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American Pie
Don McLean

United Artists 5535
Released: October 1971
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 48
Certified Gold: 1/3/72

Don McLeanDon McLean's "American Pie" has ripped out of nowhere and taken the country by storm both in its album and truncated single versions. It took exactly two weeks to shoot to the top of the charts, everybody I know has been talking excitedly about it since first hearing, and, even more surprisingly, it has united listeners of musical persuasions as diverse as Black Sabbath and Phil Ochs in unbridled enthusiasm for both its message and its musical qualities.

All of which is not so surprising once you've heard it, because it is a brilliant song, a metaphor for the death and rebirth of rock that's at once complex and immediately accessible. For the last couple of years critics and audience alike have been talking abut the Death of Rock, or at least the fragmentation of all our 1967 dreams of anthemic unity. And, inevitably, somebody has written a song about it. About Dylan, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Janis and others. About where we've been, the rush of exhilaration we felt at the pinnacle, and the present sense of despair. Don McLean has taken all this and set it down in language that has unmistakable impact the first time you hear it, and leaves you rubbing your chin -- "Just what did that line mean?" -- with further listenings because you know it's all about something you've felt and lived through. A very 1967ish song, in fact, in the way it makes you dig for deeper meaning, but not the least bit mawkish.

It opens with a slow, mournful sequence abut reading the headlines about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper while delivering papers as a child, then into the chorus: "Bye bye, Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry/Them good ole boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye/And sayin' this'll be the day that I die." Then all at once it rears up and charges through the years in a giddy rush: "I was a lonely teenage bronckin' buck/With a pink carnation and a pickup truck," the "Book of Love," sock hops in the gym and puppy jealousy, and then into the heart of the myth, where Dylan is a Jester "in a coat he borrowed from James Dean," laughing at the king "in a voice that came from you and me."

The halycon days of Sgt. Pepper are brilliantly caught: "The half-time air was sweet perfume/As Sergeants played a marching tune," but suddenly the Jester is on the sidelines in a cast, the stage is taken by Jack Flash ("Fire is the devil's only friend"), and Altamont, the Angels and the despairing resentment the Stones left many fans pass in a dark panorama. Finally coming down to the levee again, where the good old boys are draining the bottles and talking as if it's all over, as they did when the plane bearing "The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost" fell and as they will again and again through the years. It's just the old Calvinist sense of impending apocalypse and perdition, but they're good old boys anyway and we can't resent them because we too "believe in rock 'n' roll/And [that] music can save your mortal soul." Because they're us.

"American Pie" is a song of the year, and its music is just as strong as those lyrics, propelled with special resonance by the piano of Paul Griffin, who played with the Jester when his myth was at pinnacle. If you've ever cried because of a rock & roll band or album, or lain awake nights wondering or sat up talking through the dawn about Our Music and what it all means and where it's all going and why, if you've ever kicked off your shoes to dance or wished you had the chance, if you ever believed in Rock & Roll, you've got to have this album.

- Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone, 1-20-72.

Bonus Reviews!

This first album for United Artists is a sensitive, lyrical collection of original material, the essence of Don McLean. "Vincent," a stirring plea for understanding of the work of Van Gogh, appears to be autobiographical in part. FM programmers should hear "Till Tomorrow," "Empty Chairs" and of course the title cut, "American Pie."

- Billboard, 1972.

Don McLean is an enigma. Just when you think you've got him figured out, he does something that makes you wonder about him. He's been making music on and off for about ten years; all during high school, in college and out. He sings like a pop singer, but he sounds like a folk singer and looks like a disheveled choir boy. He's crazy and gruff sometimes, but he's also shy, and he's used to being alone for long stretches. If you meet him you might think he was quiet and thoughtful -- and he is, but not always. Mostly, he's crazy and fidgity. When asked about his music he says, "I see music as form and color, not sound. Painters influence me sometimes."

You should really listen to Don McLean's albums if you want to know about him. Tapestry and the new American Pie give a good picture of his ideas, but they don't tell where the ideas came from.

"American Pie," the title track of Don McLean's latest album, is destined to become a classic. It is McLean at his very best, and we'll have to wait for his next album to see if he can top it.

