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"
Released September 27, 1989
Format 7" single, 12" single,
CD, Cassette Single
Recorded July 1989
Genre Pop rock
Length 4:49
Label Columbia
Writer(s) Billy Joel
Producer(s) Mick Jones, Billy Joel
Certification Gold (RIAA)
Billy Joel singles chronology
"Baby Grand"
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
Storm Front track listing
"That's Not Her Style"
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
"The Downeaster 'Alexa'"

"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 1949, the year of Joel's birth, and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front. The tune was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The song was also a No. 1 hit in the US.


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]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

Joel has said, "There's an element of malevolence in the song"; it's like waiting for the other shoe to drop.[1]

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."[6] 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".[7] 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."[2]

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."[8]

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,[9] which chronicles a white 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, 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, lynching, and draft-card burning). The singer acts as an unseen but omnipresent observer. During each chorus, Joel wearing sunglasses (similar to Roy Orbison's) 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[edit]

"We Didn't Start the Fire" lists historical events in stream of consciousness.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.












  • 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: Aboard the flight Jupiter AM-18, Able and Miss Baker become the first two animals to be launched into space and returned to Earth alive.
  • The Mafia are the center of attention for the FBI and public attention builds to this organized crime society with a historically Italian-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.






  • 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.
  • 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 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.


  • Richard Nixon back again: Former Vice President Nixon is elected President in 1968.


  • 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.




(An item from 1977 comes before three items from 1976 to make the song scan.)




  • Wheel of Fortune: A hit television game show which has been TV's highest-rated syndicated program since 1983.
  • Sally Ride: On June 18, she became the first American woman in space by flying aboard Challenger on the STS-7 shuttle mission. 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 1970s and 80s, 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.


  • 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.


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,[14] and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning[15] parody "Here Comes Another Bubble." Cornell University's oldest a cappella group Cayuga's Waiters perform 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". 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.[16] "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 20 January 2015), in which Leslie attempted to sing the song in order to get Ron to confess about why he left the parks department. However, Leslie didn't know the lyrics to the song, and made up her own.

In 1995, the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper ran commercials with the tagline "News From Around the World and Around the Corner", the jingle for which was to the tune of "We Didn't Start the Fire". For a number of years in the early to mid 2000's, Cleveland radio host Mike Trivisonno used a parody of the song as his show's intro music, written by then-producer of the show, Marty Allen.

The riff in the verses to Serbian rock band Bajaga i Instruktori's 2001 single "Lepa Janja, Ribareca Kci" ("Pretty Janja, The Fisherman's Daughter") is heavily borrowed from this song.

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.[17]

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.[18]

Mitch Benn also based his song about the BBC 'I'm proud of the BBC' on Billy Joel's song.[citation needed]

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.[19]

Popular YouTuber Daneboe/Dane Boedigheimer, known better as creator of the popular comedic Web series Annoying Orange and its television spinoff on Cartoon Network, produced his own parody of Joel's song as part of YouTube's Comedy Week in 2013, chronicling notably popular Web videos and phenomena from 2005 to early 2013 when the video was released, ranging from "Charlie the Unicorn" to Boxxy to "Gangnam Style", titled "We Didn't Start the Viral."[20]

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.

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.[21] The band altered some of the lyrics, referencing newer television shows, including Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, and NBA teams and players.

On June 9, 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 himself being a lifelong Billy Joel fan who has toured and recorded with Joel's original touring band.[22] The new lyrics (see cite note) were reworked from the original to include references to memorable moments from previous Test Matches in The Ashes, with lyrics sung by test player Joe Root and ex-test players and current Sky Sports cricket pundits Shane Warne, Nasser Hussain, David Lloyd, Michael Atherton, David Gower, Ian Ward, Sir Ian Botham and Michael Holding.[23]


Preceded by
"Blame It on the Rain" by Milli Vanilli
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
December 9, 1989 – December 16, 1989
Succeeded by
"Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Collins


  1. ^ a b Rolling Stone magazine - "Billy Joel Starts a Fire" by Sheila Rogers. Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  2. ^ a b Billy Joel Q&A: Tell Us About 'We Didn't Start The Fire?' University of Oxford, May 5, 1994 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dx3T8pbDcms
  3. ^ Bordowitz, pp. 168, 161, 9
  4. ^ http://www.rockonthenet.com/archive/1990/grammys.htm
  5. ^ DeMain, Bill (2004). In their own words: songwriters talk about the creative process. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-275-98402-1. 
  6. ^ Newman, Melinda "Joel Sees Pop Exit with Greatest Hits 3", Billboard, July 26, 1997; cited in Bordowitz, p.169.
  7. ^ Nadboy, Arie, "I am the Edu-Tainer", Island Ear, March 1996; cited by Bordowitz, p. 169
  8. ^ Aizlewood,John; Collis, Clark; et al. (April 1, 2009). Run for Your Life! It's the 50 Worst Songs Ever! Blender.com. Retrieved May 3, 2008. Quoted at [1] . Retrieved December 20, 2013.
  9. ^ Garcia, Alex S. Billy Joel - We didn't start the fire. MVDBase - Music Video Database.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Joel, Billy. "Lyrics: We Didn't Start the Fire". www.billyjoel.com. Retrieved August 24, 2009. 
  12. ^ Bernstein, Adam (May 21, 2008). "Obituaries: Barbara Sears Rockefeller, 91; Miss Lithuania, Millionaire Bride". The Washington Post. 
  13. ^ 30th Academy Awards winners
  14. ^ Seisman, Matt (April 16, 2009). "We Didn't Start the Song Parody". Techland.com. Time.com. Retrieved May 28, 2010. 
  15. ^ "12th Annual Webby Awards Nominees & Winners : Online Film & Video". WebbyAwards.com. 2008. 
  16. ^ Serrels, Mark (2010-12-20). "The Wii Didn’t Start The Fire". Kotaku. 
  17. ^ ""We Didn't Start the Flame War" - CollegeHumor Video". 14 April 2009. 
  18. ^ "'Russell Howard's Good News' Cancer song". 
  19. ^ "You Can't Fight the Homestuck!". 
  20. ^ Kurp, Josh. "‘We Didn’t Start The Viral’ Is A Musical Recap Of YouTube’s Greatest Hits". UPROXX Web Culture. UPROXX.com. Retrieved 2014-06-12. 
  21. ^ "Milo Greene covers Billy Joel". Retrieved 25 May 2013. 
  22. ^ "Sky Sports Ashes promo 2015 - We Didn't Start The Fire". YouTube. Sky Sports. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  23. ^ "The Ashes: Sky Sports pundits rework 'We Didn't Start The Fire'...". skysports.com. Sky Sports. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  24. ^ http://www.ultratop.be/nl/showitem.asp?interpret=Billy+Joel&titel=We+Didn%27t+Start+The+Fire&cat=s (Retrieved September 17, 2012)
  25. ^ Jans, Micha (updated April 23, 2009) Dutch Top 40 1989, MichaJans.nl, Jaarlijsten/1989. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
  26. ^ Oricon Singles Chart Oricon Singles Chart (Retrieved 2 November 2012)
  27. ^ http://ki.informatik.uni-wuerzburg.de/~topsi/deu1989/deu_1989t.html
  28. ^ "Canada RPM Top Singles of 1989". Retrieved 2010-08-09. 
  29. ^ "Billboard Top 100 - 1990". Retrieved 2009-09-15. 


External links[edit]