Do you recall what was revealed?

I’ve recently written a couple blogs that delve into the meaning behind some classic rock song lyrics. When I happened to mention to a few folks that I would be writing a blog post solely about Don McLean’s iconic opus “American Pie” — seeing as how it was released 50 years ago this week — one friend said, “Oh God, please don’t. Tell me when that’ll be published so I can skip your blog that week.” Others said they were looking forward to it, recalling the great memories the song evokes for them.

Don McLean, 1972

Either way, here we go.

“American Pie” is quite possibly the most (over)analyzed song in rock history, which was pretty much what McLean, now 76, had been hoping for. “It turned out beyond my wildest dreams,” he said in a 2020 article in American Songwriter. “I wanted to write a big song about America, so I came up with this idea that politics and music influence one another and flow parallel together, forward, but I had no clue how to begin to express that. Then one day, I was singing into the tape recorder, and the first verse all came tumbling out, like a genie from the bottle. ‘A long, long time ago’ all the way through to ‘the day the music died.’ I thought, ‘Whoa, what is that?!'”

One of the motivating factors in McLean’s songwriting through the years has been a family secret that McLean never discussed openly until recently. He had a sister, fifteen years his senior, who was an alcoholic and drug addict “who almost ruined my childhood. It was a disaster to see it. It was just awful. That’s one big reason why I’m a blue guy, I guess. All my songs are about loss – and a certain kind of psychic pain. I’ve never really been happy.”

McLean had a decent career, with several other popular singles like “Vincent” (a #12 hit) and “Dreidel” (#21) and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (#5), but without question it was “American Pie” that defined him… and sustained him… and exasperated him as well. It was a mighty bold undertaking to attempt a song that chronicled the rise and fall of rock & roll in an infectious and expansive radio-friendly pop song, and everyone has been relentlessly asking him what the words really mean. His pat answer was always, “It means I don’t have to ever work again if I don’t want to.” (Indeed, he pulls in about $400,000 in annual royalties, and the handwritten lyrics fetched a cool $2 million at auction in 2015.)

But he’s been talking about it more openly these days. I have researched numerous articles and essays, published long ago and more recently, to assess various interpretations that either confirmed my thinking or put forth something entirely different. Today, I offer my view on the words that many of us can and still do sing along to when the song is played.

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A long, long time ago,
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile,
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver,
Bad news on the doorstep,
I couldn’t take one more step,
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

The site of the plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, 1959

McLean was a 14-year-old paper boy on February 4, 1959, when he was sucker-punched by the headline about the plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly and two other vintage rockers. He had loved Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but they had joined the Army, gone to jail and converted to gospel music, so when Holly went down too, McLean felt as if a chapter of his life, and what he regarded as the innocent life of ’50s America, had come to an end. Compounding this in real terms is the fact that McLean’s father died the next year, leaving him on his own to figure things out. He felt it acutely at age 26 as he began writing the song in 1971 and realizing how much had changed in only a dozen years. Something indeed touched him deep inside, and he was moved to write it all down in five more lengthy verses and a repeated chorus.

Buddy Holly

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So, bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry,
And them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’, “This’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die”

Here he is singing a fond farewell to childhood, to apple pie and Miss America. Some of you may recall the old TV commercial with the tagline, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet…” That’s how the Chevy reference ties in, but he’s finding the well of innocence has run dry for him. In another nod to Buddy Holly, McLean altered his song “That’ll Be the Day,” turning a romantic negotiation into something far more solemn. McLean’s mourning for simpler times is initially set to a slow, ballad tempo, and again in the song’s coda, but the majority of the record gallops along as an infectious, uptempo romp that kept most of our melancholy musings at bay while we sang along. Very clever of him to put all these thought-provoking lyrics to a pleasant, sing-along melody, or the entire enterprise might have never been noticed in the first place.

Alexis Petridis, music critic for The Guardian, summed it up this way: “Dylan talked to us in dense, cryptic, apocalyptic terms. But McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language that mainstream listeners could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time. It’s bubblegum Dylan, really.”

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Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now, do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym,
You both kicked off your shoes,
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues,
I was a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck,
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

It’s crystal clear that McLean is weaving spiritual thoughts into the lyrics at several points, most notably here, where he uses the 1950s hit songs “The Book of Love” and “The Bible Tells Me So” to compare faith in God with faith in rock ‘n’ roll music (as the Lovin’ Spoonful had asked in “Do You Believe in Magic?” in 1965). McLean takes us back to sock hops, cool cars, great dance tunes and how “I knew I was out of luck” because his innocent childhood had ended. He felt it was useless to keep yearning for those old days now that so much had transpired by the time he wrote the song in 1971, as we shall see.

