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Music History #6: "American Pie"

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"American Pie”
Written and performed by Don McLean (1971)

The Music

“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died”

The phrase “The day the music died” is familiar to us today as shorthand for the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. But when Don McLean coined it in his epic pop song, it was new. So was the idea of nostalgia for the musical past as subject matter for a song.

“Buddy Holly didn’t matter to anyone when I wrote the song,” McLean told me in 1995. “He was long dead and forgotten.” McLean saw Holly’s death as a means to frame his ideas about what had happened to America during the 1960s. Rather than spelling it out clearly, McLean laced his lyric with cryptic, evocative imagery. “I was trying to create a rock ‘n’ roll dream sequence,” he said. “But it was more than rock ‘n’ roll. I was trying to create this American song which connected the parts of America that mattered to me, starting with Buddy Holly.”

“American Pie” was a #1 hit for four weeks during early 1972. At eight and a half minutes, it also ranks as one of the longest singles of the rock era (second to Guns ‘N Roses “November Rain”). It has since been covered by everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to Madonna.

Here’s McLean performing it live in 1972:

http://youtu.be/5QUYvRaQ4XM

The History

Buddy Holly didn’t want to be part of the Winter Dance Party. The prospect of a 24-day package tour of one-nighters through the Midwest wasn’t exactly his idea of a great career move. Especially in January. But he needed the money.

Though Holly had scored seven Top 40 hits since his major label debut eighteen months earlier, like many early rock ‘n’ rollers, he had also made some bad business decisions. Namely, allowing producer Norman Petty to have control over both his publishing and management. After a disagreement about musical direction, Petty had withheld Holly’s royalties (they were paid into an account that only Petty had access to). Petty had also convinced Holly’s backing band The Crickets – drummer Jerry Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin – to split with their leader. Holly’s first single without Petty and The Crickets faltered.

On top of all this, Holly’s new wife Maria Elena was a few weeks pregnant with their first child. If the Winter Dance Party wasn’t the bright future he was hoping for, at least it was a paying gig, and a stopgap while his lawyer sorted out the mess with Petty.

Holly was the tour’s headliner. Sharing the bill were J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens and Dion & The Belmonts. The tour began on January 23rd in Milwaukee.

Cold Comfort
The winter of 1959 was a brutal one. Record-setting sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice paralyzed the Midwest. The hastily-organized itinerary had the musicians zigzagging three states, with up to 400 miles between dates. They traveled in a succession of broken-down, drafty buses, with heaters that kept freezing up.

Remember, these were nationally-known stars. Knowing how bands travel today, in plush tour buses with full kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping bunks, the conditions that Holly and company endured are almost unthinkable.

By the end of the first week, morale was low and tempers were growing short. The Big Bopper came down with a bad chest cold, and Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalized with frostbitten feet (the new Crickets also included guitarist Tommy Allsup and, on bass, future country star Waylon Jennings). As they navigated the icy roads, the tired musicians often huddled together under blankets, drinking whiskey to stay warm. They’d catch a few hours of sleep at the local hotels, play their show, then it was back on the bus, into the frozen darkness.

Despite the weather, the shows went pretty well. Local radio stations helped out with ticket and record giveaways. And at a succession of ballrooms, the bands played their hits for enthusiastic teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans. The average crowd size was 1,200.

But the brief glory on stage didn’t make up for all the bone-chilling travel. When they’d reached Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself and his band to fly ahead to their next show in Minnesota.

Flipping A Coin
Holly had grown weary of the bus rides, and wanted a chance to do laundry and get a good eight hours of sleep at a hotel. When the other performers found out, they tried to angle their way on the plane.

Ritchie Valens badgered Tommy Allsup for his seat. Finally, they flipped a coin. Valens won.

Waylon Jennings willingly gave up his seat to Richardson, whose cold had worsened. When Holly found out, he teased his friend.

“So you’re not going on that plane with me tonight, huh?”

When Jennings said no, Holly replied, “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up again.”

Jennings said, “Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes.”

For the rest of his life, Jennings would be haunted by the exchange, and by the moment he surrendered his seat to Richardson.

The Day The Music Died
After the show in Clear Lake, Holly, Richardson and Valens were driven to Mason City Airport, where their chartered aircraft was waiting. It was a Beechcraft Bonanza, a four-seater. The pilot was Roger Peterson. The 21-year old had had his private plane license for four years and had just qualified for a commercial pilot’s license. He’d flown in wintry weather before.

At about 12:50 am on February 3rd, the small plane took off from Mason City Airport. The wind roared around it. The swirling snow made visibility near impossible. A few minutes into the flight, the plane dipped. The wing hit the ground and was torn from the fuselage. The plane flipped over and crashed in a corn field. All four passengers were killed.

Buddy Holly was 22. Ritchie Valens was 17. J.P. Richardson was 28.

A song memorializing the crash, “Three Stars,” was released shortly after, first by Ruby Wright, then Eddie Cochran, another early rock ‘n’ roller who died tragically young in a car crash.

Meanwhile, in New Rochelle, New York, a thirteen-year old paperboy named Don McLean stared at the headline about Buddy Holly, his favorite singer, and the seed was planted for a future classic song.

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Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Keystone/Getty Images

Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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