Somethin's happenin' here
What it is ain't exactly clear.
      –Buffalo Springfield

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.

In the studio, Buffalo Springfield grazed even more widely. They could unchain their pop imaginations and their record collections and run wild across an American landscape that had recently been opened wide by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

When British rockers invaded the United States in 1964, they peddled reworked American r&b, rockabilly and other pop to American kids tired of saccharine hits by voiceless commercial fabrications named Bobby and Fabian–forerunners of today's teenypop idols. The Brits were especially good at recycling r&b hits by black artists, often invisible on the white-dominated pop charts of the time, into guitar-powered pop with Everly Brothers vocals. Far from the land where these forms were born, British kids heard them as a release from the boredom of homemade UK folk-revival offshoots like skiffle; they became building blocks to be played with as much as styles to be mimicked. It was the same energy that had led 1950s blue-collar Southern kids to refashion r&b and country into rockabilly in their back yards.

Eclectic, populist, postmodern–choose what terms you like–this was key to the 1960s transition of rock and roll into rock. The guitar, portable and cheap, made music-making widely available; garage bands were the ubiquitous result. As electric amplifiers became smaller and cheaper, even basement-bound guitarists could experiment with sound shaping–punching holes in a speaker to get fuzztone, loosening tubes for distortion, rolling the volume pots for violin effects. Early effects boxes for plugging into the signal chain started to appear. It was like getting a do-it-yourself art kit.

It was also an extension of America's postwar cultural renaissance. Whitman's heirs–jazz artists, the Beats, the Abstract Expressionists, the folk revivalists–all shared a romantic, if sometimes romantically cynical, critique of that hangover from the Great Depression and World War II, the gray-flannel 1950s. As counterweight they re-emphasized the value of play, long recognized as one of art's core cultural values; influenced by jazz improvisation and the civil rights movement, they revamped play into an artistic and a moral code. The subcultures of black America were valued even when they were misunderstood.

The romantic notion of authentic popular culture–a folk culture where there is minimal mediation between artists and audience–is an elusive grail. In modern commercial pop culture, that polarity is always in flux, but the folkie notion was a potent one during the 1960s. It was ironic that Bob Dylan, in a characteristic paradox, translated that model into both artistic and commercial success; inevitably, he was accused of selling out. And yet, armed with his nonvoice and limited guitar skills and panoramic musical taste and rapidly growing imagination, he personified the folk revival's longing for a popular hero who would forge a new sound and, incidentally, a new sense of community.

He had plenty to play with: Postwar America was full of new musical syntheses. Both jazz and folk musicians were interested in music from Africa and India, the Caribbean and Asia, for instance, as well as African-American gospel and blues. Thanks to the likes of Dylan and the Beatles, this legacy energized garage bands, crackling across the Anglo-American world, where forming a band became something countless thousands of kids did. Think of garage bands as the inheritors of the 1950s folk-revival aesthetic, and as the precursors of hip-hop: the street-level site where the reassimilation of pop culture becomes a feedback loop. In that sense, Buffalo Springfield was one of rock's ultimate garage bands.

Naming themselves after a logo Stills spotted on a steamroller, they were late for the party that was already cresting toward the Summer of Love and Woodstock, but they quickly made up for lost time and joined the central cast. Soul music was their touchstone; it wasn't just an accident that they recorded for Atlantic Records, a big indie label that made its fame by recording black artists from Joe Turner to Solomon Burke. And in the mid-1960s, soul music ruled the dance floors of America. The Rascals and the Righteous Brothers lifted blue-eyed soul into artistic and commercial payoff. Even whitebread folk-rockers like the Byrds were, thanks to Gram Parsons, countrifying soul hits like "You Don't Miss Your Water."

Neil Young, by contrast, wrote "Mr. Soul," a fierce attack on celebrity (including his own) and the record biz; his wispy vibrato rode with metalloid and country guitars over thundering Four Tops-style bass. He also wrote "Burned": "Been burned," he yelps, "and with both feet on the ground," a characteristic verbal incongruity backed by musical incongruity. Chugging Motown bass and honky-tonk piano share center soundstage: The piano takes a just-enough-out-of-tune solo, followed by Hawaiian-flavored slide guitar, which downshifts into a Beatles-knockoff rideout. This was the band's second single.

