We Didn't Start the Fire

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"We Didn't Start the Fire"
WeDidntStarttheFire.jpg
Single by Billy Joel
from the album Storm Front
B-side "House of Blue Light"
Released September 27, 1989
Format
Recorded July 1989
Genre Pop Rock
Length

4:49 (Album version)

4:29 (Single version)
Label Columbia
Songwriter(s) Billy Joel
Producer(s)
Billy Joel singles chronology
"Baby Grand"
(1987)
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
(1989)
"Leningrad"
(1989)

"Baby Grand"
(1987)
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
(1989)
"Leningrad"
(1989)
Storm Front track listing
"That's Not Her Style"
(1)
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
(2)
"The Downeaster 'Alexa'"
(3)
Music video
"We Didn't Start the Fire" on YouTube

"We Didn't Start the Fire" is a song by American musician Billy Joel. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between 1949, the year of Joel's birth, and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front. The song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The song was also a No. 1 hit in the United States.

History[edit]

Joel got the idea for the song when he had just turned 40. He was in a recording studio and met a friend of Sean Lennon who 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.[1][2][3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

Joel has said, "There's an element of malevolence in the song; it's like waiting for the other shoe to drop."[1] He has mentioned having mixed feelings about the song. "It's a nightmare to perform live, because if I miss one word, it's a train wreck."[7] He has called it a "novelty song" that does not "really define me as well as album songs that probably don't get played",[8] and has also 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."[9]

When asked if he deliberately intended to chronicle the Cold War with his song[10] 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, he commented "No, I wrote one song already and I don't think it was really that good to begin with, melodically."[3]

Music video[edit]

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

A music video for the single was directed by Chris Blum.[11]

Historical events referred to in the song[edit]

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.[12]

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.[13] 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.

1940s[edit]

1949[edit]

1950s[edit]

1950[edit]

1951[edit]

1952[edit]

1953[edit]

1954[edit]

1955[edit]

1956[edit]

1957[edit]

1958[edit]

1959[edit]

1960s[edit]

1960[edit]

1961[edit]

1962[edit]

1963[edit]

  • 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 censure him; about fifteen months later, he himself is assassinated while preparing to make a speech.
  • British politician sex: The British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, has a relationship with Christine Keeler, 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 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
  • JFK blown away: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22 while riding in an open convertible through Dallas. (JFK has the distinction of being mentioned twice by name, for his election in 1960 along with his assassination.)

1965[edit]

  • 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 titled Humanae vitae which reaffirmed Catholic teaching that artificial birth control was 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.

1968[edit]

1969[edit]

  • 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.

1970s[edit]

1974–75[edit]

1976–77[edit]

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

1979[edit]

1980s[edit]

1981[edit]

  • Wheel of Fortune: The hit television game show, on air since 1975, underwent several changes in the early 1980s, including the hiring of Pat Sajak as host in 1981, Vanna White as hostess in 1982, and a move to syndication in 1983, all three of which were still in effect by the time of the song (and remained through the 1990s, 2000s and much of the 2010s as well).

1983[edit]

  • Sally Ride: On June 18, she became the first American woman in space by flying aboard Challenger on the STS-7 shuttle mission.
  • Heavy metal suicide: In the 1970s and 1980s, heavy metal bands became popular. Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest in particular were sued for fans' suicides after listening to their songs "Suicide Solution" and "Better By You, Better Than Me", respectively.
  • 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.

1984[edit]

  • Bernie Goetz: On December 22, Goetz shot four young men whom 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.

1988[edit]

1989[edit]

  • 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.

Derivations[edit]

Numerous parodies and takeoffs have been based on the song (often expanding to events that have occurred since 1989), including The Simpsons' parody "They'll Never Stop the Simpsons" at the end of the 2002 "Gump Roast" episode,[16] and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning[17] parody "Here Comes Another Bubble." The Cayuga's Waiters, a former a cappella group at Cornell University, previously performed a version entitled "We Didn't Go to Harvard" with constantly changing lyrics to reflect the changing Cornell experience but always mentioning various Cornell and Ithaca landmarks. The band Guns 'n' Moses made a parody of the song called "We Love Barney Fife" that was played frequently on the Doctor Demento radio show, which not only paid tribute to The Andy Griffith Show, it also took advantage of the melody of the refrain being a suitable counterpoint for the Andy Griffith Show theme ("The Fishin' Hole"). The song was also parodied on the episode of the U.S. version of The Office where "Ryan the temp" starts a fire in the office building, and Dwight and Michael change the lyrics of the song to "Ryan Started The Fire". On a 2017 episode of The Goldbergs, Barry rehearses the song for his talent show, but manages to mess up the lyrics; eventually, when he performs it at the talent show, he adapts new lyrics to the song referencing his high school experiences, which is very well received.

Another parody was released in 2010 titled "The Wii Didn't Start the Fire" about the history of video games.[18] "We Didn't Start the Fire" was also used in the American comedy series Parks and Recreation in the seventh season episode, "Leslie and Ron" (aired January 20, 2015), in which Leslie attempts to sing the song in order to get Ron to confess about why he left the parks department.

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.[19]

In 1993, Lenny Solomon and Shlock Rock created a parody entitled "We've Got a Strong Desire", which contains over 5000 years of Jewish history told in the tune of the song.[20][21] 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). German comedian Otto Waalkes did a parody called "Wir haben Grund zum Feiern" (English: "We have reason to celebrate"), with a list of alcoholic beverages.

