We Didn't Start the Fire

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Single cover.

We Didn't Start the Fire is a political rock song by Billy Joel first released as a single on 1989-09-18, then as track 2 on the album, Storm Front a month later. Billy Joel was inspired to write the song after a younger person told him that growing up in the 1950s must have been easy because nothing important happened then. The song also acts as a rebuttal to the people who blame the Baby Boomer generation for societal ills. The lyrics list over 100 significant events from when Joel was born in 1949, to when the song was released in 1989, demonstrating that world-changing events were already in the works when his generation was born, and will continue long after they're gone.

The single was released on vinyl, cassette, and CD, and typically had House of the Blue Light as a B-side, and sometimes also Just the Way You Are.

On the album recording, Billy Joel sings vocals, plays the clavinet and some percussion. Liberty DeVitto plays drums and some percussion. David Brown plays lead electric guitar. Joey Hunting plays rhythm guitar. Crystal Taliefero sings backing vocals and plays some percussion. Schuyler Deale plays bass guitar. John Mahoney plays keyboards. Sammy Merendino plays electronic percussion. Kevin Jones programmed the keyboards. Doug Kleeger provided sounds effects and arrangements.

Personal

I remember hearing this song on the radio shortly after it was released and enjoying the rapid-fire lyrics, however, I didn't know what the majority of them were about. The song dropped out of my mind for many years, but would occasionally come back when hearing it on the radio or, once, in an Saturday Night Live sketch. In the 2000s, I bought a copy of Greatest Hits Volume III, and had a copy of the song to listen to at my leisure, and tried to learn the lyrics to sing along with it, but realized I still didn't know what he was saying half of the time. I did a search online and found a helpful site which listed the lyrics with a link to other pages which described the historical importance of each event.

While I don't care much for the repetition of the song, and its basic instrumentation, I absolutely love how the lyrics are sung. They start out almost playful before getting to "Marciano, Liberace, Santayana good-bye," where they being to build and they stay strong through the whole "Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac," section. I love the sound effects during the "Psycho" and the line, "JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?" and "Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock."

Lyrics

[1949]
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, 
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe Dimaggio.

[1950]
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television, 
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe.

[1951]
Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom, 
Brando, the King and I, and the Catcher in the Rye.

[1952]
Eisenhower, vaccine, England's got a new queen, 
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana good-bye.

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

[1953]
Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev, 
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc.

[1954]
Roy Cohn, Juan Perón, Tosconini, Dacron, 
Dien Bien Phu falls, Rock Around the Clock.

[1955]
Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn's got a winning team, 
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland.

[1956]
Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Khrushchev, 
Princess Grace, Peyton Place, Trouble in the Suez.

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

[1957]
Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac, 
Sputnik, Chou Enlai, Bridge on the River Kwai.

[1958]
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball, 
Starkweather homicide, Children of Thalidomide.

[1959]
Buddy Holly, Ben-Hur, Space Monkey, Mafia, 
Hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go.

[1960]
U-2, Syngman Rhee, Payola, and Kennedy, 
Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo.

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

[1961]
Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land, 
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs Invasion.

[1962]
Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania, 
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson.

[1963]
Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex, 
JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

[1964 to 1989]
Birth control, Ho Chi-Minh, Richard Nixon back again, 
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock.

Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airlines, 
Ayatollahs in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan.

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide, 
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz.

Hypodermics on the shore, China's under martial law, 
Rock-and-roller cola wars, I can't take it any more!

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
But, when we are gone, 
It will still burn on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on.

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning, 
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
Well, we didn't light it, 
But we tried to fight it.

Music Video

The music video was directed by Chris Blum. It begins with a newly wed couple happily entering their new late-1940s home, then shows snapshots of their lives as they age through the decades, having children, and living their lives through the changing fashions. However, in spite of the cheerful veneer, the father is lazy and absent while the over-worked mother is taking pills and the kids are rebelling. Intermixed through these scenes Billy Joel is seen sitting at a table in front of large pictures of the atrocities burning to ash.

Media

Covers

Videos

Official music video.
Album version.
Live at Yankee Stadium, June 1990.
Live from "The River of Dreams Tour," 1994.

Links

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