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"|
|Released||September 27, 1989|
|Length||4:49 (Album version)
4:29 (Single version)
|Billy Joel singles chronology|
|"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. 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."
When asked if he deliberately intended to chronicle the Cold War with his song 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."
A music video for the single was directed by Chris Blum. 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.
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. 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.
- Harry Truman became U.S. president after being elected in 1948 to his second and final presidential term; previously he was sworn in following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He authorized the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II, on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.
- Doris Day stars in the films My Dream Is Yours and It's a Great Feeling. Her 1948 debut film Romance on the High Seas featured the popular song "It's Magic".
- Red China: The Communist Party of China wins the Chinese Civil War, establishing the People's Republic of China.
- Johnnie Ray signs his first recording contract with Okeh Records, although he would not become popular for another two years.
- South Pacific, the prize-winning musical, opens on Broadway on April 7.
- Walter Winchell was a radio and newspaper journalist credited with inventing the gossip column.
- Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees go to five World Series in the 1940s, winning four of them.
- Joe McCarthy, a U.S. Senator, gains national Attention and begins his anti-Communism crusade with his Lincoln Day speech.
- Richard Nixon is first elected to the United States Senate.
- Studebaker, a popular car company, begins its financial downfall.
- Television is becoming widespread throughout Europe and North America.
- North Korea and South Korea are plunged into war after Northern forces stream south on June 25.
- Marilyn Monroe appears in five films, including The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.
- The Rosenbergs, married couple Ethel and Julius, were convicted on June 19 of espionage.
- H-Bomb: The United States is in the middle of developing the hydrogen bomb as a nuclear weapon; it would be first tested in late 1952.
- Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion boxer, defeats Jake LaMotta in the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre".
- Panmunjom, the border village in Korea, is the location of truce talks between the parties of the Korean War.
- Marlon Brando is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire.
- The King and I, the musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, opens on Broadway on March 29.
- The Catcher in the Rye, a controversial novel by J. D. Salinger, is published.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower is first elected as President of the United States, winning by a landslide margin of 442 to 89 electoral votes.
- Vaccine for polio is privately tested by Jonas Salk.
- England's got a new queen: Elizabeth II succeeds to the throne upon the death of her father, George VI, and is crowned the next year.
- Rocky Marciano defeats Jersey Joe Walcott, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion.
- Liberace has a popular 1950s television show for his musical entertainment.
- Santayana goodbye: George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, dies on September 26.
- Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, dies on March 5.
- Georgy Maksimilianovich Malenkov succeeds Stalin for six months following his death. Malenkov had presided over Stalin's purges, but would be spared a similar fate by his successor Nikita Khrushchev.
- Gamal Abdel Nasser acts as the true power behind the new Egyptian nation as Muhammad Naguib's minister of the interior.
- Sergei Prokofiev, the composer, dies on March 5, the same day as Stalin.
- Winthrop Rockefeller and his wife Barbara are involved in a highly publicized divorce, culminating in 1954 with a record-breaking $5.5 million settlement.
- Roy Campanella, an Italian-American/ African-American baseball catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, receives the National League's Most Valuable Player award for the second time.
- Communist bloc: The uprising of 1953 in East Germany is crushed by the Volkspolizei and the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany.
- Roy Cohn resigns as Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel and enters private practice with the fall of McCarthy.
- Juan Perón spends his last full year as President of Argentina before a September 1955 coup.
- Arturo Toscanini is at the height of his fame as a conductor, performing regularly with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on U.S. national radio.
- Dacron is an early artificial fiber made from the same plastic as polyester.
- Dien Bien Phu falls. A French/Vietnamese camp falls to Việt Minh forces under Võ Nguyên Giáp, signaling the end of French Indochina and leading to the creation of North Vietnam and South Vietnam as separate states.
- "Rock Around the Clock" is a hit single released by Bill Haley & His Comets in May, spurring worldwide interest in rock and roll music.
- Albert Einstein dies on April 18 at the age of 76.
- James Dean achieves success with East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, gets nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and dies in a car accident on September 30 at the age of 24.
- Brooklyn's got a winning team: The Brooklyn Dodgers win their first and only World Series before their move to Los Angeles.
- Davy Crockett is a Disney television miniseries about the legendary frontiersman of the same name. The show was a huge hit with young boys and inspired a short-lived "coonskin cap" craze.
- Peter Pan: A year after Walt Disney Animation Studios released an animated adaption of the play by J. M. Barrie, the 1954 stage musical of the same name starring Mary Martin is broadcast on NBC live and in color.
- Elvis Presley signs with RCA Records on November 21, beginning his pop career, going on to earn a reputation as the "King of Rock and Roll".
- Disneyland opens on July 17, 1955 as Walt Disney's first theme park.
- Brigitte Bardot appears in her first mainstream film And God Created Woman and establishes an international reputation as a French "sex kitten".
- Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and site of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
- Alabama is the site of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which ultimately led to the removal of the last race laws in the United States. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr figure prominently.
- Nikita Khrushchev makes his famous Secret Speech denouncing Stalin's "Cult of personality" on February 25.
- Princess Grace Kelly appears in her last film, High Society, and marries Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
- Peyton Place, the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious, is published. Though mild compared to today's standards, it shocked the reserved values of the 1950s.
- Trouble in the Suez: The Suez Crisis boils as Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal on October 29.
- Little Rock, Arkansas is the site of an anti-integration standoff, as Governor Orval Faubus stops the Little Rock Nine from attending Little Rock Central High School and President Eisenhower deploys the 101st Airborne Division to counteract him.
- Boris Pasternak, the Russian author, publishes his novel Doctor Zhivago.
