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.
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.
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.
Suggestion credit: Brett - Edmonton, Canada
In Rolling Stone, Joel said this was, "Essentially a novelty song." This is inline with his distaste for many of his hit songs - he prefers the tracks that don't get airplay.
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).
Suggestion credit: 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.
Joe from Santa MariaThe very weak last line that was replaced by "China's under martial law" was "Poison apples in the store" It was based on the rumor that apples in the grocery store were sprayed with a toxic spray to preserve them.
Kramo from Toronto, CanadaThis may be the worst song ever written... after Still Rock and Roll To Me. What an insufferable dreck meister.
Steve from San FranciscoJoel doesn't like the song. It's not one of his best by a long shot but it has a catchy beat to it. I'm a history buff so I like the references. I've actually committed the song to memory (as I have with over 35 songs, including Piano Man--among his best; other great ones--Scenes from an Italian Restaurant and Captain Jack and New York State of Mind and Only the Good Die Young ...)
Ginger from Columbus OhDoes anyone know the meaning of the Billy Joel character in the video?
Shandroise De Laeken from Davao City, PhilippinesJuly 4, 2015 - Been loving this song since I was a child and I still didn't know English then. I love the quickness and the sense it has to remind people of what became headlines between 1949-1989. The generation now loves fast songs, right? Why don't they love this? I always ask myself those questions! I'm 22 and I wish more people my age will finally have a taste in music! The lyrics aren't trash at all - it's historical timeline. Trash lyrics are... look at the lyrics of songs by most 21st century singers/groups (special mention: Lady Gaga, Eminem, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj, the list goes on and on and on) who have no shame tagging "singer" to their names! Billy Joel's worst songs are art compared to the songs of those people I mentioned in my previous sentence. Those people make pure trash and where else their records must be - in the dump site, the landfill!
Marc from -, MdFirst-ever interview with six of the girls in this video, including what they're doing now and never-published pics: http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-girl-in-video-we-didnt-start-fire.html
Kimberly from Landing, NjIt's as if the fire started, now how can we stop the fire? On and on. We can stop it if we all come together.
Esskayess from Dallas, TxNo shock that so many twerps disliked this song...it actually attempted to make them think. Can't have that.
Laura from El Paso, TxDon't care if the critics think this song is terrible. Every time I hear it, it brings back memories and makes me feel nostalgic. Isn't that what music is supposed to do - touch you in a way that becomes the sound track to your life? I believe the songs we like the most, are the ones that make us feel something, identify with something or remember something. Some times it is a musically fantastic song.....sometimes it is just so much unimpressive fluff. You can't help what speaks to you.
Kimberly from Landing, Njthe story shows the images produced as we turn North To South,
It Keeps TURNING .
Gotta LOVE THE VALUE>
Adam from York, PaI agree with you that this is not an awful song, i in fact love it, its in the top three billy joel songs, with piano man and only the good die young, i will go off on a small tangent, i no what the who meant when they said "I don't mean to cause a big sensation, I'm just talking bout my generation (IM 15 my generation doesnt know music).
Adam from York, PaRE:I just finished gushing over Piano Man, then came straight here, and I am sorry, but that song sucks. Piano Man was the best song he ever wrote, and it's damn good, but the second best song he ever wrote is "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me", and I am sorry, but there is no third, as "We Didn't Start the Fire" just doesn't qualify as a good song period, little own a "best" song, yup he had two, that's it!
Danleichty from Rochester, MnWhen I was younger, This was one of my favorate songs. It got me into a good mood whenever i heard it. I never understood it though. This is a fun and catchy song to listen to.
Dusty from St. Louis, MoWOW! The person who made the video put the wrong U2.The one in the song was in 1960, long before the band. What happened is that a pilot was flying a U-2 spy plane, and was shot in Russian airspace, which sparked a verbal battle resulting in an "I told you so" from the Americans, when we landed on the moon.
Erika from West Band, WiLove this song so much! I love how different it is.... :)
Marissa from Rockford, Ohwe have to do a project for this in history for mr. minnich american history. its crazy but the song is ok..we have to do a 2 page essay and a two to 3 minute speech over our person to...it kinda sucks...but o well
Intan from Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaThe first time I heard the song, it was really awesome!!!! We have to do some research about a song and our teacher told my group that we have to do this song and i was like " what song is that?" but i didn't tell my group members because they know that this song is popular so i just go ask my mom but even she doesn't know it! When i FINALLY heard it at YouTube, i feel im going to have more favourite songs that hate songs.
Brad from Saratoga Springs, NyCollege Humor made a great parody of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QyYaPWasos
San from San Fransisco, CaThis song pretty much sums up main events in the world that Billy was alive to see such as Harry Truman (33rd President), Dwight Eisenhower (34th President), Woodtock (1969), John F. Kennedy Assanation (1961......
