This year marks the 50th anniversary of Don McLean’s American Pie. McLean was an established singer-songwriter prior to his most celebrated and commercially successful album; we recently spoke with the legendary artist, who revealed some of the backstory behind the record that became part of the ‘70s music zeitgeist.
Having reached number one within two weeks of its release in October 1971, the album was certified gold within six months. The chart-busting single, “American Pie,” clocking in at over eight minutes in length, was exceedingly long for radio in those days. According to McLean, the record company had initially chopped “American Pie” down to a “radio-friendly” two and a half minutes, and the shortened-single quickly rose to number one.
As expected, this success had a positive effect on sales of the album, and people wanted to hear the full-length album version of the song rather than the abridged radio cut. As McLean recalls, “Listeners called in to radio stations and said, ‘Hey, that’s not the song, this is the song, we want to hear it.’ So they played the album cut on top 40 radio, and that’s how the 8:27 (version) got to be number one.” This was remarkable for the time, considering there was no internet, social media, hashtags, or online petitions to drive the message home to the radio programmers. It was the commitment of people who cared enough to take the time to make their voices heard about this unique record, the one that everyone was talking about.
McLean adds, laughing, “And then, whenever you played it… you had to play side one and side two. And whenever it got played on the air, I got paid twice from BMI (Broadcast Music Inc). It was two hits at once. So it’s always been a bonanza.”
Although most people are familiar with the single, McLean believes the album in its entirety is where the real gold is. “That’s why I say the album is the real experience of ‘American Pie.’ If you really like what I do and you want to get into it, you’ve got to start at the beginning and listen to the whole record. That will give you an environment that you get into. I couldn’t figure out whether to end the album with ‘American Pie,’ or start it. But the way albums are, you got to put your best foot forward right out of the box. Because people put the needle on, if they don’t like what they hear, they take it off… so we had to put our best foot forward and ‘American Pie’ went on first.”
“American Pie” went to number one in America and remained atop the charts for four weeks. In the decades since, the lyrics have been endlessly dissected and discussed, and covers performed by such disparate artists as the Jonas Brothers and Madonna. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) listed “American Pie” as number five on their listing of the most important songs of the 20th century.
What does McLean think of all of this attention? “I never had a hit like it before in my life, so I wouldn’t even know what that was all about. But even if (I had a previous) hit, it would not have been what ‘American Pie’ was, which was this phenomenon from the minute it came out. It was always causing trouble. I only care about the people that appreciate what I’ve done. That’s who I’m writing for. I’m not writing for everybody. There are people who hate ‘American Pie.’ They hate me, you know? And I don’t care. I think we’d make a lot of money if we had an ‘I Hate American Pie’ button (laughs). I think a lot of people would buy it.”