- Mickey Mantle is in the middle of his career as a famous New York Yankees outfielder and American League All-Star for the sixth year in a row.
- Jack Kerouac publishes his novel On the Road, a defining work of the Beat Generation.
- Sputnik becomes the first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, marking the start of the space race.
- Zhou Enlai, Premier of the People's Republic of China, survives an assassination attempt on the charter airliner Kashmir Princess.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai, an adaptation of a the 1954 novel, is released and receives seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
- Lebanon is engulfed in a political and religious crisis that eventually involves U.S. intervention.
- Charles de Gaulle is elected first president of the French Fifth Republic following the Algerian Crisis.
- California baseball begins as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants move to California and become the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, respectively. They are the first teams in Major League Baseball west of Kansas City.
- Starkweather homicide: Charles Starkweather's murder spree, in which he kills eleven people mostly in Lincoln, Nebraska between January 25 and 29 before fleeing and being caught in a massive manhunt in Douglas, Wyoming, captures the attention of Americans.
- Children of Thalidomide: Many pregnant women taking the drug Thalidomide had children born with congenital birth defects.
- Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash on February 3 with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, in a day that had a major impact on rock and roll and youth culture. Joel prefaces the lyric with a Holly signature vocal hiccup: "Uh-huh, uh-huh."
- Ben-Hur, a film adapted from Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ 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 by NASA into space that returned to Earth alive.
- Mafia organizations 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.
- U-2: An American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, causing the U-2 Crisis of 1960.
- Syngman Rhee was rescued by the CIA after being forced to resign as leader of South Korea for allegedly fixing an election and embezzling more than US$20 million.
- Payola, illegal payments for radio broadcasting of songs, was publicized due to Dick Clark's testimony before Congress and Alan Freed's public disgrace.
- John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, beats Vice President Richard Nixon in the November 8 general election.
- Chubby Checker popularizes the dance The Twist with his cover of the song of the same name.
- Psycho: An Alfred Hitchcock thriller, based on a pulp novel by Robert Bloch and adapted by Joseph Stefano, which becomes a landmark in graphic violence and cinema sensationalism. The screeching violins heard at this point in the song are a trademark of the film's soundtrack.
- Belgians in the Congo: The Republic of the Congo (Leopoldville) was declared independent of Belgium on June 30, with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister.
- Ernest Hemingway commits suicide on July 2 after a long battle with depression.
- Adolf Eichmann, a "most wanted" Nazi war criminal, is traced to Argentina and captured by Mossad agents. He is covertly taken to Israel where he is put on trial for crimes against humanity during World War II, convicted in 1961, and hanged the following year, 1962.
- Stranger in a Strange Land, written by Robert A. Heinlein, is a breakthrough best-seller with themes of sexual freedom and liberation.
- Bob Dylan is signed to Columbia Records after a New York Times review by critic Robert Shelton.
- Berlin's separation into West Berlin and East Berlin is cemented when the Berlin Wall is erected on August 13 to prevent citizens of East Germany escaping to the West.
- The Bay of Pigs Invasion, an attempt by United States-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro, fails.
- Lawrence of Arabia: The Academy Award-winning film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence starring Peter O'Toole premiered in the United States on December 16.
- British Beatlemania: The Beatles, a British rock group, gain Ringo Starr as drummer and Brian Epstein as manager, and join the EMI's Parlophone label. They soon become the world's most famous rock band, with the word "Beatlemania" adopted by the press for their fans' unprecedented enthusiasm. In 1964, their tour of the United States would mark the beginning of "the British Invasion".
- Ole Miss: A riot was fought between Southern segregationist civilians and federal and state forces as a result of the forced enrollment of black student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.
- John Glenn flew the first American manned orbital mission termed "Friendship 7" on February 20.
- Liston beats Patterson: Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson fought for the world heavyweight championship on September 25, ending in a first-round knockout. This match marked the first time Patterson had ever been knocked out and one of only eight losses in his 20-year professional career.
- Pope Paul: 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.
- 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.
- Richard Nixon back again: Former Vice President Nixon is elected President in 1968.
- 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.)
- Menachem Begin becomes Prime Minister of Israel in 1977 and negotiates the Camp David Accords with Egypt's president in 1978.
- Ronald Reagan, former Governor of California, begins his second Presidential campaign in 1976. He eventually wins in the next election in 1980.
- Palestine: The ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict escalates as Israelis establish settlements in the West Bank, previously held by Jordan for non-Jewish Palestinians after the 1948 war, beginning shortly after Begin's election.
- Terror on the air line: Numerous aircraft hijackings take place, specifically, the Palestinian hijack of Air France Flight 139 and the subsequent Operation Entebbe in Uganda.
- Ayatollahs in Iran: During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West-backed and secular Shah is overthrown as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gains power after years in exile and creates an Islamic society.
- Russians in Afghanistan: Following their move into Afghanistan on December 24, Soviet forces fight a ten-year war up until 1989.
- 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.
- Hypodermics on the shore: Medical waste was found washed up on the beaches of Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut 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 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, and the San Francisco a cappella group The Richter Scales' 2007 Webby Award-winning 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. "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.
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. 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.
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. 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." 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. 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.
In 2014, Neil Cicierega released a mashup album, Mouth Silence. The 17th song, "Space Monkey Mafia", 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. Also, YouTube channel, Cultaholic debuted a series called "What Happened to that Wrestler?" in which the theme song is a parody of the song. Cultaholic later went on to release a full parody video.
|Canada (Music Canada)||Gold||50,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||400,000|
|United States (RIAA)||Platinum||1,000,000|
^shipments 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
- "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
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