Everything was a bit bleak last week with Barry MacGuire’s protest song, ‘Eve of Destruction‘, so here’s the wonderful Tom Lehrer to brighten up the nuclear bunker.
Released the same year as ‘Eve of Destruction’, 1965, ‘Who’s Next?’ makes for an interesting contrast in terms of ways to respond to tragedy and impending doom. Where MacGuire’s song looked on nuclear proliferation and the state of global politics with bitter anger at the inevitability of destruction, Lehrer’s laughs at the morbid ridiculousness of the escalating arm’s race. Each country that gets the bomb has it’s own justifications – that their possession of the bomb will somehow make the world a better place:
First we got the bomb and that was good
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood!
Each verse brings a shift in key as new countries ‘up the ante’ by getting the bomb, increasing the sense of things spiralling out of control. Tom Lehrer’s warm-but-slightly-nervous laughter forms the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. He captures both the fear at watching events you can’t control and the humourous absurdity – laughing because, well, what else is there to do?
Rather frustratingly, I haven’t been able to find a legal digital download for this. You can buy it from US Amazon on the Tom Lehrer Collection CD, but that’s it. If anyone knows a way to legally obtain this as an mp3, please do provide links in the comments!
Content note: there is no official video of ‘Eve of Destruction’, as it was written in 1965. The most popular video on YouTube for it is featured below, but please note that it contains numerous distressing and graphic images from warfare.
As an alternative, I have also included a fanmade video that mixes up the Barry McGuire version with a version performed by the character Larry Underwood in The Stand – the mini-series. I discuss both versions below.
Barry McGuire version:
The Stand fanmix:
‘The Eve of Destruction’ is a powerful protest song written by P F Sloan in 1965 and most famously performed by Barry McGuire. Under the threat of atomic warfare, with American youth drafted into the war in Vietnam, and with the unrest of the civil rights movement responding to racial violence, this song was written for a time of turmoil and pain. McGuire reportedly recorded this most famous iteration in one sitting, and the building bile, anger, and disgust in his tone speaks to an immediacy of emotion that evokes a visceral reaction in the listener.
The lyrics tie the song to specific events of the time. ‘You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin” speaks to the draft for the Vietnam War. ‘Even the Jordan river has bodies floating’ speaks to the conflict in the Middle-East. Lyrics such as ‘marches alone can’t bring integration’ and ‘Think of all the hate there is in Red China/Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama’ refer to both the Selma Voting Rights Movement marches and the violent response to them, especially by police (as well as to the ideological tensions between a capitalist USA and Communist China). The narrator of the song calls attention to the hypocrisy of white, middle-class America maintaining a pretense of normalcy in the face of such tumultuous times:
You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace
It’s a call to action and a call to awareness. It’s tempting to see the reference to the ‘Eve of destruction’ as a metaphor, likening events to apocalypse times, but I feel that ignores the very real fears laid starkly bare in the song. The atom bomb is real. The threat of conflict with China is real. The war in Vietnam is real. The racial violence in America is real. There is a wealth of truth and pain hidden under words like ‘racial tensions’, which can be used to sanitise very real violence, dissuade real action. There is a temptation amongst comfortable classes to handwring in the face of such events and say ‘What can we do?’, hoping it will go away, which is reflected in lyrics such as:
Yeah, my blood’s so mad feels like coagulatin’
I’m sitting here just contemplatin’ I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation. Handful of senators don’t pass legislation And marches alone can’t bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin’
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’
Expressing distress and then going back to living your life doesn’t change laws. The (literally) visceral simile ‘my blood’s so mad feels like coagulatin” stands in stark contrast to the lack of action of those in power referenced later in the verse. And it’s a challenge to this listener. It takes familiar metaphors like ‘blood boiling’ and uses a less sanitised description to force a confrontation with how accustomed we have become to injustice. To say your blood is boiling isn’t enough. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Whilst at the same time the narrator rages at his own hypocrisy – he’s just sitting here contemplating whilst the world disintegrates. The song’s building pace of anger hits a wall of lack of resolution that drives the listener directly to the stalling frustration the song describes.
How can we not literally be on the eve of destruction when so much is wrong and there are no solutions?
[How can you] tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
you don’t believe
We’re on the eve
One of the most powerful and frustrating aspects of the song is its continued relevance. The lyrics tie directly to specific events happening right then in 1965. It is galling to find them still so relevant now.
This year sees the release of Selma, the film that deals with the events referenced in this song. And the film finds itself relevant not simply as an echo of the events of the 60s – the US has again been torn by racially motivated violence, police brutality, and nationwide protest. Whose blood does not boil in this, black history month, to find that a town named ‘Ferguson’ has become synonymous with protest and brutality, just as a town named ‘Selma’ was fifty years ago?
Whose gut does not sink as ISIS rises as a response to intervention by the US and its allies in an unjust war? Who does not look to Russia’s expansionist efforts with concern?
