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"The lights turned on and the curtain fell down - and when it was over it felt like a dream"
|Main Category:||Folk Rock|
|Also applicable:||Pop Rock, Rhythm & Blues|
|Starting Period:||The Psychedelic Years|
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Buffalo Springfield weren't exactly a "supergroup" (although they would later provide two former members for one), but they formed in very much the same way as a "supergroup" would. No playing together from schooldays, no "he used to play me his Chuck Berry records when we were twelve" or anything like that. Buffalo Springfield were formed by several aspiring musicians and songwriters who'd already had some experience behind their backs and consciously decided to pool their talents and take over the world; this is why their debut album shows an already full-grown and mature ensemble, with almost every member offering some valid contribution, even if they never had a whole lot of time to spend together before going into the recording studio. Somehow the rock establishment felt it, too, and the bubble was blown to the extreme from the very start...
...so that, even if BS are often called the "American Beatles" (an utterly ridiculous definition as far as I'm concerned), in a lot of ways "American Cream" would be much more like it. Both bands had similar ambitions - to build upon the existing foundation (in Cream's case, the blues, in Springfield's, country music) and push forward the limits of these genres by criss crossing them with rock and pop. Both bands had several vastly talented members battling for attention, and no real "leader" (well, in a certain formal way one could say Bruce and Stills were respectively 'leaders', but that would hardly be saying anything). Both bands lasted only a short while - actually, more or less the same years, too, with 1967 being the peak for both - and released only a very limited number of albums. And both bands self-destructed because of growing tension and competition between their members, as well as launched at least one major solo star (Young, Clapton) and one minor solo star (Stills, Bruce).
That said, my own preferences in this "battle" are certainly on the side of Cream. Buffalo Springfield were a good band, but arguably they will appeal more to those who like their music calm and even rather than flashy and rowdy. Buffalo Springfield started out as professionals, specializing in graceful and tasteful arrangements, nicely placed harmonies, and enough "personal diversity" due to the unique styles of each creative member. If there was anything "Beatlesque" about them, it was perhaps the ability to intelligently capitalize on all their influences, writing good, solid country-rock that was a bit more sophisticated than whatever the Byrds were doing (especially in the lyrics department) and occasionally venturing into other areas, most notably psychedelia and, well, "hippie music", although to be frank, the Buffaloes were never much of a hippie band, and my placing them into the "psychedelia" category is a very liberal thing to do - more due to chronological reasons than anything else.
On the other hand, I just sort of can't put my hand on what it is that prevents them from being "great" in my opinion. Most probably, it's just the "middle-of-the-road" complex - the Springfield never made any sweeping grand musical statements that would blow me away (Young's few attempts like 'Broken Arrow' can only be qualified as 'glorious misfires'). For all the good material they've done, they never let out a 'Gimme Shelter' or a 'Like A Rolling Stone' or a 'Baba O'Riley' or a 'Sunshine Of Your Love' from under their pen, and the nearest thing they have to a megahit classic is Stills' 'For What It's Worth': a terrific song, sure enough, but ever so shy of itself to really qualify. In short, for a band with such an overblown reputation (in the General Critical Opinion), they have an amazingly, almost irritatingly, short list of "classic" material.
Not that I really would place it against them; it's no crime not to be writing "great" songs when you're fully capable of writing "good" ones. In this way, however, BS cemented the "way of the Byrds" and pretty much showed the way country-rock was supposed to be developing from now on - quiet, even, collected music which isn't taking a lot of chances; the Flying Burrito Brothers took it from there and then the Eagles and, well, Poco (who were formed by Richie Furay, one of the founding members of BS). Yeah, it's rather strange, come to think of it, that everybody loves Buffalo Springfield yet hates Poco, when it's pretty much inevitable that one leads directly into the other. Same thing with Crosby, Stills & Nash, who seem to be getting much less respect these days than the Springfield, yet were a direct (and in my opinion, generally better) continuation of the former.
Overall, of course, it's no secret that the Buffaloes' huge reputation boost is directly due to Neil Young's involvement in it, because you know as well as me that everything that guy touches is golden, doncha? Even if out of all his Springfield repertoire, only 'Mr Soul' and 'I Am A Child' seem to have "survived" as classics worthy of Neil's true name. Well, that and a couple more songs maybe as lesser ones. It's true that Neil Young was the most "adventurous" member of the band, in fact, he took more "adventures" during his stay there than he did in his entire solo career apart from maybe the "weird" Eighties period. But Stills was the main rod that held everything together, with his steady - if also slightly experimental at times - country rock serving as the global foundation upon which Neil would wind his confessional/mystical baggage. And to complete the picture, there was "junior" member Richie Furay with his soft-rock yearning and slight, forgettable, but overall pretty tunes. In short, "great" or not, the band was definitely interesting, not to mention all the soap opera relations between Stills and Young that started here and then got carried over to CSN(Y).
