After Barry left the Christys, work was hard to find. He spent the Winter and part of Spring, 1965 contacting producers, to no avail. But in April, Barry went to Ciro’s in L. A. to see his old friends Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, whose band, the Byrds, was celebrating the release of their single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Bob Dylan was there, and so was producer Lou Adler. During the show, Barry saw a guy on the dance floor just bopping up and down while looking up at the ceiling. So he decided to try it out himself, and was bouncing around on the dance floor. Lou Adler spotted him and said, “Aren’t you McGuire?”
“Well, are you doing any singing?”
“Well, not recently.”
“Would you like to?”
Then Lou said, “Come over to my office next week. I’ve got some tunes I think you might like.”
Lou Adler was a man who knew the music business inside and out. He had written songs for people like Sam Cooke, had been one of Jan and Dean’s managers, had worked in music publishing and for various record companies. By 1965, Adler, along with Jay Lasker and Bobby Roberts, had started a publishing company called Trousdale and a production company called Dunhill. P. F. (Phil) Sloan and Steve Barri, who had written some surf songs that became hits and had a band called the Fantastic Baggys, worked for Adler as songwriters and musicians. Lou introduced Barry to Phil Sloan, who was now writing songs that contained serious social messages born from an overwhelming sense of frustration, disgust, and outrage at the system and the way things were going in the world. Barry was ready to start singing songs that reflected these ideas and feelings. “When I left the Christys,” Barry says, “ I left looking for answers. I was in a kind of a spiritual, philosophical search at that time. We were going through the whole social question, turmoil of the day within ourselves. Why not do this? Why shouldn't we do that? How come we have to do this? Who says we gotta do that? And then we started to get down to, well, what is the basic ultimate truth, and what is life? What is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it going? What's on the other side of death? What was on the backside of birth? ‘Eve Of Destruction’ was just a continuation down that road. At least I felt I could compile all the problems, and I thought that's what Phil did in the song. All the problems, but no answers." Unlike the cheery tunes of the Christys, "Eve of Destruction" was a grave, prophetic warning of imminent apocalypse. It was a song that expressed the frustrations and fears of young people in the age of the Cold War, Vietnam, and the arms race.
Barry signed with Dunhill in May, 1965, and started recording with Phil Sloan (guitar, harmonica and co-production with Adler), Larry Knetchel (bass), Tommy Tedesco (guitar). Barry played guitar and percussion. Sometime between July 12th and the 15th, they recorded “Eve of Destruction.” Barry recalls that the song was recorded in one take. There were only thirty minutes left in the recording session. Barry remembers, “I got my lyrics that I’d had in my pocket for about a week. I smoothed all the wrinkles out of them, and we wrote the chords down on a piece of brown paper that somebody got some chicken in or something, and we folded little creases and hung them on the music stands and went through it twice. They were playing and I’m reading the words off this wrinkly paper. I’m singing, ‘Well, my blood’s so mad feels like coagulatin’, that part that goes, ‘Ahhhhhh, you can’t twist the truth,’ and the reason I’m singing ‘Ahhhhhh’ is because I lost my place on the page. People said, ‘Man, you really sounded frustrated when you were singing.’ Well, I was. I couldn't see the words. I wanted to re-record the vocal track, and Lou said, ‘We're out of time. We'll come back next week and do the vocal track.’ Well, by the next weekend, the tune was released. The following Monday, it was being played on the #1 rock music station in Los Angeles, and it was incredible what happened. It all just exploded.”
It turns out that a photographer and record promoter by the name of Ernie Farrell visited Lou Adler’s office on July 16th to see if Lou had any records to promote, and he picked up a couple of 45s off of Adler’s desk without Lou’s knowledge. That afternoon, Farrell was scheduled to take photos at a birthday party at the home of the program director at KFWB. Farrell was taking pictures, went to get some flashbulbs out of the trunk of his car, and he saw the 45s there. He played the 45s for the kids at the party, and they really didn’t respond to any of them until Farrell played “Eve of Destruction.” They demanded that he play it repeatedly. The kids took it into their father and asked him to listen to it. He phoned KFWB and said, “I’ve got next week’s pick to hit.” The folks at Dunhill rushed the one take of “Eve” back into the studio to get it ready for immediate release, but Barry wasn’t around that weekend, so they mixed it, pressed it and shipped it out by that following Monday, July 19th (although the official release date is July 21st). So Barry never got a chance to re-record the vocals.
In the first week of its release, “Eve” was at #30 in the Cash Box charts, and #103 in the Billboard charts. By August 12th, Dunhill released the LP, Barry McGuire Featuring Eve of Destruction. The LP reached it’s high of #37 on Billboard the week ending September 25th, the same day that the single “Eve of Destruction” soared to #1 in both the Cash Box and Billboard charts. One would think that any musician whose single had such quick and huge success would be propelled into ever-increasing stardom and opportunities in the music industry. But “Eve of Destruction” actually had the opposite effect, because its success came in sales before success in airplay. It was a song that captured the ear of the public before it caught the attention of most radio stations. A lot of radio station managers, DJs, and playlist controllers were upset that “Eve” made it big without going through them. Barry says, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard that the word was that no matter what I came out with next, nobody was gonna play it because I was a loose cannon in the music business. They didn’t have control of the last one, and they weren’t gonna let the next one get away from them.”
Then there was the reaction of the media. Phil Sloan remembers, “The media frenzy over the song tore me up and seemed to tear the country apart. I was an enemy of the people to some and a hero to others, but I was still only 20 years old and nobody really was looking. I have felt it was a love song and written as a prayer because, to cure an ill you need to know what is sick. In my youthful zeal I hadn't realized that this would be taken as an attack on The System!
The media headlined the song as everything that is wrong with the youth culture. First, show the song is just a hack song to make money and therefore no reason to deal with its questions. Prove the 19-year old writer is a communist dupe. The media claimed that the song would frighten little children. The United States felt under threat. So any positive press on me or Barry was considered un-patriotic. A great deal of madness, as I remember it! I told the press it was a love song. A love song to and for humanity, that's all. It ruined Barry's career as an artist and in a year I would be driven out of the music business too.”
On top of all this, there was flack from both conservatives and liberals. On the right wing, a group called The Spokesmen released an “answer” record called “The Dawn of Correction,” and a few months later, Barry Sadler released “Ballad of the Green Berets.” On the left, musicians who had been writing and singing protest songs for years were not happy that a kid who wrote surf songs and a former member of the Christys had found success with a protest song of their own. Phil Ochs, for example, said that the quality of “Eve of Destruction” was terrible, and called its philosophy “juvenile.” He cautioned that protest songs by their very nature could never maintain a popular status, adding, “The Top Forty revenge is one of the fastest revenges in the country. When people get turned off, that’s it: instant death. I think the protest thing will die out pretty fast.”
There were some exceptions to the ill treatment "Eve" received. For example, on September 20th, 1965, Barry sang "Eve of Destruction" on NBC's Hullabaloo. But Barry looks back now and thanks God that the reaction to “Eve of Destruction” kept him from further fame and fortune. He believes it would have killed him. “It’s just as well I didn’t get another hit tune,” he says. “I would have gone the way of Jim Morrison, Hendrix, or Joplin. I say ‘Thank God,’ and I do thank God for that, too, because I wouldn’t have survived. I think God did ‘Eve of Destruction.’ It was supernatural. I was just dumbing my way through the day, and it all happened. I came up with some great tunes after ‘Eve of Destruction,’ and none of them happened, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. But I’m sure glad nothing did, because I would have been history by now.”