Every now and then, we like to go on a deep dive into certain songs (and musicians) and really get into the nitty-gritty about what it (or he/she) is all about. I think it’s fair to say that Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ is worth the drive.
It’s been 30 years since Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ debuted from his Grammy-nominated album, ‘Storm Front.’ The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a radio mainstay for quite a while. This monster hit of a song was written when Joel had just turned 40.
And it must have been a year that really resonated with him because he had a heck of a lot to say about the world. The nearly 5-minute song chronicles about a half-century of major events and history and pop culture, from Joel’s birth year, 1949, to the release of the song in 1989.
But do you know what he means by “We didn’t start the fire?” Do you know about the references in each verse? Find out now…
Like all noteworthy songs in music history, this song was the result of something. And in this case, that “something” was a conversation. The idea for Billy Joel’s song spawned from a conversation that he had with one of his friends. That friend was Sean Lennon (son of The Beatles’ John Lennon). Sean had just turned 21 and was complaining about how insane it felt for him to be living in that era. He was kind of undermining any other generation before his.
A lightbulb went on over Joel’s head, and he instantly had an idea for a song. This conversation with his buddy encouraged Joel to write a song. And not just any song, one that would prove that all generations are filled with extremes.
An interview with Joel from the book, In Their Own Words by Bill DeMain, gives us some insight. The interview helps us get a look into what the musician himself felt about it, the song, and everything about it. “I had turned forty. It was 1989, and I said, “Okay, what’s happened in my life? I wrote down the year 1949… It was kind of a mind game,” Joel explained.
“[It’s] one of the few times I’ve written the lyrics first, which should be obvious to why I usually prefer to write the music first because the melody is horrendous. It’s like a mosquito droning. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written. I kind of like the lyric, though.”
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” holds importance, like most other major hits that make an impression. This song is important because it can serve as a constant reminder that no matter how crazy things may seem today in the world we live in, things have always been crazy. And they will continue to be crazy as time goes on. So basically, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we are the culprit or that we are the only generations to really know what a crazy world is.
The time capsule of a song takes us through the madness that occurred in each decade. So now it’s time to go through the song and get an idea of what he’s referring to.
Let’s go in order…
The first verse of Joel’s song refers to many events and prominent figures that made the news headlines from the year Joel was born, which was 1949, and up through 1952. So that’s 4 years of all kinds of stuff. But before we dive into the lyrics and some of the cultural references he mentions, let’s take a look at the lyrics of Verse 1 at a glance.
And the lyrics are:
“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe
Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, The King And I, and The Catcher In The Rye,
Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye.”
One of the many names mentioned in the first verse is Harry Truman. Truman was inaugurated as U.S. president in 1949 after being re-elected for his second term. By the way, the 1948 election was considered to be one of the biggest election disappointments in US history. Now, you can compare that to other more, um, recent, um, elections and their results.
President Harry Truman had already made history by that point when he authorized the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II (on August 6 and August 9, 1945). That decision resulted in the loss of over 200,000 lives. It also ushered in the Atomic Age. So yeah, this is a pretty major reference.
By the year 1949, Doris Day was a music artist and actress who only had a few things under her belt. Mind you, a few amazing things nonetheless. She had her inaugural LP album,’ You’re My Thrill,’ and starred in two movies, ‘My Dream is Yours’ and ‘It’s a Great Feeling.’ But it was her song, ‘It’s Magic,’ that became wildly popular around this time and put her on the map.
She became the talk of the town, so to speak. Doris Day went on to be an extremely well-known actress and singer. Her first #1 hit, ‘Sentimental Journey,’ which was recorded in 1945, coincided with the end of WWII. Day recently passed away at the age of 97. She was cremated with no funeral, memorial, or gravesite.
Johnnie Ray was a partially deaf singer, who signed his first recording contract with OKeh Records that year. But the young singer didn’t gain much popularity until his hits, “Cry,” “The Little White Cloud That Cried,” and “Walking in the Rain” were heard by the American public on the radio.
What listeners didn’t know (and really, how could they?) was that Ray was actually crying when performing some of those songs, in particular, “Cry.” What a surprise – a song called “Cry” has a singer who cried in the song (and I think you can sense my sarcasm). So anyway, it all makes sense when you realize that he was nicknamed “Mr. Emotion,” “The Nabob of Sob,” and also “The Prince of Wails.”