Lineup: Neil Young - lead guitar, vocals; Steve Stills - lead guitar, vocals; Richie Furay - rhythm guitar, vocals; Bruce Palmer - bass; Dewey Martin - drums. Palmer quit in 1967, replaced by Jim Messina. Band fell apart in 1968, with Messina and Furay forming Poco and Stills and Young going you-know-where.
General Evaluation: not available for artists with not more than 3 albums
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1966
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
What if the Byrds wouldn't have heard any Dylan? They'd be Buffalo Springfield!
Best song: FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH
Track listing: 1) Go And Say Goodbye; 2) Sit Down I Think I Love You; 3) Leave; 4) Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing; 5) Hot Dusty Roads; 6) Everybody's Wrong; 7) Flying On The Ground Is Wrong; 8) Burned; 9) Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It; 10) Baby Don't Scold Me; 11) Out Of My Mind; 12) Pay The Price; [BONUS:] 13) For What It's Worth.
If Buffalo Springfield are "The American Beatles" (the American Hollies would be a better surname, though), then this album is their Please Please Me. It's pretty admirable that all the songs are self-penned, mainly courtesy of Steve Stills and Neil Young, but they're so goddamn clumsy and derivative it's obvious the band members didn't have a huge background in songwriting at the time. There's not a single instant classic on here, at least not on the original issue of the album; the best, and inarguably superior-to-everything-else tune, 'For What It's Worth', was written and released already after the original mono pressing was out, and was only used later to replace 'Baby Don't Scold Me' on the stereo re-issue of the album.
Fortunately, both mixes are present on the regular CD issue, so you do get to hear 'For What It's Worth' and appreciate it for what it's really worth. It is, of course, a minor three-minute masterpiece, from Neil's tasty little chiming guitar bits to Stills' relaxed and yet unnerving vocal delivery in the left speaker to the chorus (one of the catchiest American choruses of all time!) to the short and beautiful ringing guitar solo and all. Of course, back in 1967 the song meant a whole lot of sense in the overall cultural context of the time - kind of like Springfield's version of 'The Times Are A-Changin', but with a darker, more sarcastic edge as Stills actually sings about the establishment fighting back the youth rebellion rather than the youth rebellion fucking the establishment (the song was inspired by the Sunset Strip riots).
However, there's nothing on the original album itself that could really match the power of 'For What It's Worth'. Basically, it's just the product of two aspiring, but not quite self-assured youths who have listened to way too much Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful, and Mamas & Papas, as well as their country, bluegrass and folk roots. Granted, if you're a particularly violent fan of the Springfield, you could claim that this album was revolutionary - starting the "return to roots movement" almost a whole year before Dylan, the Byrds, and then later the Beatles and the Stones initiated it. That would, however, mean that Stills, Young, Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer, and whatever-his-name-is-on-the-drums met together, contemplated the burgeoning hippie culture, collectively condemned it and set out to worship Mr Tambourine Man instead, which was definitely not so - and indeed, the very next Buffalo Springfield album would already betray signs of their graciously accepting some of the Summer of Love aesthetics.
No, it's just a couple of kids trying their hand at the kinds of music they love the most. And with very uneven results - the melodies are raw and unoriginal, the hooks are rudimentary at best, and the memorability of the songs leaves a lot to be desired. Neil in particular seems like he's got a long way to go; everybody usually raves about his "inspired" country waltz 'Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing', but I'm pretty sure a mature, expert Neil could have written the melody in about two seconds, seeing as there's nothing particularly unnatural about it. Much better is 'Burned', even if the song reminds me so much of the Mamas & Papas' 'Creeque Alley' I can't help but think how much better the song would have sounded in the hands of those guys (who have, by the way, always sounded miles and miles more professional than the Springfield). The absolute best Young song of the three, though, is 'Flying On The Ground Is Wrong', which probably contains some of the most subtle vocal twists on the entire record - the 'then I'm sorry... to let you down' line in particular gets to me with its top-notch imitation of the best features of Brit Invasion Romance, although I still feel the chorus ends on a rather clumsy note. Oh, by the way, Richie Furay takes lead vocals on both 'Clancy' and 'Flying', which might be a good thing - he is certainly more apt at delivering silky romantic lines than Neil. Same goes for another very pretty, very authentic country ballad, beautifully delivered by Richie ('Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It').
