We Didn't Start the Fire

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"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]
GenrePop rock[2]
  • 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 119[3] 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, in late 1989, became Joel's third single to reach number one in the United States Billboard Hot 100. 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. Despite its early success, Joel later noted his dislike of the song musically, and it was critically panned as one of his worst by later generations of music critics.


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.[4]

Joel later criticized the song on strictly musical grounds.[5][6][7] 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."[5]

When asked if he deliberately intended to chronicle the Cold War with his song[8] 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]

Critical reception[edit]

Upon its release, "We Didn't Start the Fire" was met with a mixed response. 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."[9]

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.[10]

After a cover by Fall Out Boy was released in 2023 to negative critical reception, the song was once again brought to the forefront, and modern critics panned even the original song as one of Joel's worst in his entire catalog.[11][12][13]

Music video[edit]

External videos
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.[14] 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 and growth of their children and 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 the assassination of 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,[15] and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning parody "Here Comes Another Bubble".[16]

On May 17, 1990, the Irish rock band the Memories reached number one on the Irish Singles Chart with their version of the song entitled "The Game (Italia '90)" which celebrated Republic of Ireland's qualification for the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy.[17] Billy Joel partially covered the Memories version when he performed in Dublin.

In 2004, Boris Novković and Dino Dvornik released a song "Malo nas je, al' nas ima" ("We Are Few, But We Exist"), listing Croatian VIPs and events.[18]

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.[19]

In 2007, JibJab released an installment of their then-annual "Year in Review" videos, which was set to the tune of "We Didn't Start the Fire".

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", although the video's audio was later replaced for copyright infringement despite being considered fair use as a work of parody.[20]

Pop band Milo Greene performed a version of the song in June 2013 for The A.V. Club's A.V. Undercover series.[21]

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.[22]

On June 28, 2023, Fall Out Boy released their own version of the song with updated lyrics that references events that happened from 1989 to 2023. Unlike Joel's original, Fall Out Boy's version did not list events in chronological order. On September 12, 2023, the band performed it at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.[23] The song was widely panned by fans and critics,[24] especially for its lack of chronological sequencing present in Joel's original and not including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fall Out Boy bassist and lead songwriter, Pete Wentz, said in an interview regarding the exclusion, "It’s like, [COVID-19]'s all anybody talked…[sic] You know what I mean? I don’t know."[25]


  • 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)[52] Platinum 70,000^
Canada (Music Canada)[53] Gold 50,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[54] Platinum 600,000
United States (RIAA)[55] 3× Platinum 3,000,000

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
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.[56]

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.[57]

