No song in history has ever managed to re-create the effect on me than that which was generated by American Pie, Don McLean’s anthemic eight minute chronology of the 1960s. It was the first song that made me want to study its lyrics, to find out the hidden meanings behind the words and to interpret the message which this hitherto unknown musician, with a distinctly Scottish name, was trying to project. I’d only started taking an interest in music a couple of years earlier and my tastes revolved largely around the mainstream rock bands of the time, ie Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath etc and I was aware that such behemoths of the musical world paid scant attention to the lyrical content of their offerings which were based mainly on instrumental virtuosity. Jack Bruce, in a Cream documentary, made it clear that the message behind the songs he played along with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker was largely irrelevant in comparison with the actual music while Ian Gillan of Deep Purple acknowledged that the lyrics to the band’s flagship single Black Night were merely a collection of random words to supplement the main feature of the song, ie Ritchie Blackmore’s blistering and unforgettable guitar riff.
When I first heard American Pie on the radio in early 1972, I was mildly intrigued by the lyrical content but the radio version was merely a heavily edited three minute sampler of the 8 min 33 sec album track, a teaser with a catchy chorus about chevies and levees designed to catch the listener’s attention but it was sufficient to have me jumping on the no 13 bus to Cambridge Street and hand over my hard earned two pounds 25p (sorry no pound sign on this Korean keyboard) before walking away with the actual album tucked into an iconic Listen Records ‘Cheap’n Nasty’ carrier bag.
When I finally got home and listened to the title track, it was night and day in comparison with the radio taster. A beautifully constructed song… four verses and choruses bookended by a passionate and emotional prologue and epilogue, telling the story of the 1960s from the tragic plane crash death of Buddy Holly in 1959 to the horrific killing of a black man at the hands of a gang of Hell’s Angels during a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California ten years later.
The theme of death reverberates throughout the song as McLean ends each stanza with the line ‘The Day the Music Died.’
I’m not going to offer my interpretation of the song here – plenty others have done so before me but, other than those already mentioned, there are reasonably clear references to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Janis Joplin, James Dean and other more cryptic nods to religion, politics, teenage romance and the American youth culture of the time.
Fifty years on, I never get tired of listening to the song and I still pore over the lyrics, searching for some hidden meaning that no-one else has yet found. When I’m performing at open mic sessions, if I feel the mood is too quiet, I’ll play it and inevitably get the crowd singing along.
Irrespective of age or any other social demographic, its a song, or at least a chorus, which everybody knows word for word. One man who refuses to offer his interpretation of the song is McLean himself.
When asked “What does American Pie mean?” His standard response is “It means I never have to work again.”
(Post by Colin ‘Jackie’ Jackson, of Glasgow – March 2021)
Cambridge Street in Glasgow is apparently one of a hundred such named in the UK. On the face of it, there’s nothing special about it; nothing that would set it apart from most of the other ninety-nine. It’s simply a means of accessing the more famous, interesting and vibrant Sauchiehall Street from the Cowcaddens Subway station.
Its appearance is to this day blighted by the typically ugly Seventies-built multi-storeyed car park (opened in 1972 for all you car park anoraks out there.) Overall though, it’s a lot easier on the eye than it was some forty-five to fifty years ago.
Not one to normally give matters such as this much thought, even I regarded Cambridge Street with a good deal of disdain. It was dirty, and grimy looking; like the keep Britain Tidy campaign budget had not been replenished since the late Sixties.
Yet, for all it lacked the cultural glories of Glasgow’s bustling West End; the classy shopping experience of Buchanan Street and the pubs, clubs and restaurants of Sauchiehall Street, I realised only recently just what a significant contribution Cambridge Street made to my teenage years.
It was a four and half mile, thirty minutes, bus ride (route 110, I think) from my house to the city centre, so there had to be a specific objective in mind for me to make that commitment on my time and bus fare. Even at such an early age ‘shopping’ required ‘purpose.’
Initially, as now, that motivation was the purchase of records. And that’s what first prompted me to this most under-appreciated of Glasgow streets.
It was 1973. I’d have been fifteen years old, in third year at secondary school, and there were bags of changes going on all around me. I mean lots of changes. Including in the ‘bag’ department.
Having been wired from birth to remain steadfastly uncool, I carried my text books to class in an old fashioned, but neatly compartmentalised briefcase type thing. The Great Coat Brigade were using the canvas gas mask bags; but the big change came when more and more kids, predominately male it has to be said, started loading their books into plastic bags. Plastic bags that once carried newly bought records and proudly brandished the legend ‘Cheap & Nasty.’
Now this pre-dated the Punk movement by a good three years, so such a slogan was quite a change from similarly purposed bags that depicted a cute little dog staring down a gramophone trumpet. Or an iconic Roger Dean illustration, featuring a naked set of siamese twins lounging in front of a dead tree, with a dragon by their side, its tail fluttering suggestively between their legs.
