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What inspired Billy Joel to write “We Didn’t Start The Fire”

Billy Joel


What inspired Billy Joel to write “We Didn’t Start The Fire”

Can you sing the entire 1989 Billy Joel hit “We Didn’t Start The Fire“? Well, that classic song mentions events that happened all around the world from 1948 (One year before Joel was born) until 1989 when the song was written. It was featured on his album “Storm Front” and became a huge hit, also being used a lot in history lessons during the last decades, of course.


At the time, the single peaked at number 1 on the United States Billboard 200 chart and number seven on the United Kingdom  singles chart. But what inspired the American musician to write such an unusual song like that? Well, the story involves him, Sean Lennon (John Lennon‘s youngest son) and one of his friends.

What inspired Billy Joel to write “We Didn’t Start The Fire”

As Billy Joel recalled during a Questions and Answers session back in 1994 at Oxford (Transcribed by Rock and Roll Garage) the idea started after he met Sean Lennon and one of his friends. John Lennon’s son was in the same studio as Billy Joel was and was with a friend who had just turned 21. At the time Joel was 40 and he heard the kid saying that it was an awful time to be 21, something that inspired Joel to write the song since he felt like it wasn’t also good to be 21 two decades before that.

“The soviet union became a republic when that record came out (Storm Front). I was asked if I would do the next couple of years and I said: ‘No, I wrote one song already and I don’t think it was really that good to begin with. Melodically, look at the melody (plays the piano) looks like a dentist room. I’m being sued for that one too. Some guy actually thought I had to steal that from him (laughs). The song actually came from, I was in the recording studio and I turned 40 years-old. It was right around my birthday, I was in the studio, I was trying to find ideas for songs.”

“(Then) I met a guy who had just turned 21. Sean Lennon was there and I was a great admirer of his dad, he was there with a friend who had just turned 21. He was saying ‘Oh, it’s a terrible time to be 21’ and said ‘Damn, I remember when I turned 21 and I thought it was an awful time. Vietnam, drug problems, civil rights problems, everything seemed to be awful'”.

He continued:

“(Then he said) ‘Yeah, yeah, but it’s different. It was different for you. You were a kid in the 50s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50s. So I thought ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Have you heard about this Korean war? Suez Canal crisis?’ And I started writing these things out, almost like an exercise.”

“(So) I started getting this idea for a song. I didn’t know how to end it because there were ‘hypodermics on the shore’ and then this Tiananmen square thing happened. China cracked down, ‘China is on the martial law’. Then I thought, what’s the stupidest thing going on at the moment? ‘Rock and Roller Cola Wars’ and that was it. (The main idea) was 40 years, 49 to 89, it was just my life, you know,” Billy Joel said.

As the musician said in an interview with Japanese TV (Transcribed by Rock and Roll Garage), he always loved history at school but said the lessons were boring. “I thought it was a great idea (The song). Because I remember when I was at history school sitting there and it was boring. You had to connect the date, multiple choice, what year (this or that happened), who was the vice-president, who cares? It’s a tough thing to teach but I always loved history. I just didn’t like the way it was taught. So this was kind of my own little history lesson, of my own lifetime,” Billy Joel said.

At the time the song was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of The Year, but failed to win. However, it became Joel’s third single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

I'm a Brazilian journalist who always loved Classic Rock and Heavy Metal music. That passion inspired me to create Rock and Roll Garage over 6 years ago. Music has always been a part of my life, helping me through tough times and being a support to celebrate the good ones. When I became a journalist, I knew I wanted to write about my passions. After graduating in journalism from the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, I pursued a postgraduate degree in digital communication at the same institution. The studies and experience in the field helped me improve the website and always bring the best of classic rock to the world! MTB: 0021377/MG

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