In chapter six of Atomic Tunes, we have a section on Billy Joel’s tour of the Soviet Union in July/August 1987, in which he was the first Western rock musician to stage large scale rock concerts there. We also discuss his 1989 song “Leningrad” about both Cold War history and Joel’s experiences during the tour. While “Leningrad” was a minor hit, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (both from the album 1989 Storm Front) hit number one on the Billboard chart and has come be one of Joel’s most recognized songs. It too is deeply enmeshed in Cold War history. It is distinctive for its rapid-fire list of significant historical events, and gives the listener an indication of how long the Cold War lasted: long enough for someone to track its events throughout their lifetime from birth into middle age. Joel’s song recounts, in one to five word phrases, the major historical events in the first 40 years of his life, from 1949 (four years after the first atomic bomb was dropped) to 1989 (the year the Berlin Wall began to be dismantled). When asked if he meant the song to be a history of the Cold War, Joel explained that he wrote the song to celebrate his 40th birthday and was simply chronicling the major events during his life span. Many of those major events had to do with the Cold War. He added, “It has a symmetry to it. It’s 40 years, from ’49 to ’89. It was just my luck that the Soviet Union decided to close down shop at that particular time.”
The song is full of Cold War data, from beginning to end. The lyrics start with Harry Truman, who gave the order to detonate the first atomic bomb ending World War II and beginning the Cold War. The penultimate item Joel cites is the Tiananmen Square protest resulting in martial law in China, a struggle between progressive or repressive communism. The song was released on September 27, 1989, a month and a half before the Berlin Wall began to be dismantled. Of the 119 events, people, places, inventions, books, and films name-dropped in the song, at least 29 (almost 25%) directly reference the Cold War: U.S. President Harry Truman, the formation of Communist China, Senator Joseph McCarthy, North Korea, South Korea, spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the hydrogen bomb, Panmunjom (where the Korean War ended), Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and his right hand man Georgy Malenkov, the Communist Bloc, attorney Roy Cohn (McCarthy’s crony), the fall of Điện Biên Phủ in Vietnam, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Suez Canal Crisis, the Russian satellite Sputnik, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, rocket tests with monkeys, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the U-2 spy plane, South Korean President Syngman Rhee, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the Congo Crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs invasion, North Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and China declaring martial law as a result of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Several other events in the lyrics have indirect connections to the Cold War. The lyrics demonstrate how for people born in the 1940s, the Cold War was in the news on a daily basis throughout their lives. For a deeper analysis of the lyrics, musicologist Ken Bielen has provided an excellent summary of the historical events listed in the song.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is the perfect example of a popular song that stimulates in listeners an interest in history and international affairs, a rock song that can actually teach you something. The song originated in a conversation Joel had with Sean Lennon (John Lennon’s second son) in 1989 in which the fourteen-year-old remarked that not much happened in the 1950s when Joel was growing up. Joel pointedly responded, “Are you kidding me? Have you ever heard of the Korean War? You ever hear of Little Rock? You ever hear of the Hungarian Uprising? All kinds of stuff happened.” Joel then started to compile a list of the major people and events in his lifetime. When he had questions on chronology, he perused expansive encyclopedias like Chronicle of the 20th Century, a hefty 1,357 page book which traces the major events of the 20th century month by month. Drummer Liberty DeVitto said, “I can remember him standing in the studio with this book called Chronicles, this really thick book about history, and he just kept flipping the pages from 1949 until the year Storm Front came out. He rearranged them so that they rhymed, but that’s how we got the song.” Joel said of himself, “I’m a history nut. I devour history books. At one time I wanted to be a history teacher.” Joel’s song is a favorite among history teachers. Educators such as Scott Allsop, Ron Kurtus, and Michael Longrie have written academic articles and created websites using “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to teach 20th century world history to high school and college students.
Joel has always expressed affection for the song’s lyrics, but he says “…that melody is horrendous. It’s like a mosquito droning. It’s one of the worst melodies I've ever written.” The melody of the verses is rigid and persistent, but certain asymmetrical features of the song’s form keep it from sounding monotonous. The chorus provides contrast. Most of the verses have four groups of two lines, but one has two groups and another has three. The first verse has an instrumental break in the middle of it. The bridge after the second chorus changes key. Compared to other contemporaneous “barrage of lyrics” rock songs, Joel’s at least has a discernible melody. The melodies of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965), Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” (1973), Reunion’s “Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)” (1974) and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987), innovative and a joy to listen to in their own ways, tend to hover around a single pitch.
For most of the song, each group of two lines covers the main events of each year from 1949 to the late 1980s. For example, the two lines consisting of “Harry Truman” to “Joe DiMaggio” cover the year 1949 and “Joe McCarthy” to “Marilyn Monroe” cover 1950. Joel focuses more on the history of the 1950s and 1960s, squeezing events from the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s into the final few groups. This gives the impression by the end of the song that time is speeding up, spinning out of control, and hurling us toward some inexorable catastrophe. The song sounds like a celebration and a lament at the same time. It gives listeners a sense of being both exhilarated and overwhelmed by the times they have lived through, that the human race is lucky to have survived the 20th century at all, with its horrific procession of wars, dictators, famines, genocides, and the invention of the hydrogen bomb.
High school teacher Scott Allsop created this video with historical photographs for every item mentioned in the lyrics of Billy’s Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Watch and get a history lesson!
 Billy Joel in “Billy Joel - Q&A: Tell Us About ‘We Didn't Start The Fire?’” University of Oxford, May 5, 1994, 3:47-3:58. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dx3T8pbDcms
 Ken Bielen, The Words and Music of Billy Joel (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2011), 75-79.
 Billy Joel in Fred Schruers’s Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (New York: Crown Archetype, 2014), 200.
 Chronicle of the 20th Century. Editor in chief, Clifton Daniel (Mount Kisco, N.Y.: Chronicle Publications, 1987).
 Liberty DeVitto, from interview with Annie Zaleski from “‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ was an Accidental Hit that Captured Craziness,” A.V. Club (December 16, 2014). http://www.avclub.com/article/we-didnt-start-fire-was-accidental-hit-captured-cr-212802
 Hank Bordowitz, Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man (New York: Billboard Books, 2005), 168.
 Scott Allsop, “‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: Using 1980s Popular Music to Explore Historical Significance by Stealth.” Teaching History 137 (December 2009): 52-59. http://www.mrallsophistory.com/revision/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/We-Didnt-Start-the-Fire-article.pdf; Ron Kurtus, “‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ (Facts) History Summary from 1949-1989,” School for Champions website. http://www.school-for-champions.com/history/start_fire_facts.htm#.VXsBybfbK70; Michael Longrie, “Billy Joel’s History Lesson.” College Teaching 45, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 147-149.
 Billy Joel in Bill DeMain’s In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk about the Creative Process (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004), 119.
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