Calling Billy Joel a national treasure will be an understatement. The Piano Man has been making music for over five decades now and has won numerous awards over the years, for his services to the music industry. There are many songs and albums that people admire Billy for, but none of his work is as acclaimed and revered as the song, “We didn’t start the fire.” There is a lot more to the song that you think you know; in this article, we will share 10 of the lesser known facts about it:
You might remember that the song was a #1 hit in the United States towards the end of the year 1989 and that it also was a massive success across the globe, but did you know that it also won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year?
This award is given every year to a song that is technically superior to all the other songs released in the year and is the most deserving of critical recognition, regardless of its chart rank or sales.
Joel was 40 when he got the idea to write and record the song. He says that he wrote the song after having a vehement conversation with a friend of Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon.
The friend confessed to Joel how he thought it was a terrible time to be 21, to which Joel responded in a reaffirming tone that he could feel what he is going through, as he too went through a lot himself when he was 21.
The friend didn’t think Joel could relate to his pain and invalidated his struggles during the 1950s. That is when Joel found it pivotal to write the song and make the new generation cognizant of what happened before they were born.
Throughout the song, Joel refers to more than 100 headline events that occurred during 1949, the year he was born, to 1989, the year he released this song. There are a lot of references to the cold war between Russia and US along with other important events like the Chinese Civil War.
He wanted to acquit his generation of the ill-formed blame for many of the problems they inherited, like the cold war. Even though the rapid lyrics style isn’t something Billy Joel came up with, he is pretty much regarded as the person who used it to a significant effect.
Joel usually used to hear or compose the melody first, before writing the song, but in this case, he wrote the lyrics first. He admits that the song isn’t a good piece of music, but does hold historical significance.
While talking to the Billboard magazine, he described the song to be “terrible musically” and that hearing it is like having a mosquito buzzing around your head. Despite being an immensely famous song, Billy always maintained that it wasn’t his favorite.
Billy often says that he doesn’t consider the song his favorite. While making an appearance on The Howard Stern Show, he said that he doesn’t “hate the song.”
He also said that he often finds it difficult to remember all the words to the song during his live performances. He added that he sometimes has to resort to picking up the lyrics by reading the lips of the audience as they mouth the words.
We didn’t start the fire is one of the first songs that come to mind whenever you think of the piano man, but it wasn’t his first #1 hit. It was his third.
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me and Tell Her About It was the two songs that peaked on the US music charts long before We didn’t start the fire was ever released. It was also not his last #1 hit, The River of Dreams also made it to the top 6 years later.
When Blender Magazine released their article “Run for Your Life! It’s the 50 Worst Songs Ever!” in 2004; they gave We didn’t start a fire, the 41st spot. According to the magazine, the song was like a scribbled term paper you write one day before the deadline.
Blender further stressed that it was a sorry attempt to squeeze the cultural history of half the twentieth century within 4 minutes, when the song clocked at 4:47 (Closer to 5 than it was to 4). However, this wasn’t the first time Joel got chastised by the critics, so it didn’t bother him much.
Joel mentioned Harry Truman, Doris Day, Johnny Ray, Walter Winchell, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy, Josef Stalin, Marlon Brando, Dwight Eisenhower, Marciano, Wladziu Valentino, Liberace, Santayana, Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, Georgi Malenkov, Gamal Nasser, Nelson Rockefeller, and Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev in the song.
He also mentioned Roy Campanella, Roy Cohn, Albert Einstein, James Dean, Davy Crockett, Elvis Presley, Jean-Lous Kerouac, Brigitte Bardot, Nikita Khrushchev, Grace Kelly, Boris Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, , Chou En-Lai, Charles de Gaulle, John F. Kennedy, Juan Peron, Arturo Toscanini,Buddy Holly, Charles Starkweather, Fidel Castro, Syngman Rhee, , and Chubby Checker among others.
The first two lines refer to the year 1949, and from there onwards, every two lines reflect the next year, until the final stanza. When he mentions the famous film Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, he imitates the screeching violins that were considered a staple of the movie.
He also refers to Harry Truman getting inaugurated as the US President, television becoming a prevalent invention across Europe, the United States trying to develop the Hydrogen Bomb, and Marlon Brando being nominated for an Academy Award, among other events.
Soon after the song got released, some fifth-grade students from the Banta Elementary School in Wisconsin used the song’s lyrics to come up with topics for their history assignments.
Joel’s record company was pleased to hear of this, and to respond to the students’ appreciation of the song; they sent 40,000 cassettes to the school, all of which contained a recording of the song and a 10-minute motivational talk given by Joel.