trying to sound British when they sang this, but their fake English accents ended up sounding trippy, which ended up working very well.
A good example of the genre that came to be known as “Psychedelic” music, which was very popular at the time. Many of these songs had a drug influence, and that may have been the case here. Says Weitz:
When the music was written by myself in early ’67 at my home in Van Nuys California, with my request for some help on the bridge of the song from Ed King, it was mid day, and no drugs were involved whatsoever. I came up with this musical idea and chord progressions that evolved that afternoon in a short time to what basically was recorded with some minimal editing to cut down the almost 5 minute original down to 3 minutes and change. As for the lyrics, that was the brainchild of John Carter. And there are many stories to how he came about those lyrics, but I can’t substantiate any of it.
Originally released as the B-side with “The Birdman of Alkatrash” released as the A-side by All-American Records, before long disc jockeys had discovered the B-side and began playing it on the radio instead. MCA Records also heard it and decided to pick up the distribution, re-releasing the single in May 1967 on its Uni subsidiary. It took a while, but “Incense and Peppermints” finally entered the singles chart at the end of September. By the week ending Nov. 18, it had reached #1, and became 1967’s #23 biggest hit overall.
Although they are known largely as a one-hit wonder today, Strawberry Alarm Clock stuck around long enough to place three further singles on the chart. Their “Incense and Peppermints” album itself rose to #11 largely on the strength of the hit single. They constantly underwent lineup changes during its brief reign — Steve Bartek and George Bunnell, a guitarist and bassist, joined the group after the “Incense” sessions and the latter became one of the group’s main songwriters. The group managed to release three further albums into 1969, none of which cracked the chart.
As of 2017 Strawberry Alarm Clock, with most of the 1967 members, were still performing.