Thomas from La, CaNo mention of the totally awesome "We Didn't Start the Flame War"?
Chase from Miami, FlWhat happened is Billy Joel was in a public place and a kid near him said I feel sad for old people like Billy Joel, they have no history in there lives. So Billy Joel wrote this song from his birth year to the year he wrote it and as you can see there is lots of history. Its 2009 and there is lots today.
Kathryn from Woodstock, GaThis song was written after a conversation with John Lennon's son, when his son had told Joel that he felt sorry for Joel's generation because they had nothing happen in their life time. Joel wrote this to prove him wrong.
Brandon from London, KyI really like this song and others that Billy Joel sang. My two favorite songs from him are this song and "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me."
Jennifer Harris from Grand Blanc, MiI loved the video,and I love the song!
Robert from Atlanta, GaTo Jeff of Austin, Tx, are you kidding me, you think that this is an annoying song. Are you not aware of the garabage that is out today. Like Hannah Montana, The Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift. I am lucky that we still have real rock n' roll artists today, INCLUDING BILLY JOEL!!!!!!
Don from Tupelo, Ms50ish guy here and thought Billy J. had reached the epitome of excellence with "My Life" back in the late 70's. But as we've matured his later songs have become my favs, especially Extremes and WDSTF. But something has always bothered me regarding the latter - BJ fails to mention two of the (arguably) most important figures during the song's time frame, indeed of the whole century: Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali. Has anyone ever heard him speak of this omission/over-site?
Kevin from Memphis , Tnhas no one noticed where the entire video is shot? in the kitchen. according to Billy "Most of life's important decisions are made in the kitchen".
(still an excellent video *****)
Grizzly from Panohai, PaQUOTING: The rapid lyrics style was first used in a Pop song by R.E.M. in "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Before that, Bob Dylan did something similar on "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Don't forget "Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me) by Reunion and "Pop Muzik" by M. They used similar rapid-fire lyric styling as well.
Ryan from Papillion, Negreat song, i kno every word to it
Cyberpope from Richmond, CanadaHere's an awesome illustrated version of the song. 120 imafges matching the references! Http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~yeli23/Flash/Fire.html
Alexa from Er, NyMe and my sister both love this song! its an awesome song that tells alot about history(boring) but totally still a good song. Im doing an awesome project on this song in school!!!!!
Alex from Redford, MiI am in AP US History. I heard this song when I was in 7th or 8th grade and now I am starting to realize the true meaning. I am recognizing the people and events stated in the song, but I am still somewhat confused. He states some event and people before others when they happened after. For instance, he says "Josef Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc" then "Little Rock", yet they are a few lines apart, about 6 or 8. I know they happened around the same time.
Jeff from Austin, TxQuite possibly the most annoying song ever. The only cool part is "Heavy Metal Suicide" That always made me raise the devil horn hand salute for a couple of seconds.
Frothy from Frothopolis, WiThis song is actually a sort of biography going through the first forty years of Billy Joel's life. It all begins with Harry Truman (1945- 1953, making him the president at the time of Bill's birth), then goes on through all the things that had happened in the world through out his life until he was forty.
(He explains this in his four disc set '1973-97-Complete Hits Collection' on disc four. Good collection of song on there by the way.)
Sheikeya from Brockton, MaI love the song beacuse it tought me different things about history. My class did a project and it was to define the names that he sang the song about. Thats how I learned so much about history and I don't think he realizes that this is a remarkable song. He should make a new and more updated song though, for the new issues that have taken place recently.
Tracy from Undisclosed, CtThis song is great!! It's too bad he wouldn't want to do a sequel, because the truth is, you could write a whole other song just on what's happened since 1991, since he wrote WDSTF. Heck, you could probably write three! But regardless, this is an awesome song.
Max from Ringoes, NjI was actually challenged, along with my class, by my Gifted and Talented teacher, to memorize this song, and if anyone in class could do it they got a full bag of candy of their choice. This is because in last year's class, one student only one student got really close to complete memorization. I am going to have fun memorizing this song, and it has even taught me some things, and brought things to mind. It's a shame Billy won't record a sequel. T-T
J from Toronto, CanadaHave we not noted that the events mentioned are in chronological order. Great, imaginative song! I have the pleasure of teaching a music course and use this as part of a PowerPoint presentation. It's always received very well.
Anne from Dodge City, KsMy favorite video of all time! I watched it on youtube last week for the first time in a decade and even the "present" is dated. It really made me sad to look back at 1991, which seemed so modern at the time, and see the "past".
