Don McLean is a legend in music, and it’s for so much more than the 8-minute tour de force which is ‘American Pie’, a song that literally changed the landscape of what was possible in a song and made it ok to make music that lasted longer than 3 minutes and okay to mix genres across the duration of a single song. The song is as popular today as it was when it was released 50 years ago.
The artist will be bringing his Anniversary Tour to the UK next year and tickets will go on general sale today. It will be a brilliant chance to see him sing the album live. The record contains so many brilliant songs that launched the career of an artist who, now at 75, is still very passionate about what makes a great song, what is required to perform at the highest level and being the best that he can be.
We were honoured to get the chance to chat with the living legend that is Don McLean and I hope you enjoy his candid responses to my questions. It was great to chat with someone so knowledgeable about music; my only regret is that I couldn’t chat longer.
EP: So, it’s 50 years since ‘American Pie’; it’s one of fewer than 500 songs in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry and it was named by the recording industry of America as a top five song of the 20th century. Has it been a blessing or a curse being so recognisable by one song despite all of the other brilliant work that you’ve done since then and all the outstanding songs that you’ve written?
DM: It’s interesting. This year, I am really advertising the ‘American Pie’ album and the 50th Anniversary of it and, you know, the album is really what we’re talking about. Of course, there’s the big song, ‘American Pie’, but there’s also ‘Winterwood’, ‘Crossroad’, ‘The Grave’, ‘By The Waters of Babylon’, ‘Vincent’ and ‘Empty Chairs’. So, there are songs on there that millions and millions of people know. So, it’s really the totality of the album and there are a lot of great albums that were made in 1971 and a lot of great artists, so it was a special year for music and me. But, it’s always been that way; ‘American Pie’ has always been the tallest tree in my forest. And, you know, I’m just glad I have a forest at all. I really don’t think of it that way. I have said to some people that ‘American Pie’ is really like having ten hit records. It’s not like having just one.
EP: Absolutely. I mean, I think, from my point of view, I’ve been a fan for years and it just amazes me, you know, you’ve got such a great catalogue of music and I kind of find it frustrating when people would say, oh, that’s the guy who sang that song ‘American Pie’… I just wondered if you felt the same given all the great music that followed it. You set the bar pretty high. The song itself is truly genre defying. For me, it’s the perfect marriage of folk, rock and roll, country and pop. Do you think Don that the success of that particular record is down to the structure or down to the enigmatic lyrics that everyone tries to work out?
DM: Well, it’s a very good example of the way my mind works. I’m really good at three kinds of music. Old-fashioned popular music, early rock’n’roll and folk music. I know a good deal about those three areas of music and ‘American Pie’ actually represents all three of those because it has an opening part that you would have on a popular song, it has a verse chorus like you have on a folk song and it has a rock and roll beat. So, that’s why, to some degree it’s unique that way and then the lyrics are always different in every song that I write. The lyrics of ‘Wonderful Baby’ are not the same as ‘Vincent’, the ‘Vincent’ lyrics are not the same as ‘Castles in the Air’; they’re all very different songs and they’re all very famous. That’s what I do, I do a different song every time….really different, totally different.
EP: I think that’s been the reason for me that you’re so successful Don and so widely loved. It’s the fact that it’s almost impossible to put your music into a box because there are so many examples, as you say, of very different lyrics and very different styles. Is it something that you strived to do, to defy genre?
DM: I set my standards extremely high when I started. I wanted to be a real vocalist like Marty Robbins, or Elvis, or Frank Sinatra. I vocalised, I worked on tone, I worked on vibrato, I wanted to sing melodies. I didn’t want to yell. I did not want to sing stuff that wasn’t melodic. I worked very hard on my singing, my guitar playing, I can even play the five string banjo. You can hear me do ‘By The Waters of Babylon’ in front of five or six thousand people at the Royal Albert Hall if you look it up on YouTube back in 1972; that’s the kind of thing I did. I worked on tone and polishing everything all the time. You know, that way, rather than yelling from the throat, it was a whole different approach. An old fashioned approach but with new lyrics. I was a throwback in a way with a modern sound. I did not want to sound like Bob Dylan, I did not want to sound like anybody else and I didn’t. It was startlingly different when you first heard me and then when you get into it, then I’ve got you…you’re mine!
EP: I’m so pleased that you mentioned, Marty Robbins. The first record that my father played me, when I was very, very young was Marty Robbins. I still listen to him today. With what you’re saying about that new approach to the older things and that kind of throwback with a new style, does it make you very happy about the diversity of the of the artists that have covered your songs?
DM: That is because of the diversity and nature of my music. I don’t know how Drake, one of the biggest musicians in the world right now, discovered two of my songs on the ‘Prime Time’ album. But he did, and on his second album he did a song called ‘Do It Wrong’ which uses the lyrics of two of my songs, one is called ‘The Wrong Thing to Do’ and the other is ‘When a Good Thing Goes Bad’. So I am a co-writer of the song ‘Do It Wrong’ with Drake and he sold four million copies of that, and that was the second album, the one that really launched him. So the other side is not always about having success for yourself but putting out valuable information to young people who can use it in their own way. What I had was ideas and there are not too many people that have new ideas where songs are concerned.
