The Lasting Legacy of Buffalo Springfield’s Debut Album

 

Released December 5 1966, the idyll and innocent Buffalo Springfield was a starting point for a new musical direction.

With jangly rock, surrealistic themes, and country sensibilities melding with pop songcraft, it heralded the arrival of the unmistakable sonic presence of both Neil Young and Steven Stills. Following the lead of The Byrds, Stills and Young cultivated the group’s distinctive musical style, steering it between the popular rock of The Beatles and beat-inspired folk songs of Bob Dylan.

While Buffalo Springfield would accompany The Byrds’ in their journey into full-blown psychedelia, they would also weave love-sick narratives and lonesome ballads. Coursing with innocence, openness and soulful warmth, the sonic foundation of the LP foreshadowed a constellation of musical styles which would come to dominate the coming decade.

 

Early origins

It was however by chance that the group’s musical ideas ever came to be recorded at all. In April 1966, a frustrated Young was en route out of LA. The 21-year-old musician had arrived in the US pop capital a week earlier following the collapse of a short-lived record deal with Motown Records. Young was drawn to the city in an attempt to locate former folk singer Stephen Stills. He had become familiar with Stills the previous year while the folk singer was touring Canada. Stills had shared a stage with Young’s formative project, a rock group known as The Squires. The duo subsequently travelled together, leaving both with a strong desire to collaborate.

However, adding to Young’s recent discouragement, he had failed to locate his friend. Short on optimism, he was ready to ditch the sun-dazed city for the welcoming folk enclaves of San Francisco.

Fortuitously the very person Young was looking for would hail him on his way out of town. Travelling along Sunset Strip, albeit bound in the opposite direction was Stills. After recognising the Canadian number plates on Young’s conspicuous Pontiac hearse, he hailed down the vehicle and quickly extended the invitation to Young to join his new band. Jumping on the opportunity, Young immediately accepted. The project would quickly adopt the title Buffalo Springfield.

Also present at the chance meeting was Stills’ former Au Go Go Singers’ bandmate Richie Furay. The Ohio-born musician had also relocated to LA at Still’s insistence. As a natural vocalist possessing a straight-laced image, Furay was initially a powerful presence within the group. The nucleus of Stills and Furay would serve as a bright counterpoint to the shaggy, yet sensitive and poetic Young.

 

Pushing the creative envelope

Unlike his peers, Young was more taken with boundary-pushing ideas and extended jams. Of the subsequent generations of artists inspired by the lysergic introspection of John Lennon and the bitter edge of Bob Dylan’s untutored yet poetic voice, it was Young who synthesised a unique combination of both. He would entrance Buffalo Springfield fans with his powerful music. Complimented by driving yet masterful fretwork, his contributions oscillated between honest and surrealistic lyricisms. The wilfully erratic artist desired fame but wasn’t motivated by making hits. His musical visions would at times clash with the commercial sensibilities of others, taxing their personal relationships.

Despite Young’s innovations, Stills is most often credited as the centralising creative force. The Texan brought with him an intense desire for perfection. While steeped in the background of Latin, blues and folk, the ambitious Stills was quick to catch onto a contemporary rock sound. He also contributed an uncanny sense of time. Striking a balanced tempo that neither rushed nor dragged, he provided the calming warmth and relaxed ease which courses through the group’s sound.

 

Troubled waters

The rhythm section of Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin provided a competent undercarriage. Drummer Dewey was a session musician who had also played with primitive garage outfit The Standells. Initially a welcome addition to the group, Palmer had accompanied Young from an earlier project The Mynah Birds. The soft-spoken Palmer was later ejected due to persistent drug-related legal problems. Yet the bassist’s substance abuse wasn’t isolated. The band’s immersion in the world of counterculture and drugs, while providing powerful creative impetus, would also erode the group dynamic.

Underneath the bright musicality and formless optimism of the five-piece ran a dark and disharmonious undercurrent. While the energy generated was intense, there was also conflict. The album’s tracks capture the group reacting to one another more than embodying the creative impetus of any one personality. Although the axis of the group’s distinctively disparate styles would somehow click, failings in the studio would mar the ground-breaking album, leaving the perfectionist Stills and the ever-critical Young dissatisfied. The album found purchase amongst some fans, with the intoxicating promise of the band’s legendary potential outshining its remarkable body of recorded work.

 

 

Despite this, their greatest challenges lay in their dealings with meddling managers Charles Green and Brian Stone. Optimistically the group had signed with the Sonny & Cher management team, after the duo had aggressively courted the group. They convinced the young band members that they were accomplished producers rather than fly-by-night socialites. Despite their opulent exterior, the pair possessed little acumen for the creative aspects of the music business.

It was because of the pair that Young’s own vocals were largely absent on early recordings, despite his role as one of the two chief songwriters. Green and Stone’s perception was that Young’s distinctive voice was “too weird” for a mainstream audience. Instead, Furay was nominated to take lead on many of the tracks Young had composed.

But Furay’s favour with the group’s management was far from absolute. While he had played many of his own compositions with the band live and rehearsed new material ahead of album recording, none of the songs were deemed appropriate to appear on the record by Green and Stone. The arbitrary nature of decisions of this kind undoubtedly fed the disquiet of more internalised creative tensions.

While the pair’s meddling was far from uncommon, they took things further when they insisted on producing the album. In fact, the duo had little idea what they were doing. Poor miking, poor mixing and inadequate studio space plagued the group’s recording sessions. Many close to the five-piece and the band themselves were unsatisfied with the final product. There was common sentiment that the fumbled production did not capture the fuller hard-rocking sound which they effortlessly evoked live. Young and Stills even unsuccessfully petitioned their label to re-record the LP.

