Fifty years ago this Saturday, Stephen Stills, then in Buffalo Springfield, was on his way into Hollywood to hear live music on the Sunset Strip. But in one of those defining rock & roll moments, what he encountered was a rally: hundreds, if not thousands, of kids protesting a new curfew and the imminent closing of one club, Pandora’s Box, by way of a fake “funeral” for it.
“The commercial merchants on Sunset Boulevard in a certain area decided that the element of young people on the street every night was not conducive to commercial enterprise,” Stills said in a 1971 interview. “A bunch of kids got together on a street corner and said we aren’t moving. About three busloads of Los Angeles police showed up, who looked very much like storm troopers. … And I looked at it and said, ‘Jesus, America is in great danger.'”
Within weeks, Stills had written – and Buffalo Springfield had recorded – a song inspired by that night, “For What It’s Worth.” With its emphasis on Stills’ spooked voice, drummer Dewey Martin’s ominous snare drum and Neil Young’s warning-bell two-note guitar part in the verse, the track became the band’s only hit, peaking at Number Seven in the spring of 1967. Yet equally striking was its sound: The eerily quiet song captured the uneasy mood of the moment that extended beyond Los Angeles to Vietnam, and lyrics about “a man with a gun over there” and “young people speaking their minds/Getting so much resistance from behind” were the sound of the rock counterculture cementing its socially conscious voice.
“For What It’s Worth” has transcended its origin story to become one of pop’s most-covered protest songs – a sort of “We Shall Overcome” of its time, its references to police, guns and paranoia remaining continually relevant. The Staple Singers were among the first to cover it, in 1967, but since then, it’s been recorded by a mind-bendingly diverse number of acts: Ozzy Osbourne turned it into a grim stomper, Lucinda Williams into a ghostly ballad, Kid Rock into a classic-rock homage, Rush into a swirling soundscape, Led Zeppelin (in live bootlegs) into languid blues. (Robert Plant also cut a version with his pre-Zep band, Band of Joy.) Public Enemy even sampled it on 1996’s “He Got Game.”
According to BMI, the song’s publishing house, “For What It’s Worth” been played 8 million times on TV and radio since its release. In 2014, it came in at number three on Rolling Stone‘s readers poll of the best protest songs. “The way it’s written, it’s so open to interpretation,” says Heart’s Ann Wilson, who released a cover last year on her first EP with side project the Ann Wilson Thing. “It’s so open that it’s brand new today. The main hook, ‘Everybody look what’s going down’ – you can apply that, to say, the current election. The song is going, ‘What the hell is this?’ You can apply the song to any situation in any decade.”
By 1966, the situation in Los Angeles was tense. An increasing number of clubgoers was descending on the Strip, irritating area residents and upscale boutiques, and the LAPD instigated a 10 p.m. curfew for anyone under 18. On the night of November 12th, a local radio station announced there would be a protest at Pandora’s Box. According to reports, a fight broke out for reasons having nothing to do with the curfew; a car carrying a group of Marines was bumped by another vehicle. Egged on by that fight, the protesters (some of whom carried placards that read “We’re Your Children! Don’t Destroy Us”) trashed a city bus and threw bottles and rocks at storefronts.
“It was really four different things intertwined, including the war and the absurdity of what was happening on the Strip,” Stills later told The Los Angeles Times. “But I knew I had to skedaddle and headed back to Topanga, where I wrote my song in about 15 minutes.” The folk-blues feel of the song harked back to Stills’ days in the Greenwich Village folk scene.
As anyone who’s heard it knows, the phrase “for what it’s worth” appears nowhere in the song. According to one legend, Stills played it for one of the group’s managers, prefacing it with, “Let me play you a song, for what it’s worth.” Springfield singer-guitarist Richie Furay recalls he, Stills, and Young playing new material for Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun, a major supporter of the Springfield. “Ahmet had come to Los Angeles and we were at Stephen’s house,” Furay recalls. “At the end of the day, Stephen said, ‘I have another one, for what it’s worth.'”
On December 5th, only a few weeks after the Strip mayhem, the Springfield went into an L.A. studio to lay down the song in a one-day session. Young credited engineer Stan Ross with the song’s spare, almost sinister arrangement. “Stan came in and said, ‘You gotta do this one thing to the drum, the snare,'” Young said in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey. “Took a broom, a guitar pick and mixed that in so it’s got that sound – of a guitar pick going through a broom, on the straw. That was it.” Added Stills later, “Neil came up with the wonderful harmonics part with the vibrato. The combination of the two guitar parts, with my scared little voice, made the record.”
Furay admits he didn’t hear anything special in the song at first: “I was more into the electric work, like ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Rock & Roll Woman,’ that phase of where we were,” he says. “I didn’t hear it, but Stephen felt the pulse of it and there you go.”
Everyone else knew the song was special, and the single was rush-released with an amended title, “(Stop, Hey What’s That Sound) For What It’s Worth,” at Ertegun’s suggestion. The song was also added into new pressings of the band’s first album, replacing another Stills original, “Baby Don’t Scold Me.”
Rush’s Alex Lifeson recalls first hearing the song while driving in the family car in the Toronto suburbs. “I’m not sure if it was the first time I heard it, but I clearly remember driving with my dad and wearing blue granny glasses, which I thought were so cool,” Lifeson says. “It was a sunny day, and I put the radio on and ‘For What It’s Worth’ came on. I still recall feeling so moved by that song. It sounded so cool to me, that combination of the acoustic and electric guitars and the lyrics. Canada was a haven for objectors to the war, so we had a different view on what was happening in Vietnam.”
During its early days, Rush used to jam on the song – “a 10-minute arrangement with a seven-minute guitar solo and a bass solo and then back into the chorus,” Lifeson chuckles – and later recorded it on their 2004 covers set, Feedback. “I suggested it and it was an important song for all of us,” he says. “Even when I hear that song now, I get goosebumps. I always think of the ride with my dad. It’s one of those really special, magical songs. It may be my favorite song of all time.”
Nearly 50 years later, and in very different times, Heart fans who attend Wilson’s shows still connect to the song, a testament to its enduring allure. “People sing along to it,” Wilson says. “They’re dancing around and they have a fire in them. They know the song. And they especially like the part about paranoia.”