Album Review: Don McLean - American Pie (1971)

By Sergio Ariza

American pies and starry nights 

Don McLean
was a little known folk singer, a disciple of Pete Seeger and with a debut album behind him that few had heard, until he decided to record the song he had composed about a tragedy - that had happened when he was a teenager and was delivering papers after school -, the death in a plane crash of Buddy Holly, accompanied by Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper. McLean started from that fateful day, February 3, 1959, and baptized it "the day the music died" (something that is now written in stone) to then work through the following decade in the U.S., both socially and musically, from a personal perspective. The resulting song, American Pie, was a work for which he would be remembered forever and ever...

"A long, long time ago
", he began, as if it were a fairy tale. American Pie is a song with the most perfect chorus to sing-a-long to and is a communal song, made to lament the loss of innocence of the whole American society; how it went from the joviality of Peggy Sue to the terrible events of the Altamont Festival in which a man was killed by the Hells Angels. It features everything from the ‘overthrow’ of Elvis at the hands of Bob Dylan, who is here called the "jester", with the consequent transition from the 50s to the 60s, the emergence of psychedelia with the Byrds and their Eight Miles High, the life changing event that was the appearance of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, Janis Joplin and finally the Stones at Altamont: "And as the flames climbed high into the night to light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight".


The fact is that McLean wanted to play that song, which was almost nine minutes long, only accompanied by his Martin D-28, but the producer, Ed Freeman, whom McLean himself had hired because he had liked what he had done with Tom Rush, convinced him to record it with a full band: and so he was joined by  David Spinozza on electric guitar, Paul Griffin on piano, Bob Rothstein on bass and Roy Markowitz on drums. Together they rehearsed the song for two weeks until they came up with the final arrangement and then recorded it. McLean wanted a live sound, so they did 20 takes with everyone playing at the same time, but the singer changed the way he sang it in each version, so Freeman decided to take several parts from each take to get the final result.

In the end the song became a hit and made a star of its author but, for a long time, McLean refused to give his own interpretation of the lyrics; adding what may be the best explanation of it: "What American Pie means is that I don't have to work again in my life if I don't want to".


The funny thing is that this song, now absolutely mythical (and please listen to the hilarious version by 'Weird' Al Yankovich, who changes the lyrics to fit Star Wars), was within an inch of not seeing the light. And the fact is that, while they were recording it, the label who McLean was with, Mediarts, went bankrupt and was absorbed by United Artists, and there it was not thought that a nine-minute song, no matter how catchy, could be commercial. In the end McLean’s team managed to convince the company, although they first released a shortened version of the song, so it wasn't until the album appeared that a number of DJs began to play it and spread the first, of millions, theories about its lyrics.

But the album hid another gem that is almost on a par with the one that gave the album its title. It was a bittersweet homage to the painter Vincent Van Gogh, called Vincent, and one of  his great masterpieces: Starry Night. It's not as cryptic, nor as memorable, as American Pie, but it's a real beauty, with little more than McLean’s voice, his Martin and a string arrangement at the end.


The rest of the album doesn't quite live up to his two best-known moments, although Empty Chairs is the one that comes closest to those wonders for which he will always be remembered; not for nothing is it the song that prompted Lori Lieberman to start writing the lyrics to Killing Me Softly With His Song after seeing him sing it live. There is also Everybody Loves My Baby, which is a sort of more upbeat version of the American Pie tune, and Crossroads which resembles Vincent, but played on piano.

The album was released on October 24, 1971 with a special dedication to Buddy Holly, the man who had inspired him to compose his best known song. At that time, as McLean sang on the title track, Holly was barely a memory ("I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before, but the man there said the music wouldn't play") but thanks to this album and the appearance, shortly after, of the film American Graffiti, his figure re-emerged, becoming the symbol of an era, the 50's, and a country, the USA.