A.Song.A.Day – For What It’s Worth

For What Its WorthIt was the best of times; it was the worst of times…..

This Dickensian quote did go well with the times of the French Revolution. Another period that would fit the description perfectly would be the 60s, also called the swinging sixties. The sixties were turbulent times. It was the times when people started questioning the conservative approach in politics and the social repression measures used by the authorities. The sixties were the time of the counterculture movement which emphasized on the freedom of expression and diversion from rigid social rules. It was also the time when there were lots of political movements like Anti War movement, Civil Rights movement and much more evolved. Musicians and music also prospered in the sixties with 4 young musicians from Liverpool paving the way.

The Sunset Strip in California was also witnessing the new wave of music in a big way. Musicians and performers used to hang around in night clubs like The Troubadour, Whisky a Go Go, Roxy, Pandora’s Box and the London Fog which were like a haven for musicians and hippies alike. The Sunset Strip was also the main centre for counterculture movements. It was November 12, 1966 when numerous youthful demonstrators erupted in protest against the perceived repressive enforcement of a few curfew laws at the Sunset Strip. It was because of the forceful closing down of the club at the corner of Sunset Strip named Pandora’s Box. This was known as the Sunset Strip Riots, also known as hippie riots. It is also the main inspiration behind the political song For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield, a band comprising of Stephen Stills, Dewey Martin, Jim Messina,  Bruce Palmer, Richie Furay and Neil Young.

The instrumentation which comprises of the electric guitar plays two notes repeatedly with tremolo, the acoustic guitar strumming and the quiet pulse like beat on the drums along with the laid-back vocals gives a mildly creepy feel to the song which bears about it an overall mood of regret. It’s the lyrics of the song penned by Stephen Stills that stand out nevertheless. “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here what it is ain’t exactly clear” was the popular line in 60’s counterculture. The repressive measures are highlighted by the clever use of verses like “There’s a man with a gun, over there Tellin’ me I got to beware”, “Young people speakin’ their minds Gettin’ so much resistance from behind” and “Step out of line, the man come and take you away”. The repeated use of the lines “Stop, hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?” is like a wakeup call to the generation of the 60s. (It is still good enough to serve as a wakeup call to our generation and those to come.) The standout line for me in the whole song has to be “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”. (Still makes me think or must I say Stills makes me think!)

The beauty of this song is that it manages to warn of increasing polarization and violence in American society of the sixties, without taking any political stand other than that of acceptance of diversity and free speech. This song has been hailed as an antiwar song since it was written during the time Cold war was raging, and at times is mentioned as written based on the Kent state shootings which happened much later during the start of 70s. It does give us a feel that Stills possessed powers of prophecy just like Nostradamus did.

Led Zeppelin covered the song during Communication Breakdown medley, at their famous Live on Blueberry Hill concert. Another notable cover of the song would be the one by CSNY which had Stills accompanying himself on piano, and with vocals that are positively histrionic. The February 13, 1978 episode of The Muppet Show re-writes the song with animals singing slightly altered anti-hunting lyrics. The musical interlude was filled with hunters wildly shooting their guns while animals hide. In 1998 the group Public Enemy released He Got Game, a rap song that sampled lyrics and music directly from For What It’s Worth. This song deserves special mention because Stephen Stills appears and performs in the music video for this song.

Buffalo Springfield was a short-lived folk rock group that served as an excellent launchpad for the likes of Neil Young, Stephen Stills and others who went on to have awesome music careers. For what it’s worth is one song which made sure that the Buffalo Springfield legacy stays on. The song is a classic retort to those who argue that rock is just being loud, aggressive and violent. Rock may be all that, but it is much more than loudness and aggression and violence. It is also about standing up for a cause. And this song is an example, a great one at that.

Article written by Easwar.