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Monday, April 06, 2015

Got a spare million to bid on the song that invented pop nostalgia?

I'm not surprised Don McLean's putting the hand-written lyrics of "American Pie" up for auction tomorrow. I am however amazed that he knew where they were in the first place. 1971's a long time ago. If I had to put my hand on anything important from that year, such as my degree, I'd be in trouble.

I don't know how they establish the provenance of hand-written lyrics. Apparently this was in a file at his home along with various other working drafts he's stored over the years. Since I shan't be bidding I don't have to decide whether to believe it or not.

What's interesting about "American Pie" in the light of 1971 is it's one of the very first shoots of a force which was about to become very powerful in pop music - nostalgia. From the point of view of the Sixties the Fifties were yesterday and therefore not all that interesting. As soon as the Seventies began the Fifties were far enough away to seem like the vanished world of Lost Content. McLean's song mined that seam very profitably. Nobody knew what the song meant but they liked the way it felt.

There were a few other straws in the wind that year. 1971 was also the year of the first workshop production of "Grease" in Chicago. Originally this was hard-hitting and gritty. By the time it was on Broadway it provided the same cosy look back as you would have found by then in "Happy Days", "American Graffiti", the Carpenters doing "Yesterday Once More" and Ringo Starr in "That'll Be The Day".

What nobody in 1971 suspected was that anyone in the future would be interested in holding on to anything from the year 1971. That must have been doubly the case with the lyrics of a song that dealt with the past. In 1971 it was only just beginning to dawn on the music industry that the past might be more interesting and hence more valuable than the present. If I was working for the "American Pie" auctioneer I wouldn't be building it up on the grounds that everybody's fascinated by the song's meaning. I'd be pointing out that "American Pie" marked the beginning of pop nostalgia. That's very significant.