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.


  1. Enjoying the wallow in 1971 - and just remembered how good MAD magazine was that year. A window into US popular culture. May be worth checking.

  2. There was a distinct feeling of 50s nostalgia as early as '68.
    In particular, Elvis dressing as his younger self ('TV Special'), 'Roots' by The Everly Brothers, and even Mick Jagger was a rocker in 'Performance'!

  3. Also in 1971 was the Madison Square Garden nostalgia show which Ricky Nelson wrote about in 'Garden Party'. I think the two songs go well together.

  4. Sean and Matty are on the button. Probably started in 68 and was in full retro throttle by 71. I'm sure I've seen a thesis on this mentioning Sha Na Na. Will send a link.

  5. I agree with your comments about Grease etc, but I never reckoned That'll be the day and Ringo's performance was particularly comfortable..maybe I was too young....

  6. Great point, David. 'The Bunch' LP on Island records circa 1971 is further evidence of the trend: a bunch of rather indulgent British folk-rockers singing old 50s songs.

    But Sean's right: there was something in the air in 1968-69 too (and not just Thunderclap Newman) - the Melody Maker regularly looked at a 'rock'n'roll revival' going on in Britain around The Wild Angels and others, with 50s American acts still touring the UK to fevered cult acclaim (see the Granada 1969 doc 'Gene Vincent: The Rock and Roll Singer').

    Similarly, top line Brit 'modern' acts, like The Who (who famously played an Albert Hall Pop Prom with Chuck Berry, with a very partisan CB half of the audience) and Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After etc all performed 50s R&R material in their late 60s live sets: Shakin All Over, Summertime Blues, Let's Have A Party, C'mon Everybody et al.

    An interesting, and not often talked about, phenomenon. In a way, it would be the equivalent of an act in 2015 playing encore covers by other artists from circa 2000. (And nobody does.) But, of course, for all sorts of reasons that can't be an accurate analogy at all. Those first 15-20 years of rock - up to the bedding down of the nostalgia you talk about in the early 70s - was a unique, unrepeatable time.

  7. Agree with everybody, which for me makes a change.

    I think "American Pie" sort of sums it up and continues to do so. It's vague and clear at the same time.

    Like everybody else, I know exactly what the song's about, and at the same time, I haven't a clue.

    The music papers have long published "Five Years Ago" and "Ten Years Ago" type of lists of the charts. Did that start in the Sixties?

  8. The articles I was thinking of give an American angle on this early rock'n'roll nostalgia taking place simultaneously there. Of course it was quickly commodified with things like American Graffiti/Happy Days, to the chagrin of an old Ted a friend knew in the UK. When asked what the time was, he'd reply "[however many thousand days] since the music died" (ie, February 3, 1959). In the first link, Columbia University celebratees its alumnus:
    "Good Old Rock and Roll: Performing
    the 1950s in the 1970s" is more academic:
    And, if you're still out there, Greil Marcus's seminal 1971 Creem piece 'Rock-a-Hula Clarified' - like a 15,000 word warm-up to 'Mystery Train' is this week being serialised by his archivist:

  9. Nostalgia was certainly in full swing by the London Rock'n'Roll Show of 1972. This brilliant film of the event is a real "two world's colliding" moment.

    At 21:40, there among all the rockers and Teds are Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood looking for all the world like punks, something which woludn't be invented for further four years.

    Jerry Lee Lewis is also casually briliant.