American Pie and Vincent are about as far as most Don McLean interviewers get. Sure, they’re two of the most enduring songs in the modern pop music canon and American Pie is right up there in the top five songs of the 20th century, along with Over the Rainbow, White Christmas, This Land Is Your Land and Respect, according to a poll by the Recording Industry Association of America.
But McLean hasn’t stopped making music since 1969 and our talk is peppered with his insistence that I listen to the songs he’s finished for an upcoming album Botanical Gardens.
“I want people to hear the new music any way they can,” he insists.
In the meantime, he has just released a double CD and DVD recorded at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in October 1991.
“I work on projects all the time, I am one-stop shopping,” he tells me. “I do all my research, source the 8×10 photos, recover old television shows and recordings because ever since the late 70s I have owned everything. So it really is my responsibility to re-release things. I have help from people in Nashville, I don’t have them looking for stuff out on my property but about seven or eight years ago I sent them a complete truckload of 24 track tapes of records that I owned and had them all digitised. During that time I also had quite a few video things, including the Manchester one. I’d thought you could just take it from a VHS and put it out on a DVD but standards are now so high that everything has to be high definition. So you’re not going to be seeing any good old footage of Ray Charles or whatever, because none of that is high definition and that’s the rule now.
“So I wanted to do something and I had the master tapes but they said the format was so old that they couldn’t do anything. One of the guys in my studio found one of the only three machines left in the whole country that could play the tape, so he drove to South Carolina with the tapes where they transferred the stuff and digitised it. Then we massaged the stuff, to make it all high definition. Next year we’re going to be releasing with that same company a TV special I did in 2000 with Nanci Griffith.”
Although this music was saved from oblivion, “not so the Free Trade Hall itself,” he laments, “where I performed this concert and many others through the years.
“On my tour of the UK in 2010 I stayed in a lovely hotel in Manchester,” he remembers. “This hotel was old in the back and modern in the front and the doors looked vaguely familiar. When I asked the attractive lady at the desk about it, she said the hotel used to be the Free Trade Hall. So there I was sleeping in the concert hall that I had performed in all those years ago.
“Things have changed and things will change at an even faster pace it looks like. But the music doesn’t change and, thank God, that’s one thing we can hold on to.”
Even as he continues to finesse that upcoming new album there are some more archival efforts in the offing, he discloses.
“I have three or four more in the pipeline but I don’t have everything visual. There are two BBC TV specials I don’t have – Don McLean and Friends done at the Pebble Mill studio and also Don McLean at the Royal Albert Hall, done in 1973. But there’s high definition footage of those two on YouTube so I know they’re around some place, and I’d give anything to get those. I’ve done thousands of appearances and the amazing thing about the internet is that stuff pops up all the time. There’s now a thing out there called The Music Of Don McLean that was done in 1982. I’m wearing a black shirt and they frequently show footage from that when I’m introduced to talk about my past, which is what I do a lot. That’s out there in its complete form on the internet with all the interviews and everything. If somebody wants to, they can spend months watching all that stuff, there’s so much of it.”
Doesn’t that feel a little strange?
“Yes, it is weird,” he agrees. “Considering there are only about 15, maybe 20, pictures of my father in the whole world and so many millions of people come and go with nobody but their loved ones knowing what they even looked like even, yet here I have all this stuff. I’ve been documented from the moment I came on the scene up until right now. The thing is when I was young I sang so pretty and looked so pretty, how could they not show me?”
Instead of bemoaning the way that the music business has gone, McLean has “decided to embrace the fact that whatever I might want to do is at my fingertips on the internet and YouTube and the music will never go away, at least if you can get the songs out there to people. They’ve got to love them first for them to not go away.
“My songs, and I’m saying this with not a great deal of humility, will always be around. I will always be remembered because of a few songs that will never be forgotten. How could I possibly regret that?”
Don McLean is at Manchester Bridgewater Hall, May 25, and the Sage Gateshead May 29