American Pie (song)

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"American Pie"
American Pie by Don McLean US vinyl single.jpg
Picture sleeve for U.S. vinyl single. Artwork is also used as the front cover for the album of the same name and many other international releases of the single.
Single by Don McLean
from the album American Pie
B-side
  • "Empty Chairs" (promo)
  • "American Pie part 2" (first release)
Released
  • October 1971 (original)
  • November 1991 (re-release)
RecordedMay 26, 1971
GenreFolk rock[1]
Length
  • 8:42 (LP)
  • 4:11 (single part 1)
  • 4:31 (single part 2)
LabelUnited Artists
Songwriter(s)Don McLean
Producer(s)Ed Freeman for The Rainbow Collection, Ltd.
Don McLean singles chronology
"Castles in the Air"
(1971)
"American Pie"
(1971)
"Vincent"
(1972)
Music video
"American Pie" on YouTube. Don McLean's live performance on BBC, July 29, 1972

"American Pie" is a song by American singer and songwriter Don McLean. Recorded and released on the American Pie album in 1971, the single was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972 starting January 15[2] after just eight weeks on the Billboard charts (where it entered at number 69).[3] The song also topped the charts in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In the UK, the single reached number 2, where it stayed for 3 weeks, on its original 1971 release and a reissue in 1991 reached No. 12. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century. A truncated version of the song was covered by Madonna in 2000 and reached No. 1 in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. At 8 minutes and 42 seconds, McLean's combined version is the sixth longest song to enter the Billboard Hot 100 (at the time of release it was the longest). The song also held the record for almost 50 years for being the longest song to reach number one[4] before Taylor Swift's "All Too Well (Taylor's Version)" broke the record in 2021.[5] Due to its exceptional length, it was initially released as a two-sided 7-inch single.[6] "American Pie" has been described as "one of the most successful and debated songs of the 20th century".[7]

The repeatedly mentioned phrase "the day the music died" refers to the plane crash in 1959 that killed early rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, and ended the era of early rock and roll; this became the popular nickname for that crash. However the overall theme of the song goes beyond its superficial semblance of mourning McLean's childhood music heroes, and reflects the deep cultural changes and profound disillusionment and loss of innocence of his entire generation[7] – the early rock and roll generation – that took place between the 1959 plane crash and either late 1969[8] or late 1970.[9][10] The meaning of the other lyrics, which cryptically allude to many of the jarring events and social changes experienced during that period, have been debated for decades. McLean repeatedly declined to explain the symbolism behind the many characters and events mentioned; he eventually released his songwriting notes to accompany the original manuscript when it was sold in 2015, explaining many of these.

In 2017, McLean's original recording was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant".[11] To mark the 50th anniversary of the song, McLean is scheduled to perform a 35-date tour through Europe, starting in Wales and ending in Austria, in 2022.[12]

Background[edit]

It has been claimed that Don McLean began writing "American Pie" in Saratoga Springs, New York, at Caffè Lena, but a 2011 New York Times article quotes McLean as disputing this claim.[13] Some employees at Caffè Lena claim that he started writing the song there, and then continued to write the song in both Cold Spring, New York,[14] and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[15] McLean claims that the song was only written in Cold Spring and Philadelphia.[13] Tin & Lint, a bar on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs, claims the song was written there, and a plaque marks the table. While some have claimed other places, such as Saint Joseph's University, as where the song was first performed,[16] McLean insists that the song made its debut in Philadelphia at Temple University[13] when he opened for Laura Nyro on March 14, 1971.[15]

McLean used a 1969 or 1970 Martin D-28 guitar to provide the basic chords throughout "American Pie".[17] The song debuted in the album American Pie in October 1971, and was released as a single in December. The song's eight-and-a-half-minute length meant that it could not fit entirely on one side of the 45 RPM record, so United Artists had the first 4:11 taking up the A-side of the record and the final 4:31 the B-side. Radio stations initially played the A-side of the song only, but soon switched to the full album version to satisfy their audiences.[18]

Interpretations[edit]

The sense of disillusion and loss that the song transmits isn’t just about deaths in the world of music, but also about a generation that could no longer believe in the utopian dreams of the 1950s ... According to McLean, the song represents a shift from the naïve and innocent ‘50s to the darker decade of the ‘60s

Alva Yaffe, Musicholics, [7]

Don called his song a complicated parable, open to different interpretations. "People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time."

superseventies.com, [19]

The song has nostalgic themes,[20] stretching from the late 1950s until late 1969 or 1970. Except to acknowledge that he first learned about Buddy Holly's death on February 3, 1959 – McLean was age 13 – when he was folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 4, 1959 (hence the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver"), McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song's lyrics; he has said: "They're beyond analysis. They're poetry."[21] He also stated in an editorial published in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (who are alluded to in the final verse in a comparison with the Christian Holy Trinity), that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly's death and that he considers the song to be "a big song ... that summed up the world known as America".[22] McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Holly.

