The Strawberry Alarm Clock Tolls for Baltimore

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For an extended lysergic blink in the late 1960s, Top 40 radio turned day-glo, suffused by the sounds of psychedelic pop, which achieved its apocalyptic apogee in November 1967 when the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” ascended to #1 on the Billboard singles chart. A psych-pop masterpiece — all buzzing guitar, churchy organ, an aggressively earnest lead vocal, and delightfully tongue-twisting trippy lyrics (“Good sense, innocence, cripplin’ mankind/Dead kings, many things I can’t define/Occasions, persuasions, clutter your mind/Incense and peppermints, the color of time”) — the song crystallizes the moment when pure counterculture psychedelia transmuted into mainstream masses’ manna.

As ephemeral as any pop music genre, psychedelic pop quickly morphed, fractured, and, by 1970, disappeared entirely from the public consciousness. Ditto the Los Angeles-based Strawberry Alarm Clock — guitarists Ed King and Lee Freeman, keyboardist Mark Weitz, bassists George Bunnell and Gary Lovetro, drummer Randy Seol – although the band cranked out some memorable material in the immediate aftermath of “Incense and Peppermints,” notably the breezy “Tomorrow,” the hallucinogenic “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow,” and, incongruously for an L.A. band, the jaunty “Barefoot in Baltimore.”             

Released as the first single from the group’s third album, 1968’s The World in a Sea Shell, “Barefoot in Baltimore” saunters along agreeably, its soft-rock melody buoyed by Association-style vocals, chirpy xylophone, and chattering percussion. However, the song suffers from excruciatingly anemic lyrics, imagery seemingly gleaned from a cheery Chamber of Commerce brochure: “Laugh at sizzling sidewalks/Don’t step on the cracks/Old folks try to catch their breath/As children catch their jacks” and “Melted tar in crosswalks/Crab shells in the park/Pavement frying our poor toes/Until long after dark.”

“[The] soundtrack was great — the lyrics were horrible,” Mark Weitz, who wrote the song’s music with Ed King, explains in the liner notes to the re-released CD version of The World in a Sea Shell. “They were ‘sissy’ lyrics to us — ‘heel and toe with you’? We were pretty embarrassed to play that song on stage.”

Blame those tepid lyrics on non-band member Roy Freeman. George Bunnell, who, along with Weitz and Randy Seol, remains active in a recombinant Strawberry Alarm Clock, reports via e-mail that Freeman “was a comedy writer for [comedian/actor] Joey Bishop. No relation to Lee Freeman. He also penned the lyrics to [SAC’s] ‘Sit with the Guru’ and ‘Eulogy.’ Lee Freeman and Ed King wrote a song called ‘They Saw the Fat One Coming,’ which was in reference to Roy. He was actually a nice guy, but was forced upon us by the powers that be” (aka, the band’s record company).

“Barefoot in Baltimore” briefly dented the Billboard Top 100 in 1968, eventually stalling at #67 before evaporating altogether, although the song, not surprisingly, enjoyed considerable airplay in this area at the time. These days, it seldom, if ever, surfaces on radio – conventional, satellite, or Internet — but, via the miracle of YouTube, you can still experience the goofy charm of “Barefoot in Baltimore.” 

Each month, “Baltimore Unearthed” will disinter and illuminate a semi-great city-related cultural curiosity from the past.     



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