We Didn't Start the Fire
|"We Didn't Start the Fire"|
|Single by Billy Joel|
|from the album Storm Front|
|B-side||"House of Blue Light"|
|Released||September 27, 1989|
|Format||7" single, 12" single,
CD, Cassette Single
|Genre||Rock, New Wave|
|Producer(s)||Mick Jones, Billy Joel|
|Billy Joel singles chronology|
"We Didn't Start the Fire" is a song by Billy Joel. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between January 1949 (Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front. The song was a No. 1 hit in the US.
- 1 History
- 2 Music video
- 3 Historical items referred to in the song
- 3.1 1949
- 3.2 1960
- 3.3 1970s
- 3.4 1980s
- 3.5 Of note
- 4 Derivations
- 5 Charts
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Joel got the idea for the song while he had just turned 40 and was in a recording studio when he met a friend of Sean Lennon that had just turned 21 who said "It's a terrible time to be 21!" Joel replied to him, "Yeah, I remember when I was 21 -- I thought it was an awful time and we had Vietnam, and y'know, drug problems, and civil rights problems and everything seemed to be awful." The friend replied, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's different for you. You were a kid in the fifties and everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties". Joel retorted, "Wait a minute, didn't you hear of the Korean War or the Suez Canal Crisis?" Joel later said those headlines formed the basic framework for the song.
Joel has said, "I'm a history nut. I devour books. At one time I wanted to be a history teacher". According to his mother, he was a bookworm by the age of seven. Unlike most of Joel's songs, the lyrics were written before the melody, owing to the somewhat unusual style of the song. The song was a huge commercial success and was Joel's third Billboard No. 1 hit. It was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
I had turned forty. It was 1989 and I said "Okay, what's happened in my life?" I wrote down the year 1949. Okay, Harry Truman was president. Popular singer of the day, Doris Day. China went Communist. Another popular singer, Johnnie Ray. Big Broadway show, South Pacific. Journalist, Walter Winchell. Athlete, Joe DiMaggio. Then I went on to 1950 [...]. It's one of the worst melodies I've ever written. I kind of like the lyric though.
Joel has mixed feelings about the song. "It's a nightmare to perform live, because if I miss one word, it's a train wreck." He has also called it a "novelty song" that does not "really define me as well as album songs that probably don't get played". On being asked if he could do a follow-up about the next couple of years after the events that transpired in the original song, he commented "No, I wrote one song already and I don't think it was really that good to begin with, melodically."
Blender magazine ranked "We Didn't Start the Fire" No. 41 on its list of the "50 Worst Songs Ever", a list that also includes songs from Paul McCartney and Simon & Garfunkel. They considered the production bombastic and stated that the song "resembles a term paper scribbled the night before it’s due."
A music video for the single was directed by Chris Blum, which chronicles a middle-class married couple and their goal of the American Dream: a home, careers and children. This is symbolised by the constant revamping of a domestic kitchen - 1940s utilitarian turning into 1950s Populuxe, 1960s op art into 1970s earth-colored tiles and macramé, and finally 1980s black lacquer & granite bench tops. This is juxtaposed with symbols of the tumultuous social times of the second half of the 20th century (e.g., bra burning and draft card burning). The singer acts as an unseen but omnipresent observer. During each chorus, Joel rhythmically beats on a black table; in the background, famous photographs (of Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination and Nguyễn Văn Lém's execution, among others) are consumed by fire, a metaphor of the song's theme and title.
Historical items referred to in the song
"We Didn't Start the Fire" lists historical events in stream of consciousness.
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Though the lyrics are rapid-fire with several people and events mentioned in a single word each, there is widespread agreement on the meaning of the lyrics. Steven Ettinger wrote,
Billy Joel captured the major images, events, and personalities of this half-century in a three-minute song.... It was pure information overload, a song that assumed we knew exactly what he was singing about...What was truly alarming was the realization that we, the listeners, for the most part understood the references.
The following events (with Joel's lyric for each appearing in bold) are listed in the order that they appear in the song, which is almost entirely chronological. The lyric for each individual event is brief and the events are punctuated by the chorus and other lyrical elements. The following list includes longer, more descriptive names for clarity. Events from a variety of contexts — such as popular entertainment, foreign affairs, and sports — are intermingled, giving an impression of the culture of the time as a whole. There are 119 items listed in the song.
- Harry Truman was inaugurated as U.S. president after being elected in 1948 to his own term; previously he was sworn in following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He authorized the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II, on August 6 and August 9, 1945, respectively.
