WDSTF: The Song

It was in 2005 that I was first introduced to Billy Joel’s song, We Didn’t Start The Fire. It was my first History in the 20th Century class that the teacher pressed play on the cassette tape and played the song.

He then handed out the lyrics and gave us one simple task. Pick 5 things and write about them. From memory I chose, Television, England’s got a new queen, Rock Around The Clock, Disneyland and Cola Wars because a lot of information couldn’t be found on the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Ever since then I have always thought of creating a blog dedicated to the song, with a post covering each event mentioned in the song.

The song references 118 significant political, cultural, scientific, and sporting events between 1949, the year of Joel’s birth, and 1989, in mainly chronological order.

Joel conceived 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.[2] 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.”[3]

When asked if he deliberately intended to chronicle the Cold War with his song[4] 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.”[5]

We Didn’t Start The Fire – Wikipedia

In the age of the internet, we have memes. There is one that has been iconic, and sums up this song. That is the image of This Is Fine webcomic by KC Gamer.

The dog to me is Billy Joel, the dog is me, the dog is all of us. The song came out in 1989, I was two years old. Since then I am acutely aware that a lot has happened. Particularly since the world started battling COVID-19, this song has become more meaningful. Especially when you consider the chorus.

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

We Didn’t Start The Fire, Billy Joel

So – this is the prelude to what will be a series of posts on my blog, starting at the beginning of the song.

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