According to McLean (as posted on his website), this song was originally inspired by the death of Buddy Holly. "The Day The Music Died" is February 3, 1959, when Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash after a concert. McLean wrote the song from his memories of the event ("Dedicated to Buddy Holly" was printed on the back of the album cover).
The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album was also a huge influence, and McLean has said in numerous interviews that the song represented the turn from innocence of the '50s to the darker, more volatile times of the '60s - both in music and politics.
McLean was a 13-year-old paperboy in New Rochelle, New York when Holly died. He learned about the plane crash when he cut into his stack of papers and saw the lead story.
Talking about how he composed this song when he was a guest on the UK show Songbook, McLean explained: "For some reason I wanted to write a big song about America and about politics, but I wanted to do it in a different way. As I was fiddling around, I started singing this thing about the Buddy Holly crash, the thing that came out (singing), 'Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.'
I thought, Whoa, what's that? And then the day the music died, it just came out. And I said, Oh, that is such a great idea. And so that's all I had. And then I thought, I can't have another slow song on this record. I've got to speed this up. I came up with this chorus, crazy chorus. And then one time about a month later I just woke up and wrote the other five verses. Because I realized what it was, I knew what I had. And basically, all I had to do was speed up the slow verse with the chorus and then slow down the last verse so it was like the first verse, and then tell the story, which was a dream. It is from all these fantasies, all these memories that I made personal. Buddy Holly's death to me was a personal tragedy. As a child, a 15-year-old, I had no idea that nobody else felt that way much. I mean, I went to school and mentioned it and they said, 'So what?' So I carried this yearning and longing, if you will, this weird sadness that would overtake me when I would look at this album, The Buddy Holly Story, because that was my last Buddy record before he passed away."
This song made the 26-year-old McLean very famous very quickly, which was difficult for the songwriter. McLean was prone to depression, losing his father at age 15 and dealing with a bad marriage when recording the album. So when the song hit, it thrust him into the spotlight and took the focus away from the body of his work. In a 1973 interview with NME, he explained: "I was headed on a certain course, and the success I got with 'American Pie' really threw me off. It just shattered my lifestyle and made me quite neurotic and extremely petulant. I was really prickly for a long time. If the things you're doing aren't increasing your energy and awareness and clarity and enjoyment, then you feel as though you're moving blindly. That's what happened to me. I seemed to be in a place where nothing felt like anything, and nothing meant anything. Literally nothing mattered. It was very hard for me to wake up in the morning and decide why it was I wanted to get up."
Contrary to rumors, the plane that crashed was not named the "American Pie" - Dwyer's Flying Service did not name their planes. McLean made up the name.
McLean admits that this song is about Buddy Holly, but has never said what the lyrics are about, preferring to let listeners interpret them on their own. In these next few Songfacts, we'll take a look at some logical interpretations:
"The Jester" is probably Bob Dylan. It refers to him wearing "A coat he borrowed from James Dean," and being "On the sidelines in a cast." Dylan wore a red jacket similar to James Dean's on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, and got in a motorcycle accident in 1966 which put him out of service for most of that year. Dylan also made frequent use of jokers, jesters or clowns in his lyrics. The line, "And a voice that came from you and me" could refer to the folk style he sings, and the line, "And while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown" could be about how Dylan took Elvis Presley's place as the number one performer.
The line "Eight miles high and falling fast" is likely a reference to The Byrds' hit "Eight Miles High." Regarding the line, "The birds (Byrds) flew off from a fallout shelter," a fallout shelter is a '60s term for a drug rehabilitation facility, which one of the band members of The Byrds checked into after being caught with drugs.
The section with the line "The flames climbed high into the night" is probably about the Altamont Speedway concert in 1969. While the Rolling Stones were playing, a fan was stabbed to death by a member of The Hells Angels who was hired for security.
The line "Sergeants played a marching tune" is likely a reference to The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The line "I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away" is probably about Janis Joplin. She died of a drug overdose in 1970.
The lyric "And while Lenin/Lennon read a book on Marx" has been interpreted different ways. Some view it as a reference to Vladimir Lenin, the communist dictator who led the Russian Revolution in 1917 and who built the USSR, which was later ruled by Josef Stalin. The "Marx" referred to here would be the socialist philosopher Karl Marx. Others believe it is about John Lennon, whose songs often reflected a very communistic theology (particularly "Imagine"). Some have even suggested that in the latter case, "Marx" is actually Groucho Marx, another cynical entertainer who was suspected of being a socialist, and whose wordplay was often similar to Lennon's lyrics.