The next honorable mention from the first verse is Walter Winchell, who was a pioneer of gossip. Winchell, if you’re not familiar with the name, was credited as the creator of the gossip column. Keep in mind that this was during a time when columns were literal columns in newspapers that people would read in their favorite newspapers.
He showed up in an era dominated by grave analysis, giving a colorful, emotional, and opinionated spin on things. He was known for his aggressive style and use of slang. He had the top-rated radio show in the country. But he started losing popularity in the 1950s as he continued his outward admiration of then-Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was highly controversial at the time, and an ultimately disgraced public figure.
The last names from this verse that we’re going to look at are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Who are (or were) they? They were two American communists who were sentenced to death on March 29, 1951. Why were they sentenced to death? Well, for espionage, of course. They had allegedly sent atomic bomb information to the Soviet Union. Clearly, that was a big no-no. They were later executed on June 19, 1953.
Their execution and the whole event became a hotly debated Supreme Court case that turned into a subject of national focus for a long time. By the way, the fairness of the final verdict is still debated to this day. So while this is an example of something “crazy” that happened in that era, it’s no crazier than things that happen in this era.
Let’s get to the chorus now…
“We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.”
Okay, so is anyone wondering who “we” is? Well, if you’re wondering who’s “We,” Joel is referring to the Baby Boomer generation that he, too, was a part of. What he’s basically saying is that “we” (and by “we” we mean “they”) didn’t start an era of extreme insanity that happened in his time. Rather, these kinds of events have been and will be, going on forever. I mean, if you think about it, it’s almost ego-centric to think they started it all. In other words, don’t flatter yourselves. Right?
We’re moving on to the next verse of the song now. You know, because after the chorus comes the next verse. Anyway, the next verse goes through yet another bunch of events and people that made the news from the years 1953 to 1956. Let’s start by seeing the verse’s lyrics. And then we’ll go ahead and look into the more interesting references.
“Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc
Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Toscanini, Dacron
Dien Bien Phu Falls, “Rock Around the Clock”
Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland
Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Khrushchev
Princess Grace, Peyton Place, Trouble in the Suez”
Do you know the story behind Roy Campanella?
Roy Campanella was a popular name back in 1953. He was a Hall of Fame catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He won the second of his three MVP awards and managed to break the franchise record of 130 RBIs with 142 (baseball fans will know what that means). He then went on to appear on TV commercials.
Campanella didn’t know it at the time, but he happened to play an important role in breaking the color barrier in baseball. His fame also played a role in the integration of races in society as a whole. Tragically, he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1958 and never played again. He was then elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969.
Let’s move on to the year 1954, where one of the major events of that year that made the news was the story of Roy Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The two men were put on trial for pressuring the United States Army on behalf of G. David Schine, who was a friend of Cohn’s who had been drafted into the army. Cohn was involved in the Congressional hearings on Communists in Hollywood and DC.
Both Cohn and McCarthy scared the nation with rumors of Communists overseas, conspiring with homosexual members of the government for secrets. It led to banning suspected homosexual individuals from working in the US Government. This is quite ironic considering Cohn allegedly remained in the closet until his death.
On April 4, 1954, conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was already a known person, made headlines after an incident on stage. Toscanini worked for the NBC Symphony Orchestra and was a radio and TV celebrity. On April 4, he suffered a memory lapse during a performance he was doing in Carnegie Hall.
As you can imagine, it was a traumatic moment for him as well as the audience members who just couldn’t figure out what was happening before their eyes. The memory lapse attack was said to have been a transient ischemic attack, which is a medical term for what really is a lack of blood to the brain. Unfortunately for Toscanini, he was never able to perform in public again.
James Dean was the heartthrob of the 1940s and 1950s. He was considered a “cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement,” which was expressed in the title of his most famous film, ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ where he played the troubled teenager, Jim Stark.
Sadly, James Dean died on September 30, 1955, in a car crash. He was nominated posthumously for the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in the movie, ‘East of Eden.’
Shortly before his last film, ‘Giant’ was released, crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard.” Urban legend has it that the Porsche was cursed because of the number of people who were badly injured in its presence. “Little Bastard” was destroyed in 1960.
Alabama was where the Montgomery Bus Boycott went down, which lasted from December 1, 1955, to December 20, 1956. The nonviolent protest started after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. The incident brought the Civil Rights movement to a national front. It also marked the rise of Martin Luther King Jr.
