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The Day the Music Died: Don McLean's 1972 live BBC performance of 'American Pie'

Today marks 63 years since ‘The Day the Music Died’. In celebration of the brilliant musicians lost in the severe tragedy, we recapture the moment Don McLean performed his hit song ‘American Pie’ commemorating the day in 1972 live for the BBC.

50 years ago today, Don McLean’s generation-defining hit ‘American Pie’ was peaking at number one on the US Billboard charts exactly 13 years after the shocking event it commemorates. On February 3rd, 1959, Buddy Holly and fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson were killed in a tragic aeroplane crash. The group had been on tour and were flying to their next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota when the plane crashed into a field near Clear Lake, Iowa. 

Holly and his band had been performing on their ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour across the Midwest along with a handful of other rising stars. After their stop at Clear Lake, Holly made the decision to charter a plane to reach their next destination. The freezing conditions of winter in the Midwest meant that the long journeys between performances on tour busses were less than desirable and often resulted in pneumonia, flu and in some cases frostbite. 

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At the time, Richardson had been suffering from flu and so Waylon Jennings from Holly’s band let him have his seat; meanwhile, Tommy Allsup lost his seat to Valens on the toss of a coin. Just a few minutes after takeoff from Madison City Airport, the plane hit turbulence in a winter storm; in the low visibility of the night, the pilot had trouble controlling the aircraft resulting in a steep and unrecoverable bank to the right – the plane hit the field travelling at 170 mph instantly killing the pilot and the three passengers.

The horrifying event has become a landmark moment in music history with many subsequent artists referencing the event in music and film. The most notable of such references was in Don McLean’s classic 1971 song ‘American Pie’ that coined the date as ‘The Day the Music Died’. The song would subsequently become era-defining as the ultimate anthem for the nostalgia of the baby boomer generation of the 1950s and ‘60s.

While the song was brought under the light as a classic and historically poignant anthem by the people of the US; Don McLean humbly explained that he just wrote the song to present his natural view of “America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasising it might become”. Much of the lyrics throughout the song remain ambiguous to this day and when questioned about them, McLean has opted to maintain the ambiguity so as to leave it to interpretation.

It appears that the theme of the song stretches beyond McLean’s mourning for his childhood rock ‘n’ roll heroes. The imagery of the lyrics seems to allude to the cultural revolution that had been burgeoning throughout the 1960s; relating ostensibly to the cataclysmic events and social changes that had been experienced during that period. 

Watch McLean’s famous 1972 performance of the classic song on the BBC below and see what you can derive from the lyrics.