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Classic Tracks: Don McLean’s “American Pie”

Maybe you had to be there. But in the summer and fall of 1971, it seems that everyone was talking about Don McLean's Number One smash, American Pie. Rarely

Maybe you had to be there. But in the summer and fall of 1971, it seems that everyone was talking about Don McLean’s Number One smash, “American Pie.” Rarely has a song captured the imagination of both the pop mainstream and the hip underground to the degree that this song did. Even at more than eight-and-a-half minutes long, AM and FM radio couldn’t get enough of it. Newspapers and magazines ran detailed lyric analyses of the song, which seemed to encompass the history and culture of rock ‘n’ roll, from the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in February 1959 (“the day the music died” in the song) through Altamont at the tail end of the ’60s, with glimpses along the way of sock hops, cruising, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, revolutionary politics, the Rolling Stones, the drug culture, Charles Manson and much more. It was a riveting and tuneful collage of images and metaphors that managed the neat trick of feeling incisive and contemporary at the same time it was hazy and nostalgic. Like the best rock poetry, it meant something different to everyone who heard it, and no doubt that is part of its lingering appeal. Or maybe you were annoyed by its ubiquity; it cuts both ways.

At the time of the song’s release, McLean was a virtual unknown. A native of suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., half-an-hour north of Manhattan, he dropped out of Villanova University in 1963 to devote his time to playing music, and the mid-’60s found him haunting New York’s folk clubs and eking out a living. In 1969, he hooked up with folk icon Pete Seeger and spent a considerable amount of time sailing New York’s Hudson River on a sloop called the Clearwater (singing with Seeger at many stops along the way) as part of a campaign to clean up what was then a notoriously dirty waterway. Seeger’s activism on this issue is widely credited with helping prod Congress to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972, so a tip of the hat to McLean for that, too.

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After being rejected by many labels, McLean was signed to his first record deal by a small company called MediaArts. His debut album, Tapestry, produced by Jerry Corbitt of The Youngbloods, was released in 1970, but failed to create much of a stir. Nevertheless, United Artists agreed to put out his second album — which would be called American Pie — and paired McLean with producer/arranger Ed Freeman, who had previously helmed an album by folk singer Tom Rush and who also worked with Tim Hardin and Carly Simon around the time he hooked up with McLean. The sessions for American Pie took place in May and June of 1971 at New York’s Record Plant studios on West 44th Street.

Record Plant staff engineer Tom Flye was brought in to record the sessions. A one-time drummer for the late-’60s cult band Lothar & The Hand People, Flye had left performing for a life in the studio and established himself quickly as a fine engineer. He did a considerable amount of post work on the Woodstock album, and had also done sessions with The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, Pharoah Sanders and others by the time the McLean album rolled around. “The Record Plant was still relatively new and Ed Freeman really wanted to use the studio,” Flye recalls. “And as Ed has described it, I was the strangest-looking engineer there, so he hired me.

“At that point, there were two studios. Studio A, which was downstairs on the ground floor — that’s where ‘American Pie’ was done — was the biggest room, probably about 35×55 feet with maybe a 25-foot ceiling. It was a nice-sounding room. I believe we had just gotten our Spectra Sonics board; before that, we had Datamix boards, which were terrible. The Spectra Sonics was a really good-sounding board. It had maybe 32 inputs and it had a separate monitor section, but in those days, the monitor section couldn’t be used during the mixdown; it’s just the way they were wired. The monitor section was rotary faders. That board also had a pretty good EQ in it. Spectra Sonics made some really high-fidelity equipment.”

The control room had Tannoy monitors and the standard outboard gear of that era: LA-2As, Pultecs, EMT reverbs, etc. The recorder was a 16-track Ampex MM-1000. “We also had the 1-inch Scullys, which we had both 8- and 12-track heads for,” Flye says. “They were a little hissy, but basically pretty good.” And though the studio didn’t have a live echo chamber, Flye notes, “There was a 10-story staircase in the back of Studio A that, at night when the rest of the businesses in the building would close down, I used from time to time because it sounded really good. I think I did some cello parts in there for the record after American Pie [Don McLean, 1972].”

Flye credits producer Freeman with much of the arrangement work on American Pie: “Ed had been working with Don in a rehearsal situation before they came into the studio, and I know Ed had definite ideas about how everything should be. He worked really well with musicians.” In this case, McLean’s “band” for the album comprised mostly New York session pros, including a number with jazz credentials such as pianists Warren Bernhardt and Paul Griffin, percussionist/vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and guitarist David Spinozza. Also appearing on the album were Bob Rothstein on bass, Ray Colcord on keys and Roy Markowitz on percussion and drums. Flye also played percussion on some tracks (including tambourine on “American Pie”) and drums on one song, “The Grave.” McLean played guitar and banjo.

