Follow TV Tropes


Music / American Pie

Go To

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while
— "American Pie", opening lyrics

American Pie is a 1971 album by Don McLean. It was his second, more successful album after his more moderately received debut album, Tapestry (1970). It's best remembered for "American Pie", a Celebrity Elegy written about the young death of rock 'n' roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Although the singer has long admitted it's mostly about the death of these three musicians, other parts of the lyrics remained Shrouded in Myth for years, as McLean himself always refused to comment on its deeper meaning... until 2015 (see "The Walrus Was Paul" below). "American Pie" has become the singer's Signature Song, though the long song was originally released on a dual-sided single and radio stations back then only played the first part. "Vincent" also had some success, albeit more in the United Kingdom where it even became a number 1 hit song ("American Pie" had stalled at number 2 there).

"American Pie" has become a Tough Act to Follow for McLean, since he never had such a commercial success again, except for one more top 5 single in 1980, "Crying". However, not many remember it.

Has nothing to do with the movie where the guy has sex with a pie.


One Side

  1. "American Pie" (8:33)
  2. "Till Tomorrow" (2:11)
  3. "Vincent" (3:55)
  4. "Crossroads" (3:34)

Another Side

  1. "Winterwood" (3:09)
  2. "Empty Chairs" (3:24)
  3. "Everybody Loves Me, Baby" (3:37)
  4. "Sister Fatima" (2:31)
  5. "The Grave" (3:08)
  6. "Babylon" (1:40)

And them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey n' rye, singin' "this will be the day that I trope"