How are we back here again?
Are we not on the eve of destruction?
I enjoy apocalyptic music. I enjoy apocalyptic fiction. But there are two sides to that enjoyment. One is an escapist fantasy – wipe the world away with all its wrongs and leave me in peace. One is the tapping into very real worries, fears, angers. It can sometimes feel as though the first side is a cheap cashing in on the second. There is so much real pain and anguish and destruction in this world, how could one selfishly fantasise about more?
I first met this song not as a protest song, but in its cameo appearance in The Stand, the mini-series based on the Stephen King book, featured above. Larry Underwood is shown singing the song whilst perched on a broken down car in a traffic jam caused by people who died of the plague as they attempted to flee the city. Behind him, Des Moines burns. He is a man who was a successful musician before the apocalypse, and his success came from cultural appropriation of ‘brown sound’ – African American music and culture. Yet he had been unhappy in his success; there is an extent to which he is freed by this disaster. This formerly somewhat slimy individual will go on to become a hero.
As a teenager I loved this novel and the mini-series adaptation intensely. But as an adult I do recognise its issues. Women support men who go off to war. They take care of and tolerate the men who try to claim them sexually. A magical black woman, Mother Abigail*, enables four white men to go off and save the world. And the ‘saving’ is a rebuilding of the old structures, presented as good, in opposition to the satanic figure of Randall Flagg and his vision of sin and sexual freedom.
The fiction we love can be problematic sometimes. And sometimes the reason we love a thing can be as problematic as they are important to us. Sometimes we can desire destruction in our distress at current pains. Can apocalyptic fiction, art, and music be problematic? Yes. But I think part of its appeal is in the confrontation of our own conflicting desires. I don’t wish anyone dead, but sometimes I wish the rest of the world could be made to go away. Especially when it is hard and painful and its problems irresolvable.
‘Eve of Destruction’, by Barry McGuire is available from Amazon and iTunes.
This one is an apocalypse classic. Whilst not strictly mentioning the end of the world, the spirit of racing against death, laughing in the face of death, is strong with this one. It is perfectly suited to the idea of living life to the full in a dying world, its minor key and memorable uneasy riffs conveying the sense of bitter sweet abandon – fear and rush.
Which is no doubt why it was chosen for the opening of the cult classic mini-series adaptation of Stpehen King‘s The Stand. After a deadly super-flu, Captain Tripps, is accidentally released from a top secret research facility, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ plays as we scan over the bodies of scientists, children, and guards, and we know: the race against death has begun.
I was a teenager when I first heard that song whilst watching these opening titles. I had recently read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower* and was on a real King fix. And the apocalypse? That had always been my bag, but not least for a lonely girl who wished, as many a lonely girl had before her, that the rest of the world might just be swept away. A mercurial mix.
I still get chills listening to this. It makes you want to be the one who doesn’t fear the Reaper, who takes someone’s hand and runs away to live in the moment whilst the rest of the world goes to hell.
Don’t fear the Reaper, dear readers. Listen to his music instead.
‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ is by Blue Öyster Cult, and it’s available for download from Amazon and from iTunes.
This was an unexpected single from the former Take That member; a bit more of a rock edge, with both dark and satirical undertones, this song surprised me and, I think, never really got the attention it deserved.
The title ‘Four Minute Warning’ references the public alert system in place in the UK during the Cold War to give a four minute warning of nuclear attack. Although the system was no longer in use by the time of the song’s release (2003) it’s still a powerful cultural artifact, raising the evocative question explored in the song:
Everybody wants to know,
What should we do?
Regardless of whether the nuclear warning system is still in use, the question remains: given that any warning of nuclear attack could only give you a few short minutes, what would you do? What could you do that would be worthwhile?
Throughout the song we see glimpses of people’s lives: Sasha, the dude who spouts nonsense in a cafe; Polly, a girl with ambitions for a music career that can now never be realised; Lucy, who’s had a hard time with love, but who’s going to go out living in the moment and making it the right time; Michael, just a dude in a pub, filling time and talking to strangers to feel less lonely.
It asks questions: has Sasha wasted his time? How can it be fair to snatch away Polly’s life when it shows such promise? Should Lucy have learnt to live in the moment before? (And, given that she’s doing what most people say they’d do if they got the four minute warning, how quickly can she actually get off, and is that really worth it?) Will Michael be alone when he dies? Is that OK?
The song counts down with each verse: ‘Four minutes left to go’, ‘Three minutes left to go’, ‘Two minutes left to go’… each verse adding to the sense of tension, of time running out, and towards the realisation that if you only had four minutes left to live you’d probably spend them panicking about what you should do with your last four minutes:
Cry, laugh, feel love, peace, panic,
These are your four minutes,
(I’m counting you down, four minutes of sound,
It’s always a rush when you’re around)
The final story is one of me,
Who with four minutes left has used up three,
I think of you, I think of me,
Then I think of nothing, it’s the end you see, yeah!