The band was tracked completely live, including McLean’s lead vocals, “because he always felt much more comfortable if he could play while he was singing,” Flye says. “In fact, at one point I built this Plexiglas thing that kind of went between his chin and the guitar to get more isolation on each of those because I would composite his vocals. We’d let him sing it a few times and then take the best of them. Sometimes the guitar would be better than others, too, so that gave us some flexibility. I made it so he could still see the fretboard. It wasn’t pretty but it helped quite a bit.” The song “American Pie” was cut on May 26, 1971.

Flye remembers using a Neumann U87 on the vocal: “We had a lot of U87s at the Record Plant. It was a really good mic and it was quite affordable at that time; they were only a few-hundred bucks apiece then.” For the acoustic guitar, “I’m pretty sure I would have used two mics: a [AKG] 452 and a [Neumann] KM84.” As for drums, “We didn’t have a whole lot of tracks, so it isn’t like we miked every lug of the tom-tom. As I remember, I probably used five mics on the drum kit — bass drum, snare, hat and then two mics that I actually used to mike the tom-toms but I also got plenty of cymbals with those. I probably used U87s on the tom-toms and a KM84 on the snare.” Piano was miked with a pair of U87s.

According to Flye, the tracking sessions — numerous run-throughs of the tune, with some additional work getting the intro down correctly — went smoothly enough that McLean was able to cut two other songs the same day as “American Pie.” The hard work on that song came later: compositing the lead vocal and some of the instrumental tracks, and editing on the 2-inch tape. “I remember doing quite a lot of editing,” Flye says. “The first verse is just piano and voice, and you’d think that would be very simple, but actually there are eight edits just in that section. We wanted it to be as perfect as possible.” Flye also recalls that, “Originally, Ed wanted it to start out in mono and then go to stereo, but that was kind of awkward. The board really wasn’t set up to do that with any kind of elegance, so we dropped that idea.”

Though Flye says he loved “American Pie” from the outset, “To be quite honest, when we were working on the album, ‘Vincent’ was my favorite. I thought that was the hit. It sounded really good and Ed did a marvelous string arrangement for it, so I felt that was the song. But the record company was really gung-ho about ‘American Pie,’ and they were right. I was happy when ‘Vincent’ also became a hit.”

“American Pie” caused a sensation almost immediately upon its release, and the record label was then faced with a quandary: How can we put out an eight-and-a-half minute single? “We made several versions,” Flye says, “but we never made a short version; that wasn’t an option. At one point, I actually got it all on one side of a 45, mastered it in half-time, but the record company rejected it because in those days there were still jukeboxes, and the jukeboxes would lift off before the end of the song.” In the end, it was decided to put half of the song on each side of the 45, with a fade-out at the end of side one and a fade-in beginning side two.

Even in that form, the single rocketed to Number One on January 15, 1972, and stayed for a month, before it was knocked from the top slot by Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” The album also hit the pinnacle for seven weeks, and in March of ’72, “Vincent” made it to Number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Freeman, Flye and McLean collaborated again on the singer/songwriter’s next album, but it did not prove to be commercially successful. McLean did land a few more hits on the charts in the early ’80s — a version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” as well as his own “Since I Don’t Have You” and “Castles in the Air.” And the Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was written (by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox) about McLean; an interesting form of immortality. But “American Pie” is truly the gift that keeps on giving to McLean. It’s appeared on literally dozens of “hits” albums and anthologies through the years, and Madonna even had a minor hit with the song in 2000. And let’s not forget Weird Al’s sublime Star Wars version, “The Saga Begins”: “My, my, this here Anakin guy/Maybe Vader sometime later but now he’s just a small fry.”

It is a widely circulated notion that McLean is somehow bitter that he is so associated with this one song from more than 30 years ago, but in a 1999 interview, he dismissed that: “Because of an off-hand funny comment I made backstage at a concert years ago, a story circulated that the song has been a burden and even that I didn’t sing it for a while. That’s completely false. I am very proud of ‘American Pie’ and the many satellites that grow from it and revolve around it. For many years, I carried my songs around and now they carry me around. I have always sung ‘American Pie’ for my audience and would never think of disappointing them, since it is they who have given me a wonderful life and untold affection for almost 30 years.” And in 2000 he noted, “I have never said a bad thing about the song. I was poor when I wrote it and it made me a millionaire overnight. Believe me, I’m not upset about this song.”