Stills still takes the majority of the songwriting credits (at this time, he was more or less the "leader" of the band, as is stated in the liner notes with the carefully added disclaimer "but we all are"). And while the best vocal hook on the album (sans 'For What It's Worth', of course) still belongs to Young, on the average Steve's songwriting skills seem to be better developed at the point. He pens the album's best, most ass-kicking rocker, 'Leave', with Neil adding powerful outbursts of amateurish lead guitar; a solid Byrds-ey country shuffle, 'Go And Say Goodbye', which I'd actually take over almost anything on the snoozy Sweetheart Of The Rodeo; and the rollickin' 'Baby Don't Scold Me', which, with its feedback intro and classy basslines from Palmer and the obligatory quote from the Beatles' 'Day Tripper' (geez, the Fab Four have, like, written only one immortal hard-rock guitar riff and pretty much everybody quoted it in their work at one time or another), certainly should not have been chosen as the victim on the stereo release - they should have liberated the record of some other sort of countryish filler instead, like 'Hot Dusty Roads', for instance.
On the positive side, though, where these guys lack in the memorability/originality department, they often make up with their absolute dedication to this material. They are quite honest - 'Hot Dusty Roads', after all, takes the basic country blues melody and marries it to "anti-country" lyrics: 'I don't tell no tales 'bout the hot dusty roads, I'm a city boy and I stay at home, I make no excuses, I just don't want to roam and I don't like being alone'. They are sensitive and where it's necessary, they're subtle, and the lyrics overall are a notch above the Byrds' usual level, too (although at this point Neil is often being too enigmatic even by his own standards - the side effects of idolizing Mr Zimmerman too much). So with time and repeated listenings, these songs might easily grow on you, for all I know.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1967
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
Getting all hip and confused. This is one CONFUSED record for 1967. But then again, most 1967 records were.
Best song: EVERYDAYS
Track listing: 1) Mr Soul; 2) A Child's Claim To Fame; 3) Everydays; 4) Expecting To Fly; 5) Bluebird; 6) Hung Upside Down; 7) Sad Memory; 8) Good Time Boy; 9) Rock & Roll Woman; 10) Broken Arrow.
This sure is one unmemorable record, although by now I don't necessarily mean it in the bad sense of the word. The fact is that absolutely none of the songs bar the opening 'Mr Soul' agree to stick in my head, and for a dang good reason: for the most part, they are as tight and well-constructed as an ecstatic maniacal solo from Pete Townshend (the one where not a single musical phrase has enough time to end because in the exact middle of it Pete acquires the idea for a new one). If I didn't know this was just a bunch of guys with an original flavour for rootsy music a little corroborated by psychedelic influences, I'd have accused them of unrestrained avantgardism. In fact, they do thank Frank Zappa as one of the "influences" in the liner notes (interesting thing - the lengthy list does not mention the Beatles, and only gives "Ringo" as an influence! Was this an intentionally offensive gesture thrown at the Lennon/McCartney team or what? Oops, no, turns out the Beatles are mentioned as the "Nurk Twins and George" - thanks to those who pointed that out to me! The honour of Buffalo Springfield [and the review] is saved!).
Of course there's no true avantgarde involved here. There sure is some psychedelia, though; and the general sense of confusion is very much due to the fact that, unlike its predecessor, Again clearly marks the borders between the band's three individual songwriters. Richie Furay tentatively joins Stills and Young as third songwriting partner, and pens three songs that are somewhat similar to Stills' style on the debut: mildly pleasant, inoffensive country rock that certainly predicts his future Poco career. Stills himself, however, already evolves further, and consciously evades country and folk cliches by making his songs more complex, generally more rocky (with a big help from Neil's distortion fetish) and less predictable. And Young, for the first time, emerges as both the ardent social critic and the hopeless epic/romantic hero that everybody knows him for, and actually manages to take a few totally unpredictable risks by touching genres he'd rarely, or never, revisit throughout his solo career.