The federal ruling ‘Browder v. Gayle’ took effect, which led to a US Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws which segregated buses were unconstitutional. Before the bus boycott, ‘Jim Crow’ laws created racial segregation of the Montgomery Bus Line. As a result, African Americans weren’t hired as drivers; they were forced to ride at the back of the bus and were frequently ordered to surrender their seats to white people.
Moving on to the next verse! But one thing about the chorus, first…
Okay, so the lyrics are the same as the first chorus (duh), but we can talk about another part of the chorus. The lyrics “No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it” is Billy Joel’s way of stating that not only did his generation not start the madness, but they also tried to keep peace and moderation. But apparently, it wasn’t enough.
“The Fire” is referring to an endless series of events that seem disconnected, but each term in the song is connected by an invisible thread. Many believe Joel’s lyrics are coded plea for people to wake up; that if we don’t become aware of how we’re feeding the fire, it will burn on forever. But that’s just one theory…
We’ve moved on to the third verse. And this next verse deals with all the things that happened between the years 1957 and 1960. You can see from the lyrics that he mentions quite a lot (like all the other verses). But we’ll focus on a select few.
“Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Zhou En-lai, Bridge On The River Kwai,
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball
Starkweather Homicide, Children of Thalidomide
Buddy Holly, Ben-Hur, Space Monkey, Mafia
Hula Hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go
U-2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo”
Surely you’ve heard the name Mckey Mantle (even if it wasn’t from an episode of Seinfeld). But do you know what was significant about him in 1957?
Okay, so there are super athletes and amazing baseball players, and there’s Mickey Mantle. Mickey Mantle is a name that has become almost synonymous with baseball. Mantle wasn’t just an excellent baseball player; he broke records. He won his second MVP award in 1957. He led the league in his runs and walks and batted a career-high .365. Mickey was a symbol of the Yankees as well as greatness.
Mantle and other NYC center fielders in the league, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, formed a tranquil period of New York baseball – all three teams (the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Giants) at the time were the best of the league. Terry Cashman’s song, “Willie, Mickey and the Duke,” is about them.
Charles Starkweather was a serial killer who took the lives of 11 people between January 21 and January 29 (which was the date of his arrest). It was during a two-month road trip in the states of Nebraska and Wyoming that he was on with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.
Starkweather was not surprising given the death penalty 17 months after his arrest. Keeping numbers consistent, Fugate served 17 years in prison. She was released in 1976. The Starkweather murders didn’t only make headlines, they were the inspiration for many films, like “The Sadist,” “Badlands,” and “Natural Born Killers.”
Next up – the year 1959, which if you recall the song “American Pie,” you can probably guess what we’re gonna talk about next…
“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died”
Yes, those are the lyrics to another song, which is American Pie by Don McLean. And the “day music died” was February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper,” died in a plane crash in Iowa. Despite having been famous for only a year and a half, he was seen as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.”
12 years later, in 1971, Don McLean’s “American Pie” came out, commemorating “The Day the Music Died.” And if you listen to Joel’s song closely, Billy Joel adds a breathy “uh-huh,” mimicking Holly’s signature hiccup-like vocal style.
Oh, the mafia… Where should we even begin? The mafia is such an interesting topic that it’s been the topic of endless amounts of movies and TV series. But that’s all after the mafia went mainstream. The mafia gained mainstream exposure in159 as the FBI focused on busting organized crime members, aka mafiosos. Vito Genovese was arrested for his role in drug trafficking. His arrest was the first of a nearly decade-long process.
Carlo Gambino established himself as the supreme crime boss of the American Mafia. Two years earlier, the Apalachin Meeting of 1957 took place in New York, where over 100 mob bosses attended. It was after that the FBI learned of the meeting that they reorganized and reevaluated themselves to deal with this new threat.
Have you ever heard of (or do you remember) the Payola investigations of the 1960s? The first major Payola investigation took place in 1960, which for the first-ever, brought radio and TV personalities to court. Back then, it was common in the 50s for record companies to pay DJs to play their songs on the radio. Legendary pioneers of rock and roll promotion like Alan Freed were publicly shamed by the scandal.
To prevent future payola scandals, the government decided that the responsibility of choosing which songs to play on the radio was going to be taken away from the DJ and given to station programming directors. But, the practice is still an issue today.
Let’s get to the next verse…
Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve reached verse 4. I hope you’ve enjoyed it up until now. And I promise you; it gets more interesting.
This verse is about all the crazy things that happened between the years 1961 and 1963. Like the other verses, Joel mentions tons of names and events. But we’ll go through the ones that are of particular interest.
“Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land,
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion
Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson
Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British Politician sex
J.F.K. blown away, what else do I have to say?”
Do you know who Eichmann was? Well, if you don’t, then you probably should, considering the weight of what his name carried.
Otto Adolf Eichmann is yet another man with the name Adolf that literally changed the world as we know it. Eichmann became the “most wanted” Nazi war criminal of the time. And thankfully, he was captured by the Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) in Argentina. He was then taken to Israel to be put on trial for crimes against humanity.
After a grueling and beyond emotional trial that was filmed for the world to see, which involved personal accounts of Holocaust survivors, a verdict was made. Eichmann was ultimately found guilty and hanged in 1962. By the way, Israel does not issue the death penalty to convicts. However, the law was amended only for Eichmann. The arrest, trial, and execution of Eichmann started a major debate on the nature of evil, inspiring the concept of “the banality of evil.”
This was the time when the Beatles gained media attention in England after they added Ringo Starr as their drummer, Brian Epstein as their manager, and joined the EMI’s Parlophone label. Beatlemania was a term invented by the British press to describe the insanely intense fan frenzy toward The Beatles in their early career.
The Beatles completed four tours in 1963 and performed at too many shows to count, often doing back-to-back performances. The newspapers were full of stories about the band, and magazines for teen girls were full of interviews, color posters, and other stuff.
Beatlemania became one of the first times that female teenagers in Britain exhibited spending power and publicly expressed sexual desire. Psychology researchers described Beatlemania as “the passing reaction of predominantly young adolescent females to group pressures of such a kind that meet their special emotional needs.”
A monumental heavyweight boxing match took place on September 25, 1962, between two boxing greats. The night was remarkable because, in the first round, Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson, who was at the time, the heavyweight world champion. That alone is a significant event. But the event ended up being even more significant for a reason.
The match was socially significant because Sonny Liston was reported as having ties to the mob, and he was publicly perceived as a thug. Before the fight even took place, NAACP asked Patterson to not agree to the match, fearing if Liston won, then his increased fame would only reinforce negative stereotypes of African Americans (something that was very prevalent at the time).
November 22, 1963, marks a grim day in history when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Surveys done between 1966 and 2003 revealed that as much as 80% of people in the United States had suspected a conspiracy regarding either a plan or cover-up of the assassination. The polls also found that only 20 to 30% of the population believe that Oswald acted alone.
Many conspiracy theories revolve around this major event in American history. Most popular theories that are still swirling around today put forth a criminal conspiracy that involves parties as varied as the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. military, Vice President Johnson, the Mafia, Cuban President Fidel Castro, the KGB, and even a combination of them.
This is the first time that Joel has a lyric that doesn’t cite an event or person. The question “what else do I have to say?” basically highlights the gravity and significance of JFK’s assassination. Since JFK, there hasn’t been another assassinated American president. This is probably Joel’s attempt to have listeners understand that “…it was always burning since the world’s been turning.”
Do you remember the music video for the song? It begins with a newly married couple entering their apartment with a 1940s-style kitchen. It shows events in their domestic life over the following four decades, including having children, their growing up, and later, their grandchildren. Then there’s the eventual death of the family’s father. All this while an unchanging Billy Joel looks on from the background.
This is the last verse of the song, and it covers the most years of all the other verses in the song. This verse spans from 1966 to 1989, which is 23 years. So, there are obviously going to be many noteworthy names, places, and things to mention. The lyrics of this verse are as follows:
“Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan
Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and Roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore.”
Wanna start with birth control? Okay, fine…
The baby boomer era was what seemed like a long era; it came after the Second World War, and everyone was jaded and miserable, yet also hopeful of the future (at least some were). Anyway, the baby boomer ended (finally) when the birth control pill became increasingly available, and there was acceptance of contraceptives in the mid-60s. It resulted in a notable decline in the birth rate in developed countries.
Contraception is still a controversial topic up to this day. Debates continue over whether pharmacists have the right to refuse to fill a prescription based on religious grounds. Another debate is over whether organizations or companies have the right to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives to their female employees.
A break-in of the Watergate office complex in Washington and the Nixon administration trying to cover-up their involvement eventually became known as the Watergate Scandal. It led to the discovery of many cases of abuse of power, including the “bugging” of the offices of political opponents.
These discoveries also led to the incarceration of 43 people, most of whom were Nixon’s top administration officials. It was also the first (and currently the only) resignation of a United States President. The Watergate scandal was such a groundbreaker that the suffix of “gate” became the first of many future scandals, like Envelopegate, Donutgate, Pizzagate, Twittergate, to name a few.
