An odd moment in history inspired the Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield song, “For What it’s Worth,” and after that, Roger Corman’s justifiably forgotten movie “Riot on Sunset Strip.” Odd enough that author and BoomerCafé contributor Ron Gompertz of Seattle writes about it on this anniversary, more than half-a-century later.
“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear …”
Stephen Stills’ haunting Buffalo Springfield song “For What it’s Worth” hit the charts in early 1967 and became one of the quintessential anthems of police crackdowns against youthful protest. The song acknowledged that “nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong,” with a prescient last verse about paranoia striking deep. It foreshadowed rapidly changing times. Graham Nash’s 1968 “Chicago” and Neil Young’s 1970 “Ohio” would confirm the prediction and forever capture dark moments in history.
The story behind the Stills song offers a looking-glass into Southern California’s changing youth culture.
“Pandora’s Box” was a purple-and-gold-painted nightclub owned by a local DJ and host of the musical variety show “Shindig!” Increasingly popular and impractically perched on a triangular island in the middle of the Sunset Strip, overflowing crowds of young people flooded the street, blocking traffic and overwhelming the surrounding area. Seeing no profit or votes from the scruffy, loitering kids, local business owners got the police to enforce a 10pm curfew that had languished on the law books since 1939. As crowds and arrests grew more numerous, confrontation became inevitable. The die was cast for chaos when fliers were distributed and a local radio station announced an anti-curfew rally.
Crowds gathered on Saturday, November 12, 1966. Celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Sonny and Cher came to hang out and show support. Busloads of L.A. cops were shuttled in. “Young people speakin’ their minds” confronted the “fuzz” in what turned into “a field day for the heat.” In one strange footnote, Peter Fonda was handcuffed but let loose when he claimed to be just filming the melee. Another odd detail is that Sonny and Cher lost an upcoming gig on a Rose Bowl Parade float for being a bad influence on youth.
Sonny later tried to earn the distinction by recording a riot-inspired protest song, ”We Have as Much Right to Be Here as Anyone,” which is so obscure, it remains one of the few things Google can’t find.
Seeing the confrontation, Stephen Stills, whose band with Neil Young often played at the nearby Troubadour nightclub, was inspired to sing about “a thousand people in the street.” “For What it’s Worth” was recorded a few weeks after the riot and released as a single in early January, 1967. The following August, the nightclub site was condemned and demolished to create more room for traffic jams.
No trace of the club exists today except in the teen exploitation movie, “Riot on Sunset Strip.” Created in a low-budget hurry, Roger Corman’s cult movie version of events is to true history what, say, “Reefer Madness” is to recreational marijuana. It was filmed and released a few months post-riot and promoted with tag lines like, “Meet the Hippies … the Teenyboppers with their too-tight capris … and the Pot-Partygoers, out for a new thrill … a new kick!” It features such rock bands as the proto-punk Standells and the long-forgotten Chocolate Watchband. Spoiler alert: it fades from campy to terrible when an LSD-crazed policeman’s daughter is gang-raped after a trippy interpretive dance.
The riot on Sunset Strip wasn’t the first time the establishment faced off against the increasingly self-aware youth movement. But emerging California hippiedom got a glimpse of what lay beyond when the police opened and shut Pandora’s Box in the fall of 1966.