This is the 59th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Singer-songwriter Barry McGuire joined folk band The New Christy Minstrels in the early 1960s. His biggest contribution to the band was the “Green, Green,” which he co-wrote with New Christy Minstrels co-founder Randy Sparks. “Green, Green” reached Number 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Number 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
By 1965, though, McGuire left the band, in part because of the failure to produce another song like “Green, Green.” As he wrote on his personal website:
It was a song that very accurately described my philosophical mindset at the time, but as the years went by I changed the way I felt about a lot of things. I wanted to sing songs that were more relevant to the social injustices I perceived taking place around the world. But the Minstrels were set in stone, and wanted to continue singing the sunshiny, happy tunes that had made them famous. So, I reached a point where I was just impersonating the person I used to be and I hated it. I couldn’t do it anymore, so I had to leave the group to pursue my own path.
McGuire found his way to Dunhill Records, which at that point was employing 19-year-old songwriter P.F. Sloan. Though he was young, Sloan was already experienced with the music industry, having sold his first song when he was just 13.
In 1964, while living with his parents, Sloan had written five songs in one night, including a lamentation on the state of the world, called “Eve of Destruction,” which was reportedly written with The Byrds in mind. A year later, in the summer of 1965, when both Sloan and McGuire were at Dunhill, McGuire recorded the song instead.
McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” was an instant hit, reaching Number 1 in the US and Norway, and peaking at Number 3 in the the UK.
It’s not surprising that the song would resonate so quickly, or in multiple countries. From beginning to end, the song referenced real world events, both generically…
The eastern world it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war but whats that gun you’re totin’?
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’
But you tell me
Over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve of destruction
…and by name:
Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
You may leave here for four days in space
But when you return it’s the same old place
The pounding of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace
Sloan described the process of writing that song as a seminal process:
The most outstanding experience I had in writing this song was hearing an inner voice inside of myself for only the second time. It seemed to have information no one else could’ve had. For example, I was writing down this line in pencil “think of all the hate there is in Red Russia.” This inner voice said “No, no it’s Red China!” I began to argue and wrestle with that until near exhaustion. I thought Red Russia was the most outstanding enemy to freedom in the world, but this inner voice said the Soviet Union will fall before the end of the century and Red China will endure in crimes against humanity well into the new century! This inner voice that is inside of each and every one of us but is drowned out by the roar of our minds! The song contained a number of issues that were unbearable for me at the time. I wrote it as a prayer to God for an answer.
Sloan released his own version of “Eve of Destruction” on his 1965 album, “Songs of Our Times.” Whereas the raspy McGuire had sounded wrought and beside himself, Sloan sounded more measured and pensive. McGuire delivered the lyrics as if he were interrogating anyone and everyone listening to the song, but Sloan sounded as if he were directing the questions inward, not outward.
Shortly after Sloan released his version, The Turtles released its own “Eve of Destruction.” The Turtles managed to find a happy medium between McGuire’s and Sloan’s versions: it was more poppy than Sloan’s mournful version, but not as angry as the exasperated McGuire’s version.
A handful of other versions of “Eve of Destruction” were released before the end of 1965, highlighting the song’s popularity and resonance.
Jan & Dean covered the song for the album, “Folk ‘n Roll.” The extensive harmonica in this track gave the song a Bob Dylan feel, which was appropriate, given that “Eve of Destruction” has been called “Dylan-esque.” (More on that later.)
Sir Henry & His Butlers’ “Eve of Destruction” had gruff McGuire-like vocals, but had breezy guitars and drums. If the lyrics weren’t about war, guns, and politics, one could think this was a light pop tune.
There were also two instrumental versions by then end of 1965: a guitar-driven cover by Billy Strange…
…and a lush, strings-heavy version by James-Last-Band.
These were all fine versions, but they didn’t really stick out from the versions by McGuire, Sloan, and The Turtles.
In 1978, The Dickies transformed “Eve of Destruction” from a folk anthem into a punk song, and it worked. The band tore through the entire song in just under two minutes, rendering half the words unintelligible. And though The Dickies’ version might have made it difficult to appreciate the nuances of Sloan’s lyrics, the song conveyed the impending chaos and disorder quite well.
Using the name Terry Tonik, musician Ian Harris recorded a version of “Eve of Destruction” in 1980 as a follow-up to his song “Just a Little Mod.” The Terry Tonik version of “Eve of Destruction” was catchy, blending post-punk, mod, and garage sounds. In an e-mail, Harris explained,
The marching drum intro was my idea as I wanted a Military feel to the song in contrast to Barry McGuire’s original. I was also pleased with my vocal which is a bit more aggressive than my usual approach! …I think it has touched a nerve with the current state the World is in!
Canadian punk band Forgotten Rebels covered “Eve of Destruction” for its 1982 album, “This Ain’t Hollywood…” A minute longer than The Dickies’ version, this cover allowed the song (and lyrics) to breathe a little easier. And though Forgotten Rebels was a punk band, this felt more rock – say, along the lines of Cheap Trick – than punk.
