American Pie – Don McLean
Don McLean started writing this song in 1969 and it was eventually released on his debut album “American Pie” in 1971. The year 1969 represented the 10th anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Havens and J.P ‘The Big Bopper” Richardson all of whom perished together in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3rd, 1959. Holly, a huge star in America was only 22 years old while Havens was just 17. Because of the lyrics of McLean’s song this event has now become known has “the day the music died”. (“I can’t remember if I cried/the day the music died”). The song also references many events in the sixties with McLean commenting on musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles , The Rolling Stones and The Byrds. He also sings about events such as the assassination of civil rights activists, the Charles Manson murders and the murder of a patron at a Rolling Stones fan at the hands of the Hells Angels. Unlike the plane crash , the lyrics of which are straight forward to decipher it took years for McLean to explain the rest of the song so music critics tried to do it for him. McLean was a 13 year old school boy delivering newspapers when he read about Holly’s death (‘But February made me shiver/with every paper I delivered’). Ten years later when McLean wrote the song he claims he was still trying to exorcise the grief he had felt when he first heard about Holly’s death. Holly was McLean’s childhood hero and the album ‘American Pie’ is dedicated to him. The most McLean has ever said about the song is that in his mind the death of Holly ended the innocence of America and that life in the sixties became much more sinister with political assassinations, civil rights riots and music that exalted in the “counter-culture” of America promoting free love and use of mind altering drugs, all of which McLean was against. American Pie went to number one in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and number two in the UK. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) ranked the song the 5th most significant song in the twentieth century.
Sweet Home Alabama- Lynyrd Skynryd
“Sweet Home Alabama” was written primarily as a response to two songs by Neil Young, “Southern Man” and “Alabama”, which dealt with themes of racism and slavery in the American South. The song appeared on Skynyrd’s album “Second Helping” released in 1974. Young is name-checked in the song in the opening verse (“Well, I heard Mr Young talk about her/well I heard ol’ Neil put her down/well I hope Neil Young will remember/ A Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow’). The rest of the song goes on too glorify all things south and has a shot at events in the North of the country. In one verse Skynyrd laud the merits of the former Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, a noted supporter of segregation. They also have a reference to the Watergate scandal. According to songwriter Ronnie Van Zandt, the reason behind bringing up Watergate was to show the band were talking for the entire southern population , saying to Notherners ‘we are not judging you as ordinary citizens for the failures of your leaders in Watergate, don’t judge all of us as ordinary individuals for the racial problems of the south”. The song was to be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first hit single going to number eight of the US billboard charts. It took Neil Young two years to address his role in the song. In an interview he stated “My song Alabama richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending , not fully thought out, and to easy to misconstrue”. Young and Van Zant patched up there differences and became good friends. Unfortunately a plane crash in 1977 killed Van Zant and two other members of the band. Young dedicated his song “Walk On” to Van Zant.
Fire and Rain – James Taylor
“Fire and Rain” is one of the most harrowing songs to make a impact on the American charts. It appears on Taylor’s second album “Sweet Baby James” released in 1970. The song chronicles a series of devastating events that Taylor faced when he moved from his native North Carolina to New York to pursue a career in the music industry. It was there that he was noticed playing folk music in various New York coffee clubs. He was invited to join ‘The Flying Machine’ , a loosely arranged group of fellow folk singers and the band set out to become the east coasts answer to the LA super group Crosby, Stills and Nash. After a year of endless gigging the group had gotten nowhere and Taylor was physically and emotionally spent. Suffering from serious depression over the episode (as referenced in the lyric (“sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”) he voluntarily booked himself into a psychiatric institution. After nine months he discharged himself and went to live in London with girlfriend Suzanne Schnerr. He auditioned for several companies and was eventually signed by Peter Asher , brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend Jane Asher and ended up as the first act signed by the Beatles embryionic record company Apple records. His girlfriend headed back to New York while Taylor cut his debut album “James Taylor” released in 1968. While Taylor was recording the album his girlfriend, who had also battled depression like Taylor, took her own life after her family committed her to a mental aslyum. His manager and his friends kept this information from Taylor while he completed the album, fearing it would severely affect his chances of succeeding while he was completing his “big break”. After the last session was completed Asher informed him of the tragedy which led to the songs opening lyrics “Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone/Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you”. When Taylor returned to New York he had developed drug problems , particularly with heroin. He slipped back into deep depression and once again admitted himself into a psychiatric clinic. It was this experience in hospital that bought about the lyrics to the chorus of the song (“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain/I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end/I’ve seen lonely days where I could not find a friend/but I always thought that I’d see you again”). When ‘Sweet Baby James” was released his manager was keen to release ‘Fire and Rain” as the first single but Taylor protested saying he thought it was too personal to be a mainstream hit. However, the song peaked at number 3 on the American billboard charts and to this day remains possibly the most well known song in James Taylor’s long career.
Thanks for joining me! This blog is intended to be of interest to music fans who want a deeper understanding of the stories that inspired their favourite songs and some of the classic songs of the rock/pop genre.
The first song I want to discuss is the intriguing song by Nirvana named ‘Frances Farmer will have her revenge on Seattle” off the “In Utero” album released in 1993 and what was to be Nirvana’s last studio album. Even though I am a massive movie fan (particularly the so-called “Hollywood Golden Era”) I must admit I hadn’t heard of Frances Farmer until her named popped up on Kurt Cobain’s song. Naturally I was curious so I did a bit of research on her. Frances Farmer was born in Seattle (Cobain’s home town) in 1919 and at the age of 22 headed off to New York having decided to make a living acting. Possessing great beauty and talent she was ‘discovered’ in New York by a Paramount Films executive and sent to Los Angeles to start a film career. From 1936 to 1958 she made 15 films for Paramount co-starring with such prominent leading men including Bing Crosby and Cary Grant. However, her personal life was a mess. Farmer could not handle the life of a Hollywood star and eventually became an alcoholic and was known for turning violent on set. She was committed to a psychiatric facility in Seattle by her mother where she was repeatedly raped by the male doctors and orderlies. The doctor’s advised her mother that Farmer would benefit from a new procedure called a partial lobotomy. However her father got wind of it and turned up to the hospital and threaten to sue if they went through with. Despite many rumours to the contrary Frances Farmer was never lobotomized. According to Cobain he felt a kinship with Farmer when he read a book about her life. The injustices he felt she suffered , particularly by her mother, inspired him to write the “Frances Farmer” song.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton