It Was 50 Years Ago Today: “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire

September 15, 1965
“Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire
#1 on the RPM Top Singles Chart (Canada), September 13-19, 1965

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The ‘60s didn’t invent the protest singer, but it did make him a pop star. Before, political folk music was usually confined to union meetings and college campuses; by 1963, however, hits like Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Trini Lopez’s “If I Had a Hammer” vied for the top spot on the charts, alongside surf rockers like Jan & Dean, girl groups like the Chiffons, and novelty acts like the Singing Nun. But while these singles were subtle and universal enough in their politics not to scare off the average pop fan, the cultural shifts of the mid-’60s, including the rise of the African-American civil rights movement and the onset of the US ground war in Vietnam, inspired more blatant messages.

Even so, nothing on the pop charts in 1965 matched the apocalyptic, pessimistic imagery of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” McGuire’s strained-raw voice gives already graphic lines like “even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’” and “there’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave” an added despondency, while the tumbling layers of rhymes and folk rock arrangement root it firmly in the modern sound of 1965. This wasn’t the delicate vibrato of Joan Baez or the clean harmonies of the Kingston Trio — this was music designed to speak to the desperate youth of a paranoid world, where it could be hard to know where to stand, or what the future brought.

The two men behind “Eve of Destruction,” however, wouldn’t seem the most obvious choices to produce such a savage political indictment. McGuire had just departed the squeaky-clean, and staunchly apolitical, folk act the New Christy Minstrels, where he had sung lead on the group’s biggest hit, “Green, Green.” Composer P.F. Sloan was an up-and-coming songwriter and guitarist whose most notable previous contribution to the world of pop had been the theme to The T.A.M.I. Show; he’d later pen hits like “A Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits and “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers. While “Eve of Destruction” may have expressed the pair’s sincerely held beliefs, an outside observer could be forgiven for sensing a whiff of trend-chasing in their motives.

One of the biggest red flags is how tightly the record adheres to the template set forth by Bob Dylan’s early ’60s protest songs. Dylan wasn’t quite a pop star yet — his first US chart hit, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” was released just a few months before “Eve of Destruction” — but he was already well-known as a songwriter and representative of the emerging counterculture. But while “Eve of Destruction” nicks the trappings of Dylan’s early folk hits, such as the ragged vocals, the righteous anger, and the cascading, imagery-packed lyrics, it feels clumsy in a way that Dylan’s songs of this era seldom did. Sloan’s literal, didactic lyrics lack Dylan’s poetic craft and mordant humor (unless you count risible lines like “my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’”), yet are too morbid and overblown to have artless earnestness on their side.

Likewise, the stripped-down arrangements and traditional melodies of Dylan’s early songs marked them in opposition to commercial pop, as if they were transmissions from a purer, wiser past. The polished folk rock arrangement of “Eve of Destruction,” however, played gamely by session musicians from the Wrecking Crew, is too conventional and radio-friendly to evoke that sort of gut credibility. And while Dylan’s famously raspy, unrefined vocals gave him the air of a plainspoken truth-teller, the gravelly-voiced McGuire so strains to imbue every syllable of “Eve of Destruction” with fist-shaking import that his constipated delivery verges into parody.

Despite its shortcomings, however, “Eve of Destruction” soared to #1 on both the Canadian and American pop charts, spurring pro-military answer records (including SSgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” the biggest US hit of 1966), attempts to ban the song from the airwaves, and open political debate — not bad for a three-and-a-half minute pop single. But while “Eve of Destruction” may have charted higher than anything Dylan ever released, the onetime protest singer was already headed in a new direction that would render McGuire and Sloan’s hit staid and artless. “Eve of Destruction” may have rattled off the fears of the era, but Dylan’s new single — which we’ll discuss next week — captured its essence, and pointed the way toward the future.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.
  • lonestar199

    Fabulous article – full of subtle insights and sharp contextualization !

