40 Years Ago, Arlingtonian's Voice Was at the Top of the Charts


(Saturday, October 20, 2007 4:33 AM EDT)

Arlington may not be the first place you associate with 1960s-era psychedelic rock, but the county actually is home to a voice you might recognize - Greg Munford, lead vocalist on Strawberry Alarm Clock's biggest hit, “Incense and Peppermints.”

Munford, who has lived in Arlington for more than 20 years, grew up in Southern California, and by “being at the right place at the right time” became a part of rock history.

In 1965, the 17-year-old Munford was not a member of Strawberry Alarm Clock (he had his own band, The Shapes), but his manager called and asked him to fill in for the band's less-than-stellar singer.

With about an hour's preparation, Munford recorded his part with the band, and about a year later, the song was a hit.

Being the son of an opera singer and playing Big Band chordal guitar since he was about seven years old, music had always played a significant role in Munford's life, so making it big, if only briefly, in the world of rock-and-roll was very satisfying.

“It was fabulous,” he said. “It was thrilling to hear your voice on the radio.”

Not that the lyrics make a whole lot of sense, even to the artist who sang them. Consider this stanza:

Good sense, innocence, cripplin' and kind; Dead kings, many things I can't define; Oh Cajun spice, sweats and blushers your mind; Incense and peppermints, the color of thyme.

Or this one:

Tune-a by the cockeyed world in two; Throw your pride to one side, It's the least you can do; Beatniks and politics, nothing is new; A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view.

Now, more than 40 year later, Munford still remembers all the words to “Peppermints and Incense,” but he said he doesn't have any insider's knowledge as to what the enigmatic lyrics mean.

“It was written at a time when psychedelic imagery was used,” Munford said. “It was just a bunch of psychedelic non sequiturs.”

Even though he was still in high school and many parents might have had qualms with their son being in a psychedelic rock band, Munford's mother and father generally were supportive of his musical ventures.

“They basically said, ‘Let him do his thing,'” he said. “They trusted the fact I wouldn't do anything too stupid!”

The success of “Incense and Peppermints” led to tours, but being younger than the rest of the band, Munford did not find the touring particularly enjoyable.

But there was one show he remembers very fondly - a concert stage Strawberry Alarm Clock shared with The Who.

“We were big The Who fans and we knew how they ended their act,” he said. “Not only did we get to meet The Who, but we were backstage, and during ‘My Generation,' I positioned myself and grabbed [Pete] Townshend's guitar neck” when they started smashing their instruments.

“Incense and Peppermints” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a week on Nov. 25, 1967, earning a place of honor in what may not have been the best year in rock history, but certainly was the grooviest.

Among the other chart-toppers of the year: “Windy” by the Association, “Light My Fire” by the Doors, “The Letter” by the Box Tops, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “Penny Lane” and “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, “I'm a Believer” and “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees, “To Sir With Love” by Lulu and “Somethin' Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

“Incense and Peppermints” gained credence with a new generation when it was included in the “Austin Powers” soundtrack.

Munford went on to earn degrees in music composition, music theory and musicology. He recently performed at an event sponsored by the Arlington Historical Society.

Munford currently is in advertising but keeps music in his life playing in a rock band.

Married and the father of a 21-year-old son (who, his father says, is the better guitarist), Munford still hears from appreciative listeners.

“I get a fair amount of stuff,” he said. “Sometimes a young person who gets into that kind of music will track me down and ask me for my autograph, which is fun.”

Greg Munford (top) as part of Strawberry Alarm Clock in the 1960s (he is holding the sunflower) and (lower photo) today.

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