Day 543: 21 Things I Learned About Billy’s Fire

originally published June 26, 2013

To be perfectly honest, reading through the Wikipedian entry for Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was one of the more fun quarter-hours I’ve spent mired in that site’s seemingly infinite text. It was also educational.

The song itself is a hit-or-miss affair. Some people love it, others find it to be one of Billy Joel’s low points – which is something in a musical career that was not known for having a lot of low points. Ever the historical trivia lover, I’ve always kind of liked the song. It was released on my fifteenth birthday, and even though I probably didn’t know half the song’s historical references at the time, I thought it was a novel idea for a pop song.

Still, it doesn’t hold up as well as “Uptown Girl.”

But “Uptown Girl” doesn’t get its own article, at least it hasn’t yet. Here’s twenty-one things I didn’t know about the song:

  • First of all, Billy Joel isn’t a fan. He hates performing it live, since slipping up on just one word in the verse would send the performance off the rails. “It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written,” Joel was quoted as saying. I’d have to agree; the guy built his reputation on some of the catchiest melodies in all of pop music. This one doesn’t hold up.
  • Despite his lack of reverence for the number, Billy has earned a crap-ton of royalties from it. It was only his third #1 hit, which I find incredible (“It’s Still Rock ‘N Roll To Me” and “Tell Her About It” were the others).
  • It lost to Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” for Record of the Year at the 1990 Grammys.
  • Fifty-six individuals are mentioned by name in the song. Four are movie stars, two are astronauts (John Glenn and Sally Ride) and two are royalty – though Queen Elizabeth II’s name isn’t actually spoken and Grace Kelly counts as a movie star and a princess. And possibly an astronaut, I don’t know what she did in her spare time.
  • 24 years after the release of the song, only eight people referenced are still alive: Queen Elizabeth II, Brigitte Bardot, Chubby Checker, Bob Dylan, Doris Day, John Glenn, Fidel Castro and Bernhard Goetz.
  • The Dodgers actually have three mentions in the song: “Brooklyn’s got a winning team” (they won the World Series in 1955), “California baseball” (they moved to LA in 1958) and “Campanella”, meaning Roy Campanella, an African-American catcher for the Dodgers who won the League’s MVP award three times.
  • Charles Starkweather, who shows up in between “California baseball” and “Children of Thalidomide”, had murdered eleven people in late January, 1958. His story is seen as the basis for the characters in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
  • Of those 56 individuals whose names show up in the song, only seven of them are women. Not knocking Billy Joel for that – just saying.
  • The line “British politician sex” (in the verse, it rhymes with “Malcolm X”) is a reference to a 1963 scandal in which the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, banged a showgirl then lied about it in the House of Commons. I’m surprised there weren’t more pop songs written about him.
  • Only four movies get a mention in the song: Psycho, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur and Bridge On The River Kwai. Well, five if you count Woodstock, but I think he was singing about the festival, not the movie. Or maybe Snoopy’s pal. I don’t know.
  • Apart from only two occasions, pretty much every entry in the song is in proper chronological order, beginning in 1949 (the year Joel was born) up to 1989 when the song was released.
  • “Dien Bien Phu falls”, which shows up right before “Rock Around the Clock”, is a reference to a village in North Vietnam. When the Viet Minh forces took the village in 1954, it led to the separation of North and South Vietnam.
  • When Billy Joel was a kid, he wanted to be a history teacher. I guess that kind of shows here.
  • In between “Ben-Hur” and “Mafia” he says “Space monkeys”. I actually know a lot more about space monkeys than I did in 1989, thanks to twelve days ago.
  • “Liston beats Patterson” (which rhymes with “Ole’ Miss, John Glenn”) is a reference to Sonny Liston knocking out Floyd Patterson in 1962. What’s interesting about this fight was that it was one of only eight losses in Patterson’s 20-year career, and his first knock-out. Also, it happened in the first round.
  • Blender magazine called this one of the 50 worst songs ever. I would have to disagree, though the fact that their list tops out with Starship’s “We Built This City” and Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” does lend it some credibility. But wait, Billy Joel’s song ranks just beside… “Sounds of Silence”??? Are you kidding me?
  • The first verse contains two interesting references: Johnnie Ray, whose exaggerated crying gesticulations also found him a home in the first verse of another 80’s chart-topper, “Come On Eileen”, and Walter Winchell, the columnist who invented the gossip column. Without Winchell, we probably wouldn’t have Perez Hilton. So… thanks, Walt.
  • This song gets extra kudos for having belted Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It On the Rain” out of the number one spot. Except now that I’ve mentioned it, that song will be stuck in your head for most of the day. Sorry.
  • The song’s music video features some historical items that don’t show up in the song, like people burning bras and draft cards, as well as the assassinations of Nguyen Van Lem and Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • There are 119 historical items mentioned in the song. That is frickin’ incredible.
  • The last item mentioned in the song is “Rock and roller cola wars”. I never realized this at the time, but this is a reference to the back-and-forth competition between Coke and Pepsi during the 80’s to out-do each other with rock stars in their commercials.

So there it is. If that Milli Vanilli song isn’t wedged in your internal ears, this song will be for a few hours. I recommend a hearty dose of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds Of Silence”, despite what those schmucks at Blender say.

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