We Didn't Start the Fire



"We Didn't Start the Fire" is a song by Billy Joel that references a catalog of headline events during his lifetime, from March 1949 to 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front. The events are mixed with a refrain asserting "we didn't start the fire". The song was a number-one hit in the US.

The song and video have been interpreted as a rebuttal to criticism of Joel's Baby Boomer generation, from both its preceding and succeeding generations, that they were responsible for much of the world's problems. The song's title and refrain imply that the frenzied and troubled state which others were criticizing had been the state of the world since long before his generation's time, but that this was (perhaps wilfully) being ignored by their critics.

Joel explained that he wrote this song due to his interest in history; he commented that he would have wanted to be a history teacher had he not become a rock and roll singer. Unlike most of Joel's songs, the lyrics were written before the melody, owing to the somewhat unusual style of the song. Nevertheless, the song was a huge commercial success and provided Billy Joel with his third, and final Billboard #1 hit.

'We Didn't Start the Fire' was written by Joel after a conversation with John Lennon's son Sean (as confirmed by the jacket of Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel). Sean was complaining that he was growing up in troubled times.

Although the song ranked #1 in the US, and #7 in the UK, Blender magazine ranked "We Didn't Start the Fire" #44 on its list of the 50 worst songs ever. "We Didn't Start the Fire" also appeared in the same spot on VH1's 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever, a collaboration with Blender in 2004.

The lyrics of "We Didn't Start the Fire" are essentially a chronological list of specific events, names, and places, beginning in Joel's year of birth. An exception is that of 1976 and 1977, whose years and events are swapped chronologically in the song.

Stream of consciousness in style, the song could be considered a natural successor to songs such as "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", as it consists of a series of unrelated images in a rapid-fire, half-spoken, half-sung vocal style.

The following are the events as they appear in the song's lyrics, though in the actual song they are occasionally punctuated by the chorus and other lyrical elements. 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.

1949

* Harry Truman is inaugurated as US president after being elected in 1948 to his own term; previously he was sworn in following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
* Doris Day enters the public spotlight with the films My Dream Is Yours and It's a Great Feeling as well as popular songs like "It's Magic"; divorces her second husband.
* Red China as 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 won't become popular for another two years.
* South Pacific, the prize winning musical, opened on Broadway on April 7.
* Walter Winchell is an aggressive radio and newspaper journalist credited with inventing the gossip column.
* Joe DiMaggio is injured early in the season but makes a comeback in June and leads the New York Yankees to win the World Series.

1950

* Joe McCarthy, the US Senator, gains national attention and begins his anti-communist crusade with his Lincoln Day speech.
* Richard Nixon is first elected to the United States Senate.
* Studebaker a popular car company, is beginning its financial downfall.
* Television is becoming widespread (in black and white format) and becomes the most popular means of advertising.
* North Korea, South Korea engage in warfare as North Korea attacks on June 25, beginning the Korean War.
* Marilyn Monroe soars in popularity with five new movies including The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, and attempts suicide after death of lover Johnny Hyde. Monroe would later (1954) be married for a brief time to Joe DiMaggio (the rhyme in the previous verse).

1951

* Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29 for espionage.
* H-Bomb is in the middle of its development as a nuclear weapon, announced in early 1950 and first tested in late 1952.
* Sugar Ray (Robinson) the boxer obtains the world's Middleweight title.
* Panmunjeom, the border village in Korea, is the location of truce talks between the parties of the Korean War.
* Brando (Marlon) is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire.
* The King and I opens on Broadway on March 29.
* The Catcher in the Rye, a controversial novel by J. D. Salinger is published.

1952

* Eisenhower (Dwight D.) is first elected as U.S. president, winning by a landslide margin of 442 to 89.
* Vaccine for polio is privately tested by Jonas Salk.
* Queen Elizabeth II as George VI passes away and Elizabeth II succeeds to the throne of United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms.
* Marciano (Rocky) defeats Jersey Joe Walcott, becoming the world Heavyweight champion.
* Liberace has a popular 1950s television show for his musical entertainment.
* Santayana as philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana dies on September 26.

