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A journey through history with Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire'

For some reason, this might come as a shock to many people, but Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ is not only a fantastic song, it is one of the most inventive of all time. The embalming gloss of uber eighties production sheen may well lend it a visceral adrenalised edge, but what it gives in energy, it, admittedly, slightly retracts in sincerity and class. 

However, hidden beneath the opulent production is a piece of music that would’ve been deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize if it came sporting some gingham affrontery, which in some ways would have been more fitting as it is essentially as close to an old folk diatribe of history as they come.

Throughout the lyrics, Joel makes his way through a whopping 118 historical events, traversing a rhythmic course through life from 1948 to 1989, never once straining to rhyme, breaking stride or losing any momentum on its way to a searing guitar solo — and what’s more, he wraps it up in under five minutes. 

The song was spawned out of a conversation that Joel had with Sean Lennon in the studio. Sean was with a friend who told Joel that it was a “terrible time” to be a young person. Joel was on the eve of his 40th birthday, and he told the despairing youth that things weren’t much brighter when he was 21 either. Ultimately, he decided to elucidate this point by depicting the entirety of his 40-year history in an ecstatic textbook of song. 

It’s a singalong classic like absolutely no other and we’re delving into every single reference made in the sui generis maelstrom below. 

Every historical reference made in ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’:

The first verse: 

1948

  • Harry Truman – The song begins with a reference to Harry Truman winning the US presidential election following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 
  • Doris Day – Doris Day made her film debut with Romance on the High Seas, launching her to stardom and making her a feminist trailblazer.  

1949

  • Red China – The Communist Party of China is victorious in the Chinese Civil War, establishing the Red China regime and the formation of the People’s Republic of China. 
  • Johnnie Ray – Rock ‘n’ roll luminary Johnnie Ray signs to Okeh Records and revolutionises pop culture.
  • South Pacific – The music South Pacific opens on Broadway and soon becomes one of the biggest of all time. 
  • Walter Winchell – Journalist Walter Winchell makes a public decree denouncing communism as the “biggest threat to America.”
  • Joe DiMaggio – The baseball star Joe DiMaggio changes the world of professional sport by signing a record-breaking contract of $100,000 with the New York Yankees.

1950

  • Joe McCarthy – The US senator Joe McCarthy makes Lincoln Day speech launching an anti-communist crusade. 
  • Richard Nixon – The future president Richard Nixon is elected to the US Senate. 
  • Studebaker – The automobile company Studebaker falls into liquidation. 
  • Television – Television ownership encroaches on 10% for the first time, by the close of the decade 85.9% of American households will own one. 
  • North Korea – North Korea invades South Korea, and the Korean War ensues.
  • South Korea – See above. 
  • Marilyn Monroe – Marilyn Monroe appears in five films in a single year (All About Eve, The Fireball, Right Cross, The Asphalt Jungle, A Ticket to Tomahawk).

The second verse:

1951

  • Rosenbergs – American couple Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of espionage on the part of the Soviet Union, both would be put to death by electrocution for treason. 
  • H-Bomb – The US begins development on a nuclear bomb. 
  • Sugar Ray – Sugar Ray Robinson defeats Jake LaMotta in one of the greatest boxing bouts in history that will go down as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
  • Panmunjom – The small village of Panmunjom on the Korean border becomes the location of a truce in the Korean War. 
  • Brando Marlon Brando gets one of the biggest snobs in Oscars history as he is nominated but misses out on Best Actor for A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • The King and I – The famed King and I musical opens on Broadway. 
  • The Catcher in the Rye – The controversial eponymous teen angst novel The Cather in the Rye is published. Mark David Chapman will later cite it as a factor in murdering John Lennon. 

1952

  • Eisenhower – Dwight D. Eisenhower is elected US President in a historic landslide. 
  • Vaccine – Jonas Salk successfully develops a Polio vaccine. 
  • England’s got a new Queen – Princess Elizabeth succeeds to the throne, being crowned Queen Elizabeth II the following year.
  • Marciano – Rocky Marciano claims the World Heavyweight crown by defeating Jersey Joe Walcott.
  • Liberace – The first episode of The Liberace Show is aired. 
  • Santayana goodbye – Writer and renaissance man George Santayana dies. 

Chorus:

“We didn’t start the fire.” – A metaphor in reference to the constant infernal chaos of the world. 

“It was always burning, since the worlds been turning.” – A reference to the birth and axial rotation of Planet Earth. 

The third verse:

1953

  • Joseph StalinSoviet Union bastard Joseph Stalin descends to hell. 
  • Malenkov – Georgy Malenkov briefly succeeds Stalin for a tumultuous six-month period. 
  • Nasser – Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes the clandestine leader of the new formation of Egypt. 
  • Prokofiev – The beloved Russian composer behind Peter and the Wolf dies.
  • Rockefeller – Winthrop and Barbara Rockefeller are involved in a primitive version of a publicised celebrity divorce. 
  • Campanella – Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella is awarded the MVP for a second time.  
  • Communist Bloc – The Volkspolizei and Group of Soviet Forces quash the East German uprising.

