I have always wanted to break this song down and look at all of the events and people mentioned in detail. Well now I have the chance. This week I’m going to take a closer look at Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.
We Didn’t Start the Fire was a song released by Billie Joel in 1989. The song includes references from March 1949 to 1989. Joel claims to have gotten the idea for the song from a conversation with a person half his age. This person claimed that nothing exciting had happened when Billie Joel was young. Joel felt the need to list many of the things that had happened from 1949 to 1989 in his song.
Seeing as how this song is riddled with names, places and events, I’d best get started. I felt the best way to go about this, rather than listing it line by line as I usually do, was to list the stanzas as they are grouped in between the chorus and then beneath them the explanations.
Video is Property of and Copyright Sony 1989
We Didn’t Start the Fire lyrics:
Full Lyrics can be found at metrolyrics.com
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China...
South Pacific, Walter Winchell...
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker..
Rosenberg’s H-bomb... Panmunjom
Brando, The King and I...The Catcher in the Rye
Eisenhower.. England’s got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana...
Harry Truman was the 33rd president of the United States, serving from 1945-1953. Truman brought an end to World War II by authorizing the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
Doris Day is a famous American actress and singer. She has appeared in 39 films and released 29 albums. She is among the top ten highest ranking box office performers including both males and females.
Red China refers to the People’s Republic of China. During the cold war, those years after WWII, China was called Red China due to its being communist. Red when used to refer to people or countries is the same as saying they are communist.
Johnny Ray was a famous American singer, songwriter and pianist. He is often seen by many as being the first step towards rock and roll music.
South Pacific is considered to be one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. It made its first appearance in 1949. Music was done by the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Walter Winchell was an American newspaper and gossip radio commentator. He covered such famous stories as the Lindbergh kidnapping and he was the first to publicly denounce Adolf Hitler when many were still singing his praises. He also narrated the Untouchables series.
Joe DiMaggio was a famous Major League Baseball center fielder for the New York Yankees. He had a 56 game hitting streak and was a 3 time MVP winner and All Star.
Joe McCarthy was an American politician most well known for his stoking the public’s fear of communists hiding in the United States during the Cold War. Starting in the 1950s he began accusing various politicians, public figures, celebrities and the like of being communists. Also known for the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 dealing with communist accusations.
Richard Nixon was the 37th president of the United States serving between 1969 and 1974. He was the only president to resign. His resignation came amid the Watergate scandal and was made to avoid impeachment. Impeachment is the removal of a president from office due to unlawful activity.
Studebaker was a wagon and automobile manufacturer based in South Bend, IN. They were known for producing reliable and high quality automobiles for over 50 years. The South Bend plant closed in 1963 and the last Studebaker was produced from a plant in Canada in 1966.
Television – do I really need to define this? Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images. Available since the 1920s, it has now become a common household item and is considered a major factor in influencing public opinion.
North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Korea was ruled by the Korean empire and then annexed by Japan until Japan was defeated in WWII. In 1945, Korea was split into two countries or ‘occupied regions’ with the North being occupied by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States. Both the North and South insisted the entire peninsula belonged to them and this led to the Korean War in 1950. A cease-fire treaty was signed in 1953 but the two sides are technically still at war because a formal Peace Treaty was not signed.
South Korea is the southern half of the Korean peninsula as of the splitting of the peninsula into two countries in 1945. The South is known as the Republic of Korea. Both the North and South held elections wherein their own individual governments were created.
Marilyn Monroe was a famous American model, actress, singer and sex symbol in the 1950s and 1960s. She was married and divorced three times, first to James Dougherty before she was famous, then to Joe DiMaggio and finally to Arthur Miller. She was rumored to have had affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy as well as Marlon Brando. Her death in 1962 was listed as suicide by overdose of Barbituates but there are rumors she was killed due to her association with the Kennedys or the Mafia.
Rosenberg’s H-bomb – this refers to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Julius Rosenberg worked briefly for the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories. Ethel had been an aspiring actress and singer but it did not work out and she was briefly a secretary until marrying Julius after they met at a Young Communist League. The pair were convicted of espionage during war times through their transmitting information concerning the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb or Atomic bomb) to the Soviet Union. The US discovered the treason after becoming suspicious of the Soviet’s sudden advances in development of their own atomic bomb. They traced the leaked information back to the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs were executed for their crimes of espionage.
Sugar Ray is a now retired professional boxer. He won titles in five weight divisions as well as $100 million dollars in purses (the prize for winning a fight is a purse).
Panmunjon was a village on the border between North and South Korea. In 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement (cease-fire) was signed in Panmunjon. Panmunjon is now abandoned as a village.