These bags had become more and more prevalent in the school playground over the course of the preceding twelve months, so, late to the party as usual, I decided to check out this ‘new’ store, Listen Records.
As it happens, I actually found the shop by accident when I next went for a haircut. I had managed a couple years earlier to dodge being trailed along by my mother to the Maid Marion salon in Drumchapel and had for some reason, like many of my pals, gravitated to a barber shop called Fusco’s – in Cambridge Street.
I must surely have been able to get a reasonable haircut closer to home, but opted instead to travel uptown to what at that time was a very basic and totally unspectacular shop. Maybe it was because they were specialists in the popular feathered cut; maybe because they treated us kids like adults, chatting away and offering ‘something for the weekend,’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) I do remember the guys being really friendly.
However, I have a sneaky suspicion that my / our choice of barber had something to do with the proximity of a delicatessen where the shop assistants were most accommodating of my under-age requests for four cans of Carlsberg Special and two of Newcastle Brown Ale. (I’ll not name the shop because they are now very successfully trading in the same name, but a different form.)
So, for a couple of years, I had my lazy shopping habits perfectly mapped out: bus to Cambridge Street; spend ages sifting through records in Listen; pop along for a haircut, then pick up a bevvy for that evening’s disco at school / local Ski Club. I’d then head back, stopping off in the woods behind my home to secretly stash my illicit alcohol for consumption later that evening.
When I left school in 1976, I was only a couple months short of being legally able to buy alcohol, and passed a trendy ‘unisex’ hairdresser to / from my place of work. For a few months, the only draw Cambridge Street offered was Listen Records, and until the store closed around two years later, they did very well from my wage packet, I can tell you. It will forever remain one of my top records stores.
However, I was ‘big boy’ now (if five foot four can ever be so termed) and with money to burn the lure of the city’s nightlife became an ever increasing influence on my pals and I.
Of course, licencing hours in those days were very restrictive compared to now, and so we’d head up to Glasgow in the early evening for a few hours in our favourite pub, MacIntosh’s Bar.
I’m not entirely sure why a group of four (sometimes five) lads from the suburbs would collectively chose this pub as their pre-Club hangout. The likelihood is that we were just lazy little gits, and the proximity of both the bus station and the bright lights of Sauchiehall Street won the day. Whatever the reason, I have some very fond, if fuzzy memories of evenings spent in there.
Oh yeah – guess where this pub was (still is.) Yup – Cambridge Street!
After a few beers, we’d walk along to Sauchiehall Street, take a left, and head to our favourite Discotheque – coz that’s what they were back then. Not Nightclubs; not Clubs; not even Discos. Discotheques.
The White Elephant was up a long, tight, steep staircase over some shops that faced out into the famous street. It wasn’t the most fancy of Clubs. It didn’t have the latest light show, nor did it have the loudest sound system.
More to the point though – it didn’t have any poseurs. There was no particular dress code that I recall, and no real showboating, dancefloor extroverts. The clientele were, in the main, regulars and we’d see the same faces week after week, which made for a friendly atmosphere. There was very little trouble on an evening at The White Elephant.
Spread over two floors, the upper one was more of a circular balcony that looked down on the dancefloor below. Tables and chairs of a pretty basic nature were spread out here and this is where we’d have our ‘three course supper’ which was included in the admission price. (£1.70 per couple on Couples Night! I’m unsure what we paid – but it must have been value for money.)
Best of all though, and what attracted our disparate wee crew, was the music. This was 1977, and while Glam had more or less faded away, Rock was as big as ever, twee pop still commanded heavy radio airplay, and ‘new’ genres such a s disco and punk vied for attention. And the DJs at The White Elephant would cater for everyone.
Later in 1977, the club was targeted by an arsonist. Fortunately, the evacuation went smoothly and there were no casualties, but thirty firemen were called upon to bring the blaze under control. The venue was badly damaged and required to close for a period.
When it re-opened, it was under the new name of Roseland.
We did return to the new ‘discotheque’ several times, and it did have a similar feel to The White Elephant, but as with everything, times change. Priorities change. By now, two of our group were spending more time with their future wives (whom they met at The White Elephant) an I had been dating a girl I also met there for about ten months.
Gradually, our visits to Roseland and any other clubs became less frequent.
With less reason to head up to Glasgow on a Friday or Saturday night, our visits to MacIntosh’s Bar also dwindled. Listen Records closed their shop at that end of town, and we were happy to let our hair grow.
We were now of an age when we really hoped we’d have our age questioned if buying alcohol, just so we could smugly flash our driving licence, or whatever.
For six years, on and off, and as unlikely as it would seem, the unremarkable Cambridge Street had considerable influence on the shaping of my teenage years.
It’s a little bit sad, I think, that so many things that shape our lives in some way or another, go unappreciated. So I for one, will tonight crack open a can of Special Brew and bottle of Newkie Brown and toast my time spent with company on Cambridge Street, Glasgow…..
…. where the street now at least has a little bit offame.