So, for all of its lack of hooks, Again is certainly an interesting listen. Young opens the proceedings with 'Mr Soul'; the song's riff bears an uncanny resemblance to 'Satisfaction', as does the general beat and sarcastic atmosphere, but in general, the song is an independent creation with the obvious Stones nod probably having been intended, just to show that Buffalo Springfield aren't really such hopeless wimps as some might perceive them to be. Neil's solo also deserves attention - the best moment in the song is arguably when it fades in with a flair from the right speaker. Oh, and the song is critiquing the record industry, but don't you let my site be the first source of your getting to know that. What am I, a trivia buff?
The other two Neil compositions have nothing to do with the 'Mr Soul' vibe, though. They are both lush, orchestrated, sentimental epics - mood pieces, with not a little bit of Pet Sounds influences (hey! how come Brian Wilson is not on the list?), and quite reminiscent of the later After The Gold Rush/Harvest vibe; both are creative, but perhaps just a wee bit, er, incoherent as far as songs go, if you get me meanin'. 'Expecting To Fly' rolls along well and boasts a special kind of dreamy gorgeousness, with special "echoey" orchestration that I don't think I've actually met anywhere else in 1967 - certainly the Moody Blues and the Bee Gees recorded their stuff in a different way. 'Broken Arrow' is really just a big six-minute mess, with bizarre tempo changes, fade-ins, fade-outs, overdubbed audience screams, phased drumbeats, a mock-live reprise of two lines from 'Mr Soul' at the beginning, evil organ swooshes, and the sound of a beating heart putting a final touch to the proceedings; all over this you get Young's hard-to-get mystical lyrics that are supposedly "stretching rock conventions", but I'm not sure in what way. As an experience, 'Broken Arrow' can certainly be listened to, but it's real hard work to force yourself to want to listen to it again - the main melodic theme, for instance, is quite pretty, yet I daresay that cutting it off and then restarting it every ten seconds was a stupid gimmick, totally of the times; Mr Young should have understood that and given us a decent version of the song without the "Spirit Of Experimental '67" bullshit. Hey, at least when Captain Beefheart screwed over the usual melody system, he made his band play his songs like songs; 'Broken Arrow' is more of a bizarre collage than anything else. And does anyone else actually feel that the idea of glueing together 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures looks cooler on paper than on record?
Again, this leaves Stills as still the more accomplished songwriter of the two (or, nowadays, three). 'Everydays' is a perfect example of his progression - like a lounge jazz ballad crossed with psychedelic experimentation, with rollickin' piano in one speaker and Neil's uncessant fuzz-and-buzz in the other one. 'Bluebird' starts out more conventionally, a folk-rocker with more of Neil's prominent electric playing and lots of acoustic overdubbing going on, before fading out and then suddenly acquiring a banjo-driven real countryesque coda. It's marginally more interesting than 'Hung Upside Down', but that one is also somewhat memorable because of Steve's exquisite vocal part. Finally, 'Rock & Roll Woman' (rather mistitled, I'd say - there's hardly anything rock & rolling about the song) starts out with a melody similar to the Byrds' 'So You Wanna Be A Rock'n'Roll Star', then gets vocal harmonies similar to Sting's 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' (yeah I know I'm being anachronistic here, but nothing soothes one's heart better than a ridiculous comparison) and more of those tasty Young guitar parts - actually, Neil's playing on this album might just be the very best thing about it.
As for Richie, he basically invents Seventies' soft-rock on here, but the style is still somewhat fresh, and both 'A Child's Claim To Fame' and 'Sad Memory' are pretty nice ballads. I think the only truly unsuccessful song of Furay's on here is the tacky "big-band" Vegasy arrangement of 'Good Time Boy', with Dewey the drummer on vocals for some reason.
So let me say I'm throwing on one extra point here for historical significance and a lot of hard work - I really don't see these songs as that much better than the ones on BS (more complex, though, that's for sure). It's still kinda fun, in an unpredictable manner. And I actually don't think there'd ever be a time when we'd see Neil get oh so flower-powery again - 'Expecting To Fly' is really a unique entry in his catalog.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Mellower and less risky than Again, but in a way, more consistent.
Best song: I AM A CHILD
Track listing: 1) On The Way Home; 2) It's So Hard To Wait; 3) Pretty Girl Why; 4) Four Days Gone; 5) Carefree Country Day; 6) Special Care; 7) The Hour Of Not Quite Rain; 8) Questions; 9) I Am A Child; 10) Merry-Go-Round; 11) Uno Mundo; 12) Kind Woman.
