Alan Lee Brackett of the Peanut Butter Conspiracy

by Jeff Suwak

I discovered Alan Lee Brackett and the Peanut Butter Conspiracy when I stumbled upon Brackett's memoir Almost Famous: Journey to the Summer of Love. The '60s Psychedelic Era is a passion of mine, and I was fairly amazed that I hadn't found Brackett earlier - especially since, to my ears, the Conspiracy were pretty damn good.

Back in late 1966, the Los Angeles-based Conspiracy was right in the mix of the West Coast music scene. In publications from the era, journalists mentioned them right alongside peers such as The Doors, Iron Butterfly, and Jefferson Airplane (the Airplane's drummer Spencer Dryden started out with an earlier incarnation of the Conspiracy called the Ashes). Back when the race was just beginning, the Conspiracy seemed as likely as anybody else to break ahead of the pack. Like so many other talented bands of that time and place, however, that just never happened.

The band was together from '66 to '70, but '67 to '69 was when they released their three studio albums. They had two with Columbia Records and one with Challenge Records. Their first album, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy is Spreading, cracked the Billboard 200 and produced a regional hit with the song "It's a Happening Thing" (which also hit #93 nationally).

They shared billing with the Chambers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors, but by 1970 things had fizzled out and the band had called it quits. The Peanut Butter Conspiracy was no more, but Brackett rode on.

In some ways, it seems as if fate had nudged Brackett in the direction he was always supposed to go. Brackett prefers songwriting over live performance, and that is where he found his home post-Conspiracy.

Brackett wrote and recorded music for dozens of television shows and movies, including Star Trek, Witness, and Laverne & Shirley. He still gets unexpected royalty checks from mysterious places. In his memoir, Brackett comes off as a rare sort of guy, one ambitious enough to climb up the music-business ladder, yet wise enough to know how fortunate he was to have had the ride, even if it didn't lead him quite as far as he'd hoped.

Brackett isn't done yet. In 2014, he released Barbara, an album compiling Conspiracy tracks featuring the voice of Barbara "Sandi" Robison. The album has an infectiously upbeat song called "Good Feelin'," which was later sold to Three Dog Night and remade as "Good Feeling (1957)."

On top of that, Brackett's been compiling and releasing more collections of his materials, both Conspiracy stuff and music he made outside that outfit. My impression in talking with Brackett is that some of his recent experiences have had him feeling the weight of mortality, and he wants to get out everything he can.

Our phone conversation started out with some small talk about the weather in our respective cities. This prompted Brackett to remember the smell of my own place of residence, Tacoma, Washington. It's a phenomenon lovingly referred to as the "Tacoma Aroma," and I was both amazed and amused to discover that he remembered that, of all things, from back when the Conspiracy was touring the region.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): You toured the Pacific Northwest?

Alan Lee Brackett: Yes. We played Seattle, Portland, Salem, and some others. That was our last tour, when "I'm a Fool" was a hit up there. That's when Barbara [Robison] rolled the van, too. That was kind of the end of touring. Columbia wasn't pushing our record. That was a #1 song in like five western states, but they wouldn't push the album across the rest of the country or the world. So, I called Clive Davis and said, "We almost got killed doing this. It's not worth it."

We played with Merilee Rush ["Angel Of The Morning"], I think in Portland. I liked playing with her.

On their debut album, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy lineup included Brackett on bass guitar, Lance Fent on lead guitar, John Merrill on rhythm guitar, Jim Voight on drums, and Barbara "Sandi" Robison on percussion and vocals. Studio musicians James Burton and Glen Campbell also contributed.
Songfacts: How did the songwriting process go with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy?

Brackett: I was writing a lot. I would work up songs myself and then I would take the ones that I thought would be good to Peanut Butter. The ones that weren't are the ones that I'm just putting out now on three new releases.

We'd go and have vocal rehearsal with Barbara, John, and I. We'd play guitar, and if we liked the songs, we'd take them to the full-band rehearsal. At that point, more arranging could go on. John would do the same thing. He'd write them up and take them, and we'd work on them. We were pretty independent that way.