1954

  • Roy Cohn – Roy Cohn leaves partnership with Joe McCarthy.
  • Juan Perón – Juan Perón rises to dominance in Argentina prior to the coup. 
  • Arturo Toscanini – Arturo Toscanini becomes one of the most famous composers in the world after landing a US radio show with his NBC Symphony Orchestra. 
  • Dacron – Scientist pioneer artificial fibre technology with Dacron. 
  • Dien Bien Phu falls – The Viet Minh capture the French encampment of Dien Bien Phu causing the division of Vietnam. 
  • Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley & His Comets land huge number one with ‘Rock Around the Clock’.

The fourth verse:

1955

  • Albert Einstein – Albert Einstein dies at the age of 76. 
  • James Dean – The actor and eternal heartthrob James Dean dies in a car crash at the age of 24. 
  • Brooklyn’s got a winning team – Brooklyn Dodgers when the World Series before relocating to Los Angeles. 
  • Davy Crockett – Disney launches a Television series based on the life of frontiersman Davy Crockett.
  • Peter Pan – Peter Pan is broadcast live and in colour on NBC.
  • Elvis PresleyElvis Presley signs with RCA Records and the rest is ancient history. 
  • Disneyland – Walt Disney opens his first theme park. 

1956

  • Bardot – Brigette Bardot makes her breakthrough in the film And God Created Woman earning the nickname the “French sex kitten.”
  • Budapest – The Hungarian capital becomes the epicentre of the Revolution. 
  • Alabama – The Montgomery bus boycott becomes a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. 
  • Khrushchev – Nikita Khrushchev delivers Secret Speech ridiculing the Soviet’s Stalinist “cult of personality”.
  • Princess Grace – Grace Kelly appears in her last movie High Society, before leaving the industry to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
  • Peyton Place – Grace Metalious’ uber-liberal novel Peyton Place becomes a best-seller and kickstarts the sexual liberation movement. 
  • Trouble in the Suez – Egypt nationalises the Suez Canal. 

The fifth verse:

1957

  • Little Rock – President Eisenhower and Gov. Orval Faubus butt-heads in Little Rock in Arkansas at the site of a formerly all-white high school. 
  • Pasternak – The Russian author Boris Pasternak publishes the seminal novel Doctor Zhivago
  • Mickey Mantle – Yankees star Mickey Mantle makes the All-Stars team for the sixth year in a row. 
  • KerouacJack Kerouac pioneers the beat movement with the hugely influential novel On the Road.
  • Sputnik – The Soviet Union launches the first artificial satellite into space. 
  • Chou En-Lai – The Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Chou En-Lai, survives an assassination attempt. 
  • Bridge on the River Kwai – The David Lean picture The Bridge on the River Kwai wins Best Picture. 

1958

  • Lebanon – Politics and religion besiege Lebanon into crisis, which will eventually lead to US intervention. 
  • Charles de Gaulle – The Algerian Crisis is resolved, and Charles de Gaulle is elected president of the French Fifth Republic. 
  • California baseball – The New York Giants relocated to California.
  • Starkweather homicide – Serial killer Charles Starkweather kills 11 people in Nebraska. 
  • Children of Thalidomide – The widely available morning sickness drug Thalidomide results in serious birth defects in a lot of children whose mothers had taken the pills. 

The sixth verse:

1959

  • Buddy HollyA plane crash takes the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.
  • Ben-Hur – Ben-Hur wins a record 11 Academy Awards.
  • Space monkey – A rhesus macaque and a squirrel monkey become the first two animals to be launched by NASA into space and survive.
  • Mafia – Key members of the Mafia are convicted, uncovering the nationwide crime conspiracy.
  • Hula hoops – Sales of the classic toy surpass 100 million, becoming a global sensation. 
  • Castro – Fidel Castro takes control of Cuba after the Revolution de Cuba. 
  • Edsel is a no-go – The Edsel automobile is pulled from production after a lack of sales results in losses. 

1960

  • U-2 – As depicted in Bridge of Spies, an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and the surviving pilot, Francis Gary Powers is put on trial. 
  • Syngman Rhee – The former leader of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, is rescued by the CIA after being forced to resign. 
  • Payola – It is uncovered that illegal payments have been made to radio stations to influence the playing of certain songs.
  • Kennedy – John F Kennedy beats Richard Nixon in the presidential election. 
  • Chubby Checker – Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ becomes a global hit and dance sensation to boot. 
  • Psycho – Billy Joel also utilises violins heard on the Psycho soundtrack to signify the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s eponymous horror. 
  • Belgians in the Congo – The Republic of the Congo declares independence from Belgium after being under colonial rule since 1908. 

