144) Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction”

Even compared with the epochal hits of 1965, Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic proclamations in “Eve of Destruction” must have come as a shock to the pop charts. There had been big politically-themed singles before — Peter, Paul & Mary’s reading of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (#2, 1963), Trini Lopez’s Latinized take on “If I Had a Hammer” (#3, 1963) — but the messages were subtle enough to not scare off the apolitical pop fan. In contrast, “Eve of Destruction” was angry, graphic (“even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’”) and decidedly unoptimistic. Released just a few months after the civil rights marches in Selma and the onset of the American ground war in Vietnam, it enumerated the fears of the changing Sixties more blatantly than any pop hit yet. As a result, right-wingers accused McGuire and songwriter P.F. Sloan of being treasonous, blasphemous communists intent on perverting the youth of America and trashing the morale of troops overseas. The single’s success spurred pro-military answer records (including one that became an even bigger hit) and attempts to ban the song from the airwaves. Whether or not McGuire and Sloan intended it, “Eve of Destruction” helped launch open political debate, an impressive achievement for a three-and-a-half minute pop single.

But for all its (small-d) democratic bona fides, “Eve of Destruction” is an awfully turgid piece of pop. Phil Ochs defined a protest song as “a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit,”* but “Eve of Destruction” traffics in generalities, hopscotching from one supposed sign of the apocalypse to the other in hopes that the sheer number of references cited will distract from the lack of insight. It nicks the trappings of Bob Dylan ca. 1963 – the politics, the ragged vocals, the harmonica – but misses the craft. Sloan’s literal, didactic lyrics lack allegory or mordant humor (unless you count risible lines like “my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’”). At the same time, they’re too morbid and overblown to have artless earnestness on their side. Even the folk-rockish accompaniment, gamely played by members of the Wrecking Crew, can’t prop up the clumsy lyrics. The stripped-down arrangements and traditional melodies of Dylan, Ochs et al marked them in opposition to commercial pop and made their songs sound like transmissions from a purer past. “Eve of Destruction,” though, is too conventional and polished to evoke that sort of gut credibility. Then there’s the ever-gravelly McGuire himself, trying so hard to imbue every syllable with righteous anger that his constipated delivery verges into parody. It would be easy to accuse he and Sloan of manufacturing protest and cynically chasing trends. By their own accounts, though, they sincerely believed “Eve of Destruction” made serious political points that needed to be addressed. Regardless, their good intentions can’t make up for the song’s graceless, unfocused bluster. To quote Phil Ochs again: “As bad as it may sound, I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation than a bad song on the side of integration.”** 3

*Quoted in the liner notes of the compilation album The Broadside Tapes 1.
**Quoted in James Perone, Songs of the Vietnam Conflict.

Hit #1 on September 25, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
144 of 1013 #1’s reviewed; 14.22% through the Hot 100

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13 Comments

Filed under 03, 1965

13 responses to “144) Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction”

  1. Pinstripe Hourglass

    Been looking forward to this one for a while now. Perhaps relevant (ignore the title, it’s McGuire): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pePlO95qb3A&feature=related

  2. Pinstripe Hourglass

    Ach, never mind, they’ve fixed the title.

  3. That is brilliant. Somehow made me love The Beatles even more. Great find!

  4. col1234

    yeah, this is just horrendous stuff, one of my least favorite Sixties singles—it’s Dylan for morons. The sort of thing that makes you want to vote Goldwater out of spite.

  5. Barry McGuire hangs out at the Coffee Gallery where my friend plays. It’s cool,but it’s also kind of awkward.

  6. Pinstripe Hourglass

    Haha, thanks, no problem

    As to the song itself – I actually quite like the melody, as basic as it is. The vocals are too much though. Even Dylan didn’t sound THIS bad. I suppose he’s trying to project his righteous fury but it sounds like nothing so much as someone in the midst of passing a stone. The only thing I’ve heard quite like it (by a singer NOT in their 70s) is The Sweet’s 1988 rerecording of “Ballroom Blitz”, after lead singer Brian Connolly had had his throat kicked in during a bar fight. Nasty stuff. A more charismatic singer might be able to sell the lyrics but McGuire just can’t. In the end it’s more novelty song than protest song (then again, those are very similar genres, in a way, aren’t they?)

  7. Much better P.F. Sloan song about imminent disaster: “Secret Agent Man.” “They’ve given you a number and they’ve taken away your name” is far more dystopian and terrifying than anything in “Eve of Destruction.”

  8. Barry McGuire was one of my childhood familiars — he went Jesus Freak in the 70s, which made him acceptable to my parents — so I have a strong limbic-nostalgic response to his voice, and I’m afraid I can’t even hear “Eve of Destruction” as bad, even though I know I would probably analyze it that way if I had to. It’s just goofy — I hear it more on the plane of Herman’s Hermits than Dylan, perhaps even because of the apocalyptic imagery (cf. Weird Al, somehow) — and slightly embarrassing, but so is everything now that I loved as a child, including my parents, who still talk (more reasonably these days, yes) about the End Times.

  9. I was hoping you’d chime in re: McGuire’s CCM career. Try as I might, though, I can’t hear this as goofy. Kitschy, maybe, but there’s nothing fun about it.

  10. bob stanley

    His voice is very Muppety, especially on the last verse where he builds up to “eat your next door neighbour, but don’t forget to say grace.” Think of it that way and it’s definitely a novelty record.

    It also features one of the clunkiest edits on a major hit. On the last chorus:

    “Tell meeeeeeee///over and over and over and over again, my friend.” Really poor.

  11. JRRake

    Try as I might, I can’t think of what answer record was more successful than the original, lest it’s Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” As for McGuire in cCm, his Bullfrogs And Butterflies is some decent children’s music.

  12. Pinstripe Hourglass

    I believe that’s what she was referring to. It was the best selling single of 1966, bizarrely.

  13. GeorgeL

    I saw Mr McGuire in a CCM concert back in the early 80s. I think it was just he & a guitar. He was very affable & enthusiastic. Seemed like a very nice man. He put on a good show. Very low rent venue – a high school auditorium. “Bullfrogs & Butterflies” is a cool song! He had us singing along with him on that one.

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