We didn’t start the fire… The History Lesson

This has been one of those songs we have loved since day one.  It did an incredible job of capturing not only the issues of the day, but also drew an awesome linage of how we got there.   Its lyrics are made of rapid-fire brief allusions to over one hundred headline events between March 1949 (Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front. The video is top notch as well…original up top and a custom history version at the bottom.

The idea for the song came about when Joel was talking with someone half his age. The guy was talking about how the world was in such a big mess and it would never be resolved. Joel replied to him “I thought the same things when I was your age“. The person replied: “Yeah, but you grew up in the fifties and everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties“. Not impressed by this Joel retorted: “Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of Korea, the Hungarian freedom fighters or the Suez Crisis?” He said it was those headlines which formed the basic framework for the song.

Joel has said, “I’m a history nut. I devour books. At one time I wanted to be a history teacher”. According to his mother, he was a bookworm by the age of seven.

I had turned forty. It was 1989 and I said “Okay, what’s happened in my life?” I wrote down the year 1949. Okay, Harry Truman was president. Popular singer of the day, Doris Day. China went Communist. Another popular singer, Johnnie Ray. Big Broadway show, South Pacific. Journalist, Walter Winchell. Athlete, Joe DiMaggio. Then I went on to 1950 […]. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written. I kind of like the lyric though.

Joel has said “there’s an element of malevolence in the song,” and how it’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

There is nothing new under the sun… so a quick google search showed a history teacher already stole my brilliant idea… but the links here are better, wikipedia is wonderful…  Enjoy.

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio

Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, “The King and I“, and “The Catcher in the Rye

Eisenhower, vaccine, England’s got a new queen 
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye

CHORUS
We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

Josef Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc 

Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Toscanini, Dacron
Dien Bien Phu Falls, Rock Around the Clock

Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland

Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Khrushchev
Princess Grace, Peyton Place, Trouble in the Suez 

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Zhou Enlai, Bridge On The River Kwai 

Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California Baseball,
Starkweather homicide, Children of Thalidomide

Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, Space Monkey, Mafia
Hula Hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go

U2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land,
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion

Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson

Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British Politician sex
J.F.K. blown away, what else do I have to say

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock

Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz

Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and Roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire
But when we are gone
It will still burn on, and on, and on, and on…

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire…

The History Lesson Video

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