The eve of destruction—one more time

SkyThis week I heard a street singer in Somerville, Massachusetts performing “Eve of Destruction”—a Golden Oldie protest song by Barry McGuire. (Did we just invent a new category of music here?) It occurred to me that the message of this song is so timeless, the record should be re-released for every generation! After all, there's two kinds of tunes that people always find uplifting: tender love ballads and songs of impending cataclysmic disasters. Anyway, I thought I’d reprise a post I wrote about this important song a few years ago.

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

A very 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 this 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 explodin'
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 properly 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. 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 because some of these observers were European, their estimate was in metric tonnes.)

I admit I was a tad confused about 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 for Tom Peters' blog). 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.) Surprisingly, 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 accurately describing the legislative gridlock of today!

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.

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

Oh, the business lesson? Disregard the prophets in your midst at your own peril! That malcontent in Shipping who is forecasting the End Times may be onto something. You should at least factor that into your long-term strategy.

(For reader comments on my initial post, check here. For an earlier mention of songwriter P.F. Sloan check here.)

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    1. People who know him tell me he's a great guy. Apparently he really believed in the song and still defends the message. You can't make this stuff up.

    1. I just read that McGuire never considered this a protest song, but an objective analysis of the world around him. All I can say: "Wow!"

  1. Do you think were not on the eve of destruction? Do you think we should ignore the signs that these are the end times that we've been warned about?

    1. I don't assume anything. But, if my math is correct, we've had specific warnings about the End Times for two thousand years. That's a lot of time to spend fretting about it.

      Now if we're talking about world-wide anthropogenic destruction—in which WE, not some deus ex machina, is responsible for it (as this song implies)—that's a subject worthy of sober discussion, which world leaders are BEGINNING to address.

      But if I were to list the root causes of impending planetary destruction, "the hate in Red China" probably wouldn't make my top ten list. (Hopefully P.F. Sloan was pulling our leg with that line. Maybe McGuire was too.) But thinking about the hate in Red China might qualify. :-)

      Unfortunately, the song does a great job of trivializing serious stuff. And's become a cultural artifact, a caricature of the 60s. And an easy target.

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