We Didn't Start the Fire

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"We Didn't Start the Fire"
Single by Billy Joel
from the album Storm Front
B-side"House of Blue Light"
ReleasedSeptember 18, 1989 (1989-09-18)[1]
  • 4:49 (album version)
  • 4:29 (single version)
Songwriter(s)Billy Joel
Billy Joel singles chronology
"Baby Grand"
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
Music video
"We Didn't Start the Fire" on YouTube

"We Didn't Start the Fire" is a song written and published by American musician Billy Joel. The song was released as a single on September 18, 1989, and later released as part of Joel's album Storm Front on October 17, 1989. A list song, its fast-paced lyrics include brief references to 118 significant political, cultural, scientific, and sporting events between 1949 (the year of Joel's birth) and 1989, in mainly chronological order.

The song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and became Joel's third single to reach number one in the United States Billboard Hot 100 in late 1989. Storm Front became Joel's third album to reach number one in the US. "We Didn't Start the Fire", particularly in the 21st century, has become the basis of many pop culture parodies, and continues to be repurposed in various television shows, advertisements, and comedic productions.


Billy Joel conceived the idea for the song when he had just turned 40. He was in a recording studio and met a 21-year-old friend of Sean Lennon who said "It's a terrible time to be 21!". Joel replied: "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.[3]

Joel later criticized the song on strictly musical grounds. In 1993, when discussing it with documentary filmmaker David Horn, Joel compared its melodic content unfavorably to his song "The Longest Time": "Take a song like 'We Didn't Start the Fire.' It's really not much of a song ... If you take the melody by itself, terrible. Like a dentist drill."[4]

When asked if he deliberately intended to chronicle the Cold War with his song[5] he responded: "It was just my luck that the Soviet Union decided to close down shop [soon after putting out the song]", and that this span "had a symmetry to it, it was 40 years" that he had lived through. He was asked if he could do a follow-up about the next couple of years after the events that transpired in the original song, and he commented: "No, I wrote one song already and I don't think it was really that good to begin with, melodically".[6]

Historical events referenced[edit]

Though the lyrics are rapid-fire with several people and events mentioned in each stanza, 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.[7]

See section Events mentioned for more details.

Critical reception[edit]

David Giles from Music Week wrote, "Promising return which finds Joel in rockier mood with a very wordy song cramming in references to virtually every major figure and event in the twentieth century. After all that, the message of the lyrics is foggy and confused, but this should certainly see him back in the charts."[8]

Music video[edit]

External video
video icon Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire (Official Video), 4:05
video icon Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire (Official Video, Extended) 04:26

A music video for the song was directed by Chris Blum.[9] The video begins with a newly married couple entering their 1940s-style kitchen, and shows events in their domestic life over the next four decades, including the addition of children, their growth, and later, grandchildren, and the eventual death of the family's father. The passage of time is also depicted by periodic redecoration and upgrades of the kitchen, while an unchanging Billy Joel looks on in the background. Joel is also shown banging on a table in front of a burning backdrop depicting various images that include the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém and Lee Harvey Oswald, among others.


Many parodies and takeoffs have been based on the song (often expanding to events that have occurred since 1989). These parodies include The Simpsons' parody "They'll Never Stop the Simpsons" at the end of the 2002 "Gump Roast" episode,[10] and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning parody "Here Comes Another Bubble."[11]

In 2006, Coca-Cola sampled the song to make an anthem for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Latin America, changing the lyrics according to the country.[12]

YouTuber Dane Boedigheimer, known as the creator of the popular comedic Web series Annoying Orange, produced a parody as part of YouTube's Comedy Week in 2013 titled "We Didn't Start the Viral."[13] A copyright claim on monetization resulted in the audio being completely replaced on the original upload, although fan reuploads of the original exist.

Pop band Milo Greene performed a version of the song in June 2013 for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover series.[14]

In 2019, talk show host Jimmy Fallon performed a version of the song for The Tonight Show, which highlights characters and moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man, leading to Avengers: Endgame, with backup by cast members Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, Danai Gurira, Karen Gillan and Brie Larson.[15]


  • Billy Joel – vocals, clavinet, percussion
  • Liberty DeVitto – drums, percussion
  • David Brown – lead guitar
  • Joey Hunting – rhythm guitar
  • Crystal Taliefero – backing vocals, percussion
  • Schuyler Deale – bass guitar
  • John Mahoney – keyboards
  • Sammy Merendino – electronic percussion
  • Kevin Jones – keyboard programming
  • Doug Kleeger – sounds effects and arrangements



Certifications and sales for "We Didn't Start the Fire"
Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[43] Platinum 70,000^
Canada (Music Canada)[44] Gold 50,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[45] Platinum 600,000double-dagger
United States (RIAA)[46] 3× Platinum 3,000,000double-dagger

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

In popular culture[edit]

In 2021, a weekly podcast began, hosted by Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce, entitled We Didn't Start the Fire. Each week they examine a subject mentioned in the Billy Joel song, in lyric order, and discuss its importance and cultural significance with an expert guest.[47]

The song features prominently, along with a number of other Billy Joel songs, in the streaming series The Boys from Amazon Prime in which the character Hughie Campbell, played by Jack Quaid, has a preoccupation with the American singer.[48]

Events mentioned[edit]

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.[49] The lyrics for each individual event are 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 118 events listed in the song.


























