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.
Listen to the full apocalyptic playlist on YouTube – new songs added every Tuesday lunchtime (ish).