“Eve of Destruction”: The Powerful and Controversial Sixties Protest Song


A student demonstration outside the US Embassy, protesting against US policy in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, December 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Things were crazy in the 1960s – folks were dealing with war, racial injustices, the threat of a nuclear strike, space exploration, unrest in the Middle East, women’s inequalities, and more. It must have felt like the world was falling apart. The setting was just right for a protest song that brought together many of the concerns of the day in a way that touched a nerve for many people. “Eve of Destruction” was written by a teenage songwriter and recorded in one take by a gravelly voiced unknown folk singer, yet it has been called the most powerful protest song ever written.

The Young Songwriter

“Eve of Destruction” was written in 1964 by a then-19-year-old songwriter named P.F. Sloan. A New York native, Sloan began writing songs at the age of 13. When he was just 16, he got a job on the songwriting staff of Screen Gems. At the time, Screen Gems was the largest music publisher in California. It was there that he met Steve Barri and the two formed a songwriting partnership. Sloan wrote songs for many of the top musical acts of the day, including Jan and Dean, Herman's Hermits, The Mamas and the Papas, and the Turtles.

Although he often collaborated with his partner, Barri, Sloan penned “Eve of Destruction” on his own. Sloan first offered “Eve of Destruction” to the Byrds but they gave the song a hard pass. Next, he approached the Turtles. The LA-based Turtles often jumped at the chance to record the Byrds’ rejected songs. They did take a look at “Eve of Destruction” and even recorded a version of it, but they sat on the recording. The group finally released in 1970, five years after Barry McGuire made it famous. 

Songwriter P.F. Sloan and Barry McGuire. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Folk Singer

Pop culture history likes to paint Barry McGuire as a one-hit-wonder after he recorded “Eve of Destruction” in 1965, but that’s not really the whole story. It really depends on your definition of “hit”. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Barry McGuire sang with a few groups then started his solo folk career in 1961. In addition to “Eve of Destruction”, McGuire recorded another P.F. Sloan-penned song, “Sins of the Family”, as well as two other songs, “Child of Our Times” and “Cloudy Summer Afternoon (Raindrops)”. While he enjoyed moderate success with the other songs, it was “Eve of Destruction” that went to the top of the charts and sold more than a million copies. After “Eve of Destruction”, the Top 40 eluded McGuire.

Fast forward to 1971. Barry McGuire became a born-again Christian and devoted his career to performing contemporary Christian music.

Recording “Eve of Destruction”

Barry McGuire recorded “Eve of Destruction” in mid-July of 1965 at the recording studio at Dunhill Records. P.F. Sloan, the tune’s songwriter, accompanied McGuire on the guitar. He was joined by Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on bass guitar, some of the best studio musicians in Los Angeles.

Barry McGuire later recalled that he had been handed the handwritten lyrics to the song on a crumpled and torn piece of paper. He had little time to learn all the lines of the song, so he relied on that little piece of paper. He laid down the first, rough vocal track that was never intended to be the actual recording. He recalled later that it was late in the day and his voice was tired and raspy. In addition, he had trouble reading some of the handwritten lyrics on the paper he was given. He sang “ahhh” in place of a word he couldn’t read. He assumed that subsequent takes would be much better than this rough and gravely one, but the producer, Jay Lasker, loved the rawness of that first take.

The next morning, Lasker ‘leaked’ a copy of that initial recording to a disc jockey at KFWB radio in Los Angeles. McGuire said he got a call from the studio early the next Monday morning. Lasker told him to turn on his radio … the station was playing “Eve of Destruction” in all its imperfect glory. 

Barry McGuire Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A Number One Hit

Within a month of its release, “Eve of Destruction” was at the top of the Billboard charts. It was number one in Canada and Norway, too. In England, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands, it reached the Top Ten.

The song was a hit for two reasons: because the message resonated with people and because it was banned in many places. As we know, when something is controversial or prohibited, more people are curious to see what it is all about.

A Controversial Hit

The lyrics of “Eve of Destruction” touched on several of the hot-button issues of the day. One controversial line said, “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’.” There was a big push at this time to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, the age in which young men are drafted into the military. Another line read, “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away,” was a commentary on the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the threat of such weapons being used. Sloan wrote, “You may leave her for four days in space, but when you return, it’s the same old place.” The Gemini 4 mission to space lasted four days. Americans at the time questioned the wisdom of funding space exploration at a time when there were so many domestic problems that needed to be addressed.

“Eve of Destructions” lyrics touched a nerve for many people. Some of the country’s radio stations banned the song, labeling it as “anti-government” and going so far as to claim it was “an aid to the enemy in Vietnam.” The media held up “Eve of Destruction” as an example of “what is wrong with the youth of the day.” It wasn’t just American media that took issue with the song. “Eve of Destruction” was banned in Scotland and placed on BBC’s ‘restricted list’. But other radio stations embraced the song as an anthem of the time and the perfect protest song that addresses many societal ills.

Response Songs

You know a song has made a powerful point when it inspires others to write their own song in response. That’s what happened with “Eve of Destruction”. The Spokesmen recorded their own answer record, “The Dawn of Correction,” shortly after hearing “Eve of Destruction.” “Eve of Destruction” also inspired Sgt. Barry Sadler, a Green Beret medic, to write and release a patriotic response, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Lastly, “Day for Decision,” a spoken-word recording, was released by Johnny Sea as his response to “Eve of Destruction.”

Despite its controversy – or maybe because of it – “Eve of Destruction” remains relevant to this day. It has been covered by several other artists, most notably Bob Dylan. It is a tune that pops up in movies and television shows, such as The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, and Stephen King’s The Stand, to name a few.