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Monday, August 01, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield is on the short list of bands that had great influence on rock's evolution despite a brief tenure together. Buffalo Springfield's repertoire of folk-rock, country-rock, and psychedelic hard rock were all state of the art in their day; their classic songs remain in frequent rotation on classic rock stations. Perhaps even more important than their music is the assemblage of talent within the band. Retrospectively, Buffalo Springfield was the launching pad for A-listers who went on to even greater heights afterwards. Birthing the subsequent solo careers of Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (Poco), and Jim Messina (Poco, Loggins and Messina), Buffalo Springfield's legacy continued robustly through the 70's and 80's and still can be felt now. California rock owes a lot to these guys; only the Byrds rivaled them in Los Angeles in the 1960's.
The band's formation has been legend so long it's hard to verify how true it is, but as the story goes, it was a standard Los Angeles rush hour traffic jam on Sunset Boulevard that was the catalyst for their meeting. In April 1966, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay were driving together on Sunset when stop-and-go traffic randomly deposited them in back of an old 1953 Pontiac hearse bearing Canadian license plates. Stills recognized the hearse as belonging to Canadian Neil Young, whom he had met variously around town earlier. With Young was bass player Bruce Palmer. Young and Palmer had spent the better part of the past month on a cross country joyride in search of a musical career that had so far eluded them; both were preparing to leave L.A. for destinations unknown.
This incident lad to the formation of Buffalo Springfield; within the two cars was the nucleus of a great band: Neil Young on vocals/guitar, Stephen Stills on vocals/guitar, Richie Furay on vocals/guitar, and Bruce Palmer on bass. The drumkit went to Dewey Martin, who briefly drummed for The Dillards, a top-notch progressive bluegrass outfit.
Young had been born in Toronto in 1945; his father was a sports journalist. His parents divorced while he was a child, and he and his mother re-located to Winnipeg where he began playing guitar in high school bands. His early garage band was called The Esquires; he also made the folkie circuit where he initially met both Stills and Joni Mitchell. Returning to Toronto, he played a solo acoustic folk set and gained local notice. His first recordings were as a member of The Mynah Birds, which also included fellow Canadian Bruce Palmer and American Rick James (of "Superfreak" fame). The Mynah Birds were Toronto-based and recorded an album's worth of material for Motown records, which has never been released. This would have been Motown's very first attempt to crack the rock market, and the project apparently was received with little enthusiasm. The band met an unexpected end in March 1966 when James was hauled off for being AWOL from the U.S. Navy; the band had been unaware of his military status. While it may not have seemed so at the time, this misfortune had a silver lining, as Young and Palmer were released from their Motown contract, which permitted them to join Buffalo Springfield. Their month-long jaunt from Toronto in Young's hearse landed them on Sunset on that fateful day.
Stills was born in 1945 in Dallas, TX. Stills developed an interest in music early, and had his first professional gig at the age of 15. He eventually dropped out of college and headed for New York City's fertile folk-rock scene, where he met Richie Furay from Ohio while playing in Greenwich Village in 1964. Catching their act was local impresario Ed E. Miller who put them in a group together with members of the Bay Singers. This ensemble new ensemble evolved into The Au Go-Go Singers after becoming house band for legendary Cafe Au Go-Go, later home to The Blues Project. The Au Go-Go singers released an album on Roulette, They Call Us Au Go-Go Singers, in 1964; it went nowhere. The pair bailed in 1965, and headed for Los Angeles. In early 1966 Stills auditioned for a role on the TV series The Monkees; the role went to Michael Nesmith instead. In April 1966, following the meeting with Young and Palmer, the four formed the Herd, later renamed Buffalo Springfield. Dewey Martin was added the same week; by week's end they had their first professional gig as a five-piece, opening for no less than the Byrds, at the Troubadour Club on Sunset Strip. The band performed only originals, save for a version of "In The Midnight Hour" which featured Martin on vocals.
That all five members were experienced musicians became apparent right from the start; Buffalo Springfield never really went through an awkward developmental phase like most bands; they were ready to record within weeks of their professional debut. Sonny and Cher's management team signed them, and got them a deal with Atco Records.