Some commentators have identified the song as outlining the darkening of cultural mood, as over time the cultural vanguard passed from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez (the "King and Queen" of folk music), then from Elvis Presley (known as "the King" of Rock and Roll), to Bob Dylan ("the Jester" – who wore a jacket similar to that worn by cultural icon James Dean, was known as "the voice of his generation" ("a voice that came from you and me"),[23] and whose motorcycle accident ("in a cast") left him in reclusion for many years, recording in studios rather than touring ("on the sidelines"), to The Beatles (John Lennon, punned with Lenin, and "the Quartet" – although McLean has stated the Quartet is a reference to other people[6]), to The Byrds (who wrote one of the first psychedelic rock songs, "Eight Miles High", and then "fell fast" – the song was banned, one of the group entered rehabilitation (known colloquially as a "fallout shelter"), and shortly after, the group declined as it lost members, changed genres, and alienated fans), to The Rolling Stones (who released Jumpin' Jack Flash and Their Satanic Majesties Request ("Jack Flash", "Satan", "The Devil"), and used Hells Angels – "Angels born in Hell" – as event security, with fatal consequences, bringing the 1960s to a violent end[24]), and to Janis Joplin (the "girl who sang the blues" but just "turned away" – she died of a heroin overdose the following year).

It has also been speculated that the song contains numerous references to post-World War II American political events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy (known casually as "Jack") and subsequent killing of his assassin (whose courtroom trial obviously ended as a result ("adjourned"),[25] the Cuban Missile Crisis ("Jack be nimble, Jack be quick"),[26] the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner,[27] and elements of culture such as sock hops ("kicking off shoes" to dance, preventing damage to the varnished floor), cruising with a pickup truck,[25][28] the rise of the political protest song ("a voice that came from you and me"), drugs and the Counterculture, the Manson Family's and murders in the "summer swelter" of 1969 (the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter") and much more.[6]

Many additional and alternative interpretations have also been proposed.

For example, Bob Dylan's first performance in Great Britain was also at a pub called "The King and Queen", and he also appeared more literally "on the sidelines in a (the) cast" – as one of many stars at the back far right of the cover art of the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ("the Sergeants played a marching tune").[26]

The song title itself is a reference to apple pie, an unofficial symbol of the United States and one of its signature comfort foods,[29] as seen in the popular expression "As American as apple pie".[30] By the twentieth century, this had become a symbol of American prosperity and national pride.[30]

When asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean jokingly replied, "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to."[31] Later, he stated, "You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me ... Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."[32] He also commented on the popularity of his music, "I didn't write songs that were just catchy, but with a point of view, or songs about the environment."

In February 2015, however, McLean announced he would reveal the meaning of the lyrics to the song when the original manuscript went for auction in New York City, in April 2015.[33] The lyrics and notes were auctioned on April 7, and sold for $1.2 million.[34] In the sale catalogue notes, McLean revealed the meaning in the song's lyrics: "Basically in 'American Pie' things are heading in the wrong direction. ... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense."[35] The catalogue confirmed some of the better-known references in the song's lyrics, including mentions of Elvis Presley ("the king") and Bob Dylan ("the jester"), and confirmed that the song climaxes with a description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.[35]

Mike Mills of R.E.M. reflected: "'American Pie' just made perfect sense to me as a song and that's what impressed me the most. I could say to people this is how to write songs. When you've written at least three songs that can be considered classic that is a very high batting average and if one of those songs happens to be something that a great many people think is one of the greatest songs ever written you've not only hit the top of the mountain but you've stayed high on the mountain for a long time."[36]

In 2017, Bob Dylan was asked about how he was referenced in the song. "A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like 'Masters of War', 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', 'It's Alright, Ma' – some jester. I have to think he's talking about somebody else. Ask him."[37]

Personnel[edit]

  • Don McLean – vocals, acoustic guitar
  • Paul Griffin – piano[38][39]
  • David Spinozza – electric guitar
  • Bob Rothstein – bass, backing vocals
  • Roy Markowitz – drums, tambourine
  • West Forty Fourth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir – chorus

Charts[edit]

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[55] Platinum 600,000double-dagger
United States (RIAA)[56] 3× Platinum 3,000,000double-dagger

double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

Parodies, revisions, and uses[edit]

In 1999, "Weird Al" Yankovic wrote and recorded a parody of "American Pie". Titled "The Saga Begins", the song recounts the plot of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s point of view. While McLean gave permission for the parody, he did not make a cameo appearance in its video, despite popular rumor. McLean himself praised the parody, even admitting to almost singing Yankovic's lyrics during his own live performances because his children played the song so often.[57][58] An unrelated comedy film franchise by Universal Pictures, who secured the rights to McLean's title, also debuted in 1999.[59]

"American Pie" was the last song to be played on Virgin Radio before it was rebranded as Absolute Radio in 2008.[60]

The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, created a lip dub video to "American Pie" in response to a Newsweek article that stated the city was "dying".[61] The video was hailed as a fantastic performance by many including Roger Ebert, who said it was "the greatest music video ever made".[62]

On March 21, 2013, Harmonix announced that "American Pie" would be the final downloadable track made available for the Rock Band series of music video games.[63] This was the case until Rock Band 4 was released on October 6, 2015, reviving the series' weekly releases of DLC.