- Doris Day enters the public spotlight with the films My Dream Is Yours and It's a Great Feeling as well as popular songs like "It's Magic"; divorces her second husband.
- Red China: The Communist Party of China wins the Chinese Civil War, establishing the People's Republic of China.
- Johnnie Ray signs his first recording contract with Okeh Records, although he would not become popular for another two years.
- South Pacific, the prize-winning musical, opens on Broadway on April 7.
- Walter Winchell is an aggressive radio and newspaper journalist credited with inventing the gossip column.
- Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees go to the World Series five times in the 1940s, winning four of them.
- Joe McCarthy, the US Senator, gains national attention and begins his anti-communist crusade with his Lincoln Day speech.
- Richard Nixon is first elected to the United States Senate.
- Studebaker, a popular car company, begins its financial downfall.
- Television is becoming widespread throughout Europe and North America.
- North Korea and South Korea declare war after Northern forces stream south on June 25.
- Marilyn Monroe soars in popularity with five new movies, including The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, and attempts suicide after the death of friend Johnny Hyde who asked to marry her several times, but she refused respectfully. Monroe would later (1954) be married for a brief time to Joe DiMaggio (mentioned in the previous verse).
- The Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, were convicted on March 29 for espionage.
- H-Bomb is in the middle of its development as a nuclear weapon, announced in early 1950 and first tested in late 1952.
- Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion welterweight boxer.
- Panmunjom, the border village in Korea, is the location of truce talks between the parties of the Korean War.
- Marlon Brando is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire.
- The King and I, musical, opens on Broadway on March 29.
- The Catcher in the Rye, a controversial novel by J. D. Salinger, is published.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower is first elected as U.S. president, winning by a landslide margin of 442 to 89 electoral votes.
- The vaccine for polio is privately tested by Jonas Salk.
- England's got a new queen: Queen Elizabeth II succeeds to the throne upon the death of her father, George VI, and is crowned the next year.
- Rocky Marciano defeats Jersey Joe Walcott, becoming the world Heavyweight champion.
- Liberace has a popular 1950s television show for his musical entertainment.
- Santayana goodbye: George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, dies on September 26.
- Joseph Stalin dies on March 5, yielding his position as leader of the Soviet Union.
- Georgy Maksimilianovich Malenkov succeeds Stalin for six months following his death. Malenkov had presided over Stalin's purges of party "enemies", but would be spared a similar fate by Nikita Khrushchev mentioned later in verse.
- Gamal Abdel Nasser acts as the true power behind the new Egyptian nation as Muhammad Naguib's minister of the interior.
- Sergei Prokofiev, the composer, dies on March 5, the same day as Stalin.
- Winthrop Rockefeller and his wife Barbara are involved in a highly publicized divorce, culminating in 1954 with a record-breaking $5.5 million settlement.
- Roy Campanella, an African-American baseball catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, receives the National League's Most Valuable Player award for the second time.
- Communist bloc is a group of communist nations dominated by the Soviet Union at this time. Probably a reference to the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany.
- Roy Cohn resigns as Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel and enters private practice with the fall of McCarthy. He also worked to prosecute the Rosenbergs, mentioned earlier.
- Juan Perón spends his last full year as President of Argentina before a September 1955 coup.
- Arturo Toscanini is at the height of his fame as a conductor, performing regularly with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on national radio.
- Dacron is an early artificial fiber made from the same plastic as polyester.
- Dien Bien Phu falls. A village in North Vietnam falls to Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap, leading to the creation of North Vietnam and South Vietnam as separate states.
- "Rock Around the Clock" is a hit single released by Bill Haley & His Comets in May, spurring worldwide interest in rock and roll music.
- Albert Einstein dies on April 18 at the age of 76.
- James Dean achieves success with East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, gets nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and dies in a car accident on September 30 at the age of 24.
- Brooklyn's got a winning team: The Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series for the only time before their move to Los Angeles.
- Davy Crockett is a Disney television miniseries about the legendary frontiersman of the same name. The show was a huge hit with young boys and inspired a short-lived "coonskin cap" craze.
- Peter Pan is broadcast on TV live and in color from the 1954 version of the stage musical starring Mary Martin on March 7. Disney released an animated version the previous year.
- Elvis Presley signs with RCA Records on November 21, beginning his pop career.
- Disneyland opens on July 17, 1955 as Walt Disney's first theme park.
- Brigitte Bardot appears in her first mainstream film And God Created Woman and establishes an international reputation as a French "sex kitten".
- Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and site of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
- Alabama is the site of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which ultimately led to the removal of the last race laws in the USA. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr figure prominently.
- Nikita Khrushchev makes his famous Secret Speech denouncing Stalin's "cult of personality" on February 25.
- Princess Grace Kelly releases her last film, High Society, and marries Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
- Peyton Place, the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious, is published. Though mild compared to today's prime time, it shocked the reserved values of the 1950s.
- Trouble in the Suez: The Suez Crisis boils as Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal on October 29.
- Little Rock, Arkansas is the site of an anti-integration standoff, as Governor Orval Faubus stops the Little Rock Nine from attending Little Rock Central High School and President Dwight D. Eisenhower deploys the 101st Airborne Division to counteract him.
- Boris Pasternak, the Russian author, publishes his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.
- Mickey Mantle is in the middle of his career as a famous New York Yankees outfielder and American League All-Star for the sixth year in a row.
- Jack Kerouac publishes his first novel in seven years, On the Road.
- Sputnik becomes the first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, marking the start of the space race.
- Chou En-Lai, Premier of the People's Republic of China, survives an assassination attempt on the charter airliner Kashmir Princess.
- Bridge on the River Kwai is released as a film adaptation of the 1954 novel and receives seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- Lebanon is engulfed in a political and religious crisis that eventually involves U.S. intervention.
- Charles de Gaulle is elected first president of the French Fifth Republic following the Algerian Crisis.
- California baseball begins as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants move to California and become the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. They are the first major league teams west of Kansas City.
- Charles Starkweather Homicide captures the attention of Americans, in which he kills eleven people between January 25 and 29 before being caught in a massive manhunt in Douglas, Wyoming.
- Children of Thalidomide: Mothers taking the drug Thalidomide had children born with congenital birth defects caused by the sleeping aid and antiemetic, which was also used at times to treat morning sickness.
- Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash on February 3 with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, in a day that had a devastating impact on the country and youth culture. Joel prefaces the lyric with a Holly signature vocal hiccup: "Uh-huh, uh-huh."
- Ben-Hur, a film based around the New Testament starring Charlton Heston, wins eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- Space Monkey: Able and Miss Baker return to Earth from space aboard the flight Jupiter AM-18.
- The Mafia are the center of attention for the FBI and public attention builds to this organized crime society with a historically Sicilian-American origin.
- Hula hoops reach 100 million in sales as the latest toy fad.
- Fidel Castro comes to power after a revolution in Cuba and visits the United States later that year on an unofficial twelve-day tour.
- Edsel is a no-go: Production of this car marque ends after only three years due to poor sales.
- U-2: An American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, causing the U-2 Crisis of 1960.
- Syngman Rhee was rescued by the CIA after being forced to resign as leader of South Korea for allegedly fixing an election and embezzling more than US $20 million.
- Payola, illegal payments for radio broadcasting of songs, was publicized due to Dick Clark's testimony before Congress and Alan Freed's public disgrace.
- John F. Kennedy beats Richard Nixon in the November 8 general election.
- Chubby Checker popularizes the dance The Twist with his cover of the song of the same name.
- Psycho: An Alfred Hitchcock thriller, based on a pulp novel by Robert Bloch and adapted by Joseph Stefano, which becomes a landmark in graphic violence and cinema sensationalism. The screeching violins heard briefly in the background of the song are a trademark of the film's soundtrack.
- Belgians in the Congo: The Republic of the Congo (Leopoldville) was declared independent of Belgium on June 30, with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister.
- Ernest Hemingway commits suicide on July 2 after a long battle with depression.
- Adolf Eichmann, a "most wanted" Nazi war criminal, is traced to Argentina and captured by Mossad agents. He is covertly taken to Israel where he is put on trial for crimes against humanity in Germany during World War II, convicted, and hanged.
- Stranger in a Strange Land, written by Robert A. Heinlein, is a breakthrough best-seller with themes of sexual freedom and liberation.
- Bob Dylan is signed to Columbia Records after a New York Times review by critic Robert Shelton.
- Berlin is separated into West Berlin and East Berlin, and from the rest of East Germany, when the Berlin Wall is erected on August 13 to prevent citizens escaping to the West.
- The Bay of Pigs Invasion fails, an attempt by United States-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro.
- Lawrence of Arabia: The Academy Award-winning film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence starring Peter O'Toole premieres in America on December 16.
- British Beatlemania: The Beatles, a British rock group, gain Ringo Starr as drummer and Brian Epstein as manager, and join the EMI's Parlophone label. They soon become the world's most famous rock band, with the word "Beatlemania" adopted by the press for their fans' unprecedented enthusiasm. It also began the British Invasion in the United States.
