While Don McLean was recording “American Pie,” the eight-minute-plus song that brought him stardom in late 1971, his label, Media Arts Records, went under. Understandably, the situation put a damper on any great expectations McLean had for the song.
“I wasn’t thinking of releasing or editing it,” he says today. “My expectations were that I would be looking for a record company.”
Fortunately, United Artists wound up purchasing Media Arts Records, and McLean was able to finish “American Pie.” United Artists execs had confidence in the song’s hit potential, but badly misjudged the public’s attention span, and appetite, for “Pie.”
“The original audience did not hear the slow piano part at the beginning of the song,” says McLean. “The record company created two single versions--a truncated version of the song that they gave to radio, and the single available in stores with parts one and two. But the album American Pie came out, and people started flooding the radio stations with requests for the entire song, not the thing with just choruses and a few verses. So they threw that in the dustbin and started playing the track from the album.”
McLean, who used a 1969 or ‘70 Martin D-28 on the acoustic guitar and piano-driven track, strums basic chords throughout. But playing “American Pie” properly is more difficult than it sounds.
“If you sit down with it, you’ll see that there’s a chord change about every second,” notes McLean. Recording it was not easy, but he and his accompanying musicians, including Paul Griffin on piano and David Spinozza on electric guitar, achieved a spontaneous vibe that made the body of the song rock.
“We recorded live, as a band, doing about 20 takes, and then I overdubbed the vocals,” says McLean. For the final chorus, everyone in the studio joined in. “There were seven or eight people--secretaries, whoever was around--and we recorded it two or three times.”
After all these years, and all the exposure, does McLean every tire of playing “American Pie?”
“I love singing the song--because audiences love to hear it. It’s still fun to sing,” McLean, who performed the song with Garth Brooks to conclude Brooks’ 1997 televised Central Park concert, also takes satisfaction in continuing popularity and ubiquity.
“Lately, you have the Weird Al Yankovich parody of ‘Star Wars: The Saga Begins,’ which is ‘American Pie.’ You have the movie, ‘American Pie,’ which took the title. The damn thing’s all over the place,” he notes. “It’s bigger than ever, and it’s exciting to see all this stuff happen,” he says reflectively, and then blurts out, with a laugh, “It was a good idea. Even then, I knew.”
See McLean perform "American Pie" live. It's worth all 8:30 minutes!