In 2003, the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame gave their Johnny Mercer Award to a very well-known songwriter called Jimmy Webb.
Each year, The Songwriters’ Hall of Fame bestows the Johnny Mercer Award on someone who is already inducted into the Hall of Fame and who has, in the opinion of the awarding committee, a long-term history of outstanding creative works.
As the writer of a treasure trove of classic songs…including “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”…Jimmy Webb thoroughly deserved his Johnny Mercer Award.
However Jimmy Webb also has a round-about connection to the best song ever written…in my opinion at least…even though, superstar songwriter though he is, he didn’t write it.
Here’s the connection…
One of my favourite Jimmy Webb songs is his 1970 composition “PF Sloan”. Its lyrics tell the bittersweet story of a songwriter who left everything behind and just disappeared from view. Nobody knew where he was or what he was doing. He just picked up and left one day.
“PF Sloan” was reviewed in Rolling Stone Magazine when it first came out, correctly in my view, as “…a masterpiece that couldn’t be improved on”.
I’m not sure how many people realised it at the time…his name was hardly on everybody’s lips or the focus of popular culture…but PF Sloan was the name of a real songwriter.
He and Jimmy Webb worked together through much of the 1960s, writing songs and hanging out together with all the most important characters in Southern California’s music scene.
In addition to his songwriting talents, PF (Phil) Sloan was an in-demand session guitar player in the early to mid-60s. He worked with, and wrote for, bands such as the 5th Dimension, Jan and Dean and The Mamas and Papas.
In fact, I can guarantee you will have heard Phil Sloan playing his guitar hundreds of times. It’s his guitar you hear right at the beginning of one of The Mamas and Papas biggest hits, “California Dreaming”.
If you need a reminder of that great song…also one of my very favourite songs of all time…there’s a video here (https://youtu.be/3kcmwXUdDCE ). Incidentally, the guy with the guitar in the video is John Phillips, lead singer, songwriter and vocal arranger for the Mamas and Papas, rather than Sloan himself.
Phil Sloan’s sudden and unexplained disappearance from the music industry, and all those who cared for him, makes Jimmy Webb’s lyrics all the more poignant…
Last time I saw PF Sloan
He was summer burned and winter blown
But he turned that corner all alone
And he was singing
Listen to him singing
Thankfully, before he disappeared from sight, the flesh-and-blood PF Sloan wrote what I think is the best song ever written.
That song is “Eve Of Destruction”, a mid-60s protest song, which is a genre I rather like anyway.
I’ve described it to people in the past as “the angriest song ever written” because Sloan’s lyrics call out the hypocrisy of the more privileged end of society in the 1960s…
The sort of people who would happily send your son to fight for his country in Vietnam, but who had plenty of ways of keeping their own offspring several thousands of miles away from enemy lines.
It’s not just PF Sloan’s lyrics which make “Eve Of Destruction” such an angry song. Former member of the New Christie Minstrels, Barry McGuire, provides a tremendous rasping, “manning the barricades”, “leading the march on Capitol Hill” style of lead vocal which wonderfully conveys the sense of frustration felt by so many young people at the time.
You need to listen to the whole song to do this justice, but “Eve Of Destruction” is virtually the entire history of 1960s America, delivered in three-and-a-half minutes.
Sloan rails against sending young men off to be killed in pointless wars in Vietnam despite not being old enough to vote for or against the war in the first place…
The Arab-Israeli conflict…the threat of nuclear war…politicians lying to the voters…legislators taking cynical self-interested positions instead of doing what’s right for the country…
Civil Rights marchers not getting the recognition they deserve…the Cold War…the violence perpetrated by the forces of law and order against people speaking out for freedom and equality for all…the assassination of John F Kennedy…
And the idea that you can commit the most heinous crimes against humanity and get away with it, as long as you manage to keep up an outward appearance of being good, honest and true.
Although “Eve Of Destruction” was a big hit when it first came out…a Billboard number 1 and a UK Number 3…I don’t remember hearing it until the 1980s.
On its original release, the BBC deemed this song too upsetting for a mainstream audience and restricted airplay to the sort of times when young people would be in bed. As I wasn’t long out of nappies at the time it came out, I don’t remember “Eve Of Destruction” from my childhood.
But when I moved to London in the 1980s, a DJ on Capital Radio in the evenings clearly had an obsession with this song…and a similar obsession with “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful…as he played today’s song, it seemed to me, at least once a week on his show.
Hearing “Eve Of Destruction” over and over again in my little flat impressed on me just how great its lyrics were…in the mid-1960s…in the 1980s with the Cold War still in full swing as I was listening to “Eve Of Destruction” on Capital Radio in London…and even today, when rather too many of our political leaders exhibit exactly the same sort of hypocrisy PF Sloan wrote about so eloquently 50 years ago.
It’s hard to select just one fragment of PF Sloan’s lyrics as every word is so expertly crafted, but I’ll give you just this little taster… (side note: this must be one of the few uses of the word “coagulating” in the lyrics of a popular song…)
My blood’s so mad feels like coagulating
I’m sitting here just contemplatin’
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation
Handful of senators don’t pass legislation
And marches alone don’t bring integration
When human respect is disintigratin’
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’
I absolutely love “Eve Of Destruction” and I was incredibly excited to find it on a 7" single while browsing aimlessly in a record shop during the late 1980s.
I’ve still got it in my record box in the attic, and as far as I’m concerned it’ll be going in my coffin with me too. That’s how treasured a possession this little piece of 7" vinyl is to me.
Since then, I’ve moved with the times, of course…with “Eve Of Destruction” on Spotify playlists, I can listen to it whenever I want…and often do. It’s always a cathartic experience.
Whatever day-to-day troubles I might face, none of them are even close to the issues PF Sloan raises in this song…even though, sadly, 50 years after he wrote those powerful lyrics, many of those same issues are still with us today.
If Phil Sloan was angry about these issues 50 years ago, maybe we should be even angrier today given that so few of the injustices he railed against have been sorted out for good in the intervening years.
But my intention is not to make you angry. It’s to introduce you to the best song ever written…
With protest song lyrics a hundred times more powerful than even Bob Dylan could manage at the top of his protest song game.
With seething anger in the vocals a thousand times greater than even the “angry young men” of the punk era could muster.
With a forceful challenge to rethink ourselves and our society, make the world a fairer, more just, and more peaceful place that is a million times stronger than the sum total of the bland platitudes uttered by every politician who has ever lived.
For all those reasons and more, today’s song is, in my view, the best song ever written.
Jimmy Webb fully deserved his award from the Songwriting Hall of Fame. But I believe the greatest service he gave to the music industry was not any…or even all…of his famous chart hits.
It was his touching song in memory of a special person in his life. Jimmy Webb’s “PF Sloan” is one of the loveliest tributes anyone could create for another human being.
And it was no less than Phil Sloan deserved for writing my favourite song of all time.
PF Sloan isn’t a songwriter whose name is on many people’s lips. But maybe it should be.
Here’s Barry McGuire singing PF Sloan’s masterpiece…with Phil Sloan himself on lead guitar…as stirring a call to action today as it was 50 years ago…
It’s “Eve Of Destruction”…
(PS: please note, like they say in news reports, some viewers might find the war zone footage used in this video upsetting.)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1Zi2ezNOqt9y9irC11xYpN