On the eve of destruction—creative or otherwise

I recently caught an interview with historian James Patterson on the topic of his book, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America.

An interesting fellow and book, which chronicles how quickly America's social harmony evaporated in 1965. But even more interesting to me was his reference to the Barry McGuire song, “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan), that inspired his title. For those of you who have never heard this iconic record, you’re missing a vital artifact of the 60s—the most controversial record of its time which generated acrimonious debate among critics and social scientists.

When I first heard the tune I was concerned that Mr. McGuire might be a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (See the above clip from NBC’s Hullabaloo to make your own assessment.) But I kept my opinions to myself while wiser heads unpacked the lyrics for macroeconomic insights and psycho-historical predictions. Was it a diatribe against Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction” (in which old business is destroyed to make way for new business)? Was it a mystical prophecy of the End Times? The Hullabaloo dancers wanted answers.

The elegant nuance of the opening lines hinted at his intent.

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 what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'

Clearly, McGuire felt the Apocalypse was near. And he was making the rounds of the musical variety shows to warn us. But I thought the most frightening line came later: “Think of all the hate there is in Red China.” In one majestic lyrical sweep, McGuire was daring us to confront the sheer volume of malice that he discerningly recognized in the People’s Republic. But who would disagree? The people I respected were absolutely certain—even before taking careful measurements—that there were thousands of tons of hate emanating from Communist China. (And, given it was China, that meant metric tonnes.)

I was a tad confused how we could accurately measure the quantity of that malevolence, but I was sure some US Congressmen—who were eager to document it—would know how to nail it.

As it turns out, decades later I had the opportunity to conduct an odium audit of China myself when I was hired to give a talk for DHL managers in Shanghai in 2005 (which I wrote about here). I had no measurement tools at my disposal, but I did have lively conversations with several citizens on the street. (Perhaps this wouldn’t pass for a scientific survey because I spoke no actual Chinese, but I got to watch facial expressions as I struggled to ask directions.) Shockingly, the levels of hate seemed lower than what I encountered back home (especially among Boston drivers). Frankly, I was disappointed.

As for the “Eve of Destruction” itself, McGuire no doubt intended “eve” to refer to biblical spans of time, because nearly a half century later we’re still here, China has not self-combusted from noxious gases of revulsion, and we’ve been spared Armageddon (well, so far). But some of McGuire’s words have been stunningly prescient: “A handful of senators don't pass legislation.” This lyrical Nostradamus was clearly commenting on the legislative gridlock of today.

Sermonizing on Ready Steady Go!

After all is said and done, I think we can all agree that “Eve of Destruction” is a consequential work of art that stands right up there with Dylan’s song “Friday,” which I reviewed here a while back.

And for world security purposes I will personally lobby for this song to be included in the next time capsule that NASA launches into outer space, so any potential invaders who hear the tune will go, “WTF?” and decide to give our planet a wide detour.

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  1. Good point, Gary. We have more things to worry about now. Perhaps McGuire and Sloan were true prophets, warning the sinners on Hullabaloo and Shindig! of the tribulations that would come five decades later.

  2. Well in the summer of 1965 I was in Inglewood California and in August we watched Watts fires on the roof of the apt building where we were staying. Some Iranian students attending Pepperdine college living in the same building had alerted us---they were apparently more conscious than we were about world affairs. And yes, for subsequent summers in southern California beach towns we sang that song along with returning Viet Nam Marines and Navy officers as we drank our beer.It was quite a time the 60s.

  3. Folks have been telling me offline - or on FB - what a nice dude Barry McGuire was/is. Then I thought back to that Mamas & Papas tune, Creeque Alley: "McGuinn and McGuire are still a-getting higher in LA you know where that's at." There was a little too much sunshine (of the orange variety) in LA at the time.

  4. I think aliens have been giving us a wide berth long before McGuire. Apparently they only allow practicing proctologists to visit at this point.

  5. Pat: yes, the 60s were quite a time, especially in LA (where I lived from ’68 to ’75). And the last few times I visited there I hung out in Inglewood.

  6. P.F. Sloane, the guy who wrote the damn song, was known as the "poor man's Bob Dylan". He played the opening guitar riff to "California Dreamin'" and the guitar riff to "Secret Agent Man" which he wrote. He was the high falsetto voice on "Little Old Lady from Pasadena". Eugene Landy, the infamous Beach Boys' shrink, claimed to BE P.F. Sloane. Just so you know how he turned out, P.F. Sloane's last record was "I Can't Help But Wonder, Elizabeth" b/w "Karma (A Study Of Divinations)".

  7. Ken, I was about to post on Sloan myself. He had quite a run of hit songs to his credit, including “Nobody But You” for the Turtles, “Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits, and “Where Were You When I Needed You?” for the Grass Roots, whom he co-produced for awhile. He was also a much sought-after session guitarist and singer whose high harmonies were at bat-like frequencies. Jimmy Webb wrote a song in tribute to him, entitled, “P.F. Sloan” that a lot of people sung, including Jackson Browne. Ironically, Sloan may be getting his biggest royalty checks today from his worst song. That’s a business lesson I’d prefer to not have to explain.

    1. Au contraire, some of my worst attempts led to my greatest triumphs! My crazy giant metal popstar robot performance art project got me working with the Kronos Quartet and led to an LSO film score deal at Abbey Road. My epic fail "Make My Video" series for Hasbro/Isix led directly to Martha Quinn asking me up to her hotel room at the Fairmont and the founding of Digital Pictures fueled by an investment by Sony of 10 million bucks. Abject failure can be the shrewdest strategy for success ever.

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