Day 15: American Pie

Song: “American Pie” by Don McLean
Reached #1: January 15, 1972 (his first, 4 weeks)

Live version of the full song

Don’t be fooled – the title of the song isn’t “American Pie (Parts 1 and 2)”.  That bit of parenthetical goodness was added after McLean’s record label released a 4-minute edit of the song as “American Pie (Part 1)” – and after listeners and radio stations rebelled.  

The record label, United Artists, was doing what they did in those days – nobody played songs that ran 8 1/2 minutes on pop radio.  But once people got the single, and heard both sides (the remainder of the song was the B-side, as “American Pie (Part 2)”), they wanted all of it.  And they got it.   Before this song, you pretty much had to be The Beatles to get a long song on radio – and it had to be “Hey Jude”.  From here, the average length of a single only got longer.  Keep in mind that American Top 40 was a 3-hour show in 1972 (and could still add songs other than the Top 40 without massive editing)… within a couple of years, songs were being cut up pretty badly, to the point that AT40 went to 4 hours in 1978 (and still had to edit songs).  That’s not all on Don McLean, of course – someone was going to release an epic single, and songs were going to get longer as songwriters sought to express themselves.

And man, did Don McLean express himself.  We’ll never know for sure exactly what McLean’s poetic and cryptic references all mean – he won’t tell (but unlike Carly Simon, he’s not playing up the mystery).  He’s kind of traditional about it – he believes songwriters should write the song and move on.  While he doesn’t say so himself, the idea is that each of us brings our own experiences to the song.

However, it’s pretty obvious that McLean was hit hard by the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson.  A little research indicates that he may have also been influenced by the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1968.

But in the end, does it really matter?  “American Pie” is a classic because it’s an oral history of the first decade or so of the rock era.  The fact that we get to figure the story out for ourselves just adds a little more spice.

Tomorrow, we look back at the first single from a actress/dancer/singer/producer/mogul.

Other songs that reached #1 on January 15:
1977 –
“You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer (his first, 1 week)
1983 – “Down Under” by Men At Work (their second, 4 weeks)
2000 – “What A Girl Wants” by Christina Aguilera (her second, 2 weeks)


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