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Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own,
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
But that’s not how it used to be,
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me

Oh, and while the king was looking down,
The jester stole his thorny crown,
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned,
And while Lenin read a book on Marx,
A quartet practiced in the park,
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

Here the lyrics start to become a more interesting guessing game. Who is the Jester? The King and Queen? What courtroom? Who is the quartet practicing in the park?

Bob Dylan has dismissed the notion that he might be the Jester in McLean’s story (“A jester?” he scoffed. “Sure, the Jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else.”). But it makes sense from the standpoint of Dylan assuming the musical mantle in 1963 that had been cast aside by The King, who is, of course, Elvis. The coat Dylan borrowed from James Dean — symbolically, anyway — can be seen on the cover of his landmark “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album.

Some observers saw the lyrics here as more political. The King and Queen, they say, were John and Jackie Kennedy, and the Jester who stole the thorny crown was Lee Harvey Oswald. An intriguing idea…and this would actually tie in nicely to McLean’s premise about our national loss of innocence, but I’m not buying it.

The courtroom was the court of public opinion, where people’s tastes in music were splintering into different factions (folk versus rock, etc.) and, hence, no verdict was returned. Again, in the matter of Kennedy’s assassination, many in the court of public opinion never accepted the Warren Commission’s conclusions, which can translate to a “no verdict.”

The quartet who were honing their skills in 1963, I think we can all agree, were The Beatles, whose seismic impact on rock music was about to be felt. Meantime, pop radio would be filled with inconsequential pablum — “dirges in the dark” — until their arrival.

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Helter skelter in a summer swelter,
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter,
Eight miles high and falling fast,
It landed foul on the grass,
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume
While sergeants played a marching tune,
We all got up to dance,
Oh, but we never got the chance
‘Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield,
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

The merger of folk and rock symbolized by The Byrds and “Eight Miles High” in 1966-67 was the high point of ’60s optimism, which at first, rivaled the carefree sunniness of the ’50s. The “players” who “tried for a forward pass” were, I submit, The Rolling Stones, who were enjoying a string of edgy yet broadly accessible mid-’60s hits (“Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Paint It Black”) while Dylan sat “on the sidelines in a cast,” convalescing from a motorcycle accident. With their milestone “Sgt. Pepper” LP in 1967, The Beatles had morphed from the quartet into the Marching Band, hoping to maintain the air of “sweet perfume,” but the false promises of The Summer of Love were dissolving, and “we never got the chance” to dance because psychedelia, acid rock and new tensions were on the rise.

The politically based interpretation says the “players” are the civil rights protesters, and the marching band is the authoritarian establishment who “refused to yield.” And what was it that was revealed? You can make the case that the seemingly intractable division between the political left and right that haunts us even more today than 50 years ago was first on display in the Chicago streets outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. It was the dark underside of the American Dream.

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Oh, and there we were all in one place,
A generation lost in space,
With no time left to start again,
So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,
‘Cause fire is the Devil’s only friend

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage,
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan spell,
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

This verse opens with a description of the crowd at a music festival, presumably Woodstock with all its good vibes, but we soon see it’s the darker, violent Altamont festival that McLean is talking about. “Fire is the Devil’s only friend” ties together “Sympathy for the Devil” and The Rolling Stones’ performance there, during which Hell’s Angels “security” beat a concertgoer to death in full of view of the red-caped Mick Jagger and the band on stage. To McLean, this was the nadir of the story’s arc, the moment when any hope of innocence returning had been dashed. The story, and the words he uses to tell it, get a bit melodramatic at this point, but he’s trying to drive the point home that nothing “could break that Satan spell.”

Listeners who were paying attention to the words at this point could be forgiven for concluding, “This is one depressing song.”

The Rolling Stones at Altamont, 1969

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I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away,
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets, the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed,
But not a word was spoken,
The church bells all were broken,
And the three men I admire most,
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

Janis Joplin, 1970

As the tempo returns to a slower, more reflective pace, McLean touches on the sad tale of Janis Joplin, whose career briefly shone brightly but ended in tragedy and drug overdose (“she just smiled and turned away”) in 1970. The “sacred store” where “the music wouldn’t play” was, I believe, the neighborhood record store, where there had once been listening rooms for buyers to check out records. More to the point, the music of McLean’s youth was now passé, shoved aside by the cynicism of the newer generation. The faith in music had not been rewarded — instead, “the church bells all were broken.” Everyone had abandoned the chance of innocence, even “the three men I admire the most,” the Holy Trinity, who chose to metaphorically skip town.

