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Over fifty years ago, 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.
In a 1971 interview, Stills said: “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. 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.
In 2014, it came in at number three on Rolling Stone‘s readers poll of the best protest songs. “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. (excerpt from ROLLING STONE)