Darrell from Eugene, United StatesAnnabelle, I think that what you heard was indeed some type of explosive device, and although I am not sure as to what it is, I believe that it is a "Piccolo Pete". Among my friends and family and those of every woman whom I have loved, I am renowned for blowing up melons and gallons of milk with Piccolo Pete-derived bombs.
Darrell from Eugene, United StatesWhen I first heard this song (way back in 1991), I thought that Billy was singing about the underappreciated Texan country singer Joe Ely and not Chow En-Lai.
Jason from Hicksville, OhI think the song goes great with the album. I love the fact that it goes REAL WELL with the song "Leningrad" which is essentially centered around the Cold War. So for him to write "We Didn't Start the Fire", which pretty much covers the time span of the Cold War (probably why he won't update the song), it's very ingenius. I think too, that going over to Russia to tour (the Kohuept album) had something to do with this song as well as Leningrad. I know it's primarily because of a discussion with Julian Lennon, but still..........just my opinion!
Georgia from Medina, OhI believe the opening explosion sound is that of an atomic bomb. Like as in the end of world war II.
Pat from Reading, Mahey jonathan the fire in the song represents how billy joels generation got blamed for all the stuff that the previous generation did if you watch the video this consept is easier to understand
Alex from Spring Hill, TnThe chord progressions indeed came from an earlier tune Joel had started called "Jolene." He discusses this in the Shades of Grey VHS. I was hoping for an extra updated final verse on the 2000 Years Concert, but I guess he is happy with the timespan of the song.
Tiffany from Johnstown, PaI really like the song We DIdn't start the fire. I was reading that Billy Joel would never a new verison of this song. I think that he should. As i was reading the lyrics to this song i didn't have a clue about some of the names and had to look them up. I though that maybe if he changed the lyrics that the younger generation would do the samething that i did. It would be a fun way to learn more about our history
Jonathan from Johnstown, PaWhat does the Fire represent? Does ANYBODY know? Other than Billy Joel?
Chelsea from Wichita, KsFav. guilty pleasure song,i'm 15.
Nathan from From The Country Of, Canadagreat alternate song to mainstream music at the time, and hey who knew Billy Joel had decent chops as an emcee? first and only song to make me look up the meaning of the lyrics.
Peta from Melbourne, AustraliaI am a history teacher and I have also heard, like Keight says, that Billy Joel over heard a young boy say that about older people and he wanted to show that history isn't just about things that happened a long time ago.
Brian from Hyde Park, Ny"When I listen to the intro to this song, there's something that sounds like an explosion, or even a rocket launching into the sky. What could that mysterious sound possibly be?" Me thinks fire works.
But this is such a great song, my favorite Billy Joel song.
Alex from New Orleans, LaThe Broadway version of Movin Out butchered this song. Cutting out some lyrics, changing the beat a little.
Patrick from Tallapoosa, GaCoca Cola used Paula Abdul for Diet Coke.
Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScYou're right. I did mess the chart positions up. Sorry about that! Good song, by the way.
Dennis from Anchorage, AkThe 'rock and roller cola wars' line is a reference to different pop music stars appearing in commercials for Coke and Pepsi (Pepsi had Michael Jackson; I forget now who did the Coke ads). The cola companies were competing for market share, so they started competing to see who could get the biggest star to do their ads. Pepsi gave Jackson insane amounts of money (and he caught his hair on fire filming one of the ads).
The fact that he mentions that in the same verse as Tianmen Square does not necessarily trivialize the crisis in China at that time, but music critics were always eager to find something to bash him for, so they would happily bristle at any imagined 'wrong' he did. Maybe if they'd ever had hits of their own they'd be less bitter. But I think that what he was really decrying with that line was the idiocy of it, and what it says about our values as a society.
I do think it's interesting how the pace of time accelerates toward the end of the song, with the early lines each covering a year but the later ones moving much faster. I see two good reasons for this. First, of course, is the fact that dedicating two lines two each of forty years would have made the song far too long. But a more artistic reason would be that speeding up the flow of time at the end reflects the sense of the world going crazy, and the way our lives are now deluged with media images, the 'too much information' syndrome. By speeding up the pace of events in the last verse, culminating in "I can't take it anymore," Joel expresses the sense of being overwhelmed by both the bad news around the world - whereas some of the things listed earlier in the song were actually good things, everything he says about the eighties is bad - and the way we are assaulted with it.
The rapid-fire lyric approach is called "patter" and has been around for a long time. Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole Porter, Meredith Wilson (who wrote The Music Man) all used it. I'm sure older examples can be found.
Annabelle from Eugene, OrWhen I listen to the intro to this song, there's something that sounds like an explosion, or even a rocket launching into the sky. What could that mysterious sound possibly be?
Deo from Annandale, VaSuch a cool piano part.