Yet with time, more commercial shortcomings have dissipated. The aesthetic of a used-‘60s sound would go on to inspire the paisley underground and jangle pop of the 1980s. The album’s fumbled lo-fi elements sit within a corpus of music continuing to inspire generations of retro revivalists.

 

Young’s contributions to Buffalo Springfield and fighting personal battles

The group’s success was instead carried upon the strength of the creative ideas underpinning their musical works. Young’s contributions are all too often overlooked, and title track ‘Out of My Mind’ leaks with troubled detachment. It echoes the psychedelic haze of the time, yet its uncharacteristically darker undertone also reflects Young’s deep-seated struggle with epilepsy and his attempts to self-medicate with speed, acid and pot.

Seemingly speaking to everyone and no one, the song’s harmonies add a softer edge but do little to disrupt the pervading sense of isolation. While playing against a sauntering tempo, its guitar interplay exemplifies the group’s distinctive drive. Mind manifesting and idiosyncratic, the track quietly stands out as a psychedelic gem.

 

 

Cementing the band’s stamp on the music world

An instant radio hit, ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ broke the group on the West Coast of the US. The single’s wild reception cemented the group’s reputation mere months into its existence. A shifting rhythmic waltz, gentle harmonica and idyllic riffs convey Young’s emotive narrative.

While it was this tune which thrust the group into the commercial limelight, opener ‘For What It’s Worth’ left the group’s biggest imprint on the world popular music. The iconic protest single immediately hit its mark with fans. Released in January 1967, the million-selling single earned the group its first gold record. It would cause label Atco to quickly re-release the debut album in March the following year, ditching the original release’s ‘Baby Don’t Scold Me’ and installing the hit as a new opening track.

 

 

The mellowed call for questioning and contemplation recollects Stills’ experience witnessing early ruminations of countercultural unrest. The event in question took the form of L.A.’s Sunset Strip curfew riots which occurred in November 1966. His brush civil disquiet triggered recollections of violent political repression witnessed during a childhood period in Latin America. The imagery of the humanism and generational clash left Stills inspired. True to his signature style the socially conscious track is immaculately played and sung. Its atmospherics are intensified by Young’s paranoiac guitar play.

Driven by the interweaving fuzztones of jangly garage solos, ‘Sit Down I Think I Love You’ channels a Beatladleic flavouring, providing a lighter pop element to the LP. While the folk-tinged song didn’t leave much of an impression on fans, Stills’ melodic songcraft would prove a chart hit for a fellow West Coast act the Mojo Men.

The melancholic ‘Burned’ and ‘Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It’ capture an earnest and sensitivity which would continue to define Buffalo Springfield’s sound. Alongside Stills’ ‘Go and Say Goodbye’, these country-rock leanings served as an antecedent to the massive success of Crosby Stills and Nash. The tracks also anticipated a back-to-basics country sound which would hold sway over acts like The Band, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Rolling Stones before the close of the decade.

‘Sit Down I Think I Love You’, ‘Everybody’s Wrong’ and ‘Pay the Price’ throwback to pre-Revolver era Beatles. The sonic template of the Fab Four’s guitar driven numbers had an immense influence upon Buffalo Springfield. The album contains a number of homages to the Liverpudlians, ranging from the thievery of ‘Day Tripper”s iconic solo on the discarded ‘Baby Don’t Scold Me’ to ‘Go and Say Goodbye’’s inclusion of misinterpreted lyric “I get high” as opposed to “I can’t hide” from the cooing chorus of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

 

 

The surrealistic escapism and expressive fretwork of Young again comes to fore with mind blower ‘Flying on The Ground is Wrong’, its harmonic and guitar melodies shifting seamlessly throughout the mix. Ninth track,‘Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It’ has a crooning lovesick essence, while follow up ‘Leave’ sits back as a looser blues rocker. ‘Hot and Dusty Roads’ proffers further lovelorn exhortations accompanied by the twangiest guitar solos to grace the LP.

 

A lingering legacy

Like the wave of countercultural idealism they ushered in, the group could never live up to its own lofty expectations. Buffalo Springfield would fall prey to poor management, internal bickering, unplanned line-up changes and a disastrous all-star drug bust while jamming with Eric Clapton in 1968. These drug-related issues in conjunction with poor management ensured the quintet’s demise.

Buffalo Springfield would go on to record another two albums over its short two-year lifespan. Yet there’s something here on this first LP that never recurred. The debut encapsulates the vibrancy and impetus of a group which started with so much momentum but quickly began ebbing into disarray. However, it was far from the end. The ambitions and creative vision of Young and Stills would outlive the group’s short existence.

This self-titled debut best exemplifies the group: a balance of naivety and perfectionism, as well as a seemingly endless pool of creative ideas and aspirations. Fated to be forever scratching at some unified vision of greatness, it was more often than not that Buffalo Springfield succumbed to the increasing disruption of internal and external forces. Reflecting the air of creativity which defined the era, the group was a melting pot of ideas. Born atop an unbridled sense of creative freedom, the confluence of the album’s talented musical personalities set the tone for a new understanding of popular music.

About Riley Fitzgerald

Riley Fitzgerald is a Brisbane-based writer and wine drinker generally found shuffling around DIY gigs or music festivals. He collects synths and music books. Favourite labels include Ghostly Int., Warp, Flying Nun, 4AD, Future Classic, & Bedrooms Suck. Follow him on Twitter @Rileynf

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