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“American Pie” is, in essence, a cautionary tale about how, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Any interpretations of the lyrics, including mine, have to be taken with reservations, just as with any cryptic song lyric of that period, or any period. “Basically, in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” concludes McLean. “Life is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song, in a sense.”

Despite its catchy melody, there’s little to really cheer about in “American Pie.” McLean did come up with one more upbeat verse where the music gets “reborn” at the end, but he ditched it. “Things weren’t going that way,” he said in a 2020 interview. “I didn’t see America improving intellectually or politically. It was going steadily downhill, and so was the music.”

Here in 2021, you can make a convincing case that the innocent, simple days of 1950s America McLean longed for weren’t so innocent nor simple, especially not if you were Black, or Hispanic, or a woman who wanted to be something other than a housewife. And the civil unrest of the ’60s that McLean disparages was, in my view, a necessary battle that brought about some long-needed change in terms of voting rights and job/housing discrimination, to name just two areas.

But we’re talking about one man’s lyrical poetry put to music in 1971, describing the previous ten years. It’s a pop song — a major achievement in pop culture, to be sure — but still just a song. Let’s not assign too much importance to it.

Rob Patterson, a writer at the Best Classic Bands website, put it nicely in perspective: “It’s less important what McLean may say it means, and more important what it means to the listener – not who was what, but how it feels and its emotional impact. One of the true beauties of a great song is how it can become a part of your own experience, your feelings and your life.”

For me personally, “American Pie” is a song I like to play on guitar with a choir of family and friends singing along at the top of their lungs. People have told me they’re amazed I’m able to remember all the words, but that’s because they’re ingrained in my memory since I first learned them.

And to those who are sick to death of “American Pie” or never liked it in the first place, I say, you better look out. McLean announced recently there’ll be a documentary, “The Day The Music Died: The Story Behind Don McLean’s American Pie,” set for release at the end of 2021, and some sort of stage play in 2022 about McLean’s career and the song’s impact, and even a children’s book based on the song.

Don McLean, 2016

Apparently, the music, McLean’s music, never died after all.

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The Spotify playlist below is short and to the point. First, of course, is “American Pie,” followed by eight tracks that are mentioned specifically or alluded to in the lyrics, and then concluding with “Vincent,” McLean’s sad ode to Vincent Van Gogh.

How much, how much do you really know?

In recent months, I’ve been testing my readers’ skills at recalling the words to well-known classic rock songs by offering a series of Lyrics Quiz posts, and I’ll continue to do so periodically.

With this week’s post, I’ll begin branching out into the broader area of classic rock trivia. I came across an old “special edition” of a Rolling Stone Rock Trivia Quiz and decided it was high time I put together my own set of multiple-choice questions for you all to answer.

So here it is: My first Hack’s Back Pages Rock Trivia Quiz! Peruse the 15 questions and multiple-choice possible answers, then scroll down to find the answers and learn more about the topics raised. At the end, there’s also a Spotify playlist of the songs being discussed here.

I hope you get a kick out of this one!

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Van Morrison, 1971

1. “Brown-Eyed Girl” may get more airplay than any other Van Morrison song, but which of his singles charted higher on the US Top 40 listings?

“Moondance”; “Tupelo Honey”; “Domino”; “Wild Night”

(L-R) Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood. Who played bass with them?

2. Blind Faith was comprised of superstars Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker…and a fourth, much lesser known musician on bass. Who was it?

Trevor Bolder; Ric Grech; Clive Chaman; John Glascock

3. Which of these four songs does NOT feature mandolin?

“Losing My Religion,” R.E.M.; “The Battle of Evermore,” Led Zeppelin; “Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones; “Friend of the Devil,” The Grateful Dead

David Bowie as Major Tom in “Space Oddity”

4. Major Tom is the main character in David Bowie’s 1969 debut single “Space Oddity.” In which Bowie song does Major Tom make a return appearance?

“Fame”; “Let’s Dance”; “Ashes to Ashes”; “Heroes”

Mark Knopfler

5. On which Steely Dan single does Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler make a guest appearance on guitar?