John from Jackson, MoThe song was inspired by Billy meeting Julian Lennon in the recording studio during the recording of the Storm Front album. Lennon said, according to Billy, "You grew up in the fifties, nothing ever happened in the fifties." And, Billy replied, "Ummm, did you ever hear of the Korean War?" So, I think Billy takes an educational perspective when he wrote this song. I too would like to see an updated version-- and furthermore would like Billy to make at least one more Pop/Rock Album.
Johnny from Rockland, Mathis song is awesome. that is all
William from Brentwood, TnI've always liked this song. It wasn't one of joel's best when compared to his other stuff, but it's a nice song-story type of deal.
Claudia from Monterrey, MexicoI like this song. I don't know why people would say it's bad -well, I kinda get the idea- but it's no so bad.
Anthea from Boston, MaWith regard to Blender magazine's accuastion of "trivialising" Tiannamen Square, I always thought "rock and roller cola wars" was a reference to the 1980s boycotts of corporations (including Coca Cola) who supported apartheid in South Africa--which I would not exactly call a trival moment in 1980s history, or modern political history, for that matter (although I was about seven when that was going on). Although I was pretty unimpressed by Blender's analysis on several songs, that seems like a particularly clueless one.
Antonio from Monterrey, MexicoOh, come on, isn't a bad song, I mean, there are too many worse (I'm from Mexico, and I think we've got here a great amount of potential "worst songs ever"...)
Erin from Reading, PaStudents at Governor Mifflin Middle School have to do aerobics to this song in gym class while the gym teacher sang along.
I'm afraid it's turned me off of this song.
Dee from Indianapolis, InI use to know all thr lyrics to this song back in it's hayday, but I doubt I could remember half of them now. It's a good way to learn history.
Bethan from Somerset, Uk.The two #1s are the wrong way round - it was #1 in the US, #7 in the UK in 1989.
Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, Scif the song hit nomber 7 on the U.S. charts, then it wasn't his third number one.
Andrew from Springfield, MoI just finished a huge project on this song, like Patrick said
Adrian from London, EnglandI am a songwriter, and i am currently writing lyrics for It's Still Burning (We Didn't Start The Fire). Billy Joel was born in 1949, which is when the song starts, and it ends in 1989. I, incidentally, was born in 1989, so i can continue it. I shall be including in the song: Diana, September 11th, Saddam Hussein, Red Army, McDonalds, Mandela, Midwest flooding, Clinton, John Kerry and more. Email me for the lyrics!!!
Antonia from Calgary, CanadaThis would have been a great Millenium song. Too bad it was played 11 years too early. I liked it then and I still like it now. If he doesn't update these lyrics, I hope someone else does.
Anna from Melbourne Beach, Flre:nicoletta in the bronx: sorry joels three classic songs are piano man, bottle red bottle white, and of course ny state of mind every body knows thhat
Keith from Slc, UtIn a radio interview, Joel mentioned that he was stuck while writing the song. He had a very weak last line to rhyme with the line about medical waste floating back to the beaches after New York had dumped it in the ocean. It was so bad, he was going to have to scrap the line about trash and use an alternate closer. Minutes before his deadline, a special report came on the TV that China had declared martial law. "I said 'Thank you, thank you, thank you!'"
AnonymousI just finished gushing over Piano Man, then came straight here, and I am sorry, but that song sucks. Piano Man was the best song he ever wrote, and it's damn good, but the second best song he ever wrote is "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me", and I am sorry, but there is no third, as "We Didn't Start the Fire" just doesn't qualify as a good song period, little own a "best" song, yup he had two, that's it!
Ron from Senatobia, MsJoel's handwritten lyrics are in the Rock & Roll Museum in Cleveland. He has everything separated by decade.
Nicoletta from Bronx, Nyaccording to joel in an interview on TV, "I opened up an encyclopedia and jotted down all the main breakthroughs in history by decades, and it took me only a half hour (i could be wrong on the time length) to write the song".
Erika from Beecher, IlJoel wrote this song so people know what he went through growing up in perspective.
Patrick from Conyers, GaSeveral schools across the country have had students choose lyrics from the song to do a research report on the lyric, or to analyze the entire song.
Keight from Dillon, MtBilly Joel overheard a boy say " i feel sorry for the older people, nothin ever happened in there life time" so joel decided he would write a song about everything his generation went through
Brad Wind from Miami, FlAccording to some sources, the melody for "We Didn't Start the Fire" was appropriated from an unpublished song that Joel composed decades earlier, "Jolene."
Brad Wind from Miami, FlThe first Top 20 hit with the rapid-fire lyrics was "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" by Reunion, a group of studio musicians with lead vocalist Joey Levine, in 1971.