Brando refers to Marlon Brando Jr an American actor now seen as a cultural icon. He is considered to be the greatest and most influential actor of the 20th century.
The King and I is another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It was released in 1956 and is based on the memoirs of governess Anna Leonowens. Anna was governess to the King of Siam’s children in the 1860s.
The Cather in the Rye is a novel by J.D. Salinger published in 1951 and now considered to be a classic. The novel deals with themes of identity, belonging and alienation. The book has been linked to several murders. The killers of Rebecca Schaeffer and John Lennon both possessed personal copies of the book. John Hinckley Jr, the man who attempted to assassinate Reagan also was a fan of the book.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower that is, was the 34th president of the United States serving between 1953 to 1961. Prior to his presidency he was a five star general in the Army and was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII. He successfully led the invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch and the invasion of France and Germany from the Western Front.
Vaccine – Although vaccines have been around since the 1700s when Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine for smallpox, they were not widely accepted. In the nineteenth century, vaccination laws were first passed. It wasn’t until 1955 when Jonas Salk invented the successful Polio vaccine that vaccines became widely accepted. The polio vaccine was followed by vaccines for diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella. By the 1960s and 1970s, these diseases had been almost completely wiped out.
|Catcher in the Rye|
England’s got a new queen – In 1952 Queen Elizabeth 2 ascended the English throne upon the death of her father King George 6.
Marciano – Rocky Marciano was a professional boxer and World Heavy Weight Champion from 1952 to 1956.
Liberace – Valentino Liberace was an American performer – a vocalist and pianist. In the 1950s through the 1970s he was world renowned and was the highest paid entertainer in the world. He was known for his flamboyance.
Santayana goodbye – George Santayana was a writer, an essayist, philosopher, poet and novelist who died in 1952. He was born in Madrid but raised in the United States and considered himself American. He is best known for his works and his sayings such as, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The next stanza:
Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser... Prokofiev
... trouble in the Suez
Joseph Stalin was the de facto leader of the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953 – see other explanations for the cold war and problems/fears concerning the Soviet Union
Malenkov – Georgy Malenkov was a Soviet politician and close associate of Stalin. After Stalin’s death he became the Premier of The Soviet Union from 1953 to 1955 and was the most powerful Communist figure.
Nasser – Gamal Abder Nasser was the second president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970. He played a significant role in the 1956 crisis with the Suez Canal
Prokofiev – Sergei Prokofiev was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor. He is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century. He left Russia and lived in the United States briefly before moving to Paris and other places.
Rockefeller – The Rockefeller family has a rich and varied history. John D. Rockefeller was an American industrialist that started Standard Oil. He was one of the big names in the industrialization boom in the US. His son, John Jr grew up to run the business and was well known for his philanthropy and involvement in the United Nations, conservation and economics. During the Great Depression, he built Rockefeller Center. He also bought and donated the property where the United Nations Headquarters was built. He and his wife started the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Junior’s son Nelson Rockefeller went on to become involved in several administrations and was Vice President under Gerald Ford.
Campanella – Roy Campanella was an American baseball player and was considered one of the greatest catchers of all time. He played in the Negro League and later in the Major League Baseball. He is seen as a pioneer in breaking the color barrier in baseball.
Communist Bloc refers to the Soviet Union and other communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Roy Cohn was an American lawyer made famous for his roles in the Soviet scare, otherwise known as McCarthy’s accusing various people of being communist. He played a pivotal role in the Rosenberg trials.
Juan Peron was an Argentine military officer and three time elected President of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and 1973 to 1974 when he died.
Toscanini – Arturo Toscanini was an Italian conductor. He is considered one of the most talented musicians of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Dacron is a polyester fiber that is wrinkle resistant
Dien Bein Phu Falls – this is the Battle of Dien Bein Phu where the French were defeated by the Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries in the First Indochina War.
Rock around the Clock is a rock and roll song best remembered for the successful version recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954
Einstein – you know, the guy who came up with E=mc2, theory of relativity and such
James Dean – famous actor, cultural icon who died young in a car crash. Best known for his Rebel Without A Cause role in 1955.
Brooklyn’s got a winning team – the Brooklyn Dodgers only World Series win in 1955
Davy Crockett was an American frontiersman, politician, solider and all around legendary folk figure. He died at the Battle of the Alamo. His legend was given new life by the 1950s Walt Disney show featuring his exploits and introduced his famous coon-skin cap.
Peter Pan was already around but Disney brought it to life on the big screen in 1953
Elvis Presley – semi-talented, almost famous singer – just kidding – known as ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ or just as “Elvis” or “The King”
Disneyland is in Anaheim, California and was dedicated as Disneyland in 1955
Bardot – Brigitte Bardot is a French actress, singer, model and sex symbol of the 1950s and 1960s.