The seventh verse:

1961

  • Hemingway – Ernest Hemingway commits suicide via a shotgun blow to the head. 
  • Eichmann – Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in designing “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, is convicted of war crimes in the Israeli trials. 
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein’s liberal novel Stranger in a Strange Land becomes a best seller and central text in the sexual liberation movement. 
  • Bob Dylan – Robert Shelton’s glowing review of the young troubadour Bob Dylan, leads to him being signed by Columbia Records and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. 
  • Berlin – The Berlin wall is erected; it will divide the city up until 1989. 
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion – US-trained Cuban exiles fail to overthrow Fidel Castro in a botched covert invasion attempt. 

1962

  • Lawrence of Arabia – David Lean gets a second film into the song with the Peter O’Toole led desert epic, Lawrence of Arabia.  
  • British Beatlemania – The British invasion begins as ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’ are released in the UK and US, they pretty much instantly become the biggest band in the world and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. 
  • Ole Miss – Black student James Meredith enrols into the University of Mississippi causing despicable race riots by bigoted segregationists.
  • John Glenn – John Glenn flies the first manned orbital mission. 
  • Liston beats Patterson – Sonny Liston knocks out Floyd Patterson in the first round of the classic world Heavyweight championship. 

1963

  • Pope Paul – Cardinal Giovanni Montini becomes Pope Paul VI. 
  • Malcolm X – Civil Rights Movement figure steals headlines through a series of controversial speeches. 
  • British politician sex – UK Minister for War, John Profumo has a scandalous affair with the showgirl Christine Keeler. 
  • JFK blown away – In the words of Bob Dylan from his own take on Billy Joel’s diatribe of history ‘Murder Most Foul’, “They blew off his head while he was still in the car / Shot down like a dog in braid day light,” as President John F. Kennedy. Is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
  • What else do I have to say? – Well, there’s still 26 years of history left to go yet Billy!

The eighth verse:

1965

  • Birth Control – The court case of Griswold v. Connecticut challenges the states prohibition of contraceptives. 
  • Ho Chi Minh – The disastrous foreign policy of Operation Rolling Thunder begins as the US essentially make a war pact in Vietnam that they can’t get out of. 

1968

  • Richard Nixon back again – Eight years after losing to JFK in the 1960 election, Nixon is sworn in as president. 

1969

  • Moonshot – One small step…
  • Woodstock – 400,000 people high on peace and love descend upon the classic music festival, as Jimi Hendrix crystalises the counterculture movement. 

1972

  • Watergate – It’s not the crime it’s the cover-up. In the words of J.G. Ballard “The American Dream has run out of gas.”

1973

  • Punk Rock – The Stooges and New York Dolls release proto-punk albums with Raw Power and New York Dolls respectively.

1977

  • Begin – Menachem Begin becomes Prime Minister of Israel and negotiates Camp David Accord with Egypt. 
  • 1976 – Joel break lineage for the first time in what is widely considered a bad move by me. 
  • Ronald Reagan – Former actor Ronald Reagan begins his presidential campaign. He will eventually be elected in 1980. 

1977

  • Palestine – Israelis establish settlements on occupied West Bank. 
  • Terror on the airline – Numerous hijackings blight air travel. 
  • 1979
  • Ayatollahs in Iran – Islamic rule returns to Iran as former exile Ruhollah Khomeini disposes Shah Pahlavi. 
  • Russians in Afghanistan – Soviet Union forces invade Afghanistan starting a decade long war. 

The ninth verse:

1981

  • Wheel of Fortune – Peculiar reference to relatively inconsequential gameshow. 

1983

  • Sally Ride – Sally Ride becomes the first woman in space, with a fantastically suitable name to boot. 
  • Heavy metal suicide – Heavy metal tracks ‘Suicide Solution’ and ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ are called into question by the family members of fans of the tracks who committed suicide. 
  • Foreign debts – Huge financial crashes occur in third world countries owing to deficit inducing terms of trade. 
  • Homeless vets – An epidemic of homeless Vietnam War veterans surfaces. 
  • Aids – HIV emerges as a major pandemic. 

1984

  • Crack – An epidemic of crack cocaine besieges American cities. 
  • Bernie Goetz – Bernie Goetz shoots four young black men he claimed were trying to mug him on a New York City subway. He is cleared of attempted murder charges.

1988

  • Hypodermics on the shore – Medical waste washes up on beaches of the American eastern seaboard after being illegally dumped at sea. 

1989

  • China’s under martial law – China declares martial law resulting in the iconic Tiananmen Square photo as the military clashes with protestors. 
  • Rock ‘n’ roller cola wars – Pepsi and Coca Cola use rock stars in marketing campaigns. 
  • I can’t take it anymore – Billy Joel makes it known that he is not condoning the previous 120 declarations. 

Choruses x 4:

The song arrives at full fist-pumping singalong pandemonium as the adrenalised sonic modern history textbook transfigures into a salvo of music’s benevolent deliverance from the aforementioned woes of the world. Room for a sequel?

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