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Mere Immortals: PF Sloan, Barry McGuire and their epoch-defining Eve of Destruction

Mere Immortals: PF Sloan, Barry McGuire and their epoch-defining Eve of Destruction
PF Sloan. (Photo: Wikipedia) | American singer and songwriter Barry McGuire, 11 October 1965. (Photo: M. Stroud / Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The year was late 1964 and 19-year-old PF Sloan was visited by a divinity, who told him to grab a paper and a pen. A few hours later, Eve of Destruction, a seminal song of the 1960s, was born.

Life was not plain sailing for Eve of Destruction, or for PF Sloan, however. He was given his first guitar lesson by Elvis Presley when he was 12, after a chance encounter in a record shop. He was a vastly talented, rebellious young man, but he wasn’t a showman. Others would end up singing his songs to greater acclaim than his melancholic, Bob Dylan-style voice and manner could hope to achieve. 

His songs made many others famous and loved by the millions: acclaim he craved. But he was not superstar material. Much more profoundly, however, his work was anchored in times when songs often possessed deep meaning, when young folk could change the world, and make history, with just a few lines:

How many roads must the man walk down, before you can call him a man?
Or
When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose
Or
R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Or
We shall overcome

The words meant something

The songs were not end products of boardroom strategy presentations, they were not tested on sample groups, they were not on radio stations’ rotations, the videos were not pushed by merciless algorithms. 

They did not need all that; they had their own deep meaning and truth. They found a way directly into people’s hearts. Deemed too dark and rebellious, Eve of Destruction was banned by governments and parents alike.

Young people of the 1960s, PF Sloan’s generation, wrote songs that imbued protest, anger and existential conflicts with words that transcended continents, races and generations. People pinned to these words their own dreams and hopes. 

These were not soulless “products” shoved down people’s throats via big marketing budgets and distribution deals. 

I often wondered how 19-year old PF Sloan, a child essentially, could write Eve of Destruction, such a definitive anti-Vietnam War anthem before the Vietnam War started? How could that young mind cram so much truth and fear and existential angst into just four verses? It boggles the mind.

I also cannot fathom why The Byrds refused to record it when he offered them the song. It was first recorded by The Turtles, but they failed to make much impact.

Then came Barry McGuire, former fisherman, pipe fitter and folk singer.

It turned out that Eve of Destruction was not there to be performed as a  Dylanesque exercise of eternal beauty in a measured message, the way PF Sloan probably saw it. In its soul, it needed to be belted out. Its nuance was unmistakable even as McGuire’s raw energy came with a fair dose of bulging eyes and barren teeth – the song was about OUR destruction, for heaven’s sake.

McGuire had just a single go in the recording studio, and the musicians had no more than two run-throughs. It was a raw, VERY raw version. They may or may not have wanted to return to “perfect” it in the following days, but the cat was out of the bag the very next morning. A local music radio DJ got his hands on the tapes and the rest was beautiful history.

Eve of Destruction became a massive hit – it replaced The Beatles’ Help! as number one on the US charts and reached number three in the UK. 

The Vietnam War was in the air and nothing better captured its incoming horror.

Sloan and McGuire’s career paths diverged after Eve of Destruction, neither reaching number one again, despite their embarrassingly rich talents. 

McGuire spent decades as a Christian music singer, moved to New Zealand for a while, but would often return to Eve of Destruction, sometimes with new interpretations and new lyrics. Witness his 2011 performance, when he says a thing or two about that unexpectedly glorious day in 1965.

Sloan was changed by his signature song, according to his friend Steve Barri. He tried very, very hard, but never managed to reach the summit in the way he did in 1965 at 19. That would have been debilitating to anyone – and he was no exception. He got sick and remained so for decades, only to get better in the early 2000s. By that time, the world was on a different track.

There was not much space for a former wunderkind whose song defined a generation. Even the fact that his line “you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’” inspired the passing of 26th amendment to the US Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, didn’t matter much. This wonderful, complicated man was all but forgotten. 

In this video from 2014, Sloan talks about that glory day while being visibly uncomfortable due to bad health. He was performing his anthem to a group of 30 in a living room, someplace wherever.

His body gave up at the age of 70, in 2015, under attack from pancreatic cancer. 

Barry McGuire is 87 now and lives in California these days. He probably wonders how humanity has managed to be on the eve of destruction once more.

We at Daily Maverick spent a long time now with these underappreciated giants’ work. This is our contribution to their crucial opus:

After all these years, we got to understand just how important they are. So let us end this short history this way:

PF Sloan and Barry McGuire, thank you.
Your Eve of Destruction remains an immortal testimony to the times when songs meant so much more and to the end of times that keeps coming back.
You warned us, we didn’t listen.
You, at least, tried. DM

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  • Linda Curling says:

    This, combined with the other articles giving background to making the 2020 version of ‘Eve of destruction’, is a great story. And the end product is incredibly powerful. Kudos to all involved!

  • Keith Scott says:

    As a great fan of Barry’s in the ’60s I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was living in the small town of Warkworth, NZ when I moved there in the ’80s. Every year he organised an evening of Xmas carols for the local kids – his gravelly voice in stark contrast to their young voices.

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