Time for an "Eve of Destruction" redo?

alphabet-word-images-1293164__340At my local auto shop yesterday I was surprised to hear Barry McGuire’s infamous “Eve of Destruction” blaring in the background. (I snarked about that record here in 2012.) My mechanic piped up, “It sure fits these times, doesn’t it?”

He had a point. You can’t go anyway in the States without hearing folks commenting on the crazy happenings in Washington, D.C. and even the health of our Republic.

Are we on the eve of destruction? Probably not, but the song fits these times even better than 52 years ago when it was first released. Admittedly, that was not a normal time either, but we didn’t have a national leader in charge of nuclear codes whose psychological stability was openly debated on talk shows by mental health specialists. After all, then-President Lyndon Johnson was able to put together sentences in logical sequence with mostly accurate statements about reality (at least when he wasn’t making up reasons for escalating the Vietnam War).

But “Eve of Destruction” was such a pretentious and overwrought reaction to world events its sheer brazenness sent it to the top of the charts in September, 1965. For the same reason it captures these unruly days perfectly. In fact, if the track could be retrofitted with a robo-beat it could be re-released for the summer, just in time for the mass protests and rock festivals. A producer like Max Martin could make this a #1 hit again!

One business lesson here is that fear—if not outright hysteria—can be a cheap and effective way to sell an idea, a product, or a service. This record, after being banned by many radio stations, generated enormous controversy, scared the bejeebers out of teenagers, and sold over a million records in a matter of weeks. (And as muddled a message as the song communicated, its listeners may have helped mobilize Congress to drop the voting age from 21 to 18, thanks to the line: “You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’.”)

But such a fear-based strategy can backfire, once the dogs are let out. P. F. Sloan—the young writer of the song, and already a successful producer and studio musician—complained that he was frozen out of the music industry after the song generated so much controversy and hostility. Some critics were outraged by its “communist propaganda.” Other critics considered it an offensively dumb parody of protest songs, due to lines like “Think of all the hate there is in Red China." Such "hate" was apparently not limited to the People's Republic.

Likewise, years of rancorous and fear-based rhetoric by our current President has not quite appealed to our higher selves or better angels. In the short term it sold enough people to get him elected, but now he has to live in the toxic "swamp" that his discourse and behavior has cultivated. The daily headlines are sufficient proof of that.

Coincidentally, “Eve of Destruction” represented the peak of Barry McGuire’s success as a singer, though in the following decade he released a top-selling album of children’s songs. He still performs “Eve” to this day, with updated lyrics.

Meanwhile P. F. Sloan (whom I wrote about here in an earlier post) succumbed to severe depression which rendered him unable to remember (no exaggeration) much of the Seventies or Eighties. He eventually returned to a level of normalcy and resumed songwriting and recording until his demise in 2015. Looking back on his 25-year catatonia he once observed, “The only good thing about it was that I missed the whole disco era.”


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6 Comments

  1. This reminds me of the old tagline that the oil industry used: You know they're safe with oil heat. I think they had a picture of sleeping children alongside it.

    1. And THAT reminds me of the time a salesman was trying to sell a smoke detector to my mother. I was about 10 years old at the time but I could tell the guy wasn't very convincing. He rattled off the number of fatalities in the US from house fires and I asked him what percent of the population that represented (because I knew it was ridiculously small)—which he thought was a dumb question. But he saved the zinger for the end: "Just last week someone died in a house fire a few weeks after he said no to us!" Nice try. But my mother didn't fall for it.

      Decades later I do have a smoke detector in my unit now. Given my cooking habits, it works well as a timer.

    1. We should give McGuire credit for trying to improve a noxious product! The new lyrics aren't as over-the-top as the original Sloan version, but aren't as "catchy" either—and less likely to grab the attention of attention-deficited listeners today. The original message is pretty hard to miss. And given the tragedy at the rock concert in Manchester, England yesterday it's hard to dismiss that core message.

  2. I'm afraid that song's proof, if more were needed, that sloganeering will get you more attention than a well-thought-through idea. Especially in a medium where casual listening is the majority, most folks probably remember very little other than the chorus and The Police song "Every Breath You Take" is seen as a nice little love song.

    1. Yeah, "Every Breath You Take" is a great example of a tune whose meaning is darker than most listeners realize. There have been dozens of hit songs that fit that description, but for some reason I can only think of one other one at the moment: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"—which I blogged about about here.

      HYAMLC was written as a sad song, about family members commiserating—during war time—that they'll be separated in the future. It was partially and reluctantly rewritten at Judy Garland's request (because she didn't want to sing a depressing tune) but the wistful and almost-bitter undertone remains.

      Maybe I'll do a future post about songs whose meaning eludes most listeners. Thanks.

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