Somethin's happenin' here
What it is ain't exactly clear.
Unstable chemistry can cause spectacular effects--that's one way to think of Buffalo Springfield. Another is to consider the band an American musical smorgasbord (though it had three Canadians in it), descended from the Whitmanian ideal to be vast and multitude-containing, and from the self-invented musical yawps of folks like Harry Partch. Yet another is to see it as a pivotal pop avatar, with direct spinoffs like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Poco, and a big impact on every major rock band of the past thirty-five years, from the Band to the Eagles to the Police.
It was a smaller world in 1966; the few narrow byways off mainstream culture, whether jazz or the folk revival or political satire or Beat poetry, all eventually intersected. Which brings us to that fabled day when five folk-revival refugees connected. Richie Furay and Stephen Stills pulled up behind Neil Young's 1953 Pontiac hearse with Ontario plates in a traffic jam on the Sunset Strip. Furay and Stills had been part of a nine-member New York City outfit called the Au Go-Go Singers. Young had met Furay in New York and taught him a surreal song, "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." Stills, who'd grown up everywhere from Illinois to Central America, first met Young on tour in Canada; the two had decided to try to work together then, but Young split, so the day was postponed until LA gridlock brought them together. Stills had come to LA to audition for the Monkees; he failed because of bad teeth. Young had come looking for Stills. In the hearse with Young was fellow Canadian folkie Bruce Palmer. They agreed to form a band virtually on the spot, and went to pick up Dewey Martin, who played drums. Thus was born, in the best mythic rock and roll manner, Buffalo Springfield, one of the period's best garage bands.
Its members had very different voices and their harmonies blended richly; they could be edgy or gentle. Their songwriting was strikingly diverse, their individual musicianship adept and adaptable. Their music ran the gamut from the raunchiest rock to the trippiest, from cutting-edge to banal; it was frequently powered by soul-music bass and beats, and constantly stirred in soul, country, blues, gospel, jazz, raga, Latin--you name it. Between 1966 and 1968 they held together, as periodic pot busts banished bassist Palmer back to Canada, and ego blowups between Stills and Young escalated and sent Young packing for part of 1967; they were arguably the most important rock band in America, even with only one significant hit. Then in May 1968, after yet another pot bust in Topanga Canyon with Eric Clapton and the financial collapse of a Southern tour after Martin Luther King's assassination, Buffalo Springfield disintegrated.
Which brings us to Buffalo Springfield (Rhino/Atco), a prosaically titled four-CD set that, for better and worse, captures the band's kaleidoscopic range. They could be blandly commercial. On their first album, Beatlesy efforts like "Sit Down I Think I Love You" and "Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It," with earache-inducing harmonies right out of the British Moppet Handbook, inadvertently highlight meatier material. For when the Sunset Strip riots hit in 1966 as the LAPD cracked down on Pandora's Box, a teen rock club, Stills penned the group's only AM hit, "For What It's Worth"; when it made the charts, it was inserted into the hastily revamped first album.
The song marked a new sound: ominous, with its identifying riff of two single reverb-dripping guitar notes over rumbling bass, its vaguely threatened and threatening lyrics, its stark yet sweet harmonies. (It's also inevitably popped up in contemporary film and ad soundtracks.) That filed the band forever under "folk-rock," although it's hard, listening back, to imagine why.
Live, the Springfield's shows were renowned for their volume and violence, as guitarists Young and Stills dueled and thrashed for power--a stage-bound parable of the group's inner workings, perhaps, but also a fabulous generator of sonic ideas. Young's experimentalism and lunges into feedback were complemented by Stills's sweeter melodic turns--though they could, and often did, switch roles at the drop of a beat. Furay's rhythm guitar nestled between the athletic, r&b-meets-McCartney bass of Bruce Palmer and the shape-shifting drumwork of Dewey Martin. They made awesome homemade improvisations.
The boxed set's second disc gives glimpses of those, via previously unreleased jams. "Kahuna Sunset" is a hippie fantasy, an updated surf-guitar lilt that left-turns into a raga-inspired jam. (Not to worry that raga is a complex form demanding discipline and knowledge: Ravi Shankar, discipled by the Beatles and John Coltrane, was the moment's international-music icon. And thousands of teen guitar players, fascinated by the altered sounds that would flower most fully in Jimi Hendrix, wanted to sound like a sitar doing modal runs.) It closes with Young's Yardbird-influenced rave-up style, though his attack is almost diametrically opposed to Yardbird guitarist Jeff Beck's: Young frets slowly with his left hand and with his right picks feverishly.
On "Buffalo Stomp," guitars wind in and out until the jam revs into squalls of feedback against a backdrop of interwoven solos--rock Dixieland. Among the players is Skip Spence on kazoo; he was Jefferson Airplane's first drummer and would soon co-found Moby Grape, a multivocalist guitar army from San Francisco's Flower Power era, much like Buffalo Springfield itself. And pieces like "Bluebird," a guitar-stuffed four-minute mini-suite on disc, would open into mammoth jams onstage.