1953

* Joseph Stalin dies on March 5, yielding his position as leader of the Soviet Union.
* Malenkov (Georgy Maksimilianovich) succeeds Stalin for six months following his death.
* Nasser (Gamal Abdel) acts as the true power behind the new Egyptian nation as Muhammad Naguib's minister of the interior.
* Prokofiev (Sergei) the composer, dies on March 5, the same day as Stalin.
* Rockefeller Winthrop Rockefeller establishes Winrock Enterprises and Winrock Farms atop Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton, Arkansas.
* Campanella (Roy), an African American baseball catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, receives the National League's Most Valuable Player award for the second time.
* Communist bloc is a group of communist nations dominated by the Soviet Union at this time.

1954

* 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.
* Toscanini (Arturo) is at the height of his fame as a conductor, performing regularly with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on national radio.
* Dacron is an early artificial fiber made from the same plastic as polyester.
* Dien Bien Phu (a village in North Vietnam) falls to Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap, 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.

1955

* Einstein (Albert) 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.
* Brooklyn's winning team as the Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series for the only time. (There is cheering in the background of the song during this line.)
* Davy Crockett is a Disney television series about the legendary frontiersman of the same name.
* Peter Pan is broadcast on TV live and in color from the 1954 version of the stage musical starring Mary Martin on March 7.
* Elvis Presley signs with RCA Records on November 21, beginning his pop career.
* Disneyland opens on July 17 as Walt Disney's first theme park.

1956

* Bardot (Brigitte) appears in her first mainstream film And God Created Woman and establishes an international reputation as a French "sex kitten".
* Budapest is the 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 USA.
* Khrushchev (Nikita) makes his famous Secret Speech denouncing Stalin's "cult of personality" on February 23.
* Princess Grace (Grace Kelly) releases her last film High Society and marries Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
* Peyton Place, the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious, is published.
* Trouble in the Suez boils as Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal on October 29, beginning the Suez Crisis.

1957

* Little Rock 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.
* Pasternak (Boris), the Russian author, publishes his famous 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.
* Kerouac (Jack) publishes his first novel in seven years, On the Road.
* Sputnik is the first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, the start of the space race.
* Chou Enlai is in the middle of his reign as Premier of the People's Republic of China.
* The Bridge on the River Kwai is released as a film adaptation of the 1954 novel and receives seven Academy Awards.

1958

* Lebanon is engulfed in a political and religious crisis.
* 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. They are the first major league teams west of Kansas City.
* Starkweather (Charles) captures the attention of Americans, killing eleven people before he is caught in a massive manhunt in Douglas, Wyoming.
* Thalidomide parents taking the drug Thalidomide had children born with congential birth defects caused by the sleeping aid and antiemetic, which was also used at times (although not in the USA) to treat morning sickness.

1959

* Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash on February 3 with Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"), in a day that had a devastating impact on the country and youth culture. The event was immortalized by Don McLean as "The Day the Music Died" in his famous tribute song American Pie. (As an intro to this stanza, Billy Joel mimics Buddy Holly's trademark "hiccup" style, singing a-UH-uh-oh...).
* Ben-Hur wins eleven Academy Awards as a film based around the New Testament starring Charlton Heston.
* Space Monkeys Able and Miss Baker are the first living beings to successfully return to Earth from space aboard the flight Jupiter AM-18.
* Mafia are the center of attention for the FBI and public attention builds to this organized crime society with an historically Sicilian/American origin.
* Hula hoops reach 100 million in sales as the latest toy fad.
* Castro (Fidel) comes to power after a revolution in Cuba and visits the United States later that year on an unofficial twelve-day tour.
* Edsel: as production of this car marketing disaster (Ford spent $400 million developing it) ends after only two years.