Another album I can't really put my finger on... few songs stick out, really, but there's not a single real duffer either, and as such, it stands as a perfect testament to the band - being released already after they played their final show and went their own ways. Each member's "moderate creativity" is well on display, and each one gives a brief glimpse of the direction he was actually heading towards as well as a few minor surprises for the unwary.
The only possible complaint is that there's too little Neil on here, mostly the Stills/Furay show all the way through; not surprising, since Neil was arguably the first member to get sick of the band and the one who was most eager to start a solo career (note how he didn't even bother forming a new band until he was recruited by CSN two years later), but still a bit disappointing. He does contribute one glorious song, though, maybe even the best song he wrote in his BS days, the boppy country rocker 'I Am A Child', highlighted by his special harmonica playing style, catchy, melancholic, and in his usual mystical way, but without too much pretense. In fact, I don't even think he used to regularly make acoustic-and-harmonica numbers like these throughout his solo career until at least Harvest Moon. Why the heck is it so short, though? His other song, 'On The Way Home', introduced with a brawny brass section, is typical Seventies-style country-Young, but moderately fast at least, so you can't say it drags or anything. Nice, but hardly essential.
Almost as if he were taking advantage of Neil's "creative retirement", Stills grabs the chance and establishes his absolute superiority on this last album - I may have singled out 'I Am A Child' as the best track, but Stills beits Neil in terms of "consistent quality". 'Pretty Girl Why' is simplistic country done with a menacing edge, with sharp guitar breaks between verses that almost seem to be suggesting that if the pretty girl in question does not respond to Steve's gentle mating coos of 'pretty girl, why not love me?', she'll live to regret it, the bitch. 'Four Days Gone' introduces Steve Stills The Melancholy Man, the kind of Stills we know from songs like 'Wooden Ships'; nothing earth-shaking melodically, but sung with grace, pride, and passion. 'Special Care' and 'Questions' feature ferocious guitar solos (well displaying how Steve's strength lies in professionalism, technicality, and fluidity, whereas Neil's strength lies in minimalism and spontaneousness); and 'Uno Mundo' is the album's wildcard, a fun rocker that tries to incorporate Latin rhythms of all things - later on, Latin rhythms and percussion would become a frequent guest on Stills' compositions, but for a 1968 Springfield album, it sure was an unexpected twist.
Perversely enough, even if Neil and Steve give the best material out here, it's Furay who makes the greatest leap forward as a songwriter. 'The Hour Of Not Quite Rain', in fact, shows that he was probably so impressed with Neil's orchestrated works on Again that he decided to try something similar for himself - and marginally succeeds, at least in atmosphere terms. It's so slow, subtle, and suggestive, with Richie's near-falsetto ominous singing on top, it could almost be qualified as Goth music, even if it has no really dark overtones to it. Putting this in context, it's a song that's rather typical for its epoch (psychedelia, etc.), but out of context, it's pretty impressive all by itself.
Elsewhere Furay is not so "innovative", but songs like 'Merry-Go-Round' still display a lot of self-confidence gained, and he ends the record on a sprawling note with 'Kind Woman', a generic 3/4 country ballad that has the nerve to be the only song on the record to go over four minutes, but is also distinguished by Richie's developed singing style - lush and quite sentimental without being too sappy. Oh, oh, and I almost forgot about new band member Jim Messina, who also makes one and only one BS contribution - 'Carefree Country Day', a song that essentially sounds just like its title, and since it borrows what is probably the most common jazz-pop melody for miles around, it ranks zero on the innovation scale but a full-fledged five on the "cheap entertainment" scale. Which means everybody hates it in public but probably secretly digs it in private.
All in all, the album does work as a launchpad to propel the band members into a better and bigger future, with firmly established individual styles and next to no collaboration at all (although 'It's So Hard To Wait' is credited to Young and Furay, but the song definitely sounds like a Furay tune written with some help from Young in the arrangement department, because Neil didn't specialize much in that kind of loungey sound). The wild-'n'-reckless approach of Again is all but gone, and now there's a cooler and more, er, phlegmatic approach to the entire business, or you might call it more realistic, or less flower-powerish, or whatever. And together with realism comes the band's breakdown. Funny that Neil has since used the "Buffalo Springfield" image as some sort of a long-gone Atlantis of happiness, most notably in his 'Buffalo Springfield Again' song on the Silver & Gold album, yet never really tried to bring it back to reality - maybe because idealizing the golden youth is one thing, and actually bringing oneself to face all the ethical dreck linked to it is another.
READER COMMENTS SECTION