There's something happening here.
What it is ain't exactly clear.
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware.
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down.
There's battle lines being drawn.
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong.
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind.
What a field-day for the heat!
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say hooray for our side.
Paranoia strikes deep--
Into your life it will creep.
It starts when you're always afraid--
Step out of line, the man come and take you away.
For What It’s Worth was the first hit for the Buffalo Springfield, and no single afterward was as much of a success for the group. Written by Stephen Stills after the release of the first Buffalo Springfield album, the original album was pulled and the single added to a reissue in February 1967. Today, this song is often identified with Vietnam War protests, but the actual subject of the song was the escalating unrest between law enforcement and young club-goers related to the closing of Pandora's Box, a club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California. The issue was that young people were refusing to honor anti-loitering laws as enforced by the local police.
Herb Bowie wrote of For What It’s Worth on his blog Reasons to Rock: “Notice how the first two lines draw the listener in and create suspense. The singer says that “something is happening,” but we don’t yet have any idea what it is. The next two lines up the ante — saying that there is a “man with a gun” involved — but maintain the suspense, since we don’t know who the man is, why he has a gun, or what he intends to do with it. The chorus then summarizes what we know so far and issues a request for attention to some force that is threatening the singer’s community. The term “children” is interesting, since it suggests youth and innocence, and reinforces the notion of a group needing protection. Notice that the issues generating the controversy are not identified in the second verse. Seemingly, they are not of importance to the singer. What is important is the increasing polarization and intensity of the situation, the fear and anger being generated. The emotional reserve of the singer now begins to make more sense, since the singer is suggesting that cooler heads prevail, that people stop and look at what they are creating…The beauty of this song is that it manages to warn of increasing polarization and violence in American society, without taking any stand other than that of acceptance of diversity and free speech. In other words, it comments on politics without itself being political.”
I have to add only a few things to Bowie’s observations, concerning a few quirks in the lyric. Why is there “resistance from behind” as if the “children” can’t retreat? Maybe the lyric is saying the resistance to the youth was coming from parents who should be backing them up in their pursuit of democratic freedom. I want to point out the use of the word “heat”—a slang term that can mean both the police and the use of guns. And lastly, the echo of They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha Ha by Napoleon XIV, which Stills relates less to drugs (as Buffalo Springfield’s Neil Young had done on the group’s first album) and more to an attitude of paranoia. Of course, paranoia is sometimes stimulated by the use of hallucinogens, but here, Stills points to an actual socio-political grounding for such a feeling. Kids who had been used to “hanging out” on Sunset Strip were now taken to jail for “loitering” while doing the same activity that had previously been unremarkable.
The music to For What It’s Worth deserves some note for the deliberately understated electric guitar work of Stephen Stills and Neil Young, perfectly in proportion to the message of the song. The light reverb of the guitar after the ringing of notes bearing a bell-like clarity would be somewhat of a trademark sound of the Buffalo Springfield, sometimes lapsing into a country sound in other songs, but it is never as well deployed as here. Both Stills and Young have a solo break. Even in the last verse, where the tension is ratcheted up with handclaps and vocal harmonies, and a bit stronger blues guitar from Young, the muted effect is sustained, as if restrained anger behind an attitude of cool.
For What It’s Worth was recorded without the assistance of their producers Charles Greene and Brian Stone, who had supervised the Buffalo Springfield’s first album. Greene and Stone had recorded each musician independently for the album cuts, combining them later in the studio, which produced a rather tinny sound. At the recording of For What It’s Worth the group played together and their various instruments and voices interacted, creating a sound of delicate depth. Their producer for the single was Paul Rothchild, who was very busy at the time, producing albums for other groups born of the Sunset Strip, the Doors and Love.