The suffix “gate” is used to embellish a noun or name of a far-reaching scandal, commonly in politics and government.
Punk rock became its own genre of music thanks to The Ramones, who popped up in New York City’s Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974. 1974 was the year that not only The Ramones, but Blondie, and the Talking Heads also appeared on the New York Scene. They were playing in punk clubs like the CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.
The Ramones’ (and the other punk bands’) music was faster, louder, and shorter than the early doo-wop Rock ‘n’ Roll of the 50s. Punk rock became a powerful influence on New York’s underground scene. Then, in 1975, the Sex Pistols were formed in London. And while the Pistols denied taking any inspiration from The Ramones, their manager Malcolm McLaren was closely following the New York scene.
The decade of the 80s was unfortunately littered with homeless people, and a large majority of them were Vietnam War veterans. Why so many? It’s because of the public scorn towards the veterans and also a lack of post-war employment for the men who served. The sad result was that so many of them lost their homes, battled with alcoholism and drug addictions, and some even died of starvation.
The media took note and immortalized their struggles. Movies and songs were dedicated to these men. Some included movies like ‘Born of the Fourth of July,’ and songs like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA.’ This song itself references the struggles of the Vietnam Vet.
Next, do you know who Sally Ride is?
I gotta say that I find it amusing that an astronaut’s last name is Ride. I mean, it’s just perfect, no? Anyway, in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to go to space. As you can imagine, she also became a role model for all women in the field of science and math. This is a monumental moment that happened in a male-dominated field. So no kidding, she gave inspiration to many females of the time!
Sally Ride enjoyed her time in outer space so much that she even made a wisecrack from up there, saying it was “Better than an E-ticket.” If you didn’t get the reference, she was referring to the opening of Disneyland that required you to buy an E-ticket purchase for the best rides.
During the 80s and early 90s, the outbreak of HIV and AIDS swept across the country as well as the rest of the world. It was such a massive problem that researchers were endlessly trying to figure it out. Eventually, HIV was identified as the cause of the AIDS epidemic. This was a significant time because of the major outbreak in Africa, which drew the developed world’s attention to the condition, despite all the previous outbreaks.
The STD eventually claimed the lives of an estimated 36 million people. While it’s a lot more controlled today, it still continues to claim lives to this day. According to the World Health Organization, today, over 70 million people have been infected with HIV, and close to 35 million have died from AIDS since the start of the pandemic.
Pepsi and Coca-Cola start a “rock-and-roller Cola War,” where both brands used high-profile celebrities in their marketing campaigns. The Cola Wars was a series of campaigns initiated by the “Pepsi Challenge.” Their advertisement was to prove that Pepsi was the preferred drink of choice (over Coke). Pepsi chose to involve the public with the blind testing method. You probably remember this. I sure do!
After the data was collected in Dallas-Ft. Worth, “Half the Coca-Cola drinkers actually prefer Pepsi.” Some of the major campaigns involved Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. Abdul’s contract with Coke and Michael Jackson’s contract with Pepsi, continued for a while as each brand was trying to one-up the other. The Cola Wars appeared again in the ’90s, showing that the companies were still in a battle.
Joel is now showing that the escalation of violence in 20th-century history is overwhelming him. I’m sure this resonates with many people, even today. In this modern age of the Internet, long after Joel wrote the song, many people believe that the world is less violent than ever.
Fact about violence: rates of violent conflict have decreased dramatically, and many believe that violence is at the lowest point in human history. And among modern democracies, violence is no longer considered as the default option for solving the world’s problems as it has been for almost all of human history. While it may seem, after watching the news and all the negativity that we see happen every day, that violence is on the incline. But the data shows otherwise.
When Billy Joel was asked if he intended to refer to the Cold War, he responded with: “It was just my luck that the Soviet Union decided to close down shop [soon after putting out the song].” He was also asked if he could do a follow-up song about the following years after 1989, but he said, “No, I wrote one song already, and I don’t think it was really that good, to begin with, melodically.”
A bunch of parodies have been based on this song, including The Simpsons’ parody “They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons” at the end of a 2002 episode. The Cayuga’s Waiters, an a cappella group at Cornell University, performed a version entitled “We Didn’t Go to Harvard.” The band Guns ‘n’ Moses made a parody called “We Love Barney Fife.”