American Pie

First Released: 1971

Highest UK chart position: 2

Highest US chart position: 1

A long, long time ago, on 3 February 1959, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Don McLean was 13 years old, delivering papers. He cried as he put the bad news on the doorstep. Sorry - he might have done, he can't remember. Something touched him deep inside. In years to come, he would call it the day the music died and use the event as the springboard for an elegy to the 1960s and to present his negative critique on contemporary rock. The Doors, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin are given short shrift. Or are they? Part of the skill of "" is that its lyrics are largely mysterious.

Some images seem straightforward: the jester in a cast can only be Bob Dylan recovering from his motorcycle accident, while Jackflash is Mick Jagger, with "no angel born in hell" being Hell's Angels at Altamont. What about "the sergeants played a marching tune"? On the face of it, it's a reference to the Beatles and "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", but McLean could be talking about the Vietnam war and the right-wing hit single by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, "The Ballad Of The Green Berets".

Let's ask him. Well, no, we can't, because McLean, an affable interviewee, never answers direct questions about the song. When asked what "" means, he replies, "It means I don't have to work if I don't want to". He has conceded the song was not intended to be about the death of music. "The music never dies, and I was saying that people lack the basic trust to believe that the music will happen again." In other words, the levee doesn't remain dry.

Because McLean has not commented on the lyrics, numerous critics have sought to explain them. "" is rock's equivalent to TS Eliot's The Waste Land and you can obtain a doctorate by writing on its hidden meaning. Some have thought that the opening verse is about John F Kennedy rather than Buddy Holly and that "the widowed bride" is Jackie Kennedy. Then the three men he admires the most become the two assassinated Kennedys and Martin Luther King, which is a long way from imagining they are Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Could be: Don McLean won't even say if you're wrong.

"The day the music died" is surely an echo of Holly's own "That'll be the day when I die", and there are strong clues in McLean's later work. He has revisited the Buddy Holly songbook regularly and had a hit with a revival of "Everyday", but "" - which showed its evergreen quality by reaching Number 12 in the UK on its 1991 reissue - remained the song for which he was best known.

Perhaps McLean was critical of rock music because he was a folksinger. He played banjo and guitar and he worked with Pete Seeger. In 1968, he had been nominated as the Hudson River Troubadour. Perhaps the day the music died was when a dyed-in-the-wool folkie cut an eight-minute single about the death of rock'n'roll.

`Behind The Song' by Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh is published by Blandford at pounds 14.99. Independent readers can buy the book for pounds 12.99 (including p&p). To order 01624 675 137.