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. ^ Matthias, Meg. "All 119 References in "We Didn't Start the Fire," Explained". Britannica.
  4. ^ Nadboy, Arie (March 1996). "I am the Edu-Tainer". Island Ear. Cited by Bordowitz (2006), p. 169.
  5. ^ a b Horn, David (Director) (1993). Billy Joel: Shades of Grey (Motion picture). New York: Thirteen/WNET and Maritime Music.
  6. ^ a b Billy Joel - Q&A: Tell Us About "We Didn't Start The Fire"? (Oxford 1994), retrieved January 19, 2023
  7. ^ del Rosario, Alexandra (June 29, 2023). "Fall Out Boy updated Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire.' Fans say it's 'unhinged'". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on September 1, 2023. Retrieved September 24, 2023.
  8. ^ The song describes events between 1949 (when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb) and 1989 (when the Berlin Wall fell).
  9. ^ Giles, David (September 30, 1989). "Singles" (PDF). Music Week. p. 25. Retrieved March 13, 2023.
  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. ^ "The 33 Things Wrong With Fall Out Boy's Updated "We Didn't Start the Fire"". Slate. June 28, 2023. Archived from the original on June 28, 2023. Retrieved September 24, 2023. Billy Joel's original is awful—even Joel himself compares its melody to a dentist's drill
  12. ^ Good, Owen S. (June 28, 2023). "Somehow, Fall Out Boy made an all-time bad song even worse". Polygon. Archived from the original on July 1, 2023. Retrieved September 24, 2023. Where Joel's day-zero cringegasm...
  13. ^ D'Andrea, Christian (June 28, 2023). "Fall Out Boy's We Didn't Start the Fire means we live in a circle of hell that would leave Dante breathless". USA Today. Archived from the original on June 29, 2023. Retrieved September 24, 2023. So, Fall Out Boy decided to update and somehow make worse the worst Billy Joel song...
  14. ^ Garcia, Alex S. Billy Joel – We didn't start the fire Archived October 21, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. MVDBase – Music Video Database.
  15. ^ Seisman, Matt (April 16, 2009). "We Didn't Start the Song Parody". Techland.com. Time.com. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
  16. ^ "12th Annual Webby Awards Nominees & Winners : Online Film & Video". WebbyAwards.com. 2008. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009.
  17. ^ "The Game (Italia '90)" – via YouTube.
  18. ^ Malo Nas Je Al Nas Ima. Retrieved May 10, 2024 – via www.youtube.com.
  19. ^ "5 populares canciones que la publicidad transformó en jingles". Merca20.com. November 20, 2014.
  20. ^ Kurp, Josh (May 24, 2013). "'We Didn't Start The Viral' Is A Musical Recap Of YouTube's Greatest Hits". Uproxx.com. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  21. ^ "Milo Greene covers Billy Joel". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on March 8, 2021. Retrieved May 25, 2013.
  22. ^ "Avengers: Endgame Cast Sings "We Didn't Start the Fire"". The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. April 22, 2019. NBC. Retrieved January 19, 2023 – via YouTube.
  23. ^ Greene, Andy (June 28, 2023). "Hear Fall Out Boy's Updated Take on 'We Didn't Start The Fire' That Covers 1989 to 2023". Rolling Stone. Retrieved June 28, 2023.
  24. ^ Del Rosario, Alexandra (June 29, 2023). "Fall Out Boy updated Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire.' Fans say it's 'unhinged'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 30, 2023.
  25. ^ Rettig, James (June 28, 2023). "Pete Wentz Explains Why Fall Out Boy's Updated "We Didn't Start The Fire" Isn't Chronological And Doesn't Mention COVID". Stereogum. Retrieved November 30, 2023.
  26. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  27. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  28. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  29. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 5106." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  30. ^ "Top RPM Adult Contemporary: Issue 9824." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  31. ^ "Eurochart – Hot 100 Singles" (PDF). Music and Media. World Radio History: V. November 25, 1989. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  32. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Billy Joel". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  33. ^ Oricon Album Chart Book: Complete Edition 1970–2005. Roppongi, Tokyo: Oricon Entertainment. 2006. ISBN 4-87131-077-9.
  34. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Billy Joel" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  35. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in Dutch). Single Top 100. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  36. ^ "Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  37. ^ "Playlist Report" (PDF). Music and Media. worldradiohistory.com: II. November 11, 1989. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  38. ^ "Billy Joel: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  39. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
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  42. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Rock Digital Song Sales)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  43. ^ "Billy Joel Chart History (Rock Streaming Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  44. ^ "Offiziellecharts.de – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start The Fire" (in German). GfK Entertainment charts. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  45. ^ "1989 ARIA Singles Chart". ARIA. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  46. ^ "Jaaroverzichten 1989: Singles" (in Dutch). Ultratop. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  47. ^ "Canada RPM Top Singles of 1989". Retrieved August 9, 2010.
  48. ^ "Year End Singles". Record Mirror. January 27, 1990. p. 44.
  49. ^ "Top 100 Hit Tracks of 1990". RPM. Retrieved November 26, 2017.
  50. ^ "Top 100 Single–Jahrescharts 1990" (in German). GfK Entertainment. Retrieved March 18, 2021.
  51. ^ "1990 The Year in Music & Video: Top Pop Singles". Billboard. Vol. 102, no. 51. December 22, 1990. p. YE-14.
  52. ^ "ARIA Charts – Accreditations – 1990 Singles" (PDF). Australian Recording Industry Association. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
  53. ^ "Canadian single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". Music Canada. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  54. ^ "British single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved March 19, 2021.
  55. ^ "American single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  56. ^ "Raves, musicals and a time-travelling diner: 20 must-listen indie podcast gems". TheGuardian.com. August 2021.
  57. ^ Lawrence, Frank (January 27, 2021). "Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire' inspires projects".


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