Tale of a timeless classic
In October of 1971, Don McLean released a song that would not only shape his career as a songwriter but would shape the music industry too. It went against all the rules of songwriting but captured a moment in time, a piece of American history in the most poetic of ways. For years it’s context would have an air of mystery around it but fifty years on from the song reaching the number one spot, McLean celebrates ‘American Pie’ with a documentary that dives deep into the roots of the song.
A combination of Elvis and Buddy Holly captured the imagination of a young Don McLean and inspired his passion for music. “My mother and my grandmother thought I could sing, but most kids can sing. The idea of making a living out of music never really crossed my mind, but every now and then I thought of maybe going on one of those talent shows like Ted Mack hour or something like that back in the 50s. But I thought that was kind of corny so I didn't want to do that,” he laughs as he reflects back on his early ventures into his craft.
With the help of a good friend he picked up the guitar which changed the trajectory of his life and career. “What changed the picture was the day that my friend, his name was Brad, brought me over to his house, I must have been about 11 or 12 and he said, he had a guitar. He showed me how to play an E chord, an A chord and a B7 chord and that changed my life. Because now I could sing anything pretty much anything that was on the radio with those three chords.”
At thirteen years old, whilst McLean was doing his paper round though, he learned the tragic fate of one of his idols, Buddy Holly and 12 years later, that memory of the moment he found out, would shape the beginning of one of the greatest songs ever written. Before that point though, McLean had to hone his craft and he recalls the very first song he ever wrote. “I wrote a song called ‘Once I had me a baby, now I've got me a friend’. It was a ragtime song and I wrote it in 1964. I probably wrote 40 or 50 other songs before I ever started really keeping track of them and performing them and considering them as viable candidates for recording.” McLean was learning something new with every song he wrote, “I was learning as I went along. The only way that you could get a handle on something was to get in front of people who didn't care about you and see if you could get their attention and perhaps entertain them.”
Two years before the release of American Pie, McLean was working on his debut album ‘Tapestry’ during the student riots. He sat there, writing and wondering what had become of America in the sixties after the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, the war in Vietnam and the spiralling drug use that gripped America’s youth. McLean was taking it all in and trying to make sense of it through his music. His first album took a while to be picked up and as he worked on his second, he knew he wanted a song that encapsulated all that America was. The lyrics, McLean says, “came flooding out of me like a genie out of a bottle.” Producer Ed Freeman analysed the song as being the “Eulogy for the dream that didn’t take place.”
“Nobody had ever seen anything like this before. And no one has ever seen anything like it since, let's face it!” McLean exclaims. “That's one of the reasons why it has its own place and it's not attacked by other music. It just has its own singularity, because of the way I wrote it. Because I did not write it with any kind of idea toward having any kind of hit record, I wrote it for myself.” It was the time of two and a half minute hits, three minutes at most but McLean broke that rule when he released the eight minute 42 seconds track that had to be split over an A side and B side of a record because it was that long. It received four GRAMMY nominations and sold over five million records. “My goal was to make albums I'm celebrating the album, American Pie’s 50th anniversary, not just the song American Pie. The album is essential listening, if you like that song, because you hear the whole thing. The song was number one, and it’s the crowning achievement of the album.”
McLean reflects on the whole record, “The ‘American Pie’ album has an aura about it, if you listen to the tone, the way the voice sounds, the way the songs are. It's amazing, when you break it down, there aren't that many instruments, it's bigger than it actually is and that's because of the production,” he begins. “Ed Freeman and Tom Fly who was the engineer spent a lot of time getting the right kind of vocal sound. They mixed a whole lot of different things, they mixed, what we call slap, which is you know, that old Sun records sound like Johnny Cash, and there's a lot of chamber echo.”
McLean explains the importance of these effects in that time, “All the great records in the 50s had chamber echo. You know when you sing in the shower, and because you have the tile around you, you get that echo, or you're in a stairwell where they might have cinderblock and you get that wonderful echo. So what chamber echo is, they would have a chamber under the ground, big long steel chamber you can walk in, and they would cut the record. And they would have a microphone in there. And they would play the record, back through the tunnel and record that. And so you had this wonderful echo that you're getting while you play the dry version of the song in this tunnel. And you can't get this any other way. Capitol had the best chamber echo. I mean, listen to some of those Sinatra records. That was a big factor in making albums. And it still is, in my opinion. I'm always looking for it whenever I cut a record.”
Many artists have since released versions of the song, Weird Al released a Star Wars version whilst Madonna also topped the charts with her rendition. Country music legend, Garth Brooks remembers hearing ‘American Pie’ for the first time on a car ride with his mum to go pick up his dad from work. “This could be the greatest song in music history,” he says honestly. “This thing is timeless because no one has ever written anything like it since.” Jade Bird recalls how it touched people in England as she prepared to record her interpretation at RCA Studios, “There’s something about the melody that feels completely timeless,” she gushes. Meanwhile, Jencarlos recorded a Spanish rendition. Beside his own, McLean’s favourite version of the song was released to coincide with it’s 50th celebration, “I think the recent Home Free version is my favourite. They made a very nice video to go with their version of the song. Most people don't sing the song all the way through, it's too long, but they did the whole thing.”
Most surprisingly, McLean teamed up with English boxer Tyson Fury for a rendition of the timeless classic. “He was singing, every time he won a match he would sing ‘American Pie’. So the pandemic hit but we were going to do this a few years ago. Then this last fight his people and our people got together and said wouldn't it be fun to create a video with him and me singing but telling a bit of his story. How he almost was knocked out and came back.” The video, which was released before Fury took on Dillian Whyte, won a number of awards. McLean makes an honest assessment of the British boxer, “He is what boxing has needed for a long, long time. Because most of these people in heavyweight boxing are not very interesting, they’re not great fighters in my opinion either. But he is a great fighter and a very unorthodox fighter. And he does things that other people don't do - everyone loves this guy. So I wish him all the best.”
As he celebrates the longevity of ‘American Pie’ both the song and the album, McLean is about to embark on a world tour that will see him perform 35 dates across Europe, before heading to Australia, the US and Canada. This timeless classic has helped cement Don McLean as a legend within music, having charted in numerous countries across the world and being selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant”. Here’s to the next 50 years of ‘American Pie’!