In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song or an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” which went to No. 1 on December 9, 1989, where it stayed for two weeks.
As the end of the ’80s approached, Billy Joel was at a crossroads. Career-wise, he was branching out successfully, between his 1987 concerts in the U.S.S.R. and his leading-dog appearance as Dodger in Disney’s 1988 cartoon Oliver & Company. His marriage to Christie Brinkley was also on seemingly solid ground. However, Joel’s financial life was another story. The piano man was enmeshed in a massive multimillion-dollar lawsuit with his ex-manager (and, to complicate things, ex-brother-in-law) Frank Weber—a lawsuit that, when filed in 1989, sought “more than $90 million in damages for fraud and breach of fiduciary duty,” reported Rolling Stone. Plus, he had a painful kidney stones episode the day before the suit was filed, just one in a long line of high-profile brushes with the affliction.
In light of all this, it’s no surprise that Joel’s notoriously restless nature flared up as he geared up to write and release what would become his 11th studio LP, 1989’s Storm Front. “Billy’s the kind of guy that likes to change things,” says Liberty DeVitto, who drummed for Joel from the mid-’70s to the mid-’00s. “He doesn’t like to do the same thing. It doesn’t matter what it is—musicians, studios, wives, whatever. He doesn’t stick around with things too long. I think I was there the longest of anything he’s ever done.” In the case of Storm Front, Joel decided not to work with producer Phil Ramone—who had worked with him on every album from 1977’s The Stranger to 1986’s The Bridge—and instead chose Foreigner’s Mick Jones as producer. (Eddie Van Halen was also in the running, but the timing didn’t align.) “Billy was a formidable songwriter to start with, so going in and critiquing him, I had to summon up a bit of strength there to face doing that,” Jones recalled in 2013. “But it worked very well.”
Joel also shook up his touring band, replacing guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer. “I remember we were in Australia,” DeVitto says, “and Billy got me in his dressing room at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and said, ‘What do you think if I made an album with a whole new band and just you?’” The drummer was torn; Javors and Stegmeyer were long-time pals—in fact, he had known the former since he was 14 years old. “That statement threw me back, like, ‘Oh my God. These are my friends,” DeVitto recalls. “But you have kids to support—and his name’s on the cover—so what can I say, but, ‘Uh, yeah, okay.’ I thought hopefully he would tell them, but they found out on MTV, when MTV announced it.”
Despite this turbulence, Storm Front emerged rather seamlessly, hitting the top of the Billboard charts two months after its release—the same week the album’s lead single, “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” was also at No. 1. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was uncharacteristically aggressive for Joel, de-emphasizing piano and playing up flashy electric guitar squeals and shouted, forceful vocals. Lyrically, it was also intriguing—not a character study, mini-story, or a love song, but a stream-of-consciousness tune that recited major historical events, personalities, and trends stretching over four decades.
For as complicated as the verses are, DeVitto took a relatively direct approach to his drumming on the song. “I just started playing straight ahead,” he says. “I laid down the basic drums that you hear during the verse—it’s just straight bass drum on the one and three, snare drum on the two and four and then in the chorus, I just go straight bass drums, straight fours. That’s the only thing that I do on that song.” Some of the song’s additional percussive sizzle comes courtesy of ex-John Cougar Mellencamp touring band member Crystal Taliefero; DeVitto says her audition for Joel’s band was actually playing the congas on the song. “When we recorded it, there was Crystal on congas, me on a snare drum and Billy on the timbales, and we did it all at once,” he says. “Billy said that he wanted that… world [music] sound. It’s purposefully not perfect. It’s not like if perfect studio musicians went in and recorded that part. It’s kind of sloppy.”
According to DeVitto, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was a last-minute addition to Storm Front. “The song turned up when we thought we were done,” he says. “We had recorded ‘I Go To Extremes’; everything else was recorded. CBS Records came in to hear what Billy had, and when he played the album for CBS, they said, ‘Well, we hear the second single, but we don’t hear a first one yet.’” Thankfully, Joel happened to have a song called “Jolene” handy—“It went, ‘Jolene / Won’t you take me as I am / Jolene/ Just an ordinary man,’ something like that,” DeVitto says—that he was able to use as a starting point for ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire.’”
Interestingly, Mick Jones noted that this “Jolene” song wasn’t rock-leaning, but “kind of started out as a country song. I said to Billy, ‘This song sounds so familiar, it sounds like a Dolly Parton song,’ and he said, ‘What?’ He got really pissed and he locked himself away in a room with, like, a Time Life almanac of historical events since his date of birth, and that’s where he came up with the lyrics. He walked proudly back into the studio and said, ‘Well, take a look at this one.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s more like it!’”
Over the years, Joel himself has shared slightly different accounts of the lyrical impetus for “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” In 2001, he told Performing Songwriter the gathering of chronological facts and events was a “mental exercise” and “kind of a mind game. That’s one of the few times I’ve written the lyrics first, which should make it obvious why I usually prefer to write the music first, because that melody is horrendous. It’s like a mosquito droning. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written.” In 2003, he was quoted in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits as saying the song arose out of a discussion with a younger person lamenting the state of the world and crises such as AIDS, pollution and “the situation in Red China.”
