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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

We Didn't Start The Fire by Billy Joel

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

#listeneveryday 5 Nov 2020

A suggestion with a fire-related theme for Bonfire Night, this unusual song was released as a single from Billy Joel's Storm Front album in 1989, and made no.1 in the US singles chart.

Billy Joel turned 40 in 1989 and We Didn't Start The Fire is unusual in that it is a 'list' song - the lyrics list 118 major historical events that took place in Joel's lifetime, starting in 1949 - the year of his birth. Many of these events are specific to US history but there are also a number of world events, such as a scandal that rocked the British government in the 1960s ('British politician sex') and the Suez crisis of 1956. The lyrics are cleverly organised, chronologically but also so that they rhyme and present an exciting rhythmic counterpoint to the punchy, rock-infused instrumental backing. One interesting thing to note is that there is very little piano in this song from the artist known as the 'Piano Man'.

Joel has said that the inspiration for the song came from a conversation with a 21-year old who suggested that "nothing happened in the 1950s". He has also criticised the song, saying, "If you take the melody by itself, terrible. Like a dentist drill". But there's no escaping the genius of the lyrics, and the interest that they provoke since nearly every event is described so concisely that further research is needed to find out what is meant.

Whatever Billy might think, We Didn't Start The Fire continues to be popular with his fans and is a common feature in the encores of his live shows, particularly his monthly residence at New York's Madison Square Garden. Now 71, Billy Joel also continues to sell out stadiums on a regular basis.

Something to do

Find the lyrics on a website such as this one and see how many of the events and people mentioned you know. The song's wikipedia page provides a helpful explanation for you to check your answers against!

There's also a number of sporcle quizzes for you to test your knowledge of the events in the song.

Billy Joel has repeatedly refused to write new verses for the song to list events post 1989. But that doesn't stop you having a go.....

More to listen to

from Joel's 2008 concert at Shea Stadium to mark its closure (known as Last Play at Shea).

Two further 'list' songs:

The 'catalogue aria' from Mozart's Don Giovanni - the title' character's servant, Leporello, runs through a list of his evil master's lovers.

It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by US band R.E.M. also has quick-fire lyrics in its verses, with a seemingly unconnected range of people and topics.

A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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