    But please, try to go easy on my boy P.F. Sloan (“a whiff of trend-chasing”), who ultimately suffered greatly in pursuing his brief, but spectacularly prolific and diverse, songwriting career.

    At that time he was only a kid of 19 and still living with his parents when he wrote that song (while simultaneously doing first-tier session musician/vocal work, record producing, A&R, Brill-building style pop songwriting, etc) and he risked (and ultimately lost) almost everything to get that song released.

    And in the spring of 1965, trends were moving laterally as well as linearly (more swapping than chasing going on) – at virtually the same time Dylan piled on the session musicians to cut “Like a Rolling Stone”, Sloan and McGuire were using a lot of the very same wrecking crew musicians (including Blaine and Knechtel) that the Byrds had used just a few months earlier to cut “Mr.Tambourine Man” (which, of course, finally thrust Dylan to the top of the AM radio map) and that Sloan had already been working with for years with other recording artists.

    But again, notwithstanding my P. F. Sloan diatribe, I thought your article was extraordinarily well-crafted and I’ll look forward to your future work.

    • ajobo

      P.F. Sloan himself will admit to trend-chasing a bit with his early work (the Fantastic Baggys, for example), but what California musician in the early ’60s didn’t try to ride the surf music wave? “Eve” was definitely an epiphanic moment for him, and McGuire’s take was a quick one-off, but I think it is Dylanesque in a lot of ways, and was definitely marketed as such. (You’ve probably also heard the Turtles’ version, who also borrowed heavily from both Sloan and Dylan in the early days.) But it’s always nice to see a comment defending P.F. Sloan – we’re big fans here. If you haven’t read our interview with him, check it out; the link is within the article text above.

      • lonestar199

        Thanks for the cite to your P F Sloan interview – it’s great and well worth a read by all who are interested in his work!

        I do still disagree, however modestly, with the pejorative “trend-chaser” label being applied to P.F. Sloan. I guess I rather think of him as being someone who clearly demonstrated an ability to substantially contribute his musicianship (and not merely exploit public interest) in a wider range of styles (soul/surf/folk-rock/pop-rock/whatever) than all but a handful of his contemporaries. From my admittedly subjective perspective, he seemed not so much chasing as participating in a very productive way in all those trends.

        P.S. (uh oh, here it comes: a gratuitous footnote) Of course, the very same day Columbia staff producer Tom Wilson finished Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” session, he brought in more session musicians to overlay psuedo-wrecking-crew bass and drum elements to Simon & Garfunkel’s all-acoustic, and for months widely-ignored (at least up ’til then), version of “Sounds of Silence” single to attract some of that massive AM radio airplay the Byrds had begun generating just a couple of months earlier with their powerful folk-rock arrangements.

        That particular episode of belated post-release touch-up by the former Tom & Jerry and their big label advisor I will readily agree evidenced more than just “a whiff of trend-chasing” !

    • Sally O’Rourke

      @lonestar199:disqus – thanks for the kind words! I agree that P.F. Sloan was responsible for some terrific stuff, but “Eve of Destruction” is unfortunately one of the cases where his reach exceeded his grasp. (To be fair, much of the cringing that those lyrics induce is because a teenage me could have written something similar … ) Good point as well about the use of session musicians. I will say that Dylan’s NYC recording sessions in this era were more improvisation-based than those in LA, which makes for a more organic sound. (No slam on the Wrecking Crew, who’ve played on countless records I love.) I look forward to reading more of your thoughtful comments.

  • Dave

    I’ve nothing to add, just want to say wicked writing. Will definitely be reading more of your stuff.

    • Sally O’Rourke

      Thanks, @Dave! I hope you find some more articles you enjoy.

  • George L

    McQuire went on to have a fairly successful career as a Christian rock singer. I saw him once in the early 80s in a fairly low rent venue, a high school auditorium. I remember him being a very affable guy. It was just he & his guitar. He later did an updated version of “Eve Of Destruction” with Christian centered lyrics.

  • scottcom36

    About 32 years later Lemmy tackled the song to good effect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VYAkK18Rx4