“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…”
The story of how Buffalo Springfield formed is one of those too-good-to-be-true rock legends. Stephen Stills had met a musician called Neil Young on a visit to Canada in 1964, and admired him greatly. Young had travelled to New York — apparently to look for Stills in Greenwich Village — in 1965, where he’d met Richie Furay and taught him one of Young’s songs, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.
Between late 1965 and early 1966, Furay and Stills tried to form various bands, with the usual LA musicians — Stills played with Van Dyke Parks for a while, and was also in a band called The Buffalo Fish with Peter Tork — but they talked occasionally about Young, and the two of them had worked up an arrangement of Clancy. Then one day the two of them noticed a hearse in the street, and Furay said “You know, I bet that’s Neil” — Stills had told him that Young drove a hearse.
It was, in fact, Neil Young — he’d travelled from Canada to California to find Stills and Furay, but had no idea where they lived, and so was driving around aimlessly. And he’d brought a friend — bass player Bruce Palmer, with whom he’d been playing in a band called The Mynah Birds.
The four formed a band with drummer Billy Mundi, who quickly left to join first Maston & Brewer and then the Mothers of Invention, and was replaced by Dewey Martin, who had been drumming for the Modern Folk Quartet up to that point.
Now all they needed was a name — and there are disagreements about how the name came about. Everyone agrees that the name came from seeing a Buffalo Springfield steamroller, but no-one agrees whose idea it was. Young says that he, Stills, and Parks were walking down the street when they saw the steamroller, and that either he or Stills noticed the name. Stills says that Richey Furay noticed the name. And Van Dyke Parks says that he noticed the name and that the band members are either lying or delusional when they say otherwise.
I tend to believe Parks myself, not least because he’s the only one who has any memory of thinking of it himself — in everyone else’s story it was someone else, not the person telling the story. What everyone agrees, though, is that whoever had the idea mentioned it to Dewey Martin, and that it was his enthusiasm that made the rest of the band agree to the name.
After a short tour as the support band for the Byrds, Chris Hillman persuaded the owners of the Whisky A-Go-Go to take the band on for a six-week residency, which in turn led to the new band getting signed to Atlantic Records. Their first single, a version of Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing with Furay on lead, was a local hit, but was nowhere near commercial enough to make a dent in the rest of the country.
Their first album was recorded in a hurry, and with the band’s managers (who had no record production experience) as producers, and no-one was very happy with it. The band wanted to rerecord the whole thing, but the record company wouldn’t let them — they did, however, allow the band to supervise the mono mix, which the band members rightly say is better than the stereo.
On its release, the album had very little success, but then the “riots” on Sunset Strip happened.
Whether these riots really deserved that name is an open question — the police had imposed a 10PM curfew on the area of LA around Sunset Strip, where most of the clubs playing rock and roll music were, including the Whisky, and a mass demonstration took place at Pandora’s Box, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, to protest this on November 12 1966. As Micky Dolenz put it at the time “a lot of people and journalists don’t know how to spell ‘demonstration’ so they use the word ‘riot’”, and it certainly seems that it was more a case of the police provoking peaceful demonstrators than anything violent.
Whatever the case, though, the “riot on Sunset Strip” quickly became part of the folklore, and turned up in many songs. The Standells released a single with that title, and the riots were also mentioned in Plastic People by the Mothers of Invention, in the line “I hear the sound of marching feet, down Sunset Boulevard to Crescent Heights, and there, at Pandora’s Box, we are confronted with a vast quantity of Plastic People”.
Stephen Stills responded quickly, and within a couple of weeks the band were in the studio recording For What It’s Worth, which has gained a reputation as a protest anthem but is rather more ambiguous than that, talking of people “carrying signs/mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’” and warning against paranoia and gaining a persecution complex.
The single was released in January 1967, six weeks after the riots, and quickly became a top ten hit for the band, and one of the most recognisable hits of the decade. The band’s first album was quickly reissued with the opening track replaced with the new hit single.
It wasn’t all good news, however. The band’s higher profile made them targets, and Bruce Palmer was soon arrested for marijuana possession and deported back to Canada. His place was filled briefly by Ken Forssi of Love, before Jim Fielder of the Mothers of Invention took over. Palmer would be back, but this would be the first in a whole series of line-up changes in the band…
For What It’s Worth
Composer: Stephen Stills
Line-up: Richie Furay (guitar, vocals), Dewey Martin (drums, backing vocals), Bruce Palmer (bass), Stephen Stills (guitar, vocals), Neil Young (guitar, vocals)
Original release: For What It’s Worth/Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It, Buffalo Springfield, ATCO 45-6459
Currently available on: Buffalo Springfield, Atlantic CD