  • Age-Progression Song: "American Pie" starts "a long long time ago" with the singer as a young boy with a paper route, continues on to the "teenage bronkin' buck" phase, and looks back on the past in the final verse.
  • Alliterative Title: "Till Tomorrow".
  • American Title: "American Pie".
  • As the Good Book Says...: "Babylon" is based on the 137th Psalm from the Bible. "American Pie" also refers to the Bible:
    Did you write the book of love
    And do you have faith in God above
    If the Bible tells you so?
  • Break Up Song: "Empty Chairs" is an especially melancholy example.
    Never thought you'd leave, until you went
  • Celebrity Elegy: "American Pie", lamenting the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. "Vincent" mourns the tragic life of Vincent van Gogh, while "The Grave" mourns for the unnamed soldier and his comrades.
  • Concept Album: "American Pie" was inspired by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles and intended as a similar unified work.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Amidst all the Word Salad Lyrics, the title song repeatedly references "the day the music died" — the day of the plane crash that killed rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: "Vincent" is about Vincent van Gogh's troubled life and how no one appreciated him until after he died.
  • Epic Rocking: The 8:33 "American Pie".
  • Face on the Cover: The singer is featured on the album cover, but his hand is seen in a more extreme close-up than his face, which is shown in the background.
  • Homage: McLean dedicated "American Pie" to Buddy Holly. "Vincent" is a tribute to Vincent van Gogh.
  • "I Am Great!" Song: The narrator in "Everybody Loves Me, Baby" claims that he's got everything in the world, except the person who he's singing the song to.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The two sides of the album are labeled "One Side" and "Another Side."
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: "Vincent" sings how Van Gogh was a creative genius ahead of his time, but that this made him a recluse too, misunderstood by others.
  • Last Chorus Slow-Down: The final verse of "American Pie" slows down to its original tempo heard at the beginning of the song from the faster verses between them.
  • Longest Song Goes First: The album opens with the eight-and-a-half-minute Title Track, the only song on the record to reach Epic Rocking status.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "American Pie" starts off slow and melancholic before it truly enters its faster first verse.
  • Mad Artist: "Vincent", about Vincent van Gogh's mental troubles.
    Now I understand
    what you tried to say to me
    and how you suffered for your sanity
    and how you tried to set them free
    they would not listen they did not know how
    perhaps they'll listen now.
  • Miniscule Rocking: The 1:40 "Babylon".
  • Morality Ballad: "American Pie" has been interpreted as a warning about the cultural breakdown of The '60s.
  • One-Man Song: "Vincent".
  • One-Woman Song: "Sister Fatima".
  • One-Word Title: "Vincent", "Crossroads", "Winterwood", "Babylon".
  • Patriotic Fervor: McLean shows his hand on the album cover and the thumb is in the color of the American flag.
  • Pun: "American Pie" has the line "Lennon read a book on Marx", which has been understood as both a pun on Vladimir Lenin, who was a Marxist, and Groucho Marx, as Lennon's public persona was often seen as a musical Groucho Marx.
  • The Power of Rock: "American Pie" reminisces about how Rock & Roll used to delight the masses with McLean aspiring to be a rock musician in his younger days.
    I can still remember
    How that music used to make me smile
    And I knew if I had my chance
    That I could make those people dance
    And maybe they'd be happy for a while
  • Protest Song: "The Grave", against the Vietnam War.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: "American Pie" was inspired by the fatal plane crash in 1959 in which rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed. McLean was indeed a 13-year old paper boy at the time, as he sings in the song.
  • Satan: "American Pie" uses that name to represent Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones playing on (with Satan-praising songs also being performed) even when one member of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club providing security fatally stabbed a guy amidst an increasingly violent live concert.
    I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: In "American Pie", near the end, the Christian Trinity itself is stated to do this, though it may be interpreted as Holly, Ritchie and Richardson getting killed in the February plane crash to Bookend the song.
    And the three Men I admire most,
    The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost;
    They caught the last train for the coast
    The day the music died.
  • Self-Plagiarism: "Vincent" and "Empty Chairs" sound an awful lot like each other, especially the choruses. McLean has since revealed that they were indeed written as companion pieces, linked by Vincent van Gogh's painting Empty Chair.
  • Shout-Out: That "American Pie" alludes to the plane crash which killed off Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper is well known. But there are also shout-outs (many in the form of Take That!) to:
    • Marty Robbins' 1957 song "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)"
      I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
      With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
    • Bob Dylan and James Dean
      When the jester sang for the king and queen / in a coat he borrowed from James Dean
    • John Lennon and Karl Marx
      And while Lennon read a book on Marx
    • The Beatles, who played their final concert in Candlestick Park, a baseball park in San Francisco, released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and had a song called "Helter Skelter" on The White Album
      The quartet practiced in the park
      Helter skelter in a summer swelter
      (...) while the sergeants played a marching tune
    • "Eight Miles High" by The Byrds
      The birds flew off with the fallout shelter
      Eight miles high and falling fast
    • The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and their concert at Candlestick Park.
      So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
    • "American Pie" has been covered by Madonna but not the entire song, inspired the title of the 1999 Sex Comedy American Pie (which has nothing to do with the song or the album whatsoever) and as the "Weird Al" Yankovic parody "The Saga Begins" which made references to the then new Star Wars movie The Phantom Menace.
    • The lyric "The Day the Music Died" from "American Pie" has become a popular nickname for February 3, 1959, when indeed Rock & Roll lost three talented musicians: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The Simpsons has an episode "The Day The Violence Died" spoofing the title.note 
    • "Vincent" was used during the meteor shower scene in The Simpsons episode "Scuse Me While I Miss The Sky". In the episode "So It's Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" Granpa paraphrases the line: "This world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you."
    • "Danny Don't Rapp", about Danny Rapp the lead singer of Danny & The Juniors, from Daniel Johnston's Yip/Jump Music also paraphrases the line "This world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you".
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: The deleted seventh verse in "American Pie" (never publicly revealed until the original manuscript for the song lyrics were auctioned off in 2015), which apparently alludes to the rebirth of rock music with the rise of British acts such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
    And there I stood alone and afraid
    I dropped to my knees and there I prayed
    And I promised Him everything I could give
    If only he would make the music live
    And he promised it would live once more
    But this time one would equal four
    And in five years four had come to mourn
    And the music was reborn
  • Take That!:
    • "American Pie" uses a lot of religious imagery, with God lamenting the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper while at the same time, the Devil celebrates it. In other words, the song is an extended middle finger to the Moral Guardians who say that rock-and-roll is demonic in origin, and corrupting the youthinvoked.
    • The penultimate lyric is a harsh attack on The Rolling Stones, and Mick Jagger especially, for inciting the violence at the Altamont Free Concert. McLean goes so far as to compare Jagger to Satan.
      Oh as I watched him on the stage
      My hands were clenched in fists of rage
      No angel born in hell could break that Satan's spell
      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
  • Teenage Death Songs: "American Pie" in a sense, because it references the death of Ritchie Valens, who was 17 when he died. "The Grave" is about a young Marine dying in the Vietnam War. Also, the line "we sang dirges in the dark" can be a reference to the spate of teen death songs in the early 1960s.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: "Vincent".
    But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you.
  • War Is Hell: "The Grave" is a protest song against the Vietnam War.
  • The Walrus Was Paul: On the subject of "American Pie", the only concrete explanation McLean had given for many years was that it means he'll never have to work again. He had admitted that the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver" was about him learning about the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens while he was folding papers for his paper route. However, when he had his original manuscript of the lyrics auctioned in 2015, he included his original writer's notes in the sale, and also provided a more detailed explanation of the lyrics in the sale catalog notes. This confirmed many speculations and debunked others.

They were singin'
"Bye-Bye, Miss American Pie"
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey 'n rye
Singin' "This will be the day that I die"...