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