For What It’s Worth (as made famous by Buffalo Springfield)

“For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)” (often referred to as simply “For What It’s Worth”) is a song written by Stephen Stills. It was performed by Buffalo Springfield, recorded on December 5, 1966, and released as a single on Atco Records on December 23, 1966. The single peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.[4]

It was later added to the March 1967 second pressing of their first album, Buffalo Springfield. The title does not appear in the lyrics because it was added after the song was written.[5]

Although “For What It’s Worth” is often seen as an anti-war song, Stephen Stills was inspired to write the track because of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in November 1966—a series of early counterculture-era clashes that took place between police and young people on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, California, beginning in mid-1966, the same year Buffalo Springfield had become the house band at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip.[6] Local residents and businesses had become annoyed by how crowds of young people going to clubs and music venues along the Strip had caused late-night traffic congestion. In response, they lobbied the city to pass local ordinances stopping loitering, and enforced a strict curfew on the Strip after 10pm. The young music fans, however, felt the new laws infringed upon their civil rights.[7]

On Saturday, November 12, 1966, fliers were distributed on the Sunset Strip inviting people to join demonstrations later that day. Several of Los Angeles’ rock radio stations also announced a rally outside the Pandora’s Box club on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. That evening, as many as 1,000 young demonstrators, including future celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (who was handcuffed by police) gathered to protest against the curfew’s enforcement. Although the rallies began peacefully, trouble eventually broke out. The unrest continued the next night, and periodically throughout the rest of November and December, forcing some clubs to shut down within weeks.[7] It was against the background of these civil disturbances that Stills recorded “For What It’s Worth” on December 5, 1966.

Stills said in an interview that the name of the song came about when he presented it to the record company executive Ahmet Ertegun (who signed Buffalo Springfield to the Atlantic Records-owned ATCO label). Stills said: “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.”[5] Another producer, Charlie Greene, claims that Stills first said the above line to him, but credits Ahmet Ertegun with giving the single the parenthetical subtitle “Stop, Hey What’s That Sound” in order that the song would be more easily recognized.[5][8]

The song was recorded on December 5, 1966 at Columbia Studios, Hollywood. Tom Dowd claims he mixed the song at Atlantic’s studio in New York, though this has been disputed.[9] Dowd did take part in the production of Cher’s version of the song in 1969.[10] The song is distinguished with the use of the “guitar harmonics” technique and sound.

“For What It’s Worth” quickly became a well-known protest song.[11] In 2006, when interviewed on Tom Kent’s radio show Into the ’70s, Stills pointed out that many people think the song is about the Kent State shootings of 1970, even though its release predates that event by over three years.[12]

Neil Young—Stills’ bandmate in both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY)—would later write “Ohio” in response to the events at Kent State. CSNY included a version of “For What It’s Worth”, its lyrics modified to reflect the Kent State shootings, on their 1971 live album 4 Way Street. An all-star version of “For What It’s Worth” with Tom Petty and others, was played at Buffalo Springfield’s induction by Petty to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997; Young did not attend.[13]