“If it’s the Last Thing We EVER DO!” This existential declaration in music hit the airways in 1965, a classic British Invasion contribution by Eric Burdon and the Animals. It was immediately embraced by collegians—collegians ending the evening at a lousy mixer, lamenting an unhappy social life, disgusted by a particular academic experience, or simply determined to seek a change in environment, a practice which eventually became known as The Road Trip. And it had particular resonance at this time of the year (December) as we packed our bags and maybe went just a little bit crazy before heading out of town.
Not surprisingly, it was immediately embraced even more enthusiastically by the military serving in Vietnam, who made it the most requested song on armed forces radio. What was remarkable is that these two groups of young adults experienced the same music simultaneously, thanks to radio and records, half a world apart, even in a war zone.
What’s more, it resonated with everyone everywhere who has ever felt trapped and put upon—in other words, everyone. While it only reached thirteenth place on the American charts, it has become a rock standard.
Since the song is so closely identified with The Animals, it may be hard to believe that it was written by Barry Man and Cynthia Weil in the fabled Brill Building in New York (think Carole King, Leiber and Stroller, Neil Sedaka, and many others). The Animals made it their own, though, by adding the opening line: In this dirty old part of the city where the sun refuse to shine. Those words re-situated the song completely into the gritty alienated industrial working class environment of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in the defiant raw performance by Eric Burdon the song took on a whole new meaning. His tell-it-like-it-is repertoire of songs and aggressive vocal kick-ass style added up to one of the best examples of a time period that is sorely missed. Not hard to see how this song in particular appealed to soldiers in Vietnam, who were disproportionately recruited from the same economic class in the United States.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…” This song is a therapeutic primal scream of frustration—even desperation–that still has the power to move people. It may not reflect an overt political agenda like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Eve of Destruction”, “For What It’s Worth”, “What’s Going On” or some other hits of the era, but it speaks directly to the human condition.
For a deeper dive into the music of protest of our era, in particular songs directly or indirectly about Vietnam, please check out Howard Steinberg’s excellent backward glance on The sixties: the war in Vietnam and its music.