The lyrics are a stream of consciousness list of events that Joel felt his generation was not responsible for. A lot of the references are to the Cold War (US vs. Russia), a problem his generation inherited. In the liner notes of Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel, Joel explains that he wrote this song after a conversation with John Lennon's son Sean. (thanks, P - Geelong, Australia)
Joel wrote the lyrics first, which he rarely does. He says that is why the song has no melody. Joel told Billboard magazine: "It's terrible musically. It's like a mosquito buzzing around your head."
This is a very popular song, and while Joel doesn't consider it one of his favorites and admits it has no melody, he explained on The Howard Stern Show that he doesn't hate the song. He does, however, have a hard time remembering all the words when he performs it in concert and has even looked to audience members mouthing the words to the song to pick up the lyrics. He is often asked if he is going to write a sequel with updated lyrics, but he has no plans to.
This was Joel's third US #1 hit. His previous 2 were "Still Rock 'N" Roll To Me" and "Tell Her About It." "River Of Dreams" hit #1 6 years later.
Blender magazine rated this the 41st worst song ever in its 2004 article "Run for Your Life! It's the 50 Worst Songs Ever!" Comparing it to "a term paper scribbled the night before it's due," Blender criticized Joel's attempt to "Fit a cultural history of the twentieth century into 4 minutes" (even though the song is closer to 5 minutes, clocking in at 4:47), as well as accusing him of trivializing the Tiananmen Square massacre by mentioning it in the same line as "Rock and roller cola wars." Joel is accustomed to being panned by critics, who were often very harsh on his hit songs.
Historical figures (therefore not including Ben-Hur and Peter Pan) mentioned by name in the song: Harry Truman, Doris Day, Johnny Ray, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson, Marlon Brando, Dwight Eisenhower, Marciano, Wladziu Valentino, Liberace, Santayana, Josef Stalin, Georgi Malenkov, Gemal Nasser, Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev, Nelson Rockefeller, Roy Campanella, Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Arturo Toscanini, Albert Einstein, James Dean, Davy Crockett, Elvis Presley, Brigitte Bardot, Nikita Krushchev, Grace Kelly, Boris Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Queen Elizabeth II ("England's got a new queen"), Jean-Lous Kerouac, Chou En-Lai, Charles de Gaulle, Buddy Holly, Charles Starkweather, Fidel Castro, Syngman Rhee, John F. Kennedy, Chubby Checker, Ernst Hemingway, Karl Adolf Eichmann, Bob Dylan, Lawrence Thomas Edward (of Arabia), Lieutenant Colonel John Glen, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Giovanni Montini (Pope Paul VI), Malcolm Little (X), Ho Chi Minh, Menachem Begin, Ronald Reagan, Sally Ride, and Bernie Goetz.
Until the final stanza, every two lines represents a year; the song opens in 1949, the year Billy Joel was born.
When Joel sings about the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, the music imitates the "screeching violins" the film was famous for. (thanks, Brett - Edmonton, Canada, for all above)
This song was parodied on The Simpsons season finale where they "roasted" Homer. The song consists of reminding viewers of past plots. It was sung by Dan Castellaneta (The voice of Homer). (thanks, Alex - Ottawa, Canada)
Not long after "We Didn't Start The Fire" was released, the fifth grade class at the Banta Elementary School in Menasha, Wisconsin used the lyrics of the song to select topics for their history reports. On January 26, 1990, Joel's record label responded by issuing cassettes containing the song and a 10-minute talk by Joel to 40,000 students.