The Strawberry Alarm Clock return to Venice for an anniversary concert on the beach
By Christina Campodonico
If the counterculture revolution known as the Summer of Love lives on through its soundtrack, The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s psychedelic jam “Incense and Peppermints” stands up as an anthem intrinsic to a time when young people would “turn on, tune in and drop out” in hopes of changing the world.
Released in May 1967, a month after Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and a week before The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the trippy song reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts that November.
And while San Francisco got most of the media attention, The Strawberry Alarm Clock bassist and vocalist George Bunnell remembers Venice Beach shaping much of how the L.A.-based band experienced that year — including a taping of the live dance show “The Groovy Hour” and headlining the legendary Cheetah Club.
The Cheetah stood where Navy Street now meets the sea, what was then the base of the Pacific Ocean Park Pier. “The Laurence Welk Show” broadcasted from here in the 1950s, when the venue was known as the Aragon Ballroom.
By the time the Cheetah shuttered in 1970, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, The Turtles, The Grass Roots, Iron Butterfly and Quicksilver Messenger Service all played here, and it’s said to be the place Frank Zappa discovered Alice Cooper when he was fronting a band called The Nazz.
The Strawberry Alarm Clock play the Cheetah circa 1967-68 in “Psych-Out,” a hallucinogenic thriller starring a 30-year-old Jack Nicholson as a psychedelic rocker named Stoney.
Fifty years after the Summer of Love, The Strawberry Alarm Clock is still ticking. Five of the band’s original members, including Bunnell, headline the 12th annual Venice Beach Music Fest on Saturday.
The Argonaut: What was the Cheetah Club like back in 1967?
George Bunnell: I knew about it because my parents told me — they said, “Yeah, we had gone there when we were younger, when it was The Aragon Ballroom.” And so I was looking around the place, looking for the history of it, because I’m into that kind of thing. But that’s all I really remember about the place. … And then we did a movie for [producer] Dick Clark called “Psych-Out,” with Jack Nicholson and a bunch of people. Actually, most of the movie was filmed right in the Cheetah Club. We were there all day because we had to show Jack Nicholson how to hold a guitar.
Yeah, he was playing one of our songs, too, and they asked us to show the actors how to put their fingers in the right places so it looks like they’re really playing.
Was Nicholson a good student?
He was just laughing about it, having fun. It was really a cool thing. It was loaded with people because they had a full audience of extras to make it look like a live show. And then there were, you know, Bruce Dern and Adam Roarke and all these different people, Susan Strasberg, all who were in the movie. It was pretty amazing.
Do you remember the concert you played there in ’67?
Not really. It was sort of confusing because there were so many bands and so many people, and we didn’t know where we were or anything. At the time, keep in mind, we were all about 18 years old, and some of the guys weren’t even 18 yet. One guy was 21— Mark [Weitz], our keyboard player. So he was kind of our dad in the band. He was the leader.
It was the same thing with all the bands that we were playing with, and so we were kind of like in awe all the time, like playing with Buffalo Springfield, or The Turtles, and we toured with The Beach Boys. And all those bands were older. Like in 1967, Mike Love of The Beach Boys was 27 years old. He was nine years older than me. I thought he was a dad. In those days if you were over 30, you weren’t to be trusted.
What did you learn from these only slightly older guys?
We learned a lot when we were with The Beach Boys. I mean, they helped us out. They knew that we were nervous to be there at all, but they were helping us out with vocals, during sound checks. But they also used to suggest, “Why don’t you guys find some nice sweaters? … You know, to wear.” Because we were wearing those East Indian clothes, and then about two years later you saw the Beach Boys, or at least Mike Love, wearing the same thing. And it was like, “Oh, okay. They finally got it.” But
back then when we were touring with them, it was like, “You know you guys are all good-looking guys. You’d look really good if you were wearing some slacks and nice sweaters and stuff.”
How did you guys develop your fashion style?
It was either Randy Seol or Mark Weitz who had lunch in Westwood at this little Thai place called The Loft, and it was called The Loft because it was upstairs from other shops. There was this East Indian shop called Sat Purush on the ground level. … And anyway, I don’t know, it was maybe like a week later or something like that, we were told to go out with our photographer and our manager, and to go to these different clothing shops to find suitable stage clothes and something to wear for the album cover. So we went around and looked for things — silk shirts with big collars and all that stuff. … Ugh, we hated all of it.
And then it was either Mark or Randy said, “I saw this Indian shop after having lunch the other day, and maybe we should check that out.” So the whole band got together and went over to Sat Purush. And we walked in and told them what we were doing, and they were all really, really friendly and nice. There were all these pillows and caftan chairs and all that kind of stuff, screens, and so that album cover, the first album cover [“Incense and Peppermints”], was taken in the shop. And so that was it. There was the album cover, and it was pretty bold. Nothing had happened like that yet. People weren’t wearing those clothes yet. But they were shortly thereafter, even The Beatles and The Monkees, and everybody else went into that shop because we put the name of it on the back of the album cover. We started the whole thing.
The Venice Beach Music Fest is from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, where Windward Avenue meets the Venice Boardwalk. The Strawberry Alarm Clock goes on at 6 p.m. Tickets are free. Visit facebook.com/venicebeachmusicfest for the full lineup.