Don McLean is more than a singer/songwriter. He's a painter of images. A weaver of stories and feelings. A monumental architect who, in verse and music, creates experiences. Unlike most performers, McLean never raises his voice to drive home a point. He doesn't have to. It's all there in the lyrics -- and if you listen closely, you'll realize how frightfully realistic they are.

There are ten new McLean masterpieces in the grooves of this new album. Ten new experiences to share: "American Pie," "Till Tomorrow," "Vincent," "Crossroads," "Winterwood," "Empty Chairs," "Everybody Loves Me Baby," "Sister Fatima," "The Grave," and "Babylon."

Like his first album, this one will soon be hailed as a musical landmark. So, if you're looking for fresh, original untapped talent -- turn on to Don McLean. And do it now.

- Lydia Agile, Circus, 1-72.

The title cut is the great novelty song that may be about the death of rock and roll or may be about its refusal to die. The other material here indicates that McLean himself believes the former, but since it also indicates that he couldn't have composed "American Pie" -- he just took dictation from the shade of Buddy Holly, who must be taking some pretty strong drugs up there to make such a mistake -- you might as well judge for yourself. And do so like a real novelty-lover, by buying the single -- unless you're in the market for a song about how nobody understood Van Gough. C-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The album that made Don McLean famous. The title track is the only real rocker, but the rest is intelligently produced and at times quite haunting, if a little angst ridden. * * * * *

- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

All those people of every age singing "American Pie" can't be wrong about the classic status of this singer-songwriter's 11-minute opus to American pop culture. The official anthem for a generation lost in space, the all-time sing-along transcends any literal reference to a historic moment -- and even brings back memories for those born after its early '70s heyday. It's great populist writing, especially coupled with the hidden gem "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)," so cut me another slice. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.




Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Single Review:
"American Pie"

Don McLean:
In His Own Words

The Annotated
"American Pie" FAQ

Don McLean Lyrics

Don McLean Videos

When it first came out in 1972, Don McLean's elliptical epistle "American Pie" got puzzled and poured over like ancient runes by fans and rock critics alike. An eight-and-a-half-minute-long, rollicking and bittersweet ode to the death of Buddy Holly -- and, by extension, the death of Fifties rock & roll -- it remains an American classic, despite the almost reactionary message that underlies it. (Sixties rock = Bad!) "American Pie" is followed by a cache of poetical tunes in the sensitive singer-songwriter mold. Songs such as "Vincent" (about the misunderstood van Gogh) and "Empty Chairs" (which inspired Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song") helped shape that distinctively Seventies sensibility. Bonus tracks include the seven-minute "Mother Nature," whose jazzy uplift and positive message ("Mother Nature has got a hold on me") would have nicely lightened the mood of the original album. * * *

- Parke Puterbaugh, Rolling Stone, 8-21-03.

When Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in February 1959, Don McLean was a 13-year-old paperboy. The headlines he read would sow the seed for his greatest song, an eight-and-a-half-minute epic and U.S. chart-topper that, by its timing and oblique references to the likes of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and The Beatles, appears to double as an elegy to the Sixties.

The track has unjustly overshadowed "Vincent," the album's second single, which hit No. 1 in the UK chart in mid-1972. This was also inspired by a legendary figure, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gough whose inner torment in his search for perfection led him to cut off part of one of his own ears. All songs on the album were penned by McLean except for the traditional "Babylon," whose arrangement is co-credited to McLean and Lee Hays of The Weavers, who taught it to him. Another track, "Crossroads," is an outstandingly constructed -- both thematically and musically -- song that deserves better than "also-ran" status.

McLean's biggest hit may have been inspired by a rock 'n' roll giant but his background had been in folk, a fact reflected in an acoustic presentation reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot. ("Everybody Loves Me, Baby," a self-conscious rocker, is the album's weakest track.) He had worked with the legendary Pete Seeger but his debut album (which charted in the wake of Ameican Pie) was allegedly rejected by 34 record labels despite containing the classic "And I Love You So." (It has also been reported that he refused to sign away his publishing to prospective labels, so perhaps the last laugh was his after all).

- Michael Heatley, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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