1960

* U-2: an American U-2 spy plane 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 twenty million U.S. dollars.
* Payola: was publicized due to Dick Clark's testimony before Congress and Alan Freed's public disgrace.
* Kennedy (John F.): beats Richard Nixon in the November 8 general election amongst allegations of vote fraud.
* Chubby Checker: popularizes the dance The Twist with his 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 briefly in the background are a trademark of the film's soundtrack.
* Congo Crisis: The Democratic Republic of the Congo was declared independent of Belgium on June 30, with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister.

1961

* Hemingway (Ernest): commits suicide on July 2 after a long battle with depression.
* Eichmann (Adolf): 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 in Germany during World War 2, convicted, and hanged.
* Stranger in a Strange Land: written by Robert A. Heinlein, is a breakthrough best-seller with themes of sexual freedom and liberation.
* Dylan (Robert; better known as Bob Dylan): after a New York Times review by critic Robert Shelton, Dylan is signed to Columbia Records.
* Berlin: The Berlin Wall, which forcibly separates West Berlin from East Berlin and the rest of East Germany, is constructed to prevent citizens escaping to the West.
* Bay of Pigs Invasion: failed attempt by United States-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro.

1962

* Lawrence of Arabia: the Academy Award-winning film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence starring Peter O'Toole premiers in America on December 16.
* Beatlemania: The Beatles, a British pop 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 group, with the word "Beatlemania" adopted by the press for their fans' unprecedented enthusiasm.
* Ole Miss: James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi (known as 'Ole Miss).
* John Glenn: flew the first American manned orbital mission termed "Friendship 7" on February 20.
* Liston beats Patterson: Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson fight for the world heavyweight championship on September 25, ending in a round-one knockout.

1963

* Pope Paul: Pope Paul VI is elected to the papacy.
* Malcolm X: makes infamous statements about agreeing with the Kennedy assassination, thus causing the Nation of Islam to censure him.
* British Politician Sex: the Profumo Affair.
* John F. Kennedy assassination: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22.

1965

* 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 declared all birth control a sin.
* Ho Chi Minh: a Vietnamese Communist, who served as President of Vietnam from 1954–1969.

1968

* Richard Nixon: Former Vice President Nixon is elected in the 1968 presidential election of the United States.

1969

* Moon shot: refers to the Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing.
* Woodstock: famous rock and roll festival of 1969 that came to represent the epitome of the counterculture movement.

1974

* Watergate: political scandal involving a hotel break-in, eventually leading to President Nixon's resignation and subsequent impeachment, the first US president to be so charged.
* Punk rock: the Ramones form, with the Sex Pistols following in 1975, bringing in the punk era.

1977 (Note that these two items, while later chronologically than the two 1976 items, come immediately before them in the song)

* Begin (Menachem): becomes Prime Minister of Israel in 1977 and negotiates the Camp David Accords with Egypt's president in 1978.
* Reagan (Ronald): President of the United States from 1981 to 1989; first attempted in 1976 to run for president.

1976 (Note that these two items, while earlier chronologically than the two 1977 items, come immediately after them in the song)

* Palestine: the Palestine Liberation Organization is admitted as a member of Arab League; see history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
* Terror on the airline: Numerous aircraft hijackings took place, specifically, the Palestinian hijack of Air France Flight 139 and the subsequent Operation Entebbe in Uganda

1979

* Ayatollahs in Iran: during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West-backed and U.S.-installed Shah is overthrown as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gains power after years in exile.
* Russians in Afghanistan: Following their move into Afghanistan, Soviet forces fight a ten-year war, from 1979 to 1989.

1983

* Wheel of Fortune: a hit television game show which has been TV's highest-rated syndicated program since 1983.
* Sally Ride: in 1983 she becomes the first American woman in space.
* Heavy metal, suicide: Billy Joel himself has stated previously on his website that even though the two terms are separated by a comma they are collectively one item (like "North Korea, South Korea" above). In the 1980s Ozzy Osbourne and the bands Metallica and Judas Priest were brought to court by parents who accused the musicians of hiding subliminal pro-suicide messages in their music.
* Foreign debts: Persistent US trade deficits.
* Homeless vets: Veterans of the Vietnam war, including many disabled ex-military, are reported to be left homeless and impoverished, the country unable to yet handle its failure to succeed.
* 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, on its way to becoming a pandemic.
* Crack: Refers to crack cocaine, a popular drug in the mid-to-late 1980s.

