45 Years Ago: Don McLean ‘American Pie’ Hits #1

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donmccleanThe times they were obviously a-changing as the 1960s became the 1970s, and Bob Dylan wasn’t about to comment on them. So Hudson River Valley folk-rocker Don McLean did, mostly in an inadvertent way that took his observations on the and life times of American music and started a phenomenon.

His song “American Pie” was an eight-and-a-half minute tour de force filled with mythic and spiritual sounding characters within a hurly-burly atmosphere. When its label United Artists Records accepted that it could not effectively shorten or edit the song and in any way do it justice, it was released in November 1971 in its 8:33 entirety on two sides of seven-inch 45 RPM single with a split in the middle.

Radio stations began playing the song in its entirety and hosting call-in shows analyzing its meaning, which also became a favorite college parlor game. Only problem was that other than the first of its many verses – which was specifically about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in February 1959 – McLean hadn’t created any cohesive tale or intended any interpretation.

Related: “American Pie” – The True Story

It is the longest song to ever reach #1 on the pop charts, a spot it held for three weeks, beginning January 15, 1972.

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 New Musical Express, 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.”

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Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson began writing about music in 1976. Since his first published record review in Crawdaddy he has contributed to numerous national popular music magazines such as Creem, Musician, Circus, Spin, Request, Tower Pulse!, CD Review, Acoustic Guitar, Harp and many others along with major country music, consumer audio, musical instrument and studio recording magazines plus international publications New Musical Express and Country Music People in the U.K. From 1977 to '84 he wrote a nationally syndicated music column as well as stories for Newspaper Enterprises Association/United Feature Syndicate that ran in more than 400 daily newspapers across the nation. His work has also appeared in many weekly newspapers, onlinepublications like Salon.com and The Huffington Post, such books as the Rolling Stone Record Guide & Revised Record Guide, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Rock History and The Year In Rock, 1980-81, plus liner notes for 20 album releases.
Rob Patterson
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