Billy Joel rattling off historic names and events most people under 30 have never heard of hardly seemed like the formula for a hit song, especially in 1989 when the charts were dominated by the likes of Poison, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Debbie Gibson, and New Kids on the Block. But it was 30 years ago this week that his history lesson/rock song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” knocked Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain” off the top spot to become the number-one song on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The song was inspired by Sean Lennon expressing dismay to Joel over the state of the world and wishing he’d grown up in the Fifties where “nothing happened.” “Are you kidding me?” he asked Lennon. “Have you ever heard of the Korean War? You ever hear of Little Rock? You ever hard of the Hungarian Uprising? All kinds of stuff happened.”
To hammer the point home, Joel began writing down a list of historical people and events, starting in his birth year of 1949 and continuing through the present day. “The chain of news events and personalities came easily — mostly they just spilled out of my memory as fast as I could scribble them down,” Joel told biographer Fred Schruers in his book Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. “I had a chord progression that originally belonged to a country song I was trying to write, and I sandwiched the words into those chords — ‘Harry Truman, Doris Day,’ okay, so far so good — but then I didn’t know what to call the song, and therefore what words to use in the chorus.”
He was unable to think of a chorus until Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner visited him at the Hit Factory while he was working with producer Mick Jones. He threw out a bunch of possible titles like “Dancing Through the Fire” and “Walking Through the Fire.” When he got to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Wenner encouraged him to go with it. “So it’s Jann’s fault,” Joel told Schruers. “I’m going to blame it on him because some people hate that song.”
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” became the lead single from Storm Front. This was Joel’s first time working without producer Phil Ramone since 1976’s Turnstiles, but his 1986 LP The Bridge was a commercial and critical disappointment and he wanted Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones to give him a more modern sound. The gambit worked better than anyone could have guessed since “We Didn’t Start the Fire” became his first Number One since “Tell Her About It” in 1983.
The song also provided a generation of kids with a valuable history lesson. Countless Billy Joel fans first learned about events like the Suez Canal crisis, the failure of the Edsel, John Glenn’s mission into space, and the U-2 spy-plane incident from the song.
Here’s the original video where a young couple lives through the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties as Billy Joel looks on and flames slowly engulf them.
This was Billy Joel’s last Number One hit and it’s rare he gets through a concert without playing it. It usually comes near the end of the show, but in November he opened one of his Madison Square concerts with it. No matter where it falls in the show, it’s guaranteed to get thousands of fans screaming out timeless lyrics like “Marciano, Liberace, Santayana, goodbye” even if they don’t know what hell they are referencing. (It’s a boxer, a pianist and a philosopher.)