(Note: an item from 1976 is put between items from 1977 to make the song scan better.)






  • Crack cocaine became a widely used form of the drug in impoverished inner cities.
  • Bernie Goetz shoots four young black men who were trying to mug him on a New York City subway train, and is acquitted of charges.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ "New Singles". Music Week. September 16, 1989. p. 36.
  2. ^ Curwen Best (2004). Culture @ the Cutting Edge: Tracking Caribbean Popular Music. University of the West Indies Press. p. 138. ISBN 978-976-640-124-5.
  3. ^ Nadboy, Arie (March 1996). "I am the Edu-Tainer". Island Ear. Cited by Bordowitz (2006), p. 169.
  4. ^ Horn, David (Director) (1993). Billy Joel: Shades of Grey (Motion picture). New York: Thirteen/WNET and Maritime Music.
  5. ^ The song describes events between 1949 (when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb) and 1989 (when the Berlin Wall fell).
  6. ^ Billy Joel - Q&A: Tell Us About "We Didn't Start The Fire"? (Oxford 1994), retrieved January 19, 2023
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Giles, David (September 30, 1989). "Singles" (PDF). Music Week. p. 25. Retrieved March 13, 2023.
  9. ^ Garcia, Alex S. Billy Joel – We didn't start the fire. MVDBase – Music Video Database.
  10. ^ Seisman, Matt (April 16, 2009). "We Didn't Start the Song Parody". Techland.com. Time.com. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
  11. ^ "12th Annual Webby Awards Nominees & Winners : Online Film & Video". WebbyAwards.com. 2008. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009.
  12. ^ "5 populares canciones que la publicidad transformó en jingles". November 20, 2014.
  13. ^ Kurp, Josh (May 24, 2013). "'We Didn't Start The Viral' Is A Musical Recap Of YouTube's Greatest Hits". UPROXX Web Culture. Uproxx. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  14. ^ "Milo Greene covers Billy Joel". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on March 8, 2021. Retrieved May 25, 2013.
  15. ^ Avengers: Endgame Cast Sings "We Didn't Start the Fire", retrieved January 19, 2023
  16. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  17. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  18. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  19. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 5106." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  20. ^ "Top RPM Adult Contemporary: Issue 9824." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  21. ^ "Eurochart – Hot 100 Singles" (PDF). Music and Media. World Radio History: V. November 25, 1989. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  22. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Billy Joel". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  23. ^ Oricon Album Chart Book: Complete Edition 1970–2005. Roppongi, Tokyo: Oricon Entertainment. 2006. ISBN 4-87131-077-9.
  24. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Billy Joel" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  25. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in Dutch). Single Top 100. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  26. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  27. ^ "Playlist Report" (PDF). Music and Media. worldradiohistory.com: II. November 11, 1989. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  28. ^ "Billy Joel: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  29. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  30. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Adult Contemporary)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  31. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  32. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Rock Digital Song Sales)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  33. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Rock Streaming Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  34. ^ "Offiziellecharts.de – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire". GfK Entertainment charts. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  35. ^ "1989 ARIA Singles Chart". ARIA. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  36. ^ "Jaaroverzichten 1989: Singles" (in Dutch). Ultratop. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  37. ^ "Canada RPM Top Singles of 1989". Retrieved August 9, 2010.
  38. ^ "Year End Singles". Record Mirror. January 27, 1990. p. 44.
  39. ^ "Top 100 Hit Tracks of 1990". RPM. Retrieved November 26, 2017.
  40. ^ "Top 100 Single–Jahrescharts 1990" (in German). GfK Entertainment. Retrieved March 18, 2021.
  41. ^ "1990 The Year in Music & Video: Top Pop Singles". Billboard. Vol. 102, no. 51. December 22, 1990. p. YE-14.
  42. ^ "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  43. ^ "ARIA Charts – Accreditations – 1990 Singles" (PDF). Australian Recording Industry Association. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
  44. ^ "Canadian single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". Music Canada. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  45. ^ "British single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved March 19, 2021.
  46. ^ "American single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  47. ^ "Raves, musicals and a time-travelling diner: 20 must-listen indie podcast gems". TheGuardian.com. August 2021.
  48. ^ Lawrence, Frank (January 27, 2021). "Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire' inspires projects".
  49. ^ Joel, Billy. "Lyrics: We Didn't Start the Fire". Billy Joel. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
  50. ^ "Billy Joel". October 14, 2021. Time: 18:50 of podcast.
  51. ^ "The 30th Academy Awards – 1958". oscars.org. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
  52. ^ "Hit Confuses Younger Fans: Joel". Los Angeles Times. January 8, 1990.


External links[edit]