We Didn't Start the Fire

"We Didn't Start the Fire" is a list 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 in late 1989.

"We Didn't Start the Fire"
Single by Billy Joel
from the album Storm Front
B-side"House of Blue Light"
ReleasedSeptember 27, 1989
RecordedJuly 1989
GenrePop rock
Length4:49 (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


Joel got 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 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 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."[3]

When asked if he deliberately intended to chronicle the Cold War with his song[4] 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."[5]

Music video

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.[6] 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.

Historical events referred to in the song

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.[7]

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.[8] 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.




















  • 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. On March 2, Operation Rolling Thunder begins, with the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong 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 during the 1972 campaign. After the break-in, word began to spread that President Richard Nixon may have known about the break-in and tried to cover it up. The scandal would ultimately result in the resignation of President Nixon on August 9, 1974; this remains the only time to date that anyone has resigned the United States Presidency.
  • Punk rock: Backlash against the progressive rock of the early 1970s leads to the emergence of newly formed bands such as The Ramones (founded in 1974) and the Sex Pistols (founded a year later).


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




  • 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 remain in effect through 2019.


  • 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.


  • Bernie Goetz: On December 22, Goetz shot four young black men whom he said were trying to mug 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.



  • 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 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 (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,[11] and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning[12] 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 Howard 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.

In 1993, Paramount Pictures used a derivative of the song, called “We Didn’t Start The Series” to advertise its current hit-show ‘’’’’Star Trek The Next Generation’’’’’. The performers of the song are unknown, however, the commercial was aired on both Canadian TV stations (I.e. CHRO-TV out of Pembroke, Ontario) and US TV stations (I.e WXXA FOX 23 out of New York State).

Another parody was released in 2010 titled "The Wii Didn't Start the Fire" about the history of video games.[13] "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.[14]

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 sung in 4 minutes.[15][16] 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 said caused cancer.[17]

Fans of Homestuck uploaded a version of the song called "You Can't Fight the Homestuck", created by Meme Queen Kylee Henke, on YouTube in 2012, chronicling the webcomic's long and convoluted story.[18] 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."[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

In 2014, Neil Cicierega released a mashup album, Mouth Silence. The 17th song, "Space Monkey Mafia",[22] 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.

Since the 2015–16 season, YouTuber Jim Daly created a song of each season's 92 clubs in the Premier League and English Football League to the tune of We Didn't Start The Fire, with the chorus 'Lots of teams in English football, from the Premier League down to those teams in League Two, lots of teams in English football, I'm gonna try to make it through the whole 92'.

In 2019, in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, the cast of the film Avengers: Endgame made a parody of the song that depicted the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as several characters appearing in the film and from the Marvel comic books.[23] Also, YouTube channel, Cultaholic debuted a series called "What Happened to that Wrestler?" in which the theme song is a parody of the song.[24] Cultaholic later went on to release a full parody video.[25]



Region CertificationCertified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[37] Gold 35,000^
Canada (Music Canada)[43] Gold 50,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[44] Gold 400,000
United States (RIAA)[45] Platinum 1,000,000

^shipments figures based on certification alone
sales+streaming figures based on certification alone


  • 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


  1. "The Office I've got a bone to…". "does not 'really define me as well as album songs that probably don't get played' Cite magazine requires |magazine= (help)
  2. Nadboy, Arie (March 1996). "I am the Edu-Tainer". Island Ear. Cited by Bordowitz (2006), p. 169.
  3. Horn, David (Director) (1993). Billy Joel: Shades of Grey (Motion picture). New York: Thirteen/WNET and Maritime Music.
  4. The song describes events between 1949 (when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb and 1989 (when the Berlin Wall fell).
  5. 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
  6. Garcia, Alex S. Billy Joel – We didn't start the fire. MVDBase – Music Video Database.
  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. Joel, Billy. "Lyrics: We Didn't Start the Fire". www.billyjoel.com. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
  9. Bernstein, Adam (May 21, 2008). "Obituaries: Barbara Sears Rockefeller, 91; Miss Lithuania, Millionaire Bride". The Washington Post.
  10. "The 30th Academy Awards – 1958". oscars.org. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
  11. Seisman, Matt (April 16, 2009). "We Didn't Start the Song Parody". Techland.com. Time.com. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
  12. "12th Annual Webby Awards Nominees & Winners : Online Film & Video". WebbyAwards.com. 2008. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009.
  13. Serrels, Mark (December 20, 2010). "The Wii Didn't Start The Fire". Kotaku.
  14. ""We Didn't Start the Flame War" – CollegeHumor Video". April 14, 2009.
  15. "Sgt. Shlokers Magical History Tour (1993 Album)".
  16. Drucker, Adam (April 22, 2010). "We've got a strong desire". Retrieved March 6, 2017 via YouTube.
  17. "'Russell Howard's Good News' Cancer song".
  18. "You Can't Fight the Homestuck!".
  19. Kurp, Josh (May 24, 2013). "'We Didn't Start The Viral' Is A Musical Recap Of YouTube's Greatest Hits". UPROXX Web Culture. UPROXX.com. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  20. "Milo Greene covers Billy Joel". Retrieved May 25, 2013.
  21. "Sky Sports Ashes promo 2015 – We Didn't Start The Fire". YouTube. Sky Sports. Retrieved June 14, 2015.
  22. NeilCicieregaMusic (July 19, 2014), Neil Cicierega – Space Monkey Mafia, retrieved April 17, 2017
  23. Avengers: Endgame Cast Sings "We Didn't Start the Fire". YouTube. April 22, 2019.
  24. "What Happened To That Wrestler? - YouTube". YouTube.
  25. "What Happened To That Wrestler? | Full Song & Music Video". April 22, 2019.
  26. "Australian-charts.com – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  27. "Austriancharts.at – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  28. http://www.ultratop.be/nl/showitem.asp?interpret=Billy+Joel&titel=We+Didn%27t+Start+The+Fire&cat=s (Retrieved September 17, 2012)
  29. Jans, Micha (updated April 23, 2009) Dutch Top 40 1989, MichaJans.nl, Jaarlijsten/1989. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
  30. "Offiziellecharts.de – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire". GfK Entertainment Charts. Retrieved February 13, 2019.
  31. Oricon Singles Chart Oricon Singles Chart (Retrieved November 2, 2012)
  32. "Charts.nz – Billy Joel – We Didn't Star The Fire". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  33. "Billy Joel: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  34. "Billy Joel Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  35. "Billy Joel Chart History (Adult Contemporary)". Billboard. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  36. "Billy Joel Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  37. "1989 ARIA Singles Chart". ARIA. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  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.
  42. "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  43. "Canadian single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". Music Canada. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  44. "British single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved October 4, 2019. Select singles in the Format field. Select Gold in the Certification field. Type We Didn't Start the Fire in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
  45. "American single certifications – Billy Joel – We Didn't Start the Fire". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved October 4, 2019. If necessary, click Advanced, then click Format, then select Single, then click SEARCH. 
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