Songfacts: On the Peanut Butter Conspiracy site, there's a quote that goes: "I got together upon John's recommendation with Lance Fent and Jim Voigt and, with the help of Owsley, we learned 50 or so songs in one day and went out that night and got our choice of about three gigs in Hollywood. We played at the Sea Witch on Sunset Blvd. as the Crossing Guards. We were a power trio, and then John and Barbara joined back up with us and we changed our name to the PBC. The PBC was a name that Jim Voigt came up with - actually it was the Peanut Butter Controversy originally, but we changed it to Conspiracy right away." Can you expand on that?

Brackett: There was a blue vial there that we took. It was from Owsley [Stanley, mass LSD manufacturer and Grateful Dead soundman]. That was how we learned 40, 50 songs, and we went out that night and got two or three gigs of our choice on Sunset Strip. It was pretty phenomenal how fast that came together with the help of Owsley. It was the first time I met those guys. To do that in one day was, I guess, pretty historic. That's when we started playing at the Sea Witch on Sunset. It was kind of nautical, which I was used to from my folk days. I was always playing in these clubs down on the beach that were nautical. There was the Waleback, and Warehouse Number 9. They always had big fish tanks and nets hanging around and floats and all that. There's a picture of us in the back, which was all sand and had a patio back there, when we were calling ourselves the Crossing Guards. That was after Barbara had her baby.

Songfacts: In your book, you mention that your song, "Time is After You," bears a striking resemblance to the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," and that it may have been a direct influence. Can you expand on that?

Brackett: Well, my song was faster and had the rim shots that were like time going by, and there was the guitar and little chimes on there, too. They [the Chambers Brothers] slowed it way down, but I think it was the same idea, and the fact that they were going "time" was kind of funny to me, but I didn't think much of it.

We were all influenced by each other and borrowed from each other. I didn't think too much about it, but then when we re-recorded the song after this thing [reference here is to Vault's West Coast Love-In] with the Chambers Brothers, Barbara just kind of impromptu started doing the "cuckoo" thing in the background. But it's not something that bothered us or anything. We actually played with the Chambers Brothers in the folk days when I was in the Hillside Singers, and they were sort of a folk-gospel band. They did songs like "People Get Ready." Then all of a sudden they got psychedelic and had "Time Has Come Today," and I said, "Well that's cool. Maybe I influenced somebody."

Songfacts: We spoke to Willie Chambers some time back, and he told us they were indeed very hesitant to release that psychedelic stuff, because it conflicted a lot with their traditional gospel background.

Brackett: Yeah, when a band hears a playback or something, they might get an idea off that and start jamming. That's just how it goes. So, they may have been just messing around when they came up with that. I have no idea if that is what happened, but I know those kinds of things happen. It happened with Three Dog Night and "Good Feeling.'" I sent [producer] Richie Podolor some songs when I was a publisher. I just sent that as a fluke. Barbara's singing it. Well, Chuck [Negron] starts singing with Barbara when they heard the demo. They did this whole '50s thing on Midnight Special. [A TV variety show with Wolfman Jack]. It took like 15 minutes, they showed them getting all dressed up. They changed it to "Good Feeling (1957)," and they did this whole '50s thing, and they did it for years. I made more money off of that song than I did off of everything with Peanut Butter. It was a left-off of the For Children Of All Ages album. It's on the new CD, I think, but originally it was left off.

I wrote that song when we were the house band at the Factory, which was Sinatra and those guys' club. It was the best gig in town. I did it there because they needed something for people to dance to. I needed something with a good feeling, so I wrote that song, "Good Feelin'." It was just to have a good dance tune.

Songfacts: So, "Good Feelin'" was your biggest-earning song?

Brackett: Yeah. Last year it got used in Florida in a boat commercial or something. I got a check for 13 grand. That's another reason I'm putting out all these songs and this music I did in the '70s: you never know. If you don't get it out there, nothing's going to happen. You're going to die and it'll just get thrown away. So, that's why I'm putting these things out. I don't want to be on my deathbed wishing I'd done this.

Alan at Frenchys in Hayward, CaliforniaAlan at Frenchys in Hayward, California
Songfacts: So nobody calls you and asks you to use a song? You just find out when you get a check?

Brackett: Yeah, basically. From BMI [Broadcast Music, Incorporated]. Once a song's out, anybody can record it and use it. You don't necessarily license it, I don't think, but anyway nobody's going to go after somebody if they get a check. If you see something on TV and you never get a check, then you have to go after them, you know.