Budapest is the capital of Hungary. In 1956 peaceful demonstrations in Budapest led to the Hungarian Revolution.
Alabama – in 1956 the University of Alabama admitted the first black student as ordered by the courts, Autherine Lucy, amid protests and other problems.
Khrushchev – Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union during part of the cold war, serving as Premier from 1958 to 1964. He was responsible for the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union.
Princess Grace was an American actress who in 1956 married Prince of Monaco, Ranier III.
Peyton Place was a novel by Grace Metalious published in 1956. Later it would inspire an American prime time soap-opera which aired from 1964 to 1969 on ABC.
Trouble in the Suez – refers to the confrontation between Egypt and Britain, France and Israel. The United States, Soviet Union and United Nations intervened to end the confrontation by forcing Britain, France and Israel to withdraw.
Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle...
... Children of Thalidomide…
Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, space monkey...
... Belgians in the Congo
... Belgians in the Congo
Little Rock – In 1957, the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School. In the Little Rock Crisis, the students were prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Governor Orval Faubus. President Eisenhower intervened and forced the school to admit the students. This was seen as one of the most important events in the Civil Rights Movement.
Pasternak – Boris Pasternak was a Russian writer, poet, novelist, translator and best known in the United States as the author of Doctor Zhivago.
Mickey Mantle was an American baseball player who played center fielder for New York Yankees for 18 seasons. He is considered one of the best switch-hitters of all time.
Kerouac – Jack Kerouac was an American novelist and poet best known as an icon for the Beat Generation.
Sputnik was the first artificial Earth satellite and was released into space by the Soviet Union in 1957.
Chou En-Lai also known as Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China and was instrumental in bringing the Communist party to power and establishing the Chinese economy.
Bridge on the River Kwai was a movie in 1957 based on the 1952 novel about British prisoners of war in WWII forced to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway.
Lebanon is a country in the East Mediterranean. It gained its independence from France in 1946 following the end of WWII. After a peaceful period, war broke out and in 1958, during the last few months of
President Camille Chamoun’s term, Lebanese Muslims began an insurrection to make Lebanon a member of the United Arab Republic. Chamoun asked for aid and the US deployed 5,000 marines to Beiruit.
Charles de Gaulle was a French general and politician who led the Free French Forces in WWII and later set up the French Fifth Republic in 1958. He was the first president and remained so until 1969.
California baseball refers to the Minor League Baseball league that operates in California. It was cancelled briefly during WWII but started back up again in 1946 and added Reno, Nevada to the league in 1955.
Starkweather Homicide- Charles Starkweather was a teenaged killer who went on a killing spree during a two month trip with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Ten people were killed during the trip and one apart from the trip, the couple were captured in 1959.
Children of Thalidomide – From 1957 to 1962 Thalidomide was sold as an anti-nausea medication to counteract the effects of morning sickness in pregnant women. It was later discovered to be a teratogen which caused several severe birth defects. Children were born without arms or legs, shortened limbs and/or damage to internal organs, ears, mouths, noses and other areas.
Buddy Holly was a pioneer of early rock and roll but was tragically killed in a plane crash in February 1959.
Ben Hur was a film in 1959 based on the silent film in 1952. It is an epic historical drama that won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Space monkey – between 1948 and 1961, the US launched flights into space containing primates to determine the biological effects of being space
Mafia is a criminal syndicate or organized group of criminals which operate under a certain set hierarchy.
Hula Hoops gained international popularity when Wham-O Toy Company mass manufactured plastic versions in the 1950s.
Castro – Fidel Castro was a Cuban communist revolutionary who served as President of Cuba from 159 to 1976.
Edsel is a no-go – In 1958 Ford manufactured an automobile marquee but it flopped
U-2 – refers to the 1960 U-2 Incident in which an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union.
Syngman Rhee was the president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea and the first president of South Korea. He was anti-communist and led South Korea through the Korean War.
Payola and Kennedy – Payola was the scandal in radio where disc jockeys were exposed for taking bribes to play certain music on air or promote certain products in 1960. Also in 1960, Kennedy was elected president of the United States.
Chubby Checker – singer who came out in 1960 with the dance craze song “The Twist”
Pyscho – the thriller movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 about Norman Bates and the Bates Motel he runs under the rule of his mother. A defining scene in the movie is when Norman Bates stabs a young woman to death in the shower.
Belgians in the Congo – In 1960, the Belgian Congo gained independence from Belgium becoming simply the Congo.
… And there are still three more stanzas loaded with people, places and events. Seeing as how this is already page 9 on my computer, I will stop here and finish up the rest of this song next Friday for lyric review.