Wednesday, June 2, 2010

June 2: Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth"

Artist: Buffalo Springfield
Song: "For What It's Worth"
Album: For What It's Worth (single)
Year: 1967

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Among all the "rare occasions" within the history of music, there is perhaps none less frequent, yet more coveted than writing a song that becomes the "anthem" of an era.  Impossible to "purposefully" write, in nearly every case, these few songs that end up representing an entire decade or generation come from then-unknown groups, and easily persevere over the decades.  Furthermore, history has shown that there is no pattern to what makes a such such as this, as sometimes the song is quite literal in "singing of the times," while in other cases, it is simply a tone or approach that makes the song so definitive.  Excelling on every level, from the music to the vocals to the writing, as well as launching a handful of careers, there are few bands in history that can measure up to the talent one finds within the members of the mid-1960's psychedelic-folk-rock group, Buffalo Springfield.  Looking at their overall impact, one can easily make the case that they stand alone insofar as influencing the "California rock" sound that would follow, and traces of their music can be heard in everything from The Grateful Dead to The Beach Boys to later groups like Teenage Fanclub.  It is mind boggling to think that all of this impact was done in just over two years, as that was the lifespan of the band, though many of the members went onto greater fame with projects that followed.  Though the truth behind their biggest hit has become somewhat misconstrued over the decades, one would be hard pressed to find a more definitive song of the 1960's than Buffalo Springfield's 1967 single, "For What It's Worth."

While "For What It's Worth" is often said to be from Buffalo Springfield's 1966 self-titled debut, truth be told, the album was completed and released before the single was even recorded in December of that year.  After the song cracked the top ten on the singles charts, it was added to later copies of the album, but original versions of Buffalo Springfield do not contain the song.  Simple, yet powerful, one would be hard pressed to find an opening musical refrain that is more instantly recognizable than the "two-notes and a kick drum" sound that opens "For What It's Worth" and serves as the core riff throughout the entire song.  This simple instrumentation gives the song a fantastic cadence, and even during the brief choruses, the music rarely moves into anything beyond this refrain.  In some spots, the guitars have an amazing "layered" quality, and this is due to the fact that Richie Furay, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young all contributed to the track, and the song gives a bit of a glimpse into the later work of the latter two of these artists.  Drummer Dewey Martin finds a way to be brilliant through simplicity on "For What It's Worth," as the steady marching of his work gives the song a strange, almost nervous sense of urgency.  This minimalist instrumentation has become nothing short of iconic, and it has also been sampled countless times by other artists from nearly every genre, including hip-hop legends Public Enemy.

The simple instrumentation leaves the focus on the words of "For What It's Worth," and the song is perhaps the epitome of a song which has had its true meaning "changed" over time.  In modern times, most assume that the song is referring to either the Vietnam War or the infamous "Kent State Shootings."  However, the fact of the matter is, it was not about the war, and was written nearly four years before the shootings.  Truth be told, "For What It's Worth" is a commentary on what were referred to as the "Sunset Strip riots" that occured frequently throughout the mid to late 1960's in Los Angeles.  These were basically clashes between the police and the building "hippie" movement over curfew laws.  While many look at "For What It's Worth" as a protest song, in reality, it follows the folk tradition, as it is "reporting" what was happening on the streets of Los Angeles at the time.  The lyrics are very straightforward, and Stephen Stills does a brilliant job of painting a vivid picture of the unrest of the time, and even today, the song can transport the listener to a hot Los Angeles street as the tensions between the police and youth rise.  While each of Stills' lyrics are memorable in their own right, one would be hard pressed to find a more iconic line from the entire decade than, "...we better stop, hey, what's that sound, everybody look what's going down..."  This line is still used for much the same purpose more than forty years after it was first penned, and though the "true" meaning behind the song has become somewhat clouded over the decades, "For What It's Worth" still manages to pack an amazing amount of impact.

Strangely enough, the songs' title appears nowhere in the song, and popular rumor says that the name came from Stephen Stills walking into the office of Atlantic Records' boss, Ahmet Ertegun, and saying, "I have this song here, for what it's worth, if you want it."  Yet even though the songs' title really has no connection with the rest of the song, the words which Stephen Stills penned here are largely unrivaled in terms of overall impact and timeless phrasings.  Perfectly capturing the mood of the youth of the time, Stills manages to be quite blunt and literal without coming off as "simply another folk artist."  Though strongly following the folk tradition, he manages to give "For What It's Worth" his own, distinctive spin, and it is this amazing overall simplicity that makes the song so special.  Adding in the iconic group choruses and the fact that the two-note guitar riff has become one of the most memorable in history, and one cannot understate the lasting importance of "For What It's Worth," as the song still represents the rebellion of youth more than four decades after it was first released.  Though the music and singing are quite simple at face value, history has proven that even though countless artists have attempted, there has never been anything even close to the overall power of the Buffalo Springfield original, and this serves as a testament to just how well the band captured the moment and how perfectly they executed the stripped down arrangement.  Standing today as perhaps the definitive song of a generation, few singles carry the weight and impact that one finds in Buffalo Springfield's extraordinary and iconic 1967 single, "For What It's Worth."

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