Buffalo Springfield

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Buffalo Springfield

Despite releasing three accomplished albums which were innovative and influential exemplars of the "West Coast sound" of the mid-to late 1960s, Buffalo Springfield only had a limited impact on the public consciousness during its brief and tempestuous heyday. However, the continued cultural resonance of their solitary hit single, "For What It's Worth," combined with the subsequent critical acclaim and commercial success of its alumni, has ensured Buffalo Springfield of a somewhat mythical status in popular music history.

The genesis of Buffalo Springfield proceeded slowly through various musical styles and right across the North American continent. Stephen Stills and Richie Furay met in folk music mecca Greenwich Village, and first played together in an eccentric nine-man vocal ensemble called the Au Go Go singers, which released an obscure album in 1964. Fellow singer-songwriter Neil Young encountered Stills in Ontario, and Furay in New York, before befriending bassist Bruce Palmer on the Toronto coffee-house music scene. Young and Palmer joined a blues-rock group, The Mynah Birds, which was briefly signed to Motown in 1965. The four young musicians finally came together as a group when Stills and Furay spotted the two Canadians in a Los Angeles traffic jam in early 1966. Supplemented by another Canadian, experienced session drummer Dewey Martin, the fledgling Buffalo Springfield were, in the words of Johnny Rogan, "potentially the most eclectic unit to appear on the West Coast scene since the formation of the Byrds."

Byrds' bassist Chris Hillman arranged for Buffalo Springfield to play at the prestigious Los Angeles club Whisky A Go Go, and the gigs immediately attracted such local luminaries as David Crosby, the Mamas and Papas, and Sonny and Cher. Furay, Stills and Young would later assert that Buffalo Springfield peaked during these early live appearances, and that by comparison, in Young's words, "All the records were great failures." The band released the first of those records in July 1966, Young's precocious "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" backed with Stills' "Go and Say Goodbye." The single was not a commercial success, but it provides a suitable example of the contrast at this time between Stills' stylish but typical "teenybop" narratives of young love, and Young's more lyrically obtuse repertoire. As Stills later noted, "He [Young] wanted to be Bob Dylan and I wanted to be The Beatles."

Buffalo Springfield's eponymous debut album was released in February 1967. The lyrics to Young's "Burned," "Out of My Mind" and "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong" all alluded to the effects of fashionable psychedelic drugs. Buffalo Springfield achieved commercial success with their next single, "For What It's Worth," which reached number 7 on the national chart. An artistic leap for Stills, the song was a coolly sardonic study of the violent action of police against hippy protesters on Sunset Strip in late 1966. Though "For What It's Worth" captured the significance of the conflict between the authorities and the emerging "counterculture," the single's sales were concentrated in California, suggesting that middle America had little empathy with such provocative lines as "What a field day for the heat [police]/A thousand people in the street."

By early 1967, Buffalo Springfield was riven with problems. Palmer had been charged with possession of drugs and deported back to Canada, and Young began to work with former Phil Spector associate Jack Nietzsche. The group played an acclaimed concert with Palmer and without Young at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Renegade Byrd David Crosby substituted for Young at this legendary zenith of the hippy era. Young returned to Buffalo Spring-field in September 1967 and the band released their second long-player. Though Rolling Stone pertinently observed that "This album sounds as if every member of the group is satisfying his own musical needs," the diverse and ambitious Buffalo Springfield Again is an acknowledged classic. The album included Young's impressionistic six-minute collage "Broken Arrow," Stills' guitar and banjo epic "Bluebird," and "Rock 'n' Roll Woman," an ode to Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick co-written by Stills and Crosby.

Buffalo Springfield unravelled in early 1968: Palmer was busted and deported again in January, and in March, Young, Furay and the latest bassist, Jim Messina, were arrested on a drugs charge with Cream member Eric Clapton. When Buffalo Springfield finally disbanded in May, Rolling Stone cited "internal hassle, extreme fatigue coupled with absence of national success and run-ins with the fuzz." The hippy argot rather disguised the extent to which the internecine egotism of Stills and Young, even more than the drug busts, had dissolved Buffalo Springfield. It was left to Furay and Messina to organise tracks recorded at the end of 1967 for the inevitably inconsistent Last Time Around, released in August 1968 after Buffalo Springfield had disbanded.

Stills joined Crosby in the prototypical "supergroup" Crosby, Stills and Nash; Young became a significant solo artist and occasionally augmented CSN; and Furay and Messina formed the country-rock outfit Poco. A reunion of the original members occurred in 1982, but it never advanced beyond rehearsals. Despite being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, Buffalo Springfield remains disproportionately represented in popular culture by "For What It's Worth," a standard of the soundtracks to many documentaries and movies (Good Morning Vietnam, Forrest Gump) about the cultural conflicts of the 1960s. In 1998, the song was more imaginatively utilised by rap group Public Enemy in the title song for the film He Got Game. Stills' famous riff and lyrics were combined with the rhymes of Public Enemy's frontman, Chuck D, in an inspired meeting of two radically different forms and eras of political popular music.

—Martyn Bone

Further Reading:

Einarson, John, with Richie Furay. For What It's Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield. Toronto, Quarry Press, 1997.

Jenkins, Alan, editor. Neil Young and Broken Arrow: On a Journey Through the Past. Bridgend, Neil Young Appreciation Society, 1994.

Rogan, Johnny. Neil Young: The Definitive Story of His Musical Career. London, Proteus, 1982.