“Peg”; “Time Out of Mind”; “FM”; “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”

Ringo Starr on vocals

6. Of these four songs Ringo Starr sang in The Beatles catalog, which one did he write?

“Yellow Submarine”; “Act Naturally”; “Good Night”; “Octopus’s Garden”

Rod Stewart in the 1970s

7. On which song does Rod Stewart encourage you to “spread your wings and let me come inside”?

“Maggie May”; “Hot Legs”; “Tonight’s the Night”; “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

8. Which Paul Simon album was originally intended to be a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album?

“Still Crazy After All These Years”
“Hearts and Bones”
“You’re the One”
“The Rhythm of the Saints”

9. Of these lengthy classic rock tracks that occupy an entire album side, which one clocks in as the longest?

“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” Iron Butterfly
“Echoes” from “Meddle,” Pink Floyd
“Close to the Edge,” Yes
“Supper’s Ready” from “Foxtrot,” Genesis

10. Which of these four artists did not record a song with Paul McCartney?

Elvis Costello
Stevie Wonder
Billy Joel
Michael Jackson

11. Which one of these pairs of artists did NOT record a song together?

Joni Mitchell and Michael McDonald; Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash; Phil Collins and Philip Bailey; Elton John and Freddie Mercury

12. Which album cover from the 1970s was designed by pop artist Andy Warhol?

“Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd
“Aladdin Sane,” David Bowie
“Sticky Fingers,” The Rolling Stones
“Imagine,” John Lennon

13. Which one of these talented women sings harmony vocals with Neil Young on his hit singles “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man”?

Bonnie Raitt
Linda Ronstadt
Joni Mitchell
Carly Simon

14. Which lead guitarist was never a member of The Yardbirds?

Jeff Beck
Peter Green
Eric Clapton
Jimmy Page

Kris Kristofferson with Barbra Streisand

15. Who was Barbra Streisand’s first choice to be her co-star in the 1976 film “A Star is Born”?

Neil Diamond
Elvis Presley
Rick Nelson
Jerry Lee Lewis

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ANSWERS:

1. “Domino”

Morrison had an acrimonious relationship with his late ’60s label, Bang Records, for whom he recorded “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Although royalties from that tune have padded his bank account every day since its release, he claims to hate it and rarely will play it anymore in concert. It reached #10 in 1967, but his upbeat song “Domino” from the 1970 LP “His Band and the Street Choir” actually reached one rung higher on the charts at #9. “Moondance,” from the 1970 album of the same name, is well-known but wasn’t released as a single in 1970 and performed poorly upon release as a single in 1977, stalling at #92. “Tupelo Honey” and “Wild Night” from the 1971 “Tupelo Honey” album managed only #47 and #28, respectively.

2. Ric Grech

Grech was a multi-instrumentalist who had written songs and played bass and violin for Family, a relatively obscure British progressive rock group known for a diversity of styles and lineups. He was tapped to fill out the ranks of Blind Faith, which lasted for less than six months, one brief tour and one album before disbanding. Winwood later invited Grech to join the reconvened Traffic in time for their popular LP “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” The other names mentioned above: Trevor Bolder became bassist in David Bowie’s backup band, The Spiders From Mars; Clive Chaman was the bass player for The Jeff Beck Group for a spell; and John Glascock was Jethro Tull’s bassist from 1976-1979.

3. “Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones

While this is one of the handful of songs in the Stones catalog that has a strong country music influence, “Wild Horses” does not include mandolin in the instrumental arrangement. There’s plenty of pedal steel guitar, and slide guitar, and Jagger’s vocals have a bit of Southern drawl, all a result of country rock pioneer Gram Parsons hanging out with the band during the 1969-1972 years. On Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones picks up a mandolin to complement Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar; R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck uses mandolin as the primary instrument as Michael Stipe sings “Losing My Religion”; and guest mandolinist David Grisman’s flourishes on mandolin become increasingly prominent with each successive verse of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”

4. “Ashes to Ashes”

“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie, /Strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low…” These are lyrics from the chorus of the hit single from Bowie’s 1980 LP “Scary Monsters.” Bowie himself acknowledged in 1990 that the words reflect his own struggles with drug addiction throughout the 1970s. He said he wrote “Ashes to Ashes” as a confrontation with his past: “You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. You cannot just ignore them, put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen, or just say, ‘Oh, I was different then.'”

