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Written by Buffalo Springfield guitarist Stephen Stills, this song was not about anti-war gatherings, but rather youth gatherings protesting anti-loitering laws, and the closing of the West Hollywood nightclub Pandora's Box. Stills was not there when they closed the club, but had heard about it from his band mates.
In the book Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History
, Stephen Stills tells the story of this song's origin: "I had had something kicking around in my head. I wanted to write something about the kids that were on the line over in Southeast Asia that didn't have anything to do with the device of this mission, which was unraveling before our eyes. Then we came down to Sunset from my place on Topanga with a guy - I can't remember his name - and there's a funeral for a bar, one of the favorite spots for high school and UCLA kids to go and dance and listen to music.
[Officials] decided to call out the official riot police because there's three thousand kids sort of standing out in the street; there's no looting, there's no nothing. It's everybody having a hang to close this bar. A whole company of black and white LAPD in full Macedonian battle array in shields and helmets and all that, and they're lined up across the street, and I just went 'Whoa! Why are they doing this?' There was no reason for it. I went back to Topanga, and that other song turned into 'For What It's Worth,' and it took as long to write as it took me to settle on the changes and write the lyrics down. It all came as a piece, and it took about fifteen minutes."
Buffalo Springfield was the band's first album, and this song was not originally included on it. After "For What It's Worth" became a hit single, it replaced "Baby Don't Scold Me" on re-issues of the album.
Notable when you consider this song's success, the group quietly recorded this without involving their producers Greene and Stone, with whom they had had immense dissatisfaction about the recording of their album up until then. Greene and Stone had insisted on recording each musician separately and then combining them later into mono to stereo tracks, which produced a tinny sound. This was the first time the group's united performance was caught on tape. (Thanks to Dwight Rounds for his help with this. Dwight is author of The Year The Music Died, 1964-1972
This was used in a commercial for Miller beer. The antiestablishment message was, of course, ignored and the song was edited to avoid the line "There's a man with a gun over there, telling you you've got to beware." The commercial replaced this line by pulling up the chorus of "Everybody look what's going down."
Songwriting powerhouses Jim Messina and Neil Young were also in Buffalo Springfield, but Stills wrote this song himself. Young has never allowed his songs to be used in commercials, and wrote a song bashing those who do called "This Note's For You
This song plays during the opening credits of the movie Lord Of War starring Nicholas Cage, and was used in the movie Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks. (thanks, Steve - Kitchener, Canada)
Public Enemy sampled this on their 1998 song "He Got Game
," which was used in the movie of the same name. Stephen Stills appears on this song. (thanks, Zodiac Digital - Washington, DC)
This song gets covered a lot - for a weird experience, check out the cover versions of "For What It's Worth" done by Ozzy Ozborne on the Under Cover album and Queensryche on their Take Cover album. Both of them pretty much murder it.
After many years working on the Bridge School, Pegi is establishing her career as a singer/songwriter.
Divided Souls: Musical Alter Egos
Long before Eminem, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj created alternate personas, David Bowie, Bono, Joni Mitchell and even Hank Williams took on characters.