Hey, What’s That Sound?

The answer’s simple: It’s Buffalo Springfield’s iconic Americana

Buffalo Springfield promotional photo

There was a point back in the late ‘60s when critics were referring to the Buffalo Springfield as America’s Beatles, thanks not only to their superb songs, but to the fact that like the Fab Four, there were no less than three singers and songwriters in the band, each capable of weighing in with some mighty musical muscle. Indeed, as the seminal launching pad for Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, the Buffalo Springfield’s wealth of talent was obvious even at the outset.

Never mind then that both the Byrds and the Monkees had also claimed the same daunting distinction where the Beatles comparisons were concerned. Indeed, it seemed that the case could be made for any band that offered variety and versatility. The Springfield had that ability even at the outset, as their new box set, What’s That Sound, demonstrates so decidedly.

“We actually felt like our only competition was the Beatles,” Furay himself told me earlier this year. “That’s how we looked at our music. We were on a mission. Neil and Stephen were definitely insightful into was going on.”

Like the Beatles, the Buffalo Springfield drew their influences from an earlier era. The Beatles had picked up on skiffle, seminal rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and cabaret. The Springfield’s principal songwriters had learned their chops singing in folk groups. Stills and Furay had performed together under the banner of the Au Go Go Singers, a short-lived outfit that patterned themselves after the New Christy Minstrels. Young had dabbled in traditional music in his native Canada. All three were particularly struck by the Byrds, and by turn, Bob Dylan.

“Folk music was the thing,” Furay says. “We would ‘go down the road,’ as they referred to it, and entertain sororities. I joined an acapella choir and yet it was quite an amazing thing because I don’t really read music. I stood with my ear trained on whoever was singing. I won a contest for singing ‘They Call the Wind Mariah’ and that’s how I got in.”

Like their English counterparts, the Springfield’s music was unerringly accessible. Songs such as “Bluebird,” “Go and Say Goodbye,” “I Am a Child,” “Sit Down I Think I Love You” and “Kind Woman” were  extremely easy on the ear, sharing the same mindset as Lennon and McCartney in terms of offering instant attraction for the listener. And though their lifespan last only three albums, they showed remarkable versatility as well, from the ambitious soundscape realized in Young’s expansive opus “Broken Arrow,” to Stills’ shout out to the counterculture via “For What It’s Worth,” arguably the Springfield’s version of “Revolution,” though written and recorded much earlier.

Other parallels could be found as well. Both bands shared a certain fondness for country, but leaned mainly to revved up rockers. And each began to fragment around the same time. Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around shares a certain similarity with the Beatles so-called White Album in that both records were comprised of solo recordings backed up by the other members of their band. Indeed, in both cases, each album served as a springboard into the members’ individual efforts later on.

Likewise, the Beatles would set the course for any number of musical trends that would follow — Merseybeat, prog, singer/songwriters and a combined chemistry in general. Likewise, the Springfield predated country rock and Americana, a path Furay in particular followed when he formed Poco, the Springfield’s successor. “We started a whole new genre of music which became the biggest kind of music there is,” Furay said in that earlier interview. “I love it when people say, ‘Oh you sound like Glen Frey.’ Really? I remember when he was sitting on my living room floor when I was coming up with Poco. You have this backwards. When I saw the Eagles, they would mention Buffalo Springfield.”

Those lessons are borne out in the new box set, although sadly, there are no bonus tracks for completists to dig into. Those in search of real rarities are best advised to pick up the self-titled Buffalo Springfield Box Set released by Rhino in 2001.

There then, is another Beatles/Springfield similarity. Neither band has seen a rerelease of their original albums with extra tracks added. And in the Springfield’s case that’s especially a shame, given that there aren’t an abundance of bootlegs that can offer other options.

Then again, there are those that bought the collected Beatles box that boasted all their albums, even despite the commitment in cost. Indeed, there’s something to be said for having the music packaged up perfectly with better sonics as well. Then too, given their seminal status, any salute to the Springfield ought to be appreciated, based renewed recognition alone.

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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