5. “Time Out of Mind”

Although Steely Dan first recorded and performed as a six-man band when they debuted in 1972, they soon became sort of a studio laboratory run by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who brought in a wide array of session guitarists, drummers, bassists and background singers to play on the various album tracks. Particularly on their albums “The Royal Scam” (1976), “Aja” (1977) and “Gaucho” (1980), Fagen and Becker tried out as many as a dozen guitarists to play solos before finding the one they were looking for. On the “Gaucho” track “Time Out of Mind,” Mark Knopfler’s spare, fluid style was just what the songwriters were seeking. It was a modest hit, reaching #22 in early 1981. You can also hear Michael McDonald providing guest vocals behind Fagen on this one.

6. “Octopus’s Garden”

From their very first album onward, The Beatles made a point of featuring Ringo on vocals on at least one track. It was sometimes a cover of an earlier rock hit — The Shirrelles’ “Boys,” the Carl Perkins tunes “Matchbox” and “Honey Don’t,” or the Buck Owens hit “Act Naturally.” More often, it was a Lennon-McCartney original they wrote with Starr in mind: “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “What Goes On,” “Yellow Submarine,” “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Ringo tried in vain to write songs, but they ended up being little more than rewrites of someone else’s tune. He came up with the simple country ditty “Don’t Pass Me By” which appears on Side 2 of “The White Album,” and then, during the sessions for “Abbey Road,” he wrote “Octopus’s Garden,” which he regarded as “a sequel to ‘Yellow Submarine.'” George Harrison helped out with a marvelous guitar intro, and John, Paul and George all added harmonies.

7. “Tonight’s the Night”

Almost from the beginning, Stewart projected a playfully naughty image as a lovable rascal who’d love to take you to bed. He hung out with — and sometimes married — attractive, much younger women, and the lyrics of the songs he chose to record and release as singles were fairly obvious in their sexual overtures. “Maggie May” (1971) tells the tale of a young man’s first sexual experience with a much older woman; “Hot Legs” (1978) is about a young woman who drops by only for spirited, casual sex; and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (1978) is about a couple of strangers who lust for each other and are at first too shy to make a move but end up doing the deed. “Tonight’s the Night,” though, is the one that features the lyric in question, which was boldly blatant about what he wanted from the young lady.

8. “Hearts and Bones”

When Simon made the daring decision in 1970 to end his enormously successful partnership with Art Garfunkel, it was because he wanted to explore new musical territories that he felt weren’t a good match for the Simon-Garfunkel tight harmonies. In 1975, the duo reunited, but for only one song, “My Little Town,” which appeared on his “Still Crazy After All These Years” album AND Garfunkel’s “Breakaway” LP. In 1983, following a spectacularly successful reunion concert, video and album in Central Park, Simon and Garfunkel did a reunion tour, and started work on a full S&G album, but the pair had a falling out, and Simon actually erased Garfunkel’s vocal parts and made the album a solo work called “Hearts and Bones.” The other two albums listed, 1991’s “The Rhythm of the Saints” and 2000’s “You’re the One,” had no involvement from Garfunkel.

Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” LP, 1971

9. “Echoes,” Pink Floyd

From the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, progressive rock bands were eager to push the boundaries of rock music, not only in format and influences but in length as well. British artists like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull and Yes wrote songs that lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes. American and Canadian acts from Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan to Rush and Styx got in the act as well. In 1968, California’s Iron Butterfly was one of the first bands to take up a whole album side, releasing the stoner classic “In-A-Gadda-da-Vida,” but it lasted just 17:05. Yes released “Close to the Edge” in 1972, and its title track was 18:43 in length. Genesis, with Peter Gabriel still firmly in charge, released the 23:06-long “Supper’s Ready” in 1972. The winner, though, is Pink Floyds “Echoes,” from their 1971 album “Meddle,” which edges out “Supper’s Ready” by a half minute at 23:31.

10. Billy Joel

You can look at the accessible pop songcraft of Joel from his earliest work onward and assume he’d be a perfect match for McCartney’s similar vein of highly melodic material… but no, they never worked together. In 1982, McCartney teamed up with Stevie Wonder for the massive hit “Ebony and Ivory” and also “What’s That You’re Doing,” both from his “Tug of War” LP. In the 1982-83 period, McCartney collaborated successfully with Michael Jackson on three hits: “The Girl is Mine” from Jackson’s “Thriller” album, and “Say Say Say” and “The Man” from McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace” LP. In 1989, following poor sales of his previous album “Press to Play,” McCartney struck an alliance with Elvis Costello on four of the 12 songs on “Flowers in the Dirt,” as well as Costello’s hit “Veronica” the same year.

