The singer-songwriter aimed to craft “a big song” about “a modern America” and ended up delivering an eight-and-a-half-minute folk-rock phenomenon
Weighing in at over eight-and-a-half minutes long and sporting no fewer than six densely worded, imagery-laden verses, American Pie is by no means your average pop song. All the same, in 1971 it made an unlikely pop star of a then 26-year-old folk and rock ‘n’ roll artist from New York state called Don McLean, topping the charts in the US and all over Europe, though it went only to No 2 here in the UK.
McLean wouldn’t have to wait too long to become a UK chart-topper, though – follow-up single Vincent, also from the American Pie album, saw him clenching the top spot a mere five months later, a trick he would repeat in 1980 with Crying. He’s maintained a successful career in music ever since, but it’s without doubt American Pie for which he’s best known.
While the song is ostensibly a reflection on the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper, scholars have debated the deeper meanings hidden within its lyric – a subject on which McLean himself has traditionally remained tight-lipped – for decades. The song has also been covered by many different artists, notably by Madonna in 2000.
“The song was started as a big song about America. That’s what I was attempting to do, but I didn’t want to write a simple, Woody Guthrie-type song like This Land Is Your Land or Jackhammer John… all those great songs he wrote, that had that simple power of the 1930s. I wanted a song that was more about a modern America, a big song. A song that every other song I played live would lead up to at the end – and I did that bit well, because that’s the way it’s panned out ever since!
“Whether or not it would be a hit, who knew? I wasn’t even trying for a hit – I’ve never tried for hits. They would happen once in a while, because the songs were on the radio and people apparently liked them, but I didn’t try for that. I was just doing something that interested me. One of the things I do as a songwriter is fuse together old-fashioned popular music, rock ‘n’ roll from the 50s, and folk music. Those are the three things that I understand. Simple music.
“Well, the pop music from the 30s, 40s and 50s isn’t simple music, but I understand it! And I understand Don’t Be Cruel and Since I Don’t Have You, and I understand folk music very well. So in everything I do, there are aspects of those three kinds of music. I could never really understand all these groups later on, in the 70s and 80s, that were way out there. I’m an Elvis fan, I’m a Gene Vincent fan. I’m a Slyliners fan, a Beatles fan, a Beach Boys fan, a Sons Of The Pioneers fan. I love gospel music. Simple, down-to-earth beautiful songs.
“The first part of the song, and the chorus, were written in a little gatehouse on the Hudson River, and then I wrote the rest later on in Philadelphia. The whole process probably took an hour in total, but that was stretched out over several months of thinking about what I wanted to say.
“The idea of Buddy Holly’s death was what got me started. I’d been obsessed with Buddy Holly since I was a paperboy, and his death had a powerful impact on me. When I was first touring in 1964, I played at this roadhouse in the middle of nowhere in Canada. I’d go across to this little diner for some food, and they had a jukebox full of Buddy Holly songs and I would play them all, because in America, those songs had mostly been taken off by 1964, and Buddy Holly was pretty much forgotten. Not by musicians, because they knew how great he was, but for the general public, things had moved on.
“So the death of Buddy Holly gave me the concept, that I was then able to build into a song. I think, in order to understand the song, firstly you really have to understand the way I think – though I think the song itself sort of tells you how I think – and number two, you have to know something about melody- and lyric-writing, because these are art forms that are receding into the past. These days, I’ll hear something that’s passing itself off as a song on the radio, and it’s the same thing over and over… it doesn’t go anywhere. My girlfriend, who’s younger than me, will say ‘This is a big hit’, and I’ll say, ‘It’s not even a song, it’s a tape loop!’.
“I didn’t realise how special American Pie was, though, until we’d finished the album. I loved the album, I thought it was wonderful. It had a vibration about it, a feeling about it that was fabulous. I remember hearing the test pressing on my AR speakers, which are great for acoustic music, and it all started to make sense to me. Because prior to that, I’d been totally immersed in it. If you’re a group, you’ve got the other band members to say, ‘I don’t like this bit, change it,’ but when it’s just me, I’ve got to figure out everything, and I’m not sure I know what I’m doing! But when I heard the album back, it just felt right.
“I liked Madonna’s version, too. She didn’t use all of it but I think if the song is a great pop thing, whether it’s White Christmas or If I Had A Hammer or whatever it is, then you can almost anything with it, so she didn’t have to! She’s a pop behemoth, a leviathan – all these girl groups and singers have come and gone, and she’s still on top of the pile, still No 1. So this is a tremendous artist we’re talking about, and I was very honoured that she did the song. And the video was very cool, too: everyone had a lot of fun with it, and that’s one of the things about American Pie: it is a serious song and there are serious aspects to it, but it’s also entertaining.
“I’m delighted that the song was added to the National Recording Registry. When things like that happen, it’s a validation of what you’ve done in your life, and it means you’re leaving something behind that people will love. Isn’t that better than being a banker and saying, ‘Sorry, I’m foreclosing on your house’? But I never dreamed I’d ever be remembered like that one day – I just wanted to make a living.”
EXPERT OPINION by James Linderman
“This complex lyric still has some obtuse meanings that academics have yet to figure out, yet it’s essentially a simple I-VI-IV-V rock ’n’ roll song set on a folk-rock platform. The simple music helps the essay of a lyric become, somehow, completely consumable.”