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