New York Dolls’ Johnny Thunders covered “Eve of Destruction” for his 1983 album, “Hurt Me.” Coming in at just 80 seconds, Thunders’ cover was even shorter than The Dickies’ version. But unlike that version, Thunders’ was acoustic. And intelligible.
The following year, new wave act Red Rockers covered “Eve of Destruction” for its album, “Schizophrenic Circus.” It was an update to match the sounds of the era, which is why it sounds so dated now. It was perfectly pleasant, but that might have been its failing; for a song about destruction, it sounded too pretty.
Experimental group Psychic TV recorded an “Eve of Destruction” that spanned nearly 10 minutes, incorporating samples, drum machines, and crunchy guitars. It was good, but could have been just as good at a shorter length.
Angel Corpus Christi is the stage name of Andrea Ross, a singer-songwriter and accordionist who developed a niche audience with her quirky covers. Her version of “Eve of Destruction” was so different from the original that might be more of a sample than a cover. She stripped the song of its arrangement and most of its lyrics, singing “you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction” multiple times over a drum beat reminiscent of Trio’s “Da Da Da.” The song appeared on the 1992 compilation “1965: Through The Looking Glass,” and again on the Angel Corpus Christi album, “Divine Healer.”
Tiny Tim covered “Eve of Destruction” for his 1993 album, “Rock.” It was 23 minutes long, and it was an aural assault of drums, keyboards, falsetto vocals, and screaming. This was no “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I can’t really say what this was, though.
Canadian punk band D.O.A.’s “Eve of Destruction” appeared on the group’s 2004 album, “Live Free or Die,” and on the 2005 re-release of its “War on 45.” Whereas The Dickies’ punk version was frenetic and rushed, D.O.A.’s cover was more focused. The chorus particularly sounded jolly, like a group of friends singing along with a song at the bar.
Public Enemy recorded “Eve of Destruction” for its 2007 album, “How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?” Chuck D, who has one of the most recognizable voices and flows in the history of hip-hop, went with a style that felt more like spoken word than rap. There was a slight pause between each line, adding to the tension in his delivery. Had you not known the previous versions of “Eve of Destruction,” this might sound weird on the first listen. One could think this was a Public Enemy original, but only if Chuck D had been in some experimental phase. The only reason for him to abandon his distinct flow like he did in this song would be because he was singing someone else’s words.
Under the name J2, British producer and composer Jay Singh has made epic trailer versions of several songs. In 2016, he applied that formula to “Eve of Destruction,” giving it the sound you’d hear in a trailer for a movie or a TV show. And this particular song lends itself to that treatment, given the song’s subject matter.
That same year, electronic artist Ariel Hyatt recorded a poppy “Eve of Destruction” that autotuned the vocals so noticeably that it sounded like a robot singing. It was slick, produced, and polished, making it the antithesis of the McGuire’s raw version from 1965. And while McGuire sounded beside himself in his delivery, these robotic vocals sound as indifferent as the person to whom she’s singing.
Sloan remade the song for a 1993 update called “(Still on the) Eve of Destruction,” which used the same arrangement but featured new lyrics. It had slightly more positive lyrics, but concluded that “we’re still on the eve of destruction.” McGuire released his own variation of “(Still on the) Eve of Destruction” 20 years later for a remake called “Eve 2012.”
As I eluded to earlier, “Eve of Destruction” has been described as “Dylan-esque,” and it’s not hard to see why: it’s folky and it poetically conveys a sense of discord in the world. And just like some of Dylan’s songs, this song came with its baggage: As well-received as the song might have been by fans, it was not received well by everyone. People at some American radio stations thought it was an “aid to the enemy” and the BBC placed it on a “restricted” list, meaning it couldn’t be used in “general entertainment” programs.
For McGuire’s part, he never thought of “Eve of Destruction” as a protest song. McGuire said:
The song “Eve of Destruction” was immediately labeled by the media as a protest song. I never thought of it as such, to me it was nothing more than a diagnosis of the human condition. I always thought of it as a societal mirror reflecting back on the world-wide community the inconsistencies of our culture.
Sloan himself was more pointed in his criticism of the song’s reception:
The media headlined the song as everything that is wrong with the youth culture. First, show the song is just a hack song to make money and therefore no reason to deal with its questions. Prove the 19-year old writer is a communist dupe. Attack the singer as a parrot for the writers word. The media claimed that the song would frighten little children. I had hoped thru this song to open a dialogue with Congress and the people. The media banned me from all national television shows. Oddly enough they didn’t ban Barry. The United States felt under threat. So any positive press on me or Barry was considered un-patriotic. A great deal of madness, as I remember it! I told the press it was a love song. A love song to and for humanity, that’s all. It ruined Barry’s career as an artist and in a year I would be driven out of the music business too.
That this song played any role in ruining their careers is unfortunate. That the song has lived on in so many genres and styles in the half-century since its release shows how well the message continues to resonate. From the perspective of an artist, it’s probably nice to know you’ve made an impact. But from the perspective of a human, it’s frustrating to know that despite all the versions and renditions and recordings, we’re still struggling with the same frustrations that led Sloan to write the song in the first place, protest song or not.