Buffalo Springfield was formed amidst a cultural upheaval and police aggression in Los Angeles in 1966. The main songwriters of the group were Neil Young and Stephen Stills who — along with Ritchie Furay on guitar, Bruce Palmer on bass, and Dewey Martin on drums — created one of the first folk-rock bands. They also took cues from the San Francisco psychedelic scene and the kind of rock ‘n’ roll British bands were introducing to the States. Buffalo Springfield were a melting pot of ideas and styles.
Buffalo Springfield’s sound was influenced and informed by the artistic atmosphere formed in the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood; other groups associated with this hotbed of creativity were The Byrds, The Mamas the Papas, The Beach Boys, among others. Together they created what has become known as the ‘California sound’ associated with the ’60s.
Stills and Young met in 1965 at the Fourth Dimension in Ontario, Canada; Young was in his band The Squires while Stills was with The Company. The Company were a New York City band for which future Springfield member Ritchie Furay played as well. After The Company broke up, Stills moved to California, hoping to find work as a session player, as promised by Buffalo producer Barry Friedman. Stills had briefly and unsuccessfully auditioned for The Monkees.
Meanwhile, Neil Young was in another failed band called The Mynah Birds with Bruce Palmer and future hero Rick James. So the story goes, the two sold their musical equipment while in Toronto, and with this money, they bought a hearse, packed up and moved to California to reunite with Stills.
“The Buffalo Springfield are one of those marvellous accidents of fate. Fate just intervenes and lets it all work out,” Stills said in an interview
Once Buffalo Springfield was formed, it didn’t take long for them to get gigs. Chris Hillman of The Byrds helped Buffalo Springfield secure a seven week-long residency at the Whiskey a Go Go.
Buffalo Springfield song ‘What It’s Worth’ changed things
Things began to change in November of 1966 when Stills wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’. The band recorded it in December, and it was released via Atco Records later that month. The song was often perceived as an anti-war song and has been frequently used as an anthem at protests.
In a way, ‘For What It’s Worth’ is the very real documentation of what was happening around Buffalo Springfield at the time, and it would turn out to be the catalyst behind their greatest hit and the same force that did them in.
Stills said about the cultural context of the track, “the commercial merchants on Sunset Boulevard in a certain area decided that the element of young people on the street every night was not conducive to commercial enterprise,” Stills said in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview.
“A bunch of kids got together on a street corner and said we aren’t moving. About three busloads of Los Angeles police showed up, who looked very much like storm troopers. … And I looked at it and said, ‘Jesus, America is in great danger.'”
Stills wrote the song about the Sunset Strip curfew and the riots that took place to protest them. The problem arose when businesses and residential homes on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles got fed up with scores of kids loitering around on the streets. In response, the city passed ordinances restricting people from hanging out after a certain time. “The LAPD ran a line against the street, you know, like there’s some kind of revolution,” recalled Stills.
Neil Young was arrested by the police
The band then kept having run-ins with the law, which also included drug busts. Bruce Palmer, a Canadian, kept getting collared by the cops and deported; Neil Young got accosted multiple times and beaten up by the police.
“I got busted by the cops, remember that?” Young looks to Stills to his right during an interview the two did together. “They took me down to the Sunset and Clark, the police station. Took me inside. We were inside that cell. The cops were calling us names and everything. The one cop had real short hair, like sticking up, he had big horn-rimmed glasses and he kept calling me ‘animal’. So I called him a grasshopper.
“They came in and knocked my tooth out; they did this other stuff and banged us around. It happened really fast. That was kind of the ambience, you know?” Stills added, “everybody who wore their hair long in the ’60s has a vague inkling of what it’s like to be black, even still.”
“I think your experience with the West Hollywood sheriffs really set the stage.” Stills said to Neil Young, then readdressing the interviewer, “So there’s that anger raging, then there are all the kids coming back from ‘Nam. It’s all kind of in that song.”
Neil Young left Buffalo Springfield first
Neil Young’s presence in the band became more and more infrequent, and coupled with Bruce Palmer’s continuous absence due to deportations; it became increasingly difficult to remain a functioning band. By this point, the band’s individual members wanted to pursue different avenues for their career and allow their creativity to flow.
Stephen Stills would form the supergroup, Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Neil Young went solo and changed record labels completely. Stills and Young would resolve their creative differences not too long after, and Young joined the supergroup to form Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Their second record, Deja Vu — held up to a certain discerning light — could be interpreted as a solemn farewell to the hippie counterculture, channelling part of this experience into the album.
The real reason Buffalo Springfield broke up is that they were born out of an ethos that would only ever support them for a short while. Manifested out of a desire for creation and artistic evolution. Naturally, those foundations will be destroyed and rebuilt in new places when the artists at hand choose.