Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire – 1989

We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a song written and performed by American musician Billy Joel. The song was released as a single on September 27, 1989, and later released as part of Joel’s album Storm Front on October 17, 1989. A list song, its fast-paced lyrics include brief references to 118 significant political, cultural, scientific, and sporting events between 1949, the year of Joel’s birth, and 1989, in a mainly chronological order. The song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and became Joel’s 3rd single to reach #1 on the United States Billboard Hot 100 in late 1989. Storm Front became Joel’s 3rd album to reach #1 in the United States. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, particularly in the 21st century, has become the basis of many pop culture parodies, and continues to be repurposed in various television shows, advertisements, and comedic productions.

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. 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.”

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

A music video for the single was directed by Chris Blum. The video begins with a newly married couple entering their 1940s-style kitchen, and shows events in their domestic life over the next four decades, including the addition of children, their growth, and later, grandchildren, and the eventual death of the family’s father. The passage of time is also depicted by periodic redecoration and upgrades of the kitchen, while an unchanging Billy Joel looks on in the background.

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