Like so many apocalyptic works, the song is bringing us to a confrontation with the starkness of existence: it doesn’t matter what you do with your last four minutes. None of it is going to change the fact that after that you’ll be dead and not feeling anything at all after that. ‘Cry, laugh, feel love, peace, panic’ – none of it matters. It will all be over – at the end we all ‘think of nothing’. The narrator ends the song singing ‘I’m fading away’, reflecting the destruction of meaning and sense of self in the confrontation of brute existence. And yet the exit has tones of the joyous – of soaring escape, freedom, wry amusement at fate.
If you’ve read/listened to/watched my Existentialism and the Terminator, you’ll know I have a habit of reading existentialist thought like the above into apocalyptic media, but I genuinely think it’s a recurrent theme in the works themselves. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the rise of existentialism in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atom bomb. Confrontation with both one’s own and civilization’s mortality is a confrontation with the end of everything that generates meaning in our lives as we know it. The existentialist thought that existence has no meaning beyond that which is assigned by people both draws and repells us. Gives us both a sense that we can sweep away the impositions of society and unease at our own demise.
And if anyone thinks I’m reading too much into a pop song, all I can say is that I think you’ve misunderstood music and criticism both. The writer and composer may or may not have explicitly thought through these implications, but even if they didn’t, they understood how combining such and such elements (a lyrical count down, short snippets of people’s lives, intimating that at the end there is nothing) would produce an aesthetically effective result. And when I come along and apply my analysis I’m seeking to explain the effect on my own feelings, and, I hope, the feelings of others.
Nothing is ever ‘just a pop song’, but I do think that this one is particularly good. Especially if you’re a fan of the apocalypse.
Here it is! Your complete Christmas Music for the Apocalypse 2014. Great to listen as the ash falls like snow on your presents, or even if your Christmas just feels like the end of the world and you have an aggressive urge to subvert tradition.
Track listing is below, along with the post for each track, which contains links to where you can buy/download it.
You might also enjoy the Christmas Music for the Apocalypse list I did a few years ago for Girls Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse. It has some overlap, but there are a few songs there that aren’t here and vice versa (quite a few more H P Lovecraft Historical Society tracks).
[Edit: Sadly the only video with the whole song in it got taken down. The official vieo only has bits of the song, but you can view it here.]
Last, but by no means least, ‘Jingle Hell’, by Sir Christopher Lee. Knight of the British Empire; Count Dracula; Count Dooku; Saruman; heavy metal god; and, with this song, oldest singer ever to enter the charts, if I don’t have room to honour Christopher Lee’s contrbution to dark Christmas music, I might as well pack up and go home.
You might wish to quibble at the inclusion. Is going to Hell at Christmas strictly apocalyptic? My answer: yes. Yes it bloody well is. Hell on Earth fits the description to me, and if it doesn’t for you, then, well… Christopher Lee.
‘Old Men’s Brains’, by TooFarTV, is another favourite of mine from the niche genre of zombie-themed Christmas songs. Probably the most graphically gory song in the list, it’s hard not to love a song with lyrics like:
They will eat your face
Gargle with your phelgm
They will not stop until
We’re all undead like them.
The sweet, distinctly Christmassy tune (based on ‘Old Toy Trains’, by Roger Miller) pairs perfectly with the cheerfully violent tale of survival in a zombie apocalypse.
Apologies I missed posting the last couple of days. The trouble with freelance work is that sometimes you have to drop everything and work until the thing is done. Anyway, by way of apology, today is going to be an apocalyptic Christmas bumper pack, starting with ‘Zombie Christmas’ by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler.
‘Zombie Christmas’ is my real find this year: original, indie work that’s been professionally produced with a great zombie-themed video to boot. Any song with lyrics like ‘Christmas has time has come/Oh man you’d better run, run run’ is alright in my book.
Sometimes the apocalypse is mainstream. Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’ is probably the best known song in this list, expressing fears of nuclear destruction and unending warfare. ‘Mary gladly waits at home/In the nuclear fallout zone’ our hero sings, expressing the Cold War fear of the Bomb, whilst tying the fear of that specific time to a wearyingly timeless one: ‘I have had to fight/Almost every night/Down throughout the centuries’.
Sometimes the doom that looms is not disease or zombies or natural disaster, it’s just humans, doing what humans do. And that’s as true at Christmas time as at any other.
You can buy ‘Stop the Cavalry’ by Jona Lewie on Amazon and iTunes.
According some Christian views of the apocalypse, there will be a time of tribulation when the Antichrist or Devil will reign on Earth. Christmas would certainly be a special time of year then. Please enjoy Spinal Tap’s ‘Christmas with the Devil’ as a celebration of this particularly dark time of year.