Music for the Apocalypse #3: Eve of Destruction

by Apocalypse Womble

I first met this song in the TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. Larry Underwood sitting on the front of a stopped car in one of the endless traffic jams formed by people who died whilst trying to flee the cities and thus choked up the road. In the background a city (memory says Detroit? Des Moines) burns. He’s lost everything, but he’s singing this bitter-angry-joyful song in the sunshine, at the end of the world. A women and a near-feral child she found approach him hesitantly…

Below is a fanmovie of ‘Eve of Destruction’ to scenes from The Stand, splicing Larry Underwood’s section into the Barry McGuire original, followed by an unblemished Barry McGuire version, accompanied by some pretty powerful images. I recommend watching both, but especially the second.

(Contains some disturbing images:)

I loved this song when I first heard it, but I didn’t actually go listen to the whole thing until I dug it out for this post. It’s a protest song from 1965, by Barry McGuire. The emotion in the original is palpable, desperate, raw with the living issues it want to draw our attention to – to make us scream and sing about. It’s alive with the present fear of the apocalypse. It reminded me of a recent experience that made me wonder if the idea of the apocalypse is more alive for some generations than others:

I was presenting an introductory lecture on existentialism, Terminator 2, the metaphysics of time travel and determinism/free will. Afterwards we watched the film, and students were invited to come to a bar afterwards to discuss their thoughts. Needless to say I was bouncing fit to die to have this opportunity. Terminator 2 is my favourite film, and it only became more so when I realised that part of its appeal was its sublime embodiment of existentialist philosophy, both in the ‘No fate but what we make for ourselves’ message, and in so many other aspects of how it is shot, plotted, etc.

But the students I was showing it to weren’t even born when Terminator 2 came out. Some of it might be that they weren’t geeks, but T2 was a blockbuster movie with wide appeal in 1991. It occurred to me that, to them, the apocalypse was something that happened in movies. The scenes of a blighted future, of children being burnt in a playground by an atomic bomb, being blown away like paper… they’ve seen echoes of this in all the apocalyptic films and TV shows since T2, and it’s just a film trope to them. They don’t think anyone is likely to ever actually use The Bomb. It’s not a real threat to them, as it had been to previous generations from 1945 to the end of the Cold War. They grew up in the boom years on the 1990s and naughties, before our present bust. War to them was the smaller affair of isolated terrorist acts – mostly far away, and not likely to end the world.

Some of them left before the end of the film. Students who had sat through Rashomon (a great film, but undeniably slow in places) couldn’t sit through one of the greatest chase sequences in film history. The killer robots didn’t scare them – they’d seen killer robots before. The threat of Judgement Day didn’t mean anything to them – it was just a film trope.

A few did stay behind to talk about the film (more than stayed behind for Rashomon – hah!), but they confessed that the film might not have meant as much to them without my introduction. Which is both nice and sad, for me. To them, it was just a film about killer robots – they would never view it with the awe that I had as a child of the 1980s watching it in the early 1990s.

Listening to the Barry McGuire original, above, made me realise something about myself, too. When I first heard this song it was a fun, witty song to place in the middle of a show about the apocalypse. But the song is so much more than that. The original was written at a time when war and suffering and the urge to cry out against the injustices of the world were at a heightened level. A generation of protest not quite like any other. The Bomb an even fresher memory. The sense that a tipping point had been reached: things could either change for the better - if people took a stand and joined their voices in protest – or become very much worse. Almost a time of Judgement, but one in which the people determine the fate of the world by their action or inaction. Maybe I can’t ever quite feel the intensity those people would feel listening to this song. It’s still pretty powerful, though.

Apocalypse Womble out.

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