Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

“We Didn’t Start The Fire”


BillyJoel_Fire“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was a huge commercial success when it was released in 1989. It was Billy Joel’s third Billboard No. 1 hit and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. It’s also a great summary of history for the second half of the 20th Century. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between January 1949 (Billy Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front.

Billy Joel, a self-described “history nut” who wanted to be a history teacher when he was younger, got the idea for the song as he was talking with someone on the verge of turning 21, who averred that the world was an unfixable mess. Joel replied to him, “I thought the same things when I was 21″. The person replied, “Yeah, but you grew up in the 50’s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50’s”. Joel retorted, “Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of Korea, the Hungarian freedom fighters or the Suez Crisis?”

Joel later said those headlines formed the basic framework for the song. He said later that “I had turned forty. It was 1989 and I said, ‘Okay, what’s happened in my life?’ I wrote down the year 1949. Okay, Harry Truman was President. Popular singer of the day, Doris Day. China went Communist. Another popular singer, Johnnie Ray. Big Broadway show, South Pacific. Journalist, Walter Winchell. Athlete, Joe DiMaggio. Then I went on to 1950…. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written. I kind of like the lyric though.” Joel has mixed feelings about the song. “It’s a nightmare to perform live, because if I miss one word, it’s a train wreck.” He has also called it a “novelty song” that does not “really define me as well as album songs that probably don’t get played”.

Several of the events and people mentioned in the song are also subjects — in one way or another– of Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History so we thought it would be fun to combine the two. (Some pieces are more appropriate than others but humor us.) We will continue to add in new links as we get relevant Moments. Song copyright by Joelsongs; cover art copyright by Columbia Records. Go here to watch the video.

 

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rosenberg’s 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

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

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

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

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
U2, 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
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

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
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
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

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 shore, China’s under martial law
Rock and Roll, cola wars, I can’t take it anymore

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…

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