Come the 4th of July, you can always expect to hear Neil Diamond’s “Coming To America” or Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” accompanying your local fireworks display. But for many, the ultimate contemporary “American” song is Don McLean’s epic exploration of American culture in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, “American Pie.” It’s been covered by Madonna, embraced by Glenn Beck, parodied by Weird Al, and endlessly analyzed by millions of intrigued listeners trying to figure out just what McLean meant with his barrage of societal and spiritual allusions. Here are 20 facts (or, in a few cases, informed speculations) you might not know about the classic:
1. It’s still the longest song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100, at a whopping eight minutes and 36 seconds. The 45rpm single had to be split into two parts, naturally, and some DJs only played one side or the other, although most acquiesced and played the uninterrupted album version, due to the song’s phenomenal popularity. It includes no fewer than six verses. Subsequent cover versions tended to leave out multiple stanzas.
2. In a survey of the greatest Songs Of The Century, “American Pie” came in at number five. The end-of-the-millennium list was jointly sponsored by the National Endowment For The Arts and the RIAA in 2001. “Pie” was beat out in the list of 20th century classics only by “Over The Rainbow,” “White Christmas,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Respect.”
3. McLean has steadfastly refused to discuss the meaning of most of the lyrics. “As you can imagine, over the years I’ve been asked many times to discuss and explain my song ‘American Pie,'” McLean wrote in an open letter to fans in 1993. “I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the [Buddy] Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of bringing about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur… You will find many ‘interpretations’ of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn’t this fun? 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.”
4. The first major cover version was by…the Brady Bunch, in a recording that is a staple of Worst Covers Of All Time lists. A scant year after McLean’s song hit the big time, TV’s favorite non-nuclear family recorded it for their first album, 1972’s Meet The Brady Bunch. They also did super-saccharine versions of soft-rock smashes like “Me & You & A Dog Named Boo” and “Baby “I’m-A Want You,” but history has reserved special scorn for their particularly point-missing rendition of McLean’s meaningful tune. As Barry Williams wrote in his autobiography, Growing Up Brady, “Worst of all though, was our extraordinarily awful rendition of ‘American Pie.’ Ouch!”
5. Madonna’s version is an even more loathed staple of Worst Covers Of All Time lists. Last year, Rolling Stone named Madonna’s travesty the third worst cover ever. (It was beaten only by Limp Bizkit’s “Behind Blue Eyes” and Miley Cyrus’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) The line “I knew that I could make those people dance” seemed to be Madonna’s only real connection to the tune, half of which got chopped out in her chirpy, under-five-minute version. Although it hit number one on the dance charts, Madonna seemed to ultimately disavow it herself, saying, “It was something a certain record company executive twisted my arm into doing.”
6. The song was revived for a 2002 Chevrolet ad. The popular TV commercial included the “Drove my Chevy to the levee” line, naturally…but, also naturally, dropped the “this’ll be the day that I die” part.
7. Glenn Beck embraced it as a conservative anthem. The talk-radio host spent a good amount of time exegeting the lyrics—controversially—on his show in February of this year. Most McLean buffs would say Beck got most of the cryptic allusions to ’60s counterculture events right, whether or not he took away the “right” message. “Don McLean was not just writing about…the demise of an era,” Beck told his listeners. “The erosion of your culture. The erosion of our values. Altamont was the final blow to bring about the day the music died…The good news is, is that there was at least somebody that was in this culture at that time that was mourning the loss of America then, [although] we didn’t lose America then. We’re still going.”
8. McLean’s original tune revived interest in Holly and ultimately led to the hit biopic The Buddy Holly Story. McLean said, “If you talk to Maria Elena” [the “widowed bride” mentioned in the lyrics], “[she] will tell you that Buddy got more publicity after I wrote my song than he’d ever gotten in his life…I know it sounds self-serving, but if you check it out, you will find that out, and that started the whole thing going.” Indeed, writer John Goldrosen has said that he was finally able to get his Holly biography published because of the interest created by “American Pie”—and it was that book that was adapted into The Buddy Holly Story, the 1978 film that made Gary Busey a star.
9. But McLean also expressed disappointment that the Holly references were all some people got out of the tune. “The fact that Buddy Holly seems to be the primary thing that people talk about when they talk about ‘American Pie’ is kind of sad. But fine with me,” he said in a radio interview. “Because only the beginning is about Buddy Holly, and the rest of it goes on and talks about America and politics and the country, and trying to catch some kind of a special feeling that I had about my country, especially in 1970 and ’71, when it was very turbulent.”
10. Among the uncredited singers on the final background chorus: James Taylor, Carly Simon, Pete Seeger, and Livingston Taylor. “It was quite a star-studded cast, and one that I really should have photographed,” said producer Ed Freeman. On the album sleeve, this all-star chorale was billed simply as the West Forty Fourth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir.
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