American Pie was released as a single in 1972. It was the title track of a 1971 LP by Don McLean. At 8.42, American Pie was so long that it was released as a two-sided 7-inch single with the first 4:11 on the A side and the rest of the song on the flip side. Due to the song’s popularity, Radio DJ’s soon switched to playing the full-length album version.
American Pie was the longest song to reach the Billboard Hot 100 (it is currently the 8th longest). It spent four weeks at number one in the United States, topped the charts in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and peaked at number 2 in the UK. Remarkably, American Pie kept the record for being the longest song to reach number one in the US for almost fifty years – it was beaten by Taylor Swift’s All Too Well (10 minute version) in 2021.
American Pie has several long verses of oblique meaning. In the face of Don McLean’s enigmatic silence, the lyrics have prompted much speculation – to the extent that American Pie has been called “the most debated song in history”. In a documentary interview released in 2022, McLean finally addressed the topic. He describes the song as “largely impressionistic” and claims that many of the references are semi-fictional composites. He denies the consensus that Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin are directly referenced, though one can’t help wondering if he is deliberately preserving the mystique of the song.
What we do know is that American Pie has one of the catchiest choruses ever recorded, that American Pie is an abbreviation of American Apple Pie, and that the “day the music died” refers to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) in 1959. Thirteen-year-old Don Mclean found out about his hero Buddy Holly’s death as he was preparing for his newspaper rounds (“February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver”).
We also know that, towards the end, the song refers to the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where an audience member was killed by Hell’s Angels who were employed as bouncers. Essentially American Pie bookends images of the (naïve) idealism of the 1960s with the music-related tragedy that preceded it and the December 1969 tragedy that marked the decade’s end. American Pie is the No.5 song on The Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century”.