"Did you write the book of love" is probably a reference to the 1958 hit "Book of Love" by the Monotones. The chorus for that song is "Who wrote the book of love? Tell me, tell me... I wonder, wonder who" etc. One of the lines asks, "Was it someone from above?" Don McLean was a practicing Catholic, and believed in the depravity of '60s music, hence the closing lyric: "The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died." Some, have postulated that in this line, the Trinity represents Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
Some more interpretations:
"And moss grows fat on our rolling stone" - Mick Jagger's appearance at a concert in skin-tight outfits, displaying a roll of fat, unusual for the skinny Stones frontman. Also, the words, "You know a rolling stone don't gather no moss" appear in the Buddy Holly song "Early in the Morning," which is about his ex missing him early in the morning when he's gone.
"The quartet practiced in the park" - The Beatles singing at Shea Stadium.
"And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died" - The 60's peace marches.
"Helter Skelter in a summer swelter" - The Manson Family's attack on Sharon Tate and others in California.
"We all got up to dance, Oh, but we never got the chance, 'cause the players tried to take the field, the marching band refused to yield" - The huge numbers of young people who went to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention, and who thought they would be part of the process ("the players tried to take the field"), only to receive a violently rude awakening by the Chicago Police Department nightsticks (the commissions who studied the violence after-the-fact would later term the Chicago PD as "conducting a full-scale police riot") or as McLean calls the police "the marching band."
Madonna covered this in 2000 for the movie The Next Best Thing. Her version topped the UK charts and peaked at #29 in the US. It was her friend, the English actor Rupert Everett, who suggested Madonna record a cover of this song and sang backup on her version.
On January 29, 2007 Madonna's recording was voted the worst ever cover version in a poll by BBC 6 Music. Despite the critical derision, McLean had good things to say about Madonna's cover, and he released this statement: "Madonna is a colossus in the music industry and she is going to be considered an important historical figure as well. She is a fine singer, a fine songwriter and record producer, and she has the power to guarantee success with any song she chooses to record. It is a gift for her to have recorded 'American Pie.' I have heard her version and I think it is sensual and mystical. I also feel that she's chosen autobiographical verses that reflect her career and personal history. I hope it will cause people to ask what's happening to music in America. I have received many gifts from God but this is the first time I have ever received a gift from a goddess."
Madonna was supposed to perform her version at the Super Bowl in 2001, but backed out, claiming she did not have enough time to prepare. No one was too upset.
At 8 minutes 32 seconds, this is the longest song in length to hit #1 on the Hot 100. The single was split in two parts because the 45 did not have enough room for the whole song on one side. The A-side ran 4:11 and the B-side was 4:31 - you had to flip the record in the middle to hear all of it. Disc jockeys usually played the album version at full length, which was to their benefit because it gave them time for a snack, a cigarette or a bathroom break.
In 1971, a singer named Lori Lieberman saw McLean perform this at the Troubadour theater in Los Angeles. She claimed that she was so moved by the concert that her experience became the basis for her song "Killing Me Softly With His Song
," which was a huge hit for Roberta Flack in 1973. When we spoke with Charles Fox
, who wrote "Killing Me Softly" with Norman Gimbel, he explained that when Lieberman heard their song, it reminded her of the show, and she had nothing to do with writing the song.
McLean (from his website): "I'm very proud of the song. It is biographical in nature and I don't think anyone has ever picked up on that. The song starts off with my memories of the death of Buddy Holly. But it moves on to describe America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasizing it might become, so it's part reality and part fantasy but I'm always in the song as a witness or as even the subject sometimes in some of the verses. You know how when you dream something you can see something change into something else and it's illogical when you examine it in the morning but when you're dreaming it seems perfectly logical. So it's perfectly okay for me to talk about being in the gym and seeing this girl dancing with someone else and suddenly have this become this other thing that this verse becomes and moving on just like that. That's why I've never analyzed the lyrics to the song. They're beyond analysis. They're poetry."
This song did a great deal to revive interest in Buddy Holly. Says McLean: "By 1964, you didn't hear anything about Buddy Holly. He was completely forgotten. But I didn't forget him, and I think this song helped make people aware that Buddy's legitimate musical contribution had been overlooked. When I first heard 'American Pie' on the radio, I was playing a gig somewhere, and it was immediately followed by 'Peggy Sue
.' They caught right on to the Holly connection, and that made me very happy. I realized that it was actually gonna perform some good works."
In 2002, this was featured in a Chevrolet ad. It showed a guy in his Chevy singing along to the end of this song. At the end, he gets out and it is clear that he was not going to leave the car until the song was over. The ad played up the heritage of Chevrolet, which has a history of being mentioned in famous songs (the line in this one is "Drove my Chevy to the levee"). Chevy used the same idea a year earlier when it ran billboards of a red Corvette that said, "They don't write songs about Volvos."
Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this song for his 1999 album Running With Scissors
. It was called "The Saga Begins" and was about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
written from the point of view of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sample lyric: "Bye, bye this here Anakin guy, maybe Vader someday later but now just a small fry."
It was the second Star Wars
themed parody for Weird Al - his first being "Yoda," which is a takeoff on "Lola
" by The Kinks. Al admitted that he wrote "The Saga Begins" before the movie came out, entirely based on Internet rumors.
While being interviewed in the 1991, McLean was asked for probably the 1000th time "What does the song 'American Pie' mean to you?," to which he answered, "It means never having to work again for the rest of my life."
The line "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candle stick" is taken from a nursery rhyme that goes "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick." Jumping over the candlestick comes from a game where people would jump over fires. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is a Rolling Stones song. Another possible reference to The Stones can be found in the line, "Fire is the devils only friend," which could be The Rolling Stones "Sympathy For The Devil," which is on the same Rolling Stones album.
McLean wrote the opening verse first, then came up with the chorus, including the famous title. The phrase "as American as apple pie" was part of the lexicon, but "American Pie" was not. When McLean came up with those two words, he says "a light went off in my head."
In the liner notes to the 2003 reissue of the album, McLean said: "A month or so later I was in Philadelphia and I wrote the rest of the song. I was trying to figure out what this song was trying to tell me and where it was supposed to go. That's when I realized it had to go forward from 1957 and it had to take in everything that has happened. I had to be a witness to the things going o, kind of like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. I didn't know anything about hit records. I was just trying to make the most interesting and exciting record that I could. Once the song was written, there was no doubt that it was the whole enchilada. It was clearly a very interesting, wonderful thing and everybody knew it."
When the original was released at a whopping 8:32, some radio stations in the United States refused to play it because of a policy limiting airplay to 3:30. Some interpret the song as a protest against this policy. When Madonna covered the song many years later, she cut huge swathes of the song, ironically to make it more radio friendly, to 4:34 on the album and under 4 minutes for the radio edit.
This song was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002, 29 years after it was snubbed for the four categories it was nominated in. At the 1973 ceremony, "American Pie" lost both Song of the Year and Record of the year to "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Regarding the lyrics, "Jack Flash sat on a candlestick, 'cause fire is the devil's only friend," this could be a reference to the space program, and to the role it played in the Cold War between America and Russia throughout the '60s. It is central to McLean's theme of the blending of the political turmoil and musical protest as they intertwined through our lives during this remarkable point in history. Thus, the reference incorporates Jack Flash (the Rolling Stones), with our first astronaut to orbit the earth, John (common nickname for John is Jack) Glenn, paired with "Flash" an allusion to fire, with another image for a rocket launch, "candlestick," then pulls the whole theme together with "'cause fire is the Devil's (Russia's) only friend" (as Russia had beaten us to manned orbital flight.
Fans still make the occasional pilgrimage to the spot of the plane crash that inspired this song. See the memorial at the site in Song Images
The song starts in mono, and gradually goes to stereo over its eight-and-a-half minutes. This was done to represent going from the monaural era into the age of stereo.
Contrary to local lore, McLean neither wrote "American Pie" on cocktail napkins at the Tin and Lint in Saratoga Springs, New York, nor debuted it on stage at Caffe Lena, a famous coffeehouse around the corner from the bar. Speaking to Saratoga newspaper The Post-Star in November 2011, McLean disclosed that he penned the song in Philadelphia and performed it for the first time at Temple University, where he was billed to perform with Laura Nyro. "I have heard this for years. I guess you can't really control these things, but these are both not true. That is from the horse's mouth that's exactly what happened," McLean said. "Unfortunately Caffe Lena or Saratoga Springs - neither of those places can lay claim to anything with regard to 'American Pie.'"
This song was a forebear to the '50s nostalgia the became popular later in the decade. A year after it was released, Elton John scored a '50s-themed hit with "Crocodile Rock
; in 1973 the George Lucas movie American Graffiti
harkened back to that decade, and in 1978 the movie The Buddy Holly Story
One of the more bizarre covers of this song came in 1972, when it appeared on the album Meet The Brady Bunch, performed by the cast of the TV show. This version runs just 3:39.
This song appears in the films Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Celebrity (1998) and Josie and the Pussycats (2001).
Don McLean's original manuscript of "American Pie" was sold for $1.2 million at a Christie's New York auction on April 7, 2015. McLean wrote for the catalog description:
"Basically in 'American Pie' things are heading in the wrong direction… It is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense. I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015… there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of 'American Pie'."