Baseball related songs: “We didn’t start the fire” by Billy Joel

In this episode of Baseball related songs, we pay attention to “We didn’t start the fire” performed by Billy Joel. This song describes the cause of history from 1949 until the late eighties.

You may wonder why the song starts in 1949. Well, that’s quite simple. It is Billy Joel’s year of birth. Next to being nominated for the Grammy Award record of the year, the song hit the number one spot on the Billboard top 100.

The idea for this song came when Billy Joel and Sean Lennon (son of Yoko Ono and John Lennon) discussed history when recording in a studio. According to Lennon, who was 21 at the time, it was a terrible time to be 21. Joel countered that it was an awful time too when he was 21. According to Lennon, nothing happened in those days but once again Joel countered with “we had the Suez Crisis and the Korean War. Those headlines were the foundation of the song.

Joel stated he summed up the events that took place in the late forties: “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. Then I went on to 1950. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written. I kind of like the lyrics though.”

In the video, Joel is sitting in front of a background that shows different photos of the stages in history.

In which way is this song baseball related? Well, there are a lot of referrals to baseball events in history. For example at the end of the forties and early fifties, Joe DiMaggio played for the Yankees.In 1948, Roy Campanella debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1951, Mickey Mantle debuted with the Yankees and would replace DiMaggio, who retired after that season, in 1952. In 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series (“Brooklyn’s got a winning team”). With “California baseball” Joel refers to the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to California.

Joel had mixed feelings about the song:  “It’s a nightmare to perform live because if I miss one word, it’s a train wreck.”  Joel himself called it a “novelty song” that does not “really defined him as well as album songs that probably don’t get played.” Joel also criticized the song on strictly musical grounds. In 1993, when discussing it with documentary filmmaker David Horn, Joel compared its melodic content unfavorably to his song “The Longest Time”: “Take a song like ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ It’s really not much of a song…. If you take the melody by itself, terrible. Like a dentist drill.”

The lyrics of the song are as follows:

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



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