On March 14, 2015, the National Museum of Mathematics announced that one of two winners of its songwriting contest was "American Pi" by mathematics education professor Dr. Lawrence M. Lesser.[64] The contest was in honor of "Pi Day of the Century" because "3/14/15" would be the only day in the 21st-century showing the first five digits of π (pi).

On April 20, 2015, John Mayer covered "American Pie" live on the Late Show with David Letterman, at the request of the show's eponymous host.[65]

On January 29, 2021, McLean released a re-recording of "American Pie" featuring lead vocals and instrumentals by country a cappella group Home Free.[66]

The song is featured in Marvel’s Black Widow movie, directed by Cate Shortland and starring Scarlett Johansson, released on July 9, 2021.[67] It is Black Widow (Yelena Belova)'s favorite song. The song was also sang by Red Guardian later in the film trying to comfort Yelena.[68]

"American Pie" is also featured in the 2021 Tom Hanks movie Finch.[69]

Madonna version[edit]

"American Pie"
American Pie Madonna.png
Single by Madonna
from the album The Next Best Thing
ReleasedFebruary 28, 2000 (2000-02-28)
Recorded
  • September 1999 (New York City)[70]
GenreDance-pop
Length4:33
Label
Songwriter(s)Don McLean
Producer(s)
Madonna singles chronology
"Beautiful Stranger"
(1999)
"American Pie"
(2000)
"Music"
(2000)
Music video
"American Pie" (Madonna version) on YouTube

Background[edit]

American singer Madonna released a cover version of the song in February 2000 to promote the soundtrack of her film The Next Best Thing (2000), with the song being serviced to radio on February 2.[71] Her cover is much shorter than the original (it contains only the beginning of the first verse and all of the second and sixth verses) and was recorded as a dance-pop song. It was co-produced by Madonna and William Orbit and released on the singer's Maverick label, after Rupert Everett (Madonna's co-star in The Next Best Thing) had convinced her to cover the song for the film's soundtrack.[72] It is included as an international bonus track on her eighth studio album, Music.

"American Pie" was not included in the 2001 greatest hits compilation GHV2 (2001) because Madonna had regretted putting it on Music. "It was something a certain record company executive twisted my arm into doing, but it didn't belong on the album so now it's being punished... My gut told me not to [put the song on Music], but I did it and then I regretted it so just for that reason it didn't deserve a place on GHV2." she said.[73][74]

Release and reception[edit]

Released on February 28, 2000,[75] the song was a worldwide hit, reaching No. 1 in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Finland. The song was the 19th-best-selling single of 2000 in the UK and the ninth best-selling single of 2000 in Sweden. The single was not released commercially in the United States, but it reached No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 due to strong radio airplay.

NME gave it a negative review, saying that it was "sub-karaoke fluff" and that "it's a blessing she didn't bother recording the whole thing."[76] Chuck Taylor from Billboard, on the other hand, was impressed by the recording and commented, "Applause to Madonna for not pandering to today's temporary trends and for challenging programmers to broaden their playlists. ... In all, a fine preview of the forthcoming soundtrack to The Next Best Thing."[77] Don McLean himself praised the cover, saying it was "a gift from a goddess", and that her version is "mystical and sensual".[78] In 2017, the Official Charts Company stated the song had sold 400,000 copies in the United Kingdom and was her 16th best selling single to date in the nation.[79]

Music video[edit]

The music video, filmed in the southern United States and in London[80] and directed by Philipp Stölzl, depicts a diverse array of ordinary Americans, including scenes showing same-sex couples kissing. Throughout the music video Madonna, who is wearing a tiara on her head, dances and sings in front of a large American flag.

Two official versions of the video were produced, the first of which now appears on Madonna's greatest-hits DVD compilation, Celebration, and was released as the official video worldwide. The second version was issued along with the "Humpty Remix", a more upbeat and dance-friendly version of the song. This video was aired on MTV's dance channel in the United States to promote the film The Next Best Thing, starring Madonna and Rupert Everett; it contains totally different footage and new outtakes of the original and omits the lesbian kiss. Everett, who provides backing vocals in the song, is also featured in the video.

Credits and personnel[edit]

Credits and personnel are adapted from the American Pie single liner notes.[81]

Charts[edit]

Certifications and sales[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[134] Gold 35,000^
Austria (IFPI Austria)[135] Gold 25,000*
Belgium (BEA)[136] Gold 25,000*
France (SNEP)[138] Silver 183,000[137]
Germany (BVMI)[139] Gold 250,000^
Italy 70,000[140]
Sweden (GLF)[141] Platinum 30,000^
Switzerland (IFPI Switzerland)[142] Gold 25,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[143] Gold 400,000[79]

* Sales figures based on certification alone.
^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

Lyric interpretations and analysis

Many people have analyzed the lyrics since the song was released. Examples of these include:

External links[edit]