Atco released their debut album, Buffalo Springfield in late 1966 (a re-issue that replaced "Baby Don't Scold Me" with "For What It's Worth" came out in 1967). The band was allegedly displeased with the record, which they felt failed to capture the energy of their live shows, but that caveat aside, it is a remarkably mature debut; the band sounds older than its tender years, and most of the cuts on the album sounded like instant classics. Another souce of displeasure may have been Neil Young himself, whose voice was deemed too "weird" by record honchoes; three of his songs were given to Furay to sing, leaving Young with only two lead vocals on the record. As a result, Stills dominates the record to a degree; his "For What It's Worth", is a folk rock classic that carried a message that bordered on paranoia and radical lot-casting. His "Sit Down I Think I Love You" is a good British-style psychedelic pop tune featuring his fluid lead guitar plus fuzz guitar from Young. His "Everybody's Wrong" is a Byrds-like psychedelic hard rocker. "Burned" is the first Neil Young classic in his storied career; Furay does Young's "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" right, his gentle "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong" hints at country even as it stays within the basic parameters of British Invasion style pop. The single, "For What It's Worth" hit nationally, peaking at #7. Buffalo Springfield, while a big seller in California, fared less well nationally, reaching #80, a repectable showing for a band that hadn't yet had much national exposure.
The band's dissatisfaction with how their album and career was being handled, however, led to their sacking the management team and attempting to handle management duties themselves. Work commenced on a follow up album, and problems almost immediately beset the band. Young suffered several epileptic seizures; nontheless he began to assert himself in the band, fashioning himself as its leader, which led to inevitable conflict with Stills. Their ensuing clashes resulted in Young threatening to walk on a number of occasions; on a number of occasions, he did. Another serious blow came during the sessions when Bruce Palmer was busted for marijuana possession and was deported to Canada. Palmer would eventually sneak back across the border in disguise in order to complete the sessions.
The band made an interesting appearence at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Playing a blistering set that included songs from their upcoming album, their set was noteworty for the presence of David Crosby of the Byrds playing in place of Neil Young, who had quit the band the previous month. Crosby's appearance with Buffalo Springfield was in defiance of Byrds leader Roger McGuinn's veto; The Byrds played a surly set of an almost punk intensity; the sound of a band breaking up. Crosby may have helped two bands break up that day, as his presence also left open the door for more collaboration with Stills, which would culminate in the formation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Palmer and Furay were allegedly unhappy with Crosby's guitar playing during the set. In October 1967 the band appeared playing in a bar on an episode of the TV police drama Mannix; Stills is visible in hippie clothing as the band performs "For What It's Worth" and "Bluebird".
The band's second album, originally to be called Stampede, was Buffalo Springfield Again, released at the end of 1967. The album bears the scars of the drama that took place during the recording; only five tracks feature the full 5-man lineup, and sessionmen appear to fill holes left by Palmer and Young's missed sessions. Despite this, the album is an excellent one, ambitious and fully realized, if not quite indicative of the band's then-current circumstances. The 10 tracks are fairly equally divided between Young, Stills, and Furay; both Young and Stills have upped the ante considerably from the debut. The opener is the Young classic "Mr. Soul" a chiming and fuzzy psychedelic hard rocker with Young's "weird" voice front and center. "Expecting To Fly" is one of Young's most touching and sensitive early songs, given a full orchestral treatment that never seems maudlin; pedal steel treatment keeps things organic. Stills comes up with a pair of the best songs of his career, the hard rocking "Rock 'n' Roll Woman", which also features great group harmonies, and some of Still's often under-appreciated guitar work. "Bluebird" is a two-part suite; part psychedelic rocker, part country tune featuring banjo. Furay (whose songs weren't used on the debut) gets three here; his best is "A Child's Claim To Fame" featuring James Burton's dobro. The album's closer is Young's grandiose "Broken Arrow" which reprises "Mr. Soul" and gets progressive by adding a clarinet lead, sound effects, and repeated changes in tempo, key, and melody. It is among the best albums of the late 1960's, although at the time it was only lukewarmly received; it peaked at #44, an improvement over the debut, but the single, "Bluebird" disappointed, with a peak of #58.