With its demos and remixed and finished tracks, Buffalo Springfield amply demonstrates how explosive and creative the band's chemistry could be. It leaves a curious fan wanting more when a more casual fan has had more than enough. In me, it inspires a list of highlights:

Two Young demos of early interior dreamscapes–the painfully ethereal "Out of My Mind" and vulnerable "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong." The tight-wound Stills-Furay harmonies and beautiful acoustic simplicity on the demo for "Baby Don't Scold Me," ultimately released as a mix of stiff Supremes' drumbeats, reverb and psychedelic guitar raunch that overshadowed the bittersweet lyrics. "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," an early Young art-rocker with twining guitars, opaque lyrics and a time-signature shift that highlights Furay's unpleasantly blocky phrasing. The massed-guitar country-rock and Miles Standish love triangle of "Go and Say Goodbye." The r&b goodtime feel of Stills's "Hot Dusty Roads," with its heavily treated guitar solo and whimsical genre twist: "I don't tell no tales about no hot dusty roads/I'm a city boy and I stay at home." The Zombies-ish jazz-bossa inflections of "Pretty Girl Why," and the walking bass and jazzy modal drone of "Everydays," cut more than a year before Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. The guitar-orchestra suite called "Bluebird." The drippy psychedelic orchestration and Moody Blues-like choir on "Expecting to Fly." The vocal handoff, straight out of two-tenor gospel groups, on "Hung Upside Down," where Furay's soulful lead yields the chorus to Still's raunchy wails. The gently stinging ironies of "A Child's Claim to Fame," underlined by hired hand James Burton's dobro solo. (Burton played guitar with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons.) The galloping drive and stinging guitar lines of "Rock and Roll Woman" that leave you feeling like you've just danced with a truck. The Dylan-modeled imagery and phrasing of Young's demos like "The Rent Is Always Due." The art-house melodrama and Sgt. Pepper orchestration of "Broken Arrow." The dark blues of Stills's husky musings and piano on the demo for "Four Days Gone." The punk flipping the bird to convention of "Special Care," where Stills plays all the instruments but drums.

That last cut is from Last Time Around, which was recorded over nearly a year; as time wore on, the band was disintegrating, as the Beatles did during the White Album. Stills and Young started producing their own sessions; Stills sang and played nearly all the parts on cuts like "Questions," here a biting soul-rocker with blues-drenched vocals, later cutely rearranged as a harmony piece for Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Young was out of the Springfield when they appeared at Monterey Pop, the June 1967 fete launching the Summer of Love. He was back for the Topanga Canyon bust. His bandmates would recombine: latter-day bassist/engineer Jim Messina with Richie Furay in Poco; Stills with the Byrds' David Crosby and later Young again. They'd all pursue solo careers: Young most spectacularly, Stills with solo projects and co-op ventures like "Super Session," which joined him with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Meantime, Buffalo Springfield became a legend.

Is the boxed set an effective representation of the legend? Well, it's got the same middle-finger whimsy the group itself had: The booklet, perhaps as a tipoff to its sensibility, opens with a Wallace Stevens-inspired page titled "Various Accounts of Their Meeting in Hollywood." And it's taken ten years to put together because of the same old egos. It's definitely worth complaining that the twenty-six duplicated album cuts could have been replaced by additional rarities. The booklet's sometimes hard-to-read design, a postmodern swirl of artfully collaged documents and pictures, leaves misinterpretation rampant, though the one-page historical essay by Pete Long is fact-packed. The fan's-eye view by Ken Viola jumps disconcertingly around the booklet. The discographical annotation is complete but could use explication. And there's a complete tour schedule, which ends with Buffalo Springfield opening for the Beach Boys and Strawberry Alarm Clock on the last 1968 tour. It's worth recalling that at just about the same time, Jimi Hendrix was opening a tour for the Monkees.