An edition of the BBC Three comedy programme Russell Howard's Good News featured a parody of the song detailing numerous items that the Daily Mail newspaper actually believed caused cancer.[22]

Fans of Homestuck uploaded a version of the song called "You Can't Fight the Homestuck" on YouTube in 2012, chronicling the webcomic's long and convoluted story.[23] YouTuber Daneboe/Dane Boedigheimer, known as 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."[24] In a 2013 episode of Family Guy (titled "Bigfat"), after Peter's plane goes down, he asks his friends if there might be a hint on how to start a fire in the song. He proceeds to sing the song but has forgotten almost all of the words and mumbles through it.

Pop band Milo Greene performed a version of the song in June 2013 for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover series.[25] In 2015, Sky Sports released their own version of the song to advertise the upcoming 2015 Ashes series, with backing vocals and percussion provided by Elio Pace and his band. Pace has toured and recorded with Joel's original touring band.[26]

In 2014, Neil Cicierega released a mashup album, Mouth Silence. The 17th song, "Space Monkey Mafia",[27] plays lyrics from "We Didn't Start The Fire" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" on top of each other, modifying the lyrics of both songs so they sync up, and putting them over an original polka melody.

Charts[edit]

Personnel[edit]

  • 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

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Novak, B. J. (October 11, 2005). "Which Office Stars Have the Write Stuff?". TV Guide. Retrieved July 30, 2008. 
  2. ^ Rolling Stone magazine – "Billy Joel Starts a Fire" by Sheila Rogers. Retrieved May 4, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Billy Joel Q&A: Tell Us About 'We Didn't Start The Fire?' University of Oxford, May 5, 1994 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dx3T8pbDcms
  4. ^ Bordowitz, Hank (2006). Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man. Billboard Books. pp. 168, 161, 9. ISBN 978-0-8230-8248-3. 
  5. ^ "Rock On The Net: 32nd Annual Grammy Awards – 1990". rockonthenet.com. Retrieved March 6, 2017. 
  6. ^ DeMain, Bill (2004). In their own words: songwriters talk about the creative process. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-275-98402-1. 
  7. ^ Newman, Melinda (July 26, 1997). "Joel Sees Pop Exit with Greatest Hits 3". Billboard.  Cited in Bordowitz (2006), p. 169.
  8. ^ Nadboy, Arie (March 1996). "I am the Edu-Tainer". Island Ear.  Cited by Bordowitz (2006), p. 169.
  9. ^ Horn, David (Director) (1993). Billy Joel: Shades of Grey (Motion picture). New York: Thirteen/WNET and Maritime Music. 
  10. ^ The start year of 1949 was when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, and the end year of 1989 was when the Berlin Wall fell.
  11. ^ Garcia, Alex S. Billy Joel – We didn't start the fire. MVDBase – Music Video Database.
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Joel, Billy. "Lyrics: We Didn't Start the Fire". www.billyjoel.com. Retrieved August 24, 2009. 
  14. ^ Bernstein, Adam (May 21, 2008). "Obituaries: Barbara Sears Rockefeller, 91; Miss Lithuania, Millionaire Bride". The Washington Post. 
  15. ^ "The 30th Academy Awards – 1958". oscars.org. Retrieved March 6, 2017. 
  16. ^ Seisman, Matt (April 16, 2009). "We Didn't Start the Song Parody". Techland.com. Time.com. Retrieved May 28, 2010. 
  17. ^ "12th Annual Webby Awards Nominees & Winners : Online Film & Video". WebbyAwards.com. 2008. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009. 
  18. ^ Serrels, Mark (December 20, 2010). "The Wii Didn't Start The Fire". Kotaku. 
  19. ^ ""We Didn't Start the Flame War" – CollegeHumor Video". April 14, 2009. 
  20. ^ "Sgt. Shlokers Magical History Tour (1993 Album)". 
  21. ^ Adam Drucker (April 22, 2010). "We've got a strong desire". Retrieved March 6, 2017 – via YouTube. 
  22. ^ "'Russell Howard's Good News' Cancer song". 
  23. ^ "You Can't Fight the Homestuck!". 
  24. ^ Kurp, Josh. "'We Didn't Start The Viral' Is A Musical Recap Of YouTube's Greatest Hits". UPROXX Web Culture. UPROXX.com. Retrieved June 12, 2014. 
  25. ^ "Milo Greene covers Billy Joel". Retrieved May 25, 2013. 
  26. ^ "Sky Sports Ashes promo 2015 – We Didn't Start The Fire". YouTube. Sky Sports. Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  27. ^ NeilCicieregaMusic (July 19, 2014), Neil Cicierega – Space Monkey Mafia, retrieved April 17, 2017 
  28. ^ "Australian-charts.com – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  29. ^ "Austriancharts.at – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  30. ^ http://www.ultratop.be/nl/showitem.asp?interpret=Billy+Joel&titel=We+Didn%27t+Start+The+Fire&cat=s (Retrieved September 17, 2012)
  31. ^ Jans, Micha (updated April 23, 2009) Dutch Top 40 1989, MichaJans.nl, Jaarlijsten/1989. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
  32. ^ Oricon Singles Chart Oricon Singles Chart (Retrieved November 2, 2012)
  33. ^ "Charts.org.nz – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  34. ^ "Billy Joel: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  35. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  36. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Adult Contemporary)". Billboard. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  37. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  38. ^ "Canada RPM Top Singles of 1989". Retrieved August 9, 2010. 
  39. ^ "INFINITY CHARTS: German Top 20". uni-wuerzburg.de. Retrieved March 6, 2017. 
  40. ^ "Top 100 Hit Tracks of 1990". RPM. Retrieved November 26, 2017. 
  41. ^ "Billboard Top 100 – 1990". Retrieved September 15, 2009. 

External links[edit]