Don McLean talks about navigating the music industry

Just over half a century after writing the chart-topping “American Pie,” Don McLean finds his signature song more popular than ever.

McLean, who is booked for the 1,200-seat John WH Bassett Theater for a May 7 performance, recently enjoyed two high-profile feature film placements: “American Pie” was a musical plot point in “Captain Marvel,” the 2019 Marvel movie that grossed $1.1 billion at the global box office — then into the Apple TV+ sci-fi movie “Finch” starring Tom Hanks that started streaming on the platform. form in November.

“I always get great feedback about the song being in a movie and I’m always happy to see my songs in it,” he said in a pre-Christmas phone interview.

That McLean’s epic metaphorically equating the end of American innocence with the 1959 death of singer and songwriter Buddy Holly in a plane crash made it a mainstream hit is something of a miracle, given that the song is over eight minutes long. , an anomaly at a time when AM radio preferred to keep songs on their playlist timed to between two and four minutes.

Born in New Rochelle, New York and now living in Camden, Maine, McLean, 76, credits underground FM radio with the song’s AM breakthrough, a trend he says began with his debut album, ” Tapestry” from the 1970s, a hit in folk circles.

“Once I started recording with the ‘Tapestry’ album, I was kind of an underground FM sensation,” he recalls. “Everybody in the country played that album on FM radio – it was perfect for FM radio; they just loved that record.

“So when ‘American Pie’ came out, it became a hit – and it was like I almost lost my credibility with underground radio because now I was making hits and they didn’t like it. They want you to make albums.

“But they still played the ‘American Pie’ album like crazy – and that was one of the reasons people wanted the long version as #1, and that’s how the version long made #1 on the charts – it was forced on them by the people who had fitted me as an album artist and heard the album track and wanted to hear it like crazy, so it became a No. 1 single.

“And that’s how it continues. People might not realize that all my albums are played in probably 180 countries around the world every day. “

An interesting fact about “Tapestry” is that the album contained the song that remains the most significant of McLean’s career – even though “American Pie” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, is in the national recording registry of the Library of Congress and was voted one of the five greatest songs written in the 20th century in a joint poll conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America.

The song? “And I Love You So,” a 1973 No. 1 adult-contemporary hit for sweater crooner Perry Como.

“It’s the biggest copyright I have,” confirms McLean. “People don’t realize that. So ‘American Pie’ was re-recorded by very, very few people (including Madonna in 2020) but ‘And I Love You So’ was recorded by hundreds of people – and all of these records are selling or they’re on best-ofs and compilations – and I’m talking about Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams and Elvis Presley. Perry Como had a million sellers with it.

“It’s probably the most valuable publishing copyright I have.”

McLean, also known for his hits “Vincent,” “Castle In The Air,” and a chart-topping remake of Roy Orbison’s standard “Crying,” says none of his musical milestones came easily.

“There was resistance to Don McLean for 50 years,” he insists. “I had to fight for everything I did. There was never an easy road for me. I always had to do what I wanted to do and often it wasn’t what the record company wanted.

“I was signed to Arista Records for a while. Clive Davis (President and Founder of Arista) absolutely loved the way I sang. He provided me with a producer I didn’t want to work with and provided me with songs that I didn’t want to sing. And I made an album called “Prime Time,” which he hated and ended the relationship.

“I just have to do what I do. I can’t really do what someone else wants me to do. And that sometimes caused friction. If Clive had stuck with me, the next album was ‘Chained Lightning’ and he would have had a #1 record with ‘Crying’. But the thing is, you have to stay with me because I know what I’m doing… except I have things that mean something. I want to make music that means something today, not meaningless hit records – and there are plenty of them.

But 1977’s “Prime Time,” which included a particularly scathing slice of cynicism called “Color TV Blues,” contained the memorable line, “Just because you’re paranoid/ doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get you.”

McLean laughs when I mention the song.

“It’s interesting that you noticed this song because it was about the CIA,” he replies. “Then we have more and more information (about the assassination) of (President John F.) Kennedy (the United States has released 1,500 documents associated with the assassination of JFK on December 15)…

“And not to play politics with you here, but after 50 years of waiting, I wouldn’t believe anything that was in this information that they just released. They had a lot of fun with it. that.

Did McLean have any feedback on the subject of the song at the time?