I've got stuff out all over. I just yesterday saw a couple releases of "Time Is After You" online, and I'll never get any money, because Vault Records, who published that, I've always had trouble getting money out of them. And I know roughly how much money I should be getting because of my royalties from Sony and places like that. That's the way of the music business.

Songfacts: It must be exceptionally difficult today, with all the online ways to get music out.

Brackett: Oh, yeah. Streaming pays next to nothing. You get thousands of plays and you get a few cents. It's not like it used to be. I feel sorry for people who wanted to rely on that kind of income when they got old. Artists are finding new ways to do it. They merchandize and play concerts, but still you have to have some amount of prestige to do that. In 1966, '67, we didn't have to pay or get paid nothing to play at the Whiskey. It was a different time. I went and saw some friends at the Whiskey about a year ago, and they played it for free. The Whiskey's getting paid money. It's a different world now. You've got to self-promote and everything. It's pretty tough.

Songfacts: What's "It's Alright" about?

Brackett: That's totally from my imagination. It's a song about a breakup, but until recently I've never had anybody break up with me. This just happened to me, and it's a new experience. Knowing other people that had broken up, heartbreak is like something you're lucky to be able to feel, because you had something to get heartbroken over. You can't even experience heartbreak without having something really good happen. That's what it's all about. It's just a breakup song.

"It's Alright" was actually a hit in South America. It's funny how things like that happen. Like, my song "Back in L.A." was a hit in Louisiana, because Louisiana's "LA."

Songfacts: In the song, though, you're talking about Los Angeles, right?

Brackett: That's right. It's funny how things happen.

Songfacts: So is there any particularly interesting story behind that song?

Brackett: That was written after that tour up north, actually. It was just about wanting to get back home, back to your lady. John was wanting to leave, and I knew that it was not going to last that long. So, I was starting to experiment with me doing lead vocals, and new styles. That whole album came off of stuff I wrote during that tour. The second album was really the height of what the Peanut Butter Conspiracy was about. After that, it was me taking over, more R&B.

Songfacts: Did your audience not respond well to that?

Brackett: I don't think they responded well, but it was a point of survival at that point. Barbara went on with me for a while but then she left, too. I knew that was probably going to happen. So, I had to find my own identity. I was writing a lot of things during that time, and I needed to find myself, just to survive. I did a couple record deals with ABC Dunhill and Bell Records singles. I did the Bell one with Stu Phillips producing, and that was "I Don't Want to Wake Up" with a big orchestra. Then I did "Cherokee Woman" on Local 47 Blues for ABC Dunhill. Then I got into the movie thing, and that was more where I went.

Songfacts: What was the first movie you worked on?

Brackett: I did music for probably close to 100 movies and TV. I did Witness, Top Gun, a lot of motorcycle movies. That's how I started, with Stu Phillips. That's how I started learning about film music. I did a lot of movies in '83, '84, mostly for Paramount, a lot of source music, title songs.

Songfacts: Do you prefer the writing over performing?

Brackett: Well, I got to perform a lot in the studio. As far as gigging live? No, I'd done that for a long time, and it didn't really bother me to stop. I like writing. Scott Shelly and I wrote three songs for Happy Days, instrumentals that were used something like 126 times in the series. And in Cheers, and Laverne & Shirley. On Star Trek we did scoring and I sang.

Songfacts: You wrote "True Believers," right?

Brackett: John and I penned it, maybe even Stu. Sometimes Stu would write with us. That was for one of the motorcycle movies. I think Run Angel Run.

Songfacts: How about "It's a Happening Thing?" Is that still floating around and getting you checks from unexpected places?

Brackett: Not really. It's probably one of the best known of ours, because that was our first minor hit. It got a lot of play here in Los Angeles. I was driving around and I pushed the button on the radio and it was playing, then I pushed another button and it was playing on that one, then I pushed another button and it was playing on that one. That's when I thought, "Gosh, I really made it now. This is great."

They were using it for radio spots. They'd put it on a spot and say, "Come on down, it's a happening thing thing thing [imitates words echoing off into silence]." Of course, I didn't get anything for that. That song I wrote because of Rodney Bingenheimer. He was a DJ, this little guy that always had a couple girls on every arm. He was always at every possible venue, where he'd pop in for a while. Instead of "hi," he'd say "what's happening?" So, I immediately wrote "It's a Happening Thing," because I'd go to him and say, "Well, I'm happening, and you're happening." It was played off of his "what's happening" statement. I also wrote "The Most Up Till Now" the same night.