DeVitto’s recollection of how the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start The Fire” came about hews closely to the latter remembrance. “Some kid came up to him and said, ‘You know, we’ve got it pretty tough these days with everything that’s going on in the world. You guys had it really easy,’” he says. “Billy said, ‘What are you talking about? We came out of World War II, we had the Cold War,’ and he named all of this stuff that we went through—the Cuban Missile Crisis and all of that kind of stuff. Then he came up with the idea, ‘I’m going to write a song, that we didn’t start the fire—it’s been burning forever and it will go on and on.’
“I can remember him standing in the studio with this book called Chronicles, this really thick book about history, and he just kept flipping the pages from 1949 until the year Storm Front came out,” DeVitto continues. “He rearranged them so that they rhymed, but that’s how we got the song.”
Musically, it didn’t seem like there was any question that with such weighty lyrics, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” would have to turn into a hard-hitting, accessible song. “It needed a good kick in the ass to get away from the pseudo-intellectual type of recording,” Joel was quoted in The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits. “It needed to be played like a rock & roll song.” Indeed, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” succeeded because of its contrasts, starting on a macro level with how its AP World History songwriting foundation juxtaposed with its straightforward, rather simple arena-rock flourishes. But the opposing forces within the song’s structure also made it compulsively listenable. There’s the airy, falsetto chorus clarifying its manifesto (“We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world’s been turning”) sandwiched within the impeccably arranged verses, which crisply deliver a litany of facts; in addition, there are occasional sound effects (the Psycho soundtrack orchestral stab, a cheering baseball crowd) augmenting important lyrical points Joel makes.
Even Joel’s own unorthodox way of composition created productive friction, especially when paired with his band members’ individual skills. “You know, Billy writes a lot of rock songs, but he writes in a classical form,” DeVitto explains. “There’s videos out there of him playing ‘The Longest Time’ like a classical player would play them. So his ideas are not necessarily written in a rock [form], but when you get into the studio, I’m a rock drummer—that was the combination that we had that was great. He was classically taught and I’m a rock drummer from the street. The combination made great songs, but palatable to the regular person.”
More than anything, the intricacy of the lyrics (and the depth of the topics addressed) made “We Didn’t Start The Fire” a song that provoked. It invited listeners to be curious, to dig deeper—to learn who Roy Cohn or Syngman Rhee is, or the significance of “British politician sex” or why “homeless vets” and “hypodermics on the shore” matter. 1989’s other No. 1 singles were a mixed bag of sweeping ballads, danceable pop trifles and fluffy novelty tunes—for example, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was preceded at No. 1 by Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It On The Rain”—and so the song’s ascension meant Joel was giving radio a stealth education in politics, history, and pop culture. In a global sense, it was the perfect song to put a bow on the ’80s, a decade where high/low culture really came to prominence.
“We Didn’t Start The Fire” certainly felt like a career turning point for Joel. The song was his last No. 1 single, and seemed to amplify a creative stubbornness (if not contrariness) that would eventually signal his move away from recording and releasing popular music. “That song’s about my life,” Joel told Rolling Stone at the time. “Most of my mail I get about that song comes from teachers who have said this is the greatest teaching tool to come down the pike since Sesame Street, which means a lot to me, since I once wanted to be a history teacher. But I wish people could understand that I did not write that song to be a hit—I wrote that one for me. And nobody liked it at first. One person in the studio said it gave them a headache.”
Joel’s deep affection for the song likely explained his reluctance to change or update it to change with the times; charmingly, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” remains frozen in time, ending with the now-quaint “rock-and-roller cola wars” of 1989. “Every time we went on tour after that, we tried to ask Billy to please update it and he just said, ‘I’m not doing [that]. Forget it,’” DeVitto says. “You know, he could have written more verses; the older the song gets, the more things happen. But he didn’t want to do it. It ends with the cola wars, that’s how long ago [it was].
“If it was a history textbook, you’d find it in a garage sale.”
Yet for as dated as “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is, its underlying feelings of uncertainty and insignificance are timeless. The song represented a man facing his mortality as he examines the last 40 years of his life, someone who feels wary about what the future might bring—especially because he realizes how ephemeral life really is, and how powerless people are to change things: “We didn’t start the fire / But when we are gone / It will still burn on and on and on and on.” Certainly this outlook isn’t exactly cheery or optimistic. But by putting forth the idea that no generation is unique—each has its own crises and issues to tackle and contend with—”We Didn’t Start The Fire” ends up oddly comforting. As Joel himself put it in The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits: “What I wanted to do, lyrically, was sum up at the end of each of these years of names and faces and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t start this mess, we certainly did our best to make it better. It’s not something we started and it’s probably not something we’re going to be able to finish.
“For the forseeable future, this kind of craziness is going to go on and on. That’s how life is.’”