“I don’t get any feedback because I’m not important enough,” McLean replies. “One of the good things about being less than a major star is that I can do what I want to do. People dig deep into my past catalog and they’ll find some interesting things and I hopefully enjoyable. But no, I had success and I had failures, which I considered success.

‘Prime Time’ may be one of the most obscure albums in the McLean catalogue, but the troubadour enjoyed a bonanza in 2011 when Drake sampled two of the album’s songs – ‘The Wrong Thing To Do’ and “When A Good Thing Goes Bad”. — on his own “Do It Wrong,” which appears on the Toronto rap superstar’s feature “Take Care.”

“I ended up owning 60% of the Drake song,” enthuses McLean, referring to the songwriting royalties he receives for airplay and sales. “He sold four million records right out of the box!”

A conversation about New York Greenwich Village folk quartet The Weavers – co-founded by Pete Seeger – reveals one of McLean’s main influences.

“The Weavers were like family to me, really,” he says. “I got to know them as individuals around 1960-61, when I was 15 and loved their music and loved their ‘Folk Songs Around The World’ album.

“They were blacklisted in 1952, but they were the greatest folk band of all time. Like Elvis Presley, they did it all first, and they did it better than anyone else. And they were a hit machine: ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘The Midnight Special,’ ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)’, ‘Guantanamera’, ‘The Hammer Song’… I could go on and on and on . They just had one hit after another.

“They were great, but they were blacklisted because of their associations with leftist organizations, and kind of like today, all it took was a mention in a certain publication and the next day your career was over.

“And that’s what happened: it was a magazine called Red channels, and if your name appeared in there – for good or for bad – you were done. And that’s what we’re living with now…if somebody makes an accusation or something, it’s over.

Twice-married McLean had his own experience – as reported by the New York Times and bangor daily news, he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in January 2016. Charged with six misdemeanors, McLean pleaded guilty to assault of domestic violence, criminal threats of domestic violence, criminal mischief and criminal coercion, the charge of assault having been dismissed as part of a plea deal following a year of refraining from criminal conduct. McLean was also fined $1,000 for the other three convictions.

“Ummm…I’m not talking about that, because it’s really a vendetta,” he says of the incident. “And that’s all I can tell you. It’s not really anything. It is something negative. It’s finish. It’s finish.

But he is willing to expand further on cancel culture, especially in light of a New York Times editorial published last November with the title “Should Classic Rock Songs Be Toppled Like Confederate Statues?” – specifically mentioning McLean and “American Pie” in the column in light of his domestic issue.

“They got so many negative responses from this article that the Times had changed the title,” says McLean. “So here’s the thing: Let’s look at the ‘Me Too’ movement: The ‘Me Too’ movement was a very good thing. There’s no reason why a young woman going to work should be wondering if she should play at the ball with a bunch of lustful old men to keep his job. So it’s settled now: people won’t do that anymore, because they’re going to lose their jobs very quickly. It’s been accomplished.

“The same, I think, with Black Lives Matter. There’s a song on my new album called ‘The Ballad Of George Floyd’ – and the thing is, it drew attention to the fact that there are really bad police in some of these neighborhoods that need to be cleared…so it was addressed.

“Now I think you’re looking for other issues to make a splash, and it was so stupid, this article – to compare old rock ‘n roll with statues from the Civil War – and it was particularly a kick fire at me, coming from this particular woman, that they had to change the title because 2,500 people wrote in and said, ‘Are you crazy? What the hell are you talking about?’ So it’s gotten to the point where it’s becoming irrelevant.

McLean, who established the Don McLean Foundation in 2006 to fund “soup kitchens, homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters,” believes America has lost “a number of things” over the past 50 years. years since he wrote “American Pie”.

“We have lost the sportsmanship,” he laments. “That focus on always being number one; always winning. When parents go to those Little League games and start fighting with the umpire: This isn’t the America I grew up in.

“The America that I grew up in – and that’s what Billy Martin (the former New York Yankees manager) – who had a lot of fistfights, by the way – said, ‘Don’t don’t be a good loser. Be a smart loser. OK, I got beaten today, but I’ll figure out what I did wrong and I’ll come back and beat you tomorrow.

“And that’s the American way. It’s not like that now. »

Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor to the Star. Contact him by email: [email protected]

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