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‘American Pie’, the 1971 number one hit by Don McLean, is one of the most instantly recognisable songs of all time. A favourite for buskers, karaoke bars and, of course, late night singalongs.
Perhaps not as recognisable are the moments in time that McLean references throughout the song. It sticks to a ten year time frame between 1959 and 1969 – “for ten tears we’ve been on our own” – and whilst McLean repeats the word “day”, he actually points to “days”, a series of instances when music changed dramatically. He suggests that the greatest moments in music are fleeting and don’t last forever, just as bands, movements, and ideals change.
Below are songs which are referenced in ‘American Pie’, along with artists and events which changed the course of the 60s. Like ‘American Pie’, the playlist is a snapshot of the decade. A unique list of original tracks, marking milestones of twentieth-century music.
#1. Buddy Holly – ‘That’ll Be The Day’
“But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep”
This is perhaps the easiest piece of imagery to take from ‘American Pie’. It refers to the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), and their impact on thirteen-year old McLean. Sadly, all three died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, near Clear Lake, Iowa.
#2. Bob Dylan – ‘Like A Rolling Stone’
“When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me”
McLean referred to Bob Dylan as “the Jester”, whilst Elvis was “the King” and Aretha Franklin “the Queen”. Readers of Rolling Stone magazine had earlier disagreed in a 1968 poll, but further reinforcement comes with the lines:
“Oh and while the king was looking down
the jester stole his thorny crown”
The talk of courtrooms and verdicts that follow refer to Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash, which halted his touring for the remainder of the 60s.
#3. The Beatles – ‘Paperback Writer’
“And while Lennon read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park”
A true reference to The Beatles and their decision to quit touring. The last date of their 1966 tour and last US public performance took place at Candlestick Park, San Francisco. Also note Lennon instead of Lenin, a nod to John Lennon’s activism at the close of the 60s. The track ‘Paperback Writer’ was included in the Candlestick Park set-list.
#4. The Byrds – ‘Eight Miles High’
“The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast”
This references psychedelic band The Byrds and their shift away from a peace and love message to a more country-oriented sound by the tail end of the 60s. The track ‘Eight Miles High’, released in March 1966, is often regarded as a high point of the counterculture message.
#5. The Rolling Stones – ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’
“Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend”
There are a few references to The Rolling Stones in ‘American Pie’. McLean takes the premise of the Stones as the anti-Beatles, referring to Jagger as a disruptive devil for teenage audiences. He directly points to their 1968 hit ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, although he does go further, and references the late Brian Jones who died in July 1969.
“Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone”
#6. Janis Joplin – ‘Piece Of My Heart’
“I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away”
It’s often suggested that the “girl” McLean mentions is Janis Joplin. The powerhouse singer died at the age of twenty-seven in October 1970, over a year before ‘American Pie’ was released. Her impact and legacy sum up the ideals of the hippy message, even if it was wrapped up in a wailing blues singer.
#7. The Beatles – ‘Helter Skelter’
“Helter skelter in a summer swelter”
A second Beatles reference, this time with a darker tone, referencing Charles Manson and the slaying of five people in August 1969 by members of the Manson ‘Family’. The words “Healter Skelter” were written, although spelled incorrectly, on the refrigerator door of the crime scene. Manson was a Beatles fan and took inspiration from their 1968 release The White Album. This made the track infamous, associating The Beatles forever with the figure of cult leader Charles Manson.
#8. The Rolling Stones – ‘Sympathy For The Devil’
“No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell”
These lines are a direct reference to the darkest days which exploded at the close of the 60s. On December 6, at the Altamont freeway outside San Francisco, a concert erupted into a scene of violence and murder. A biker group, the Hells Angels, did security whilst bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed. The last act of the day, The Rolling Stones, performed and during the song ‘Under My Thumb’, eighteen-year old concert goer Meredith Hunter was stabbed and killed by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. What was billed as a concert of peace and love, similar to Woodstock, became the final nail in the coffin of the sixties counterculture dream.
“And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died”
#9. Don McLean – ‘American Pie’
Following the other tracks, we arrive at ‘American Pie’ with a different perspective. Though McLean does not stick to chronological order throughout the song, it still has an impact, as he marks all those days that the music died.