If you ask people about the 60s, the responses and images they conjure up tend to be of hippies, anti-war protests, the counter culture, free love and rock n roll. Certainly other images (and memories) come to mind, the civil rights movement, The King and Kennedy killings, urban riots and even positive things like the Mercury and Gemini programs, the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion, the Mazeroski home run, and two events that left an indelible mark on me – the Apollo 11 lunar mission and the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series. But that’s for a different piece. This one’s about music.
What we learn, what we remember or think we remember is often subject to wishful thinking and maybe prevailing attitudes. My musical 1960s were shaped by 3 older brothers, their collection of LPs and 45s, and the 77 WABC radio DJ “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow, who by the way is still broadcasting on Sirius Satellite Radio). I have to tell you, it wasn’t all about Elvis, hot-rods, lovesick teens, lovesick teens on the beach, or the mop-topped British.
My brothers’ had two records (it’s collective because I couldn’t tell you who owned which ones) which struck me even then as not being like the others. They didn’t fall into the regular pattern of performances by the Ronettes, Jay and the Americans or The Four Seasons. These two LPs came out 6 months apart and each said something definitive about the period. Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire was released in July 1965 and went to No.1 on Billboard in the last week of September. Ballads of the Green Berets by Sgt. Barry Sadler was released in January 1966 and went to No.1 in three weeks, and was the Billboard no.1 single for 1966.
McGuire’s “Eve” was angry, in your face and harsh; it didn’t leave room for very much hope. On the one hand it captured the realities of the day, though not the mood. That would come later. It certainly didn’t have much in common with other songs of the day. Needless to say that “establishment” response to Eve of Destruction wasn’t positive, being banned on several US stations, and even on the BBC.
The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’
But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve
At the other end, Sadler’s Ballads of the Green Berets (the title single is “Ballad of the Green Berets” ) was straightforward, sung in a very personal style, and quietly patriotic. It was about the soldiers but not about the war itself.
Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret
Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America’s best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret
The album’s place on the charts and its content benefit from having been released in 1965-66 rather than later on. I have to wonder if it had been written 2-3 years later whether RCA could have released it, and if it wouldn’t have had some of the same anger McGuire has, but from a different perspective. At first glance the lyrics to “Ballad of the Green Beret” may seem kitschy, but remember the influences are still the Righteous Brothers and The Lettermen, and the Green Berets felt they’d responded to JFK’s appeal of “What you can do for your country”.
Talk about a juxtaposition. “Eve of Destruction” has always stuck with me because it was so stark and honest. I can even draw a line from McGuire to Neil Young’s 1970 ode to the Kent State shootings – Ohio, another no-punches-pulled song. In the Sadler album, there’s a song titled “I’m a Lucky One” about a soldier who’s finished his tour and is about to go home. In it he reminisces about his friends and perhaps what shortly lies ahead in the American collective memory. They come to him in a dream and appeal to him as the survivor - “…Tell them about us Sadler, don’t let us die in vain.”