- Ole' Miss: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi
- John Glenn: Flew the first American manned orbital mission termed "Friendship 7" on February 20.
- Liston beats Patterson: Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson fight for the world heavyweight championship on September 25, ending in a first-round knockout. This match marked the first time Patterson had ever been knocked out and one of only eight losses in his 20-year professional career.
- Pope Paul VI: Cardinal Giovanni Montini is elected to the papacy and takes the papal name of Paul VI.
- Malcolm X makes his infamous statement "The chickens have come home to roost" about the Kennedy assassination, thus causing the Nation of Islam to censor him.
- British politician sex: The British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, has a relationship with a showgirl, and then lies when questioned about it before the House of Commons. When the truth came out, it led to his own resignation and undermined the credibility of the Prime Minister.
- JFK blown away: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22 while riding in an open convertible through Dallas.
- Birth control: In the early 1960s, oral contraceptives, popularly known as "the pill", first go on the market and are extremely popular. Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 challenged a Connecticut law prohibiting contraceptives. In 1968, Pope Paul VI released a papal encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae which declared artificial birth control a sin.
- Ho Chi Minh: A Vietnamese communist, who served as President of Vietnam from 1954–1969. March 2 Operation Rolling Thunder begins bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line from North Vietnam to the Vietcong rebels in the south. On March 8, the first U.S. combat troops, 3,500 marines, land in South Vietnam.
- Moonshot: Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing, successfully lands on the moon.
- Woodstock: Famous rock and roll festival of 1969 that came to be the epitome of the counterculture movement.
- Watergate: Political scandal that began when the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. was broken into. After the break-in, word began to spread that President Richard Nixon (a Republican) may have known about the break-in, and tried to cover it up. The scandal would ultimately result in the resignation of President Nixon, and to date, this remains the only time that anyone has ever resigned the United States Presidency.
- Punk rock: The Ramones form, with the Sex Pistols following in 1975, ushering in the punk era.
(An item from 1977 comes before three items from 1976 to make the song scan.)
- Menachem Begin becomes Prime Minister of Israel in 1977 and negotiates the Camp David Accords with Egypt's president in 1978.
- Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980, but he first attempted to run for the position in 1976.
- Palestine: a United Nations resolution that calls for an independent Palestinian state and to end the Israeli occupation.
- Terror on the airline: Numerous aircraft hijackings take place, specifically, the Palestinian hijack of Air France Flight 139 and the subsequent Operation Entebbe in Uganda.
- Ayatollah's in Iran: During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West-backed and secular Shah is overthrown as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gains power after years in exile and forces Islamic law.
- Russians in Afghanistan: Following their move into Afghanistan, Soviet forces fight a ten-year war, from 1979 to 1989.
- Wheel of Fortune: A hit television game show which has been TV's highest-rated syndicated program since 1983.
- Sally Ride: In 1983 she becomes the first American woman in space. Ride's quip from space "Better than an E-ticket", harkens back to the opening of Disneyland mentioned earlier, with the E-ticket purchase needed for the best rides.
- Heavy metal suicide: In the 1980s Ozzy Osbourne and the bands Judas Priest and Metallica were brought to court by parents who accused the musicians of hiding subliminal pro-suicide messages in their music.
- Foreign debts: Persistent U.S. trade and budget deficits
- Homeless vets: Veterans of the Vietnam War, including many disabled ex-military, are reported to be left homeless and impoverished.
- AIDS: A collection of symptoms and infections in humans resulting from the specific damage to the immune system caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is first detected and recognized in the 1980s, and was on its way to becoming a pandemic.
- Crack cocaine use surged in the mid-to-late 1980s.
- Bernie Goetz: On December 22, Goetz shot four young men who he said were threatening him on a New York City subway. Goetz was charged with attempted murder but was acquitted of the charges, though convicted of carrying an unlicensed gun.
- Hypodermics on the shore: Medical waste was found washed up on beaches in New Jersey after being illegally dumped at sea. Before this event, waste dumped in the oceans was an "out of sight, out of mind" affair. This has been cited as one of the crucial turning points in popular opinion on environmentalism.
- China's under martial law: On May 20, China declares martial law, resulting in the use of military forces against protesting students to end the Tiananmen Square protests.
- Rock-and-roller cola wars: Soft drink giants Coke and Pepsi each run marketing campaigns using rock & roll and popular music stars to reach the teenage and young adult demographic.
