ZAGER AND EVANS
In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)
It seems every few years someone comes up with a bleak futuristic scenario or an end-of-the-world death wish and it gets widespread exposure, be it Y2K, an apocalytic prediction derived from some ancient calendar or a storyline taken from a celebrated sci-fi flick. In the late '60s, a couple of guys from Nebraska popularized a song that told of a machinized future society and even guessed at a potential date for the Judgment Day. No one took the song too seriously, though; after all, why worry about something that might happen in the year 2525...or much later?
Denny Zager and Rick Evans met earlier in the decade at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. They put together a band called The Eccentrics, with a sound along the lines of The 4 Seasons or The Reflections, and made their first of two singles, "Share Me," for the Applause label in 1964. Evans wrote "In the Year 2525" around this time but the other group members didn't care for its dark theme and the song sat on the shelf for awhile. Zager left the band and the two followed separate musical paths for the next few years. In 1967 they resumed performing together as a duo at a lounge in the Lincoln area; Rick dusted off his foreboding lullaby, they made it a part of their set, and before long customers were requesting it every night.
Taking a chance, they recorded the song at a studio in Odessa, Texas, then invested hundreds of dollars in having a thousand copies pressed on their own label, Truth Records. The track had a folky rock feel, primarily an acoustic guitar set against a modest horn and string backing. The lyrics predicted our future civilization's backfired quest for perfection through advances in medical science ('...everything you think, do and say...is in the pill you took today') and self-victimization through its overuse of technology ('...your arms are hangin' limp at your side...your legs got nothin' to do...some machine's doin' that for you'), working its way through the far-distant years of 3535, 4545, 5555, 6565, 7510, 8510 and 9595, by which time, purportedly, '...man's reign is through,' though it's suggested '...maybe it's only yesterday.' The song's subtitle, "Exordium & Terminus," was nowhere to be found in the scientifically- and spiritually-disturbing lyrics, but the words, rooted in Latin, stand for "beginning" and "end," a definition at odds with the song's endless-loop-of-life conclusion.
They sent the record, so very unlike any other music of its time, to local radio stations and promoted it themselves; before long it was getting sizeable airplay in a few cities, resulting in a demand far beyond the inital run. More than ten thousand copies of the Truth 45 were sold in 1968. RCA Victor, impressed by the record's regional success, picked it up for national release. The label credited Zager and Evans as producers, but RCA staff producer Ethel Gabriel was given the master to see if she could enhance its sound. Arranger Bobby Christian remixed the strings and brass, adding a mariachi band (two distinctly different horn styles are evident on the "upgraded" master) while burying the brass instruments at certain points in the song to make the vocals and strings more prominent. Once RCA put the push on it, the record assumed a life of its own. It debuted on the charts the third week in June 1969 and was number one just three weeks later, going on to spend most of July and August there. RCA was sure they had found the "next big thing" in Denny and Rick. Famous last words!
The next single, "Mr. Turnkey," dealt with rape and its consequences, a subject designed to repel airplay. A third single, "Listen to the People," was an intense offering with religious overtones. While both follow-ups appeared briefly on Cash Box magazine's charts later in the year, only "2525" showed up on Billboard's Hot 100, giving Zager and Evans a reputation as one of the most notorious of all "one-hit" acts, a dubious distinction more strongly connected to them than perhaps anyone else.
Two albums and five singles were released before RCA Victor dropped the duo after less than a year. In early 1971 they emerged with another album and single on the Vanguard label. Evans, who wrote most of the material, created lyrics so complex as to provide the duo's most ardent fans with hundreds of blissful hours trying to figure out just what these guys were getting at. Denny and Rick broke up after that but have remained close friends while declining any offers to perform together. Their one well-remembered "future scare" smash will, of course, remain unproven for at least another five centuries. Still, they stirred things up in the already turbulent year of 1969. Then the 1970s arrived, but Armageddon didn't, and everything settled into routine...that is, until the next prediction of futuristic mayhem started the cycle all over again.