This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of Crawdaddy in February, 1967
Let me tell you about popsicle sticks.
To me, a major aspect of rock ‘67 is the tightness of the new groups. By tightness, I mean the feeling of wholeness a group projects when they’re onstage (or in a recording studio), and I’m thinking of Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, the Youngbloods, the Buffalo Springfield, the Doors. An individual, an audience, can react to one of these groups as a unit, can feel a group personality reaching out from the stage. I never listen to Neil Young, the way l might listen to Mike Bloomfield or Jeff Beck, because Neil Young isn’t onstage; the Springfield is, and the brilliant things Neil does are an inseparable part of the music the Springfield is making. And Neil’s excellent playing isn’t just Neil soloing away; it’s Neil reacting to, working with, each Buffalo; and more than that, feeling a certain way about the gig and the song and the run and whatever because of a sense of his place in things, because of his awareness of himself as a Buffalo Springfield. It’s a somewhat different feeling from the feeling of being Neil Young, and as a result what he contributes to the group’s communication is different from what he’d contribute were he in a different group. Basically, tightness is a matter of finding the right people to work with, people who can form a tight emotional unit with you as well as a musical unit; a group must have a stable personality, and its personality must relate well to the type of music it works with, for that group to be tight. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be best friends—it means the members of the group have to be interacting creatively toward a common goal, a certain sound, for the audience to be able to interact with the group as a whole. Conflict—competition—destroy wholeness.
Tightness comes in many flavors. Jefferson Airplane has a dark solidity to its sound, as though each member were a thick black line and the six so close musically that all you see/hear/feel is a deep solid rectangle of sound and personality. The Youngbloods, perhaps the tightest group in the country, are nonetheless four very distinct musicians. You hear four separate things, but you feel one feeling. They are four quarters, working in perfect unity but with a very different oneness from that of a dollar bill. The Buffalo Springfield resemble neither of these groups in their tightness; more distinct as personalities than the Airplane, they are at the same time not as separate as the Youngbloods. If you see the Airplane as a solid rectangle, and the Youngbloods as four separate lines standing together, then the Springfield is/are a crisscross, a Popsicle stick construction held together only by the force of each stick on each other stick, a subtle and seemingly delicate wholeness which nonetheless communicates itself extremely powerfully to a receptive audience.
Buffalo Springfield (italicized because that’s the name of their album) is a lovely, moving experience. You have to be into it, however; chances are you won’t even like it on first hearing. All the songs seem to sound alike, and the group sound is quite thin. These are valid criticisms. There are certain samenesses in the Springfield’s material, and if you hear them on one of their rare off nights, you‘ll be quite bored. But what the Springfield do is rise above these samenesses, employing beautiful changes and continually fresh approaches within their particular framework. The more you listen to this album and become familiar with it, the more you’ll hear in each song. As for the thinness, the production job on this LP is sadly amateurish. The bass is under-recorded, the drums misunderstood, and the guitars tend to tinkle when they want to ring. On stage, the Springfield have a deceptively full sound: they’re not as loud or as solid as the Airplane, but because every note each man plays is so perfectly directed—Iike the
Popsicle stick construction—they project a richness and a fullness which is more satisfying than one could possibly imagine. It‘s a delicate balance, however, and it wasn’t achieved in the recording studio. This is partly for production reasons—poor miking, poor mixing, and the wrong studios for the Springfield’s sound—but it‘s also because the group wasn’t completely on when they did these sessions. Much more can happen to these songs on a good night than did happen in the studio.
But the album, despite it all, is beautiful. Every track on it will entrance you, at one time or another. “Clancy” will probably be first—both melody and lyric hit very hard, and once the rhythm changes and the phrasing sinks in, you’re done for. The objectivity of the song is heartbreaking: “Who should be sleeping that’s writing this song, wishin’ and a-hopin’ he weren’t so damn wrong?” Straightforwardness—with a sort of implied understatement—is characteristic of the Springfield. Consider the titles of their songs: “Flying on the Ground ls Wrong”; “Sit Down, l Think l Love You”; “Leave.” They love to come right out and say it, with a shrug of the shoulders and an innocent look.
But it’s not so much innocence as openness. Honesty, warmth—these are key words in describing a Buffalo Springfield performance. They present themselves to the people, offering nothing but giving everything. There’s love in their music—not the driving, evangelical love of Jefferson Airplane, but a straightforward take-it-or-leave-it love, all yours if you want it and will share in it. If the Springfield leave you cold, it’s probably because you want to be left cold; once you get into them, you‘ll be stunned by their warmth. lt‘s the extraordinary amount of honest emotion conveyed in this LP that makes it exceptional.
“Flying on the Ground” is the song that knocks me out the most just now. It’s an unassuming little love song that walks all around the edges of rock’s oldest clichés and comes away quietly fresh. “Baby Don’t Scold Me” plays with some more recent clichés—mostly Beatle stuff—but still manages to sound 100 percent Buffalo Springfield. The Springfield—no matter what they play—are too much themselves to resemble anyone else; every noise the group makes is riddled with the uniqueness of their personality. This very fact may work against them. At present, the
Springfield are an excellent and exciting group, and I would go far from where I am to hear them. But unlike many groups who aren’t as good, the Springfield do not strike me as a growing unit, one that will branch out into new fields of musical expression as it finds itself overfamiliar with the field it’s in. Right now the group could release another album in much the same style as the first and still show us new tricks—but another LP after that would be pretty draggy without some major changes. What worries me is that the Springfield are so tight and so spontaneous in what they’re doing now that whatever new things they approach they seem to approach in relation to the past. They know what they can do and they do it excellently. But that’s not enough; to remain as good as they are, they must get better—they must grow. And while each individual in the group is probably capable of further musical growth, the group as a whole—though it is a brilliantly tight performing unit at present—may not be a tight growing unit as well. I hope I’m wrong about this; meanwhile, it should be remembered that groups, people, must and do change…and a fiercely whole musical unit today cannot even count on being together a year from now.
I’ve purposely avoided discussing the individual Buffaloes; they’re all talented—Richie’s phrasing is extremely fresh and effective; Dewey is an excellent drummer, comparable to the Hollies’ Bobby Elliott; Bruce is surely the secret master of the group, etc.—but to me the group can only be thought of as a unit. I don’t want to overlook, however, the songwriting talents of two of the Buffaloes: both Neil and Steve are exceptional, quite apart from writing for a specific group—their songs would surely be recorded, though not the same way, if there were no Buffalo S. Steve’s “Sit Down, l Think I Love You” is already a West Coast hit in a cover version by the Mojo Men; almost every other song on this LP has the potential to be a single. In few cases could a cover version be better than the Springfield’s; but it might well be more commercial. Both Neil and Steve are capable of unusually clever lyrics, song structures and changes that work well, and light, effective melodies. But they never seem to write a song together, though their styles are quite related; it is characteristic of the Springfield that each man does his part, independently, and the parts just fit together.
This album was recorded early last fall; since then the eternal war between Past and Present has broken out anew, this time in open battle on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Battles tend to beget songs; November’s clashes moved Stephen Stills to write the first major topical song since “Hard Rain.” “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I’ve got to beware. I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down…” The title of the song is perfect: “For What It’s
Worth.” There is no bitterness, no dialectic…just description, and a word of unspoken advice: hold back from the battle—look around—we’ve already won the War.
“For What It’s Worth” is the first Buffalo Springfield single to make the charts. It should be at least a million-seller; we owe ourselves that much.