Of the 56 individuals identified in the song, only seven are women: Queen Elizabeth II (by a not entirely accurate lyric referring only to England, rather than Great Britain), Brigitte Bardot, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Sally Ride, and Ethel Rosenberg (who is identified in conjunction with her husband).
Johnnie Ray, Joe DiMaggio, Richard Nixon, Roy Campanella, Mickey Mantle, Floyd Patterson, Marlon Brando, Menachem Begin, Ronald Reagan, J. D. Salinger, and Sally Ride were all alive when the song was released but have died since.
The Dodgers are mentioned twice, but only in reference to their homes rather than by name: "Brooklyn's got a winning team", concerning their 1955 World Series victory, and "California baseball" about the Dodgers' and Giants' move from New York to California in 1958.
Numerous parodies and takeoffs have been based on the song, including The Simpsons' parody "They'll Never Stop the Simpsons" at the end of the 2002 "Gump Roast" episode, and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning parody "Here Comes Another Bubble." A version called "We Love Barney Fife," recorded by the band Guns 'n' Moses, was played frequently on the Doctor Demento radio show. The song was parodied in an episode of the U.S. version of The Office. Irish band The Memories released "The Game" set to the tune of "We Didn't Start The Fire" about Ireland's World Cup 1990 Campaign. Another parody was released in 2010 titled "The Wii Didn't Start the Fire" about the history of video games.
JibJab set their 2007 year in review song to "We Didn't Start the Fire"'s tune.
In early 2009, comedy website CollegeHumor created a parody entitled "We Didn't Start the Flame War" which chronicles a long list of common inflammatory (and often explicit) comments left on content over a wide variety of popular websites by internet trolls.
In the Netherlands the Dutch punk rock band Heideroosjes did a parody on their 20-year anniversary album about things that happened over those twenty years in the Netherlands called "De Wereld Draait Door" (The World Keeps Turning).
Mitch Benn also based his song about the BBC 'I'm proud of the BBC' on Billy Joel's song.
Los Angeles, California-based cinematic pop band Milo Greene performed a version of the song in June 2013 for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover series. The band altered some of the lyrics, referencing newer television shows, including Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, and NBA teams and players.
"Blame It on the Rain" by Milli Vanilli
|Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
December 9, 1989 – December 16, 1989
"Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Collins
- Rolling Stone magazine - "Billy Joel Starts a Fire" by Sheila Rogers. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
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- Bordowitz, pp. 168, 161, 9
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- Newman, Melinda "Joel Sees Pop Exit with Greatest Hits 3", Billboard, July 26, 1997; cited in Bordowitz, p.169.
- Nadboy, Arie, "I am the Edu-Tainer", Island Ear, March 1996; cited by Bordowitz, p. 169
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- Ettinger, Steven (2003). Torah 24/7: A Timely Guide for the Modern Spirit. Devorah Publishing Company. p. 2. ISBN 1-930143-73-7. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
- Joel, Billy. "Lyrics: We Didn't Start the Fire". www.billyjoel.com. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
- Bernstein, Adam (May 21, 2008). "Obituaries: Barbara Sears Rockefeller, 91; Miss Lithuania, Millionaire Bride". The Washington Post.
- 30th Academy Awards winners
- Seisman, Matt (April 16, 2009). "We Didn't Start the Song Parody". Techland.com. Time.com. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
- "12th Annual Webby Awards Nominees & Winners : Online Film & Video". WebbyAwards.com. 2008.
- Serrels, Mark (2010-12-20). "The Wii Didn’t Start The Fire". Kotaku.
- ""We Didn't Start the Flame War" - CollegeHumor Video". 14 April 2009.
- "'Russell Howard's Good News' Cancer song".
- "Milo Greene covers Billy Joel". Retrieved 25 May 2013.
- http://www.ultratop.be/nl/showitem.asp?interpret=Billy+Joel&titel=We+Didn%27t+Start+The+Fire&cat=s (Retrieved September 17, 2012)
- Jans, Micha (updated April 23, 2009) Dutch Top 40 1989, MichaJans.nl, Jaarlijsten/1989. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
- Oricon Singles Chart Oricon Singles Chart (Retrieved 2 November 2012)
- "Billboard Top 100 - 1990". Retrieved 2009-09-15.
- "Canada RPM Top Singles of 1989". Retrieved 2010-08-09.
- Bordowitz, Hank (2006). Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man. Billboard Books. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-8230-8248-3.*
- "We Didn't Start the Fire" Music Video on YouTube / BillyJoelVEVO channel
- Full lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics