Time Tunnel

Time Tunnel: Great Albums of 1971. Boss Keloid on Don McLean’s American Pie…much more than a title track

Boss Keloid are one of Britain’s finest bands. Their unique ability to weave influences, styles, genres and general brilliance into music is a joy to behold. Boss Keloid release their new album, Family The Smiling Thrush, in June through Ripple Music; it’s destined to be one of 2021’s biggest releases. The band’s last album, Melted On The Inch, garnered universal praise. Family The Smiling Thrush builds epically on that success.

We welcome Ste Arands, drummer with the Boss Keloid. He joins us to help celebrate the great musical year of 1971. We have already celebrated some great albums from that most wonderful year. Here, Ste writes about his love of Don McLean’s American Pie record. He explains why the album is much more than just the iconic title track.

Boss Keloid

American Pie, released in 1971, was the second album by singer-songwriter Don McLean. In my opinion it is much greater than the sum of its parts. Don is very widely known for the album’s two hits – the title track, which understandably became an anthem in its own right, and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Vincent’ – but ‘American Pie’ is not only a great song, to me it’s a perfect album too.

This is an album which deserves renewed attention, and to be appreciated as an album rather than picked from, because there isn’t a bad song on it. The production is great, and the flow of the album is considered, and it works. There is much more to be discovered with a full listen than those two hit tracks, however good, could ever offer on their own.

Boss Keloid on Don McLean

American Pie, the title track of the album, is an ode to the rock ‘n’ roll generation of McLean’s youth following what he saw as the symbolic end to this period – the death of Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, and (a personal hero of McLean) Buddy Holly in a plane crash in February 1959.

McLean’s memory of reading about the tragedy in the newspaper as a 13 year old paper-boy inspired the writing of the song, specifically the first verse, but he also makes reference to several of the newer generation of musicians including Dylan, the Beatles and Mick Jagger as it catalogues the events that he saw as the end of music as he knew it.

After the choral ending to the opener inevitably having made you sing along and annoy the neighbours, the pace slows for ‘Till Tomorrow’. It’s just Don with his acoustic guitar, backed by a simple string arrangement, and it’s incredible. Much like his other radio hit ‘Vincent’ which comes next, the song seems completely free of a specific tempo as the music comfortably changes dynamics and speed along with the vocals. Everything was planned that way though, and producer Ed Freeman often recorded multiple different accompaniments to the tracks, on a variety of instruments, before sifting through and cutting parts to find just the right one. The result focuses on Don’s voice, and guitar as the stars of the show and serves only to highlight and perfectly compliment them throughout the record.

‘Vincent’ also features a subtle marimba accompaniment behind the bridges, and later on a very emotive string arrangement which appears when the first verse lyric is repeated toward the end of the song. The strings in fact were a bit of a sticking point between producer Ed Freeman and McLean, Freeman having written strings for the entire song and wishing to include them all, while McLean insisting that they only enter towards the end. It’s such a simple but perfect arrangement as it ended up, and Freeman has since admitted as much.

Although many of the arrangements are minimal, another of the strengths is how the listener is introduced to fresh instrumentation often enough that the album always feels new and engaging, never tiresome. No part – at least in my view – ever outstays it’s welcome or becomes boring. The title track is eight and a half minutes let’s not forget. It never seems that long to me.

Piano takes a prominent role again in ‘Crossroads’ for the first time since the opener, and it’s a nice change at this point. And then moving on from the “free-time” nature of the previous two tracks, the slightly more up-beat ‘Winterwood’ gives us a regular tempo and a backbeat once again. Like I said earlier, always changing just enough, and keeping things interesting. There’s more of a country vibe to this track, and its cheery sound is a nice lift mid-way through the album.

Up next is the melancholy and moving masterpiece that is ‘Empty Chairs’, and that signature 3-slide guitar phrase opening lick. It’s a beautiful, simple melody and accompaniment while McLean tells a tale of loss and heartbreak that’s genuinely moving. This track is a perfect example of McLean’s impressive command of language and his creativity with it.

After the same opening guitar lick draws ‘Empty Chairs’ to a close, the album takes a slightly more energetic and eclectic turn for ‘Everybody Loves Me Baby’ and ‘Sister Fatima’. The first of which sounds as if it could have been snipped from or directly inspired by the title-track (Try singing the verse to American Pie over it!), with a comparatively simple set of chords repeated throughout the verses and choruses. Rhythmic piano and the albums only prominent bass part drive the song from the outset, making it stand out somewhat in style amongst the others, and McLean sounds almost Dylan-like in his delivery of some lines. It also has a more improvised feel with the musicians evolving their parts and the energy of the song growing throughout.

‘Sister Fatima’ coming after this is an example of perfect track placement. It’s such a brilliant, twisting melody which goes in some really surprising directions, and after the repeating nature of the previous track this sounds only more exciting to the ear. Again, a perfect vocal performance, and another perfectly written string arrangement accompanies the track, but just as you get used to it, everything changes with an unexpected guitar arpeggio from nowhere and an organ takes over where the strings left off.

Celebrating Seniors – Don McLean is 70 | 50+ World

Next up is Don’s very own protest song. Written during the Vietnam war, and inspired by both a dream McLean had and by friends who had died in the conflict (McLean himself had not been allowed to sign up due to issues with Asthma since childhood) the song speaks of the terror, fear and loss of war from the view-point of a young soldier on the front line. McLean said that it had occurred to him following his dream that a soldier fighting in a trench is likely to be standing in his own grave, which inspired the harrowing lyrics and title.

Like all of this album, the musical approach taken here is incredibly well thought out and builds with the intensity of the imagery in McLean’s lyrics perfectly. Beginning with a solo vocal, the density and drama of the track climb for just over 2 minutes as the horrors of war are described, before the band falls silent again for the final dramatic repeat of the first verse. It’s absolutely perfect song writing.

‘The Grave’, as perfect as it is, never got the following it deserved during the Vietnam war and was never popularly adopted as a protest song. Possibly owing to the fact that public opinion on the war in Vietnam was largely negative anyway by 1971 when the album was released, or maybe due to ‘American Pie’ or ‘Vincent’ gaining more radio play, or otherwise overshadowing the song for most listeners. I don’t know. I’m glad either way that the song got renewed attention in 2003, when George Michael performed it on The Graham Norton Show in protest of the looming Iraq war. Definitely one to Google if you haven’t seen it, whether you’re a fan of George or not, he did an incredibly good job (watch here).

The album closes with what is widely considered the greatest recording of (By The) “Waters of Babylon”, a traditional 4-line verse attributed to English 18th century organist Philip Hayes which is itself an adaptation of “psalm 137” from the book of psalms. It’s acapella vocals, singing the same 4-line verse, but as a round. The second voice to enter starting the first line, as the first voice starts the second line of the verse, and so on until all 4 lines / melodies of the verse are being sung on top of one another. Don’s voice is absolutely top tier again, so a number of him at once is trance inducing, and this short, ethereal track was the perfect way to close a perfect album.

So, in conclusion dear reader, with all of that being said, I present you with two pieces of homework. First; when the next 40 minutes of free time you have presents itself, do yourself a huge favour and set that time aside to listen to American Pie in full. And I mean really listen. No phone, no noise or distractions, no lights if you can help it! It’s a journey of an album, and you won’t have wasted your time I guarantee it. Second; tell all of your friends to do exactly the same. Third; thank you for reading this far.

You can read more of our articles celebrating bands and albums from 1971 here.

Many thanks to Boss Keloid and Ste Arands for his words on this brilliant record. You can pre-order the new album from Boss Keloid from their Bandcamp page, here.

Check out the video for Gentle Clovis from Family The Smiling Thrush, below.

Boss Keloid: Bandcamp / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

You can follow At The Barrier on Twitter here, and like us on Facebook here. We really appreciate your support.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.