Songfacts: Say I wanted to introduce the Peanut Butter Conspiracy's music to someone whose never heard it before. What do you think are the three songs that best represent the band?

Brackett: Well, "It's Happening Thing." And then, from the second album, "Too Many Do" and "Lonely Leaf." "Living Loving Life" isn't bad, too. I love that song. I mean, I wrote it. I wouldn't mind having that played at my funeral - "hasn't it been nice, paradise, living loving life?"

Songfacts: Was the L.A. psychedelic scene competitive with the Haight Ashbury psychedelic scene?

Brackett: I didn't see it ever being a competitive thing unless Bill Graham was involved. He kind of screwed us over. Everybody looks up to him, but my experience was not that with him. As far as Haight Ashbury, I liked the whole movement in late '66, '67, until kids started leaving their homes to run to Haight Ashbury or Hollywood to escape that way of life they had back home. Basically, a lot of them were runaways. Then they were living on the streets and doing a lot of drugs - I didn't really like that part.

As far as all the groups go, we all got along. As far as Jefferson Airplane, their drummer was my drummer in the Ashes. We used to hang out at the Airplane's house and down here [in Los Angeles] sometimes. So it wasn't competition in that way. But, when we did a gig back in Jersey with the Airplane and got a better review than they did, that's when Bill Graham said "no more gigs with Peanut Butter," so we got aced out of Monterey Pop festival, Woodstock, all the gigs with the West Coast psychedelic thing. "No more gigs with Peanut Butter." I didn't appreciate that very much. Just because we got a better review.

Songfacts: I imagine you've got to harbor a little bit of anger towards Graham for that situation. I mean, that would piss me off.

Brackett: My experience with Graham wasn't that great. There was one time where we were playing the Fillmore and he came up to yell at us because we were three minutes late. I mean, three minutes late. Another time I was in San Francisco playing the Avalon or something, and I wanted to go see one of my friends playing. I wanted to go in, and he was gruff and wouldn't let me in free when I'd just played there the week before. In Los Angeles, I could go to the Whiskey or any of the clubs the Whiskey owned and Mario would let me in.

Songfacts: I wonder why he took issue.

Brackett: I don't know. He was a businessman, number one, which was the downfall of the record companies, too. Some of the club owners were really cool, but some of them were just businessmen who didn't care about the music.

Songfacts: Do you think Graham affected the Peanut Butter Conspiracy's ability to extend beyond the regional musical scene?

Brackett: Yes, I definitely do.

Songfacts: Wow. So, this was no small thing.

Brackett: Yeah, it was a big deal. It was a business move on his part, which was not very nice. How many times had Airplane gotten a better review than us? Or how many times were we not even mentioned? Why do something like that? Also, Columbia didn't do a very good job pushing our music. I don't know the politics behind too much of that.

Barbara "Sandi" Robison was born Barbara Jeane Moyer in Las Vegas on October 14, 1945. She took the name Robison from husband Robbie "the Werewolf" Robison, who WMFU credits for pioneering "beatnik monster comedy folk." The "Sandi" came from a borrowed ID she used to get into a club because she was only 20.

After the Conspiracy, Robison performed lead roles in the iconic counterculture musical Hair. She died at 42 in a Billings, Montana, hospital on April 22, 1988, after collapsing on stage from toxic shock poisoning a couple weeks prior. Barbara was released in 2014, containing Conspiracy songs featuring her vocals.
Songfacts: Can you talk a bit about Barbara Robison? How was she as a person, besides the obvious talent?

Brackett: She was this little girl that had this big woman's wonderful voice. She was easy going, lovable. She told me something when we were still in folk music. Robbie Robison, Robbie the Werewolf, father of their son. We were friends long before PBC because they were in folk music, too. She told me back then that she was worried about ending up like her mother. She said her mother didn't take care of herself. I always wondered what she meant by that, how her mother didn't take care of herself, then when Barbara died of toxic shock syndrome, it all came back to me. I thought, "Oh my gosh, she didn't take care of herself." She was a sweetheart, and such a pro. A good example is when she was nine months pregnant she was still on stage singing "House Of The Rising Sun." A real trooper.

Songfacts: Is there anything more you want to share about the Peanut Butter Conspiracy or the songs?

