The line between the authentic and the knock-off is a thin one sometimes…
Phil Sloan was a session guitarist, backing vocalist, and songwriter who served as a jack-of-all-trades in the LA music scene. He’d been particularly successful working with Jan & Dean, replacing Dean’s falsettos on many of their hits (most notably The Little Old Lady From Pasadena) and writing songs for them (usually with co-writer Steve Barri) like the hit I Found A Girl, but he’d also written and recorded with Bruce & Terry, put out records with Barri as The Fantastic Baggies, and co-written the American theme for the TV show Danger Man, retitled Secret Agent (which became so popular it would itself be a major hit in 1966 for Johnny Rivers).
Sloan also claims to have been instrumental in his friend Terry Melcher finding the right sound for the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man; whether he was or not, the rising popularity of folk-rock inspired him to move away from the four-chord pop songs he was known for and to write some four-chord protest songs instead.
As Sloan tells the story, Eve of Destruction came to him in a vision in late 1964. He was told by a voice inside his head to lay out five pieces of paper and to write, simultaneously, the lyrics to Eve of Destruction and four other songs — The Sins of a Family, This Mornin’, Ain’t No Way I’m Gonna Change My Mind, and What’s Exactly The Matter With Me. He claims that the voice, which he says may have been that of an angel, told him the secrets of the next sixty years in history, which is why Eve of Destruction refers to the hate in “Red China” rather than “Red Russia”, because he knew that the Soviet Union would eventually collapse but China wouldn’t. Given that he apparently knows what will happen in the next ten years, one has to wonder why he doesn’t tell the rest of us. Perhaps he could do so in song form.
I’m being a little sarcastic here, but in fact one has to admit that Eve of Destruction, with its irregular lines and structure, does show some signs of having been written in a burst of inspiration, and even if its genesis was more calculatedly commercial than Sloan will now admit, the song does still have slightly more to say than “I found a girl/who coincident’ly/just happens to be/in love with me”. The song was given to the Turtles, who recorded it for their first album, but didn’t think the song had the potential to be a single.
Barry McGuire, meanwhile, had been a member of The New Christy Minstrels, a strange fourteen-person band that performed clean-cut ensemble vocal versions of folk tunes [FOOTNOTE Those who have seen A Mighty Wind might well be thinking of The New Main Street Singers here…], and who had very frequent line-up changes — the version that McGuire performed in included, among others, Gene Clark (before he joined the Byrds), Larry Ramos and Jerry Yester. The group had had a hit with a song, Green Green, which McGuire had written and on which he had sung lead, and now he was looking for material for a solo career.
Lou Adler at Dunhill Records pointed McGuire to Sloan, as he had a proven reputation as a hit writer and had written some folky material, and McGuire agreed to record What’s Exactly The Matter With Me as his first solo single. At the session, produced by Sloan, Barri, and Adler, and engineered by Chuck Britz (the great LA engineer who worked on most of the Beach Boys’ and Phil Spector’s singles, among many others) and Bones Howe, they decided to cut Eve of Destruction as a quick B-side, in twenty minutes. The record was quickly flipped, and the result was one of the biggest hits of the decade.
In truth, the song itself is not very good, and it would probably have passed into the same semi-obscurity as other Dylan knock-offs like A Public Execution by Mouse And The Traps, had it not been for Hal Blaine’s astonishingly portentous drum part and McGuire’s gravelly voice, sounding very like Eric Burdon, and singing the song with far more conviction than it really deserved. As a result, what was a generic “down with this sort of thing” protest against general badness (the fact that many of the song’s fans say “it’s just as true now as it ever was!” shows how platitudinous the lyrics actually are for the most part) added up to far more than the sum of its parts, and became one of the great anthems of a generation.
But could McGuire go back into the studio and create another hit?
Eve of Destruction
Composer: P. F. Sloan
Line-up: Barry McGuire (vocals), P.F. Sloan (guitar, harmonica), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), uncredited backing vocals
Original release: Eve of Destruction/What’s Exactly The Matter With Me (miscredited on the label as What Exactly’s The Matter With Me), Barry McGuire, Dunhill Records single D-4009
Currently available on: Eve of Destruction BMG CD