From this point forward, the band simply disintigrated. Buffalo Springfield's live shows in 1968 were usually notable for who was missing on a given night. Bruce Palmer was busted for possession again, and deported again, necessitating a full-time replacement; Jim Messina was brought in to take his place. In April 1968, most of the band was busted with Eric Clapton for marijuana possession; this proved the last straw, and the band broke up once and for all. Furay and Messina set about compiling an album from leftover material recorded between mid-1967 and early 1968; the resulting album, Last Time Around is a true hodgepodge in every sense of the word.
Last Time Around's twelve songs aren't bad, and some of them are excellent, but in nearly every case, the band is not entirely present. Young is marginalized with 2 1/2 credits, although one is his lovely country/folk tune, "I Am A Child". His collaboration with Furay, "It's So hard To Wait" is another excellent track. Stills gets five songs, although none rank with his best with Buffalo Springfield or CSN; still "Pretty Girl Why" is a nice latin-flavored number, and "Questions" is a good guitar showcase that foreshadows his work with Crosby Stills and Nash. Furay's "Kind Woman", which features only Furay and Messina from the band, is a gorgeous piece of country-rock that foreshadows their next band, Poco. Seldom do odds and sods albums cohere as well as this one did; it rounds out Buffalo Springfield's trio of albums nicely and remains essential in its own way, as the first two do. The album reached #42, the band's best showing on the charts ever.
From this point forward, the band members went their separate ways. Stills' first project was to record the album Super Session with Al Kooper (ex-Blues Project) and Mike Bloomfield (ex-Butterfield Blues Band, Electric Flag). One side of the album featured Kooper/Stills jams, the other was Kooper/Bloomfield. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, featuring Graham Nash of the Hollies, formed in 1969 and released their debut the same year; their gig at Woodstock was famously their second show together.
Neil Young signed with Reprise in early 1969 and released his acclaimed debut, Neil Young, the same year. Despite his fights with Stills, he joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash onstage at Woodstock and was credited as a full member on their next two albums, Deja Vu and 4-Way Street. He has gone on to one of the most vital careers in rock history as a top solo act in the 1970's, an erratic eccentric in the 1980's, and a hard rock elder statesman in the 90's and 00's. He remains arguably the most "relevant" of remaining 1960's artists.
Furay and Messina, who worked with steel guitarist Rusty Young on "Kind Woman" formed Poco with him, George Grantham on drums, and bassist/singer Randy Meisner (who would soon depart and later become a founding member of the Eagles). Poco released a landmark country-rock debut album Pickin' Up The Pieces in 1969, and enjoyed a long, successful run, although both Messina and Furay would depart fairly early on, Messina in 1970 to form a duo with singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins, with whom he'd release nine albums. Furay left in 1973 to join the short-lived supergroup The Furay Hillman Souther Band, which included ex-Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers guitarist/singer/songwriter Chris Hillman.
Palmer, deported twice during his tenure with the band was considered as permanent bassist for Crosby Stills and Nash, but Crosby and Nash appanrently vetoed the idea. He does play bass on a version of their classic "Helplessly Hoping" from th Crosby, Stills, and Nash box set. He released a solo album in 1971 (featuring old bandmate Rick James), but failed to get a career started and eventually vanished from the music scene entirely. He briefly resurfaced in Neil Young's band in the 1980's, playing bass on Young's Trans in 1982. He later had a Buffalo Springfield tribute band called Buffalo Springfield Revisited which also featured Dewey Martin. He died in 2004 from a heart attack.
Martin attempted to launch a band called New Buffalo Springfield in 1969, but failed to get it off the ground. He managed a solo album, Dewey Martin & Medicine Ball in 1970, and spent some time in bands Pink Slip and Roberts-Meisner Band in the 80's before joining Bruce Palmer's tribute band. He also appeared as a bachelor on The Dating Game in 1977.
Any of Buffalo Springfield's albums are pretty essential listening, particularly the first two. A good overview, Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield appeared in 1969 and remains an excellent overview; for those wishing to dig deeply into the band's history, Rhino's incredible 88-cut Box Set, released in 2001, contains 36 unreleased cuts, including major moments like Young's magnificent "Down To The Wire" (also found on his Decade compilation in a different version); much of the unreleased material is of an unusually good quality.
Weekly Artist Overview usually appears on Mondays.
Listen to Buffalo Springfield: Pay The Price (1967)