Radio XLVI, side A, track 3: “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel

Billy Joel - We DIdn't Star The FireOh, Billy Joel, talk about a nostalgia overload!!!  Not only am I all like “Oh my God, I forgot how huge this song was!” but now that I’m a little older and a tad more well-read, I actually have more of an inkling of all the stuff you were singing about in this one.  Seriously, Billy Joel, everyone was singing this song when it came out.  We even sang it for a spring choir recital.  I remember me and the other guys loved singing out the “JFK!  Blown away!  What else do I have ta say!” part immensely.  Which maybe more than anything exemplifies how clueless and self-absorbed junior high teenage boys can be.

I don’t know how many times I heard this song when it came out, Billy Joel, but I heard it A LOT, and I knew all the words by heart, even if I didn’t know exactly what you were referring to.  But as the years progressed and I read more books and watched more movies and took an interest in the world around me (however briefly), this song became a puzzle in which the pieces would randomly fall into place.  Like when I was a junior or senior in high school and ran across a book called “Starkweather” and read it and realized that this was the “Starkweather homicide” you were singing about.  Or when I saw a bunch of HBO ads for “Citizen Cohn” and realized that was about the same Roy Cohn you mentioned.  It took me awhile for it to sink in that everything you were singing about was a real thing.  Like “Belgians in the Congo”.  What did Belgium have to do with the Congo?  I’m still not real clear on it, but I at least now know that it’s not a crazy make-em-up.

I remember reading a bunch of news articles when this song first exploded on the scene in which commentators and pundits and the like were wringing their hands and lamenting about the crassness of retelling world history in a rock song (that whole “JFK blown away” line didn’t do you no favors, Billy Joel), how it was the sign of the dumbing down of our culture, blah blah blah.  Frankly, Billy Joel, I would love it if every 40 or 50 years or so someone did an updated version of this song.  I’d love to hear what people and events would make the cut of the “We Didn’t Start The Fire” of the new millennium.

What really struck me as I was listening to this song, though (besides that I still don’t know enough of these references considering my age, that is), was how much more this resonates with me now than it ever did when it was a brand new hot hit on the radio.  Growing up, this was a fun song to sing along to with a bunch of names of places and people that were fun to say (“Dien Bien Phu falls” and “space monkey, Mafia” seem like they were always meant to be said in just that way).  I didn’t really think much about it beyond that.  But now, as I’ve grown older and more cynical, it fits squarely into my post-“Cosmos” feelings that nothing much matters.  When this song came out, I didn’t know what most of that stuff meant.  And even the stuff that I did know, it had no bearing on my life.  Hence my classmates and I gleefully singing “JFK!  Blown away!  What else do I have to say?” with no sense of the immensity and pain and turmoil those ten words represented.  “Starkweather homicide, children of Thalidomide”.  Those two phrases represent a boatload of anguish, but for most people, including myself, they’re just lyrics in a song.

So it makes me wonder, if someone does remake this song with updated lyrics capturing the zeitgeist of basically my own timeline, are we going to have kids standing on wobbly wooden risers singing out lyrics about 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and Anna Nicole Smith with absolutely no sense of what they’re singing about?  Absolutely, Billy Joel.  Absolutely.

“We Didn’t Start The Fire”

<awesome Billy Joel jam>

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 Mon-roe

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
We didn’t start the fiya

It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’

We didn’t start the fiya

No, we didn’t light it, but we’re tryin’ ta fight it

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

Roy Cohn, Juan Perón, 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 fiya

It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’

We didn’t start the fiya

No, we didn’t light it, but we’re tryin’ ta fight it

Little Rock
Pasternak
Mickey Mantle, Kerouac, Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, “Bridge On the River Kwai”

Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball, Starkweather homicide, children of Thalidomide

Oh oh-oh
Buddy Holly, “Ben-Hur”, space monkey, Mafia, Hula hoops, Castro
Edsel is a no-go

U-2, Syngman Rhee
Payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, “Psycho”, Belgians in the Congo
We didn’t start the fiya

It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’

We didn’t start the fiya

No, we didn’t light it, but we’re tryin’ ta fight it

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

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

Pope Paul, Malcolm X
British politician sex
JFK
Blown away
What else do I have ta say
We didn’t start the fiya

It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’

We didn’t start the fiya

No, we didn’t light it, but we’re tryin’ ta 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 shore, China’s under martial law
Rock-and-roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore
We didn’t start the fiya

It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’

We didn’t start the fiya

But when we are gone, will it still burn on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on

We didn’t start the fiya

It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’

We didn’t start the fiya

No, we didn’t light it, but we’re tryin’ ta fight it

We didn’t start the fiya 

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4 thoughts on “Radio XLVI, side A, track 3: “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel

  1. […] KISD FM, done, done, and done!  It was always kinda gratifying when your new music promo featured songs that […]

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  2. […] entertainment purposes.  Hell, Billy Joel made every tragedy in the last half of the 20th century sound downright catchy.  And here’s a song that features a guy that was involved in a couple of massacres and died […]

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  3. […] “What else do I have ta say?”  I feel like I already said everything I wanted to in the last post about this song.  Although I have been thinking lately about this project I did in college in a film class where […]

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