Brackett: There was an album that came out last year or maybe the year before in Spain, with stuff I never thought would see the light of day. In Europe, they're more interested in the rough, raw stuff. This was my experimental stuff I wrote while in Peanut Butter Conspiracy but decided didn't fit with Peanut Butter. I kept the rights for a CD. It's called Alan Lee Bracket: Peanut Butter Conspiracy Theory: Lost songs 1967–68. The LP from Spain is on Amazon, sells for like 30 or 40 bucks. Now it's going to be cheaper on CD. The next one's called Transition: Post Peanut Butter Conspiracy. It has 24 songs which were all experimental and things I did in the early '70s and have never seen the light of day until now. That's a lot of different styles I was delving into.

At that time, I had Mal Evans as my manager, the roadie from The Beatles. And two of the Beatles wanted to sign me and other labels like Capricorn. Mal was talking about how he was going to carry me on his shoulders onto The Tonight Show. Well, Mal was writing this book about The Beatles. I said, "I don't think they want all the people to know what you're saying, Mal." Who played what, and all the stuff that was going on with women. And he said, "Oh don't worry."

He was kind of naïve, a big teddy bear kind of guy. He said, "Don't worry, I'm going to do a test pressing and if there are any problems we'll work it out." So I went home and I wrote "Mr. Evans." He never heard it, because they did the test pressing, and the next day or so he was up in his bedroom. The Beatles used to like to dress up in cowboy outfits and stuff, and they'd have guns. They'd get high and look at themselves in mirrors. It was an English thing. They liked cowboys, the United States and the cowboy thing. Like a fantasy thing. That's what I think he was doing, but his girlfriend at the time told the cops he was going to kill himself and he'd been doing drugs. So the L.A. SWAT team went up there, and he moved, and they shot him like six times or something. So that scared the hell out of me. I went off to Hawaii, because I thought maybe I knew too much. So I kind of dropped out of the business, and I'm in Hawaii and I get a call from a girlfriend of mine. She said, "Listen," and I heard my song "Mr. Evans." It went on and on and on, and finally she came back on, and I said, "What was that?" She said, "They're playing it on the radio." I said, "How'd they get that," and she said "I gave it to them." I said, "What?!?!" Here I am, I've run off, and here they're playing it on the radio.

Mal Evans, born May 27, 1935, was the Beatles' road manager, bodyguard, and confidant. He also did some music production (notably on Badfinger's "No Matter What") and writing - including co-writing with George Harrison "You and Me (Babe)." He was shot dead by the LAPD on January 5, 1976, after pointing an air rifle (which the police mistook for a real rifle) at them. Friends reported that Evans had been mentally and emotionally degenerating ever since his divorce. After his death, Beatles memorabilia found in his personal effects sold for millions of dollars. No suspicion of conspiracy is mentioned in the official accounts of Evans' death.
Songfacts: What year was this?

Brackett: The year Mal died. [1976]

Songfacts: What did you think wasn't supposed to be known?

Brackett: Well, all Mal's books had disappeared. The test pressings never came out. An old friend of mine, a producer, said he had that book years later, and we went up to his attic in the trunk it was supposed to be in, and it was gone. Mal told me it was called The Longest Road. But all the press about what he was writing never gave that title, so I don't know. But they were all gathered and burned or something.

Songfacts: That's crazy.

Brackett: Well you have to realize this was before people knew Eric Clapton or some other person played on this song, or who wrote this or that.

Songfacts: So you think it might have tarnished the Beatles legend?

Brackett: Yeah. Mal would tell me about songs he created and they used and said they'd take care of him and never did. I knew three of the Beatles, and I don't think it was them. It was the business surrounding them.

Songfacts: But this sounds like some serious stuff you're saying that they really didn't want people to know. What's the gist of it? Just that other people were writing or playing on Beatles songs?

Brackett: Not so much that. It was more the scandalous kinds of things that were in there, then the thing that there should have been co-writers instead of "Lennon/McCartney" all the time, no matter where it came from.

Songfacts: And the new stuff you've got coming out?

Brackett: The third one is Alan Lee Bracket: Reflections. These are the most polished recordings I've done of songs. Some of them are still raw recordings. There are 16 songs on there. John Merrill played on one of them, and Jeff Porcaro, who played with Toto and Steely Dan. He was just a teenager.

April 20, 2018
Further reading: Lace the Music: How LSD Changed Popular Music

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