As people who love history, we adore Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Not only is this song super catchy, but it accurately discusses major world events from 1949 to 1989. The song mentions over 100 historical events, has been used to teach history lessons, and reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart. However, we were certainly surprised to learn not only the song’s origin story, but also that Billy Joel hates “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Here, we break down how the song originated and why Billy Joel despises it so much.
The year was 1989. Billy Joel had just turned 40 and was in the recording studio when he ran into a (then) 21-year-old Sean Lennon and his friend. Lennon’s friend had just turned 21, and was expressing dismay over the state of the world – war in Chechnya, the IRA setting off terror bombs in London, and Iraq arming itself – just to name a few major events.
Joel felt that he could relate to what this friend was stating, telling Sean, “I remember when I turned 21 and it was an awful time.” Joel then recalled things such as the Vietnam War, the drug epidemic, and Civil Rights Movement that was all going on during Joel’s twenty-first year.
Sean Lennon’s friend wasn’t overly empathetic to Joel, saying, “yeah, but it was different for you because you were a kid in the fifties and everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties.” This response surprised Joel, who responded to Lennon and his friend, “are you kidding me? Have you ever heard of the Korean War? You ever hear of Little Rock? You ever heard of the Hungarian Uprising? All kinds of stuff happened!”
Lennon told Joel that he had never known about the events just listed. To get his point across, Joel began writing down a list of historical people and events, starting with his birth year of 1949 and continuing until the present day (which was 1989). Billy Joel told biographer Fred Schruers that after that “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.”
The rest is history. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was later included on Billy Joel’s Storm Front album, released in October 1989. The song reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy Award. However, despite the song’s commercial success, Joel has stated that he hates the track.
In 2009, Billy Joel gave an interview with Billboard. While discussing the song “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” he said that the song “was terrible musically. It’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head.”
Despite the way Billy Joel may feel about “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” it remains one of his most popular tracks and he can rarely get through a concert without playing it. The song has also spawned a number of different parodies, most recently getting a lyric update to include the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Perhaps its most valuable lesson, however, is teaching an entire generation of people about major historical events that they wouldn’t have learned of otherwise.