Photo by Joel Bellman
From left, John York (former Byrds bassist), Barry McGuire (âEve of Destructionâ vocalist), McCabeâs Guitar Store, Santa Monica, 2013.
The Eastern world, it is explodinâ
Violence flarinâ, bullets loadinâ
Youâre old enough to kill, but not for votinâ
You donât believe in war, but whatâs that gun youâre totinâ
ââEve of Destructionâ,
P.F. Sloan (1965)
Where have all the protest songs gone? Great crises inspire great art, and the turmoil of the early â60s inspired more than its share of great art in the form of protest music.
In earlier eras, you were more likely to hear politically charged ballads or agit-prop sing-alongs on small left-wing labels or live in union-hall or college concerts. But fueled in part by the civil rights movement and the Cuban missile crisis, the folk boom sparked by Bob Dylanâs second album, The Freewheelinâ Bob Dylan, in 1963 streaked like a meteor though the record charts. For several years, it blazed brightly until flaming out by 1966, when the pop charts splintered into shards of psychedelia, blues, and various other commercial genres and sub-genres.
Disappointing dedicated folkies, Dylan had already left the building, heading for the exit with the partly electrified Another Side of Bob Dylan in mid-1964. But the following year, he enraged them by striking off in a new and fully amped-up rock direction with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, released only five months apart in 1965
During Dylanâs legendary but brief electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, which took place in between the two albumsâ release, some audience members loudly booed; backstage, godfather of American folk music Pete Seeger was ready to take an axe to the sound cables. Whether it was the setâs deafening volume or audio distortion, its brevity, or its electricity, enraged folkies were dumping Dylan just as the rest of the pop world embraced him.
If Dylan was done with social protest, the pop charts were not. LA was gradually eclipsing New York as the center of American â60s pop music. Picking up where Dylan left off, the Byrds melded folk and country while the Turtles took their surf roots and tossed in some teenage snarl, and here the new genre of âfolk-rockâ was born: politically charged, accessible, but most importantly, radio-friendly.
Donât you understand what Iâm trying to say?
Canât you feel the fear that Iâm feeling today?
If the button is pushed, thereâs no running away
Thereâll be no one to save with the world in a grave
Take a look around you boy, itâs bound to scare you, boy
But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you donât believe weâre on the eve of destruction
Phil Sloan, the songâs 19-year-old composer, had already found success cranking out surf and hot-rod songs as a staff writer for a music publisher when in mid-1964, inspired by Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the evening news, he had a sort of religious epiphany and quickly knocked off âEveâ and two other songs. Singer Barry McGuire, whoâd previously scored a hit as the vocalist on âGreen, Greenâ for the New Christy Minstrels, had meanwhile been looking for new material to launch a solo career, and wound up in the office of Sloanâs music publisher. In July 1965, while Dylan was busy on the East Coast rehearsing for Newport, McGuire picked four of Sloanâs songs to record, and rushed through a rough take of âEveâ at the end of a long night, backed by members of the Wrecking Crew, LAâs top-tier session players. The song might have been buried as a single b-side until a DJ in the Midwest flipped over the record, and the rest is history. By October, it rocketed up to #1 on the Billboard and Cashbox charts.
Yeah, my bloodâs so mad, feels like coagulatinâ
Iâm sittinâ here just contemplatinâ
I canât twist the truth, it knows
Handful of Senators donât
And marches alone canât
When human respect
This whole crazy world is just
For me, at least, the song has lost none of its potency over the years. Itâs shocking and depressing how relevant its lyrics remain, a sharp reminder that in very fundamental ways, we havenât made as much progress over the past six decades as we might think.
Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
Ah, you may leave here for four days in space
But when you return, itâs the same old place
The poundinâ of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead but donât leave a trace
Hate your next door neighbor but donât forget to say grace
And you tell me over and over and over and over again my friend
You donât believe weâre on the eve of destruction
It would be Barry McGuireâs only solo commercial hit. After becoming lost in the drug haze of hippiedom and hitting bottom, in the early â70s he found Jesus and new recording success with a series of Christian music labels. More recently, he has performed a kind of musical memoir in small clubs and venues around town. Phil (P. F.) Sloan, despite his phenomenal teenage success, was badly treated by the music business and soon after suffered a nervous breakdown. Following years of mental illness and menial jobs (during which someone tried to steal his identity and claim credit for his songs, until he successfully sued), he emerged with some new recordings and a compelling memoir (co-written with Topangan Steve Feinberg), only to be fatally stricken with cancer a year after its publication.
Yet that song outlives him. Racism, voting rights, political cowardice and hypocrisy, East-West conflict, war and nuclear annihilation are suddenly more urgent concerns than theyâve been in many years. Only last year, Sloanâs âEve of Destructionâ was rediscovered and reinterpreted yet again, by artist Casey Abrams, then and now a song for our troubled times:
The virus hit, many isolated and ill
The jobs disappearing, tryinâ
to pay the bills
A-hurricanes, floods, tornadoes
are storming in
Politicians claim that there ainât
no global warming
Winds are a-blowing and fires
Hills are scorched and no horses
If you cross the man his words
And ya tell me over and over and over again, my friend
Well, you donât believe that weâre on the eve of destruction