1984

* Bernie Goetz: On December 22, Goetz becomes a vigilante after being mugged four times; he shoots four young men who he believed to be threatening him on a New York City subway. Goetz was charged with attempted murder, but was acquitted of the charges.

1988

* Hypodermics on the shore: medical waste was found washed up on beaches in New Jersey after being illegally dumped at sea.

1989

* China's under martial law: On May 20, China declares martial law, enabling them to use force of arms 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 popular music stars to reach the young adult demographic.

Of the 56 individuals mentioned by name in the song, the following nine were still alive in 2007: Doris Day, Queen Elizabeth II, Brigitte Bardot, Fidel Castro, Chubby Checker, Bob Dylan, John Glenn, Sally Ride and Bernhard Goetz. Johnnie Ray was the first person mentioned in the song, still alive when it was released, to die, on (24 February 1990). The most recent to die was Floyd Patterson, on 11 May 2006.

Only two individuals, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, are mentioned by name twice in the song.

* "They'll Never Stop The Simpsons": in the episode "Gump Roast", The Simpsons plays this parody while showing various stills from the series up to that point. It relived popular moments from "Mr. Plow" to Burns being "blown away".

* "Pet Names for Genitalia": a song listing increasingly absurd euphemisms for "penis" and circulated on the Internet. Though commonly misattributed to "Weird Al" Yankovic, Tom Green or Dane Cook the true authorship of the parody is unknown.

* Irish band The Memories rewrites the lyrics in their song, "The Game" to highlight Ireland's run in the 1990 World Cup.

* "Who Is My Baby Daddy?": a parody by Chuck Knipp's comedic radio persona, Shirley Q. Liquor, listing humorous names including "Icebucket", "Buttuglia", and "Chlamydia Champagne".

* A parody of the song, "We Live In Singapura" (We live in Singapore) was performed by Singaporean actor Hossan Leong on the Mr. Brown podcast. The song pokes fun at Singaporean history, especially Singapore's independence and growth, as well as the state of living and pop culture.

* "Wir haben Grund zum Feiern" (We Have Reason for Celebrating): a parody by German comedian Otto Walkes describing different kinds of alcohol.

* "We've Got A Strong Desire": performed by the Jewish music group Shlock Rock.

* "The Finals Countdown": performed by the Amateur Transplants.

* "We Didn't Start This Website": Second-highest rated site on YTMND.com, refers to the numerous fads displayed on the site over the years. It was written and sung by volunteers from the community.

* Coca (Coke) Cola in Latin America launched a TV campaign about the 2006 FIFA World Cup, in which they use the score of this song like a chant.

* In an episode of the US version of The Office entitled "The Fire", Dwight makes fun of Ryan for starting the fire in the office and sings, "Ryan started the fire!"

* "We Didn't Go to Harvard": A parody sung by the Cornell a cappella group Cayuga's Waiters.

* "U of Pennsylvania": a similar parody sung by Penn's Pennsylvania Six-5000

* "We Can't Stop Sanjaya" by American Comedy Network Daily is a song parody based on Sanjaya Malakar in which the song degrades Sanjaya as being the most overrated American Idol contestant and also demands him to be eliminated from the show as well.

* "We Didn't Start the Series" was used as a commercial for Star Trek: The Next Generation on some local stations.

* In the Janurary 18th, 2007 episode of The Daily Show, Iraq correspondent Aasif Mandvi quoted several lyrics from the song when talking about Iraq imitating U.S. history.

Among the many parodies created was a version done in 2001 called "We Didn't Trash Your File", which uses terms and historical figures associated with the graphics industry. This rendition was written and performed by Canadian publisher Dan Brill, with vocal support from Bea Broda Connolly.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home