'We Didn't Start the Fire,' Billy Joel's awful, educational hit, at 25
Twenty-five years ago, on Sept. 27, 1989, Billy Joel released the first single from his then-upcoming album Storm Front. It was “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a musical scrapbook of sorts that crammed the previous 40 years’ worth of American history catchphrases into just under five minutes, pausing after every four-year recap for its aggressively bouncy refrain: “We didn’t start the fire / No we didn’t light it but we’re tryin’ to fight it.”
At the time of its release, some found “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to be a poignant statement on the decay of the collective American morale. John McAlley at Rolling Stone, for example, wrote that Joel chronicled “the steady erosion of our national spirit since 1949—incidentally, the year of his birth.”
“The singer captures the carefree mood of ’49 in the first of a series of musical time capsules,” McAlley wrote. “As the song rushes toward the present, it catalogs the crises that have compromised our dreams.” He also noted that the song ends “with a spirit-crushing litany of contemporary social horrors.”
Of course, not everyone was thrilled with “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A 1997 story in College Teaching points out that when Joel’s album was released, Columbia Records, in collaboration with Scholastic, Inc., distributed the song to 40,000 junior and senior high school classrooms, along with a taped talk from Joel—a self-professed history buff—titled “History Is a Living Thing.”
Teachers’ reactions were mixed.
Nevertheless, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” would go on to become both a Billboard No. 1 and an honorable mention on at least one list of the Worst Songs Ever, as well as an ever-springing fountain of inspiration for parodists and an occasional classroom resource for history teachers.
In 1994, after a performance at Oxford University, a woman—presumably an Oxford student—asked Joel whether he accidentally or intentionally chronicled the Cold War in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Thankfully, someone captured the exchange on video; Joel’s sprawling response is a little less than illuminating on that particular subject, but he offers a few marvelously entertaining extra tidbits about the origins and the legacy of the hit song he “didn’t think was really that good to begin with.”
Below, watch Joel discuss his initial inspiration for the song (and what Sean Lennon had to do with it), whether he’ll ever update the song with any post-1989 material, and which lyric Joel added because he felt it was the “stupidest thing going on at the moment.”