EP: That must make you incredibly proud that you’re influencing artists as modern as Drake because obviously, as a songwriter, that must be fantastic; to be still influencing music 50 years after ‘American Pie’. It must be a great feeling for you.
DM: Well, the funny thing is that all my life, people have said that’s the only song you’re known for. Some people don’t realise I’ve had all these other hits and they try to almost make me apologise for it and I say back to them, who else could ever have done what I did, could anybody else have written that song, do you know anybody, I don’t. You know what I’m saying? I know the work that I’ve done, I know what songs I’ve written, I know what’s out there on those albums and people sometimes get carried away with that one song because they love it so much and they’re fascinated with it. I don’t mind talking about that song because I know how they feel. You know, that’s the kind of song nobody could follow, but it’s in its own realm. It’s in another world. At that time, I had a management team behind me, a guy named Herb Gart, who worked out of a phone booth when I met him, you know the kind that return quarters. That’s my first manager. I’d stayed with that guy for 18 years. I should have left long before that because everything disintegrated, but I still kept having hits, so it’s kind of crazy but, you know, I didn’t do anything the right way, but it turned out okay?
It’s like the movie ‘The Producers’ with Zero Mostel. Well, I had the wrong actor, the wrong script. Where did I go right?
EP: I think that’s testament to the brilliance of your songwriting and singing to be honest Don. We have an expression in the UK that the cream will always rise to the top and I guess that’s what you could say about your music. Having had a hit as ground breaking as ‘American Pie’, you know, it was never easy to follow, but you did that and it must be fantastic now to come over to the UK next year and tour and bring that music back to a whole new audience. I bet you can’t wait?
DM: Well, I’m happy to be alive. Happy to be singing well. I’ve been doing some shows. They sound good and I’m just going to take it, as they say, one day at a time and do the best that I can.
EP: I can’t wait. I mean, I’m gonna try and get tickets for the Palladium show because it’s such a beautiful venue. It seems like the perfect place to see you sing.
DM: Yeah, I played there before, I like it a lot.
EP: If I could ask one more question about ‘American Pie’, and I apologise but it’s something that I’m curious about. it’s widely believed that the song mourns one of my heroes who I know is one of your heroes, Buddy Holly, but is the song more personal than that, more biographical in its nature?
DM: I’m not going to give too much away but there’s going to be a movie made about the making of this song and you’ll really get to see how it all happened. It’s all connected to my life and my journey from the beginning, really up to say, the mid 70s and you’re going to know all about. It’s a little complicated but yes it is a biographical song in the sense that I am a witness in the song to what’s going on, rather than me being the central person. It’s about what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling, what I remember. It’s an interesting concept but it worked out well.
EP: Fantastic. I can’t wait to see that; that’ll be brilliant and maybe put to bed some of the theories that people have about the song.
DM: I had a good producer named Ed Kramer who made an excellent record and without that we wouldn’t be talking about the song at all. Without a good producer, you know? I mean, I don’t want to put anyone down here, okay, but if you think about Cat Stevens, he made some really cool records that I liked the sound of but if I analyse the lyrics, they were almost like bubble-gum lyrics but the way it was produced makes it heavier. There’s a lot of that with the Beach Boys too, the way the production is. With The Beatles too, if John Lennon came up with some simple lyrics or some stories and put some melody to it, by the time, George Martin had finished with it, it was earth shattering because of the production. I mean, The Beatles would not have been The Beatles without George Martin, there’s no two ways about that. I mean, he elevated everything and when you have someone like that it makes you more creative because you know that you’re going to be funnelled through this brilliant guy who will make it better than you ever dreamed it could be. That’s exciting if you find a man like that.
EP: When you get a great producer and an incredible talent, it’s the perfect marriage, isn’t it? You get the creativity and the perfect production. It gives us the music that you’ve given us over the last 50 years.
DM: Well, in the old days under the studio system, someone like Sinatra would walk in and he’d have the best orchestra, the best arrangements, the chamber echo of The Capitol Studios and the great engineers there, so in a sense he had all that help too. All he had to do was sing these songs magnificently as all the other stuff was done for him. The Beatles did everything but at least what they had was put together in a way that elevated it. Not taking anything away from The Beatles or Cat Stevens because we all did everything. I did everything; I did the arrangements; I did the song; I did the singing.
EP: Well you definitely did something very right because the music lives on. I can’t wait to see you next year. I believe the tickets go and sale on Friday. I bet you can’t wait to get in front of an audience again and thank you very, very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and I wish you all the luck in the world with the tour.
DM: I can’t wait. Thank you very much.
Don McLean 50th Anniversary of American Pie Tour Tickets are on public sale from today 24 September via his official website.