11. Elton John and Freddie Mercury

These two bombastic Brits were both prone to big, splashy theatrics in their performances, and they were good friends, so you’d think a duet would’ve been a natural for them, but it never happened. On the other hand, the other three pairs of artists found great results pooling their talents on various recordings. For her “Dog Eat Dog” album in 1985, Joni Mitchell invited ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald to perform a duet with her on “Good Friends,” which stiffed as a single at #85 but reached #28 on Mainstream Rock charts. In 1984, for his third solo LP, “Chinese Wall,” Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire collaborated with Phil Collins, who produced the album, played drums throughout, and co-wrote and sang on the international #1 hit “Easy Lover.” Back in 1969, Johnny Cash sang a duet with Bob Dylan on his “Nashville Skyline” album on a re-recording of Dylan’s 1963 tune “Girl From the North Country.”

12. “Sticky Fingers,” The Rolling Stones

One of the earliest examples of a controversial album cover design that made it into production was the infamous tight jeans close-up on The Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” LP, courtesy of Andy Warhol. Although members of his design collaborative, The Factory, actually implemented the design and photography, Warhol conceived of the idea, which Mick Jagger enthusiastically endorsed. The actual working zipper on the original pressing was later removed because it tended to damage albums during shipping. Hipgnosis, a British graphic design group that created album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Alan Parsons Project and more, came up with the award-winning “Dark Side of the Moon” cover art. Famed fashion and portrait photographer Brian Duffy, who worked often with David Bowie, shot and created the cover for Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” album. Warhol was rumored to have shot the polaroid photo of John Lennon for his “Imagine” cover, but it was instead taken by Yoko Ono.

13. Linda Ronstadt

Young went to Nashville in 1971 to appear on a taping of the ABC musical variety show “The Johnny Cash Show,” where Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were also scheduled to appear. Immediately following the taping, Young invited Ronstadt and Taylor to a nearby studio, where he had assembled some country musicians to record some tracks for a new project that would become the chart-topping “Harvest” LP. It’s difficult to make out Taylor’s voice in the mix of either “Heart of Gold” or “Old Man,” but Ronstadt’s voice is easily identifiable. Young has shared the stage with Joni Mitchell, notably for The Band’s “The Last Waltz” album and concert film. Young performed with Bonnie Raitt at least once, at the Bay Area Music Awards ceremony in 1990. As far as I can tell from online research, Young and Carly Simon have never performed or recorded together.

14. Peter Green

Peter Green was a brilliant blues guitarist who played first with John Mayall and then formed Fleetwood Mac in 1967. He never served with The Yardbirds, a blues-based band later noted for their “rave-up” instrumental breaks. Tony “Top” Topham was the group’s original lead guitarist, but he lasted only a few months and was replaced by hot new blues guitar sensation Eric Clapton. He remained for a year and a half but, as a blues purist, he was turned off by their pop single “For Your Love” and left to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (and then Cream). Clapton recommended prominent session guitarist Jimmy Page, who said no and suggested Jeff Beck instead, who was instrumental in their most fertile period on such Yardbirds hits as “Shapes of Things” and “Heart Full of Soul.” Page ended up joining later on bass, then played guitar alongside Beck for several months before Beck grew disillusioned and split. Page stayed on until the group’s disbanding in 1968, turning it into first The New Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin.

A mock-up album cover of what might’ve been

15. Elvis Presley

In the 1927 and 1945 versions of “A Star is Born,” the story centered on an aspiring actress and declining actor, but in 1975, Streisand was interested in reviving the film by making it about the music business instead. Consequently, when she went looking for a co-star to play the part of the singer on his way down, she wanted someone who could both sing and act. Neil Diamond made the short list as a possible candidate. Rick Nelson might’ve worked, and Jerry Lee Lewis as well, but neither were ever under consideration. (The studio mentioned Marlon Brando, who was ruled out because he wasn’t a singer.). Streisand was eager to get Elvis Presley, who met with them and was interested in taking the part, but imperious manager “Colonel” Tom Parker demanded top billing for Elvis and asked for too much money. He also objected to Elvis portraying someone whose career was in decline. Filmmakers instead settled on Kris Kristofferson, an acclaimed songwriter and actor.

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