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Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
The song begins with events linked to 1949, the year Billy Joel was born.
Joel begins the song with several references for 1949: Truman was elected president; movie star Doris Day’s career took off; the communist revolution triumphed in China; singer Johnnie Ray got his start in Detroit; the musical South Pacific premiered; broadcaster/gossip columnist Walter Winchell had the most popular show on radio; and Joe DiMaggio signed baseball’s first $100,000 contract.
1949 was also the year that Billy Joel was born. His German-born father and English-born mother lived in the Bronx, but shortly after Billy’s birth, the family joined several thousand others in moving into a Levitt-built home.
Following World War II, builder William Levitt realized that there were not enough affordable family homes to meet the demand swelled by returning GIs. He therefore applied the lessons in mass production he had learned in the Navy to the construction of single-family dwellings.
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye
Joel’s linking of these three figures may not be entirely random.
On first glance, there’s not much tying these three figures together other than their importance to the year 1952. Rocky Marciano became heavy champion in that year. The Liberace Show premiered in Los Angeles that year as well, soon to be aired nationally, making the fancy-jacketed piano player a huge star. 1952 was also the year that philosopher George Santayana died.
But Santayana may hold the key to a deeper meaning to this line. He was a Spanish-born, American-educated philosopher who taught at Harvard in the first half of the 20th century. In one of his most influential essays, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (1911), he identified a conflict within American culture between religion and science, between morality and business. This distinction would influence other philosophers like Van Wyck Brooks, who characterized this conflict as one between the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow.” Perhaps nothing better illustrates these competing forces in American culture than Marciano and Liberace on one side and Harvard philosopher Santayana on the other.
Amateur historian Joel may also have been anxious to include a reference to Santayana for another reason. Among Santayana’s legacies is the line "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." What else does “We Didn’t Start the Fire” do but “remember the past”?
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland
Three of the four references in this line dedicated to 1955 are tied to Walt Disney.
For those looking for some sort of connective thread tying Joel’s lyrics together, this line offers the most possibilities. Three of the 1955 references are tied to Walt Disney, the genius who dominated American family entertainment for decades.
Davy Crocket was both a Disney-produced television series and movie released in 1954 and 1955. Peter Pan was a stage musical starring Mary Martin that was broadcast on television in 1955. Interest in the show was piqued by Disney’s animated production of Peter Pan in 1953. Disneyland, the theme park in Anaheim, California, opened its gates to the public in July 1955.
The oddball in the grouping is Elvis Presley. During 1955, his regular appearances on the Louisiana Hayride built the future King of Rock and Roll a sizable regional reputation and brought him to the attention of the major labels. In November, he signed the record contract with RCA that would soon turn him into a household name.
But Elvis never performed at Disneyland, and none of his 33 movies were Disney productions. However, if we extend our timeframe long enough, we can find a connection. Several Elvis Presley songs were used in the 2002 Disney film, Lilo & Stitch, long after Billy Joel wrote the lyrics to this song. Clearly the man can predict the future.
This is the first of five references to the space race in the song.
Billy Joel here reveals that, like many children of his era, he was captivated by the space race.
There are five references to the space program in the song: he begins with Sputnik, the Soviet satellite launched into space in 1957; he next pays tribute to the first “space monkey” (actually monkeys, plural, Able and Miss Baker) to survive space travel, which occurred in 1959; America’s first astronaut to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, is identified; the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969 (“moonshot”) is also celebrated; finally, America’s first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, is named (Ride was a member of the space shuttle Challenger’s crew in 1983).
Edsel is a no-go
Billy Joel refers to two cars in this song: Edsel and Studebaker. Both were losers in the post-war era.
Billy Joel is an avid yachtsman and a fan of retro motorcycles. Perhaps his preference for these modes of travel is reflected in his singling out only two cars—Edsel and Studebaker—that were both failures in the post-war era.
For much of the 20th century, South Bend-based Studebaker was an industry leader. Following World War II, though, the comparatively small company found it impossible to compete with the much larger GM and Ford. It attempted to survive by merging with Packard, but the strategy failed. The last Studebaker rolled off the South Bend line in 1963.
Edsel was an even more spectacular and immediate failure. The car was actually manufactured by Ford Motors. Named after Henry Ford’s son Edsel (the guy could build a car but couldn’t name a kid), the car was introduced with great fanfare in 1957. The public was disappointed. The pre-release publicity had encouraged people to expect something far edgier than the relatively conventional Edsel.
Some critics said that the car was doomed by its weird design, especially its vertical front grill. Some said it looked like a toilet seat. Others said it resembled an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon. Ford finally abandoned the car in 1960. Fewer than 90,000 were sold; more than $350 million was lost.
Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
In this verse, Joel breaks from his year-by-year listing of events and starts to skip years.
Prior to this verse, Joel provides an event or person for every year since 1949. From this point forward, though, his coverage is less thorough. Having concluded the previous verse with a reference to the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy, he provides two vaguely early to mid-1960 references (birth control and Ho Chi Minh) and then jumps to 1968 (“Richard Nixon back again”).
Joel may have done this because he was worried about the length of the song. He had already been forced to shorten “Piano Man,” his first hit single, to ensure radio play. The decision annoyed him, but in “The Entertainer” he seemed to acknowledge the practical benefits: “It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long. / If you're gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit. / So they cut it down to 3:05.”
China's under martial law,
Rock-and-roller cola wars
In ranking “We Didn’t Start the Fire” the 41st “Worst Song Ever,” Blender complained that coupling Tiananmen Square to the cola wars trivialized the China tragedy.
When Blender Magazine labeled “We Didn’t Start the Fire” the 41st “worst song ever,” it criticized Joel’s linking of a historical tragedy to a silly advertising campaign.
In April 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, a reform-oriented Party official, prompted massive demonstrations in Beijing aimed at securing economic and political reforms. The demonstrations continued on and off for close to two months before the government declared martial law and cleared the street with tanks and live fire. It is possible that as many as 900 protestors were killed.
By contrast, the “cola wars” were an advertising campaign pursued by Pepsi and Coca Cola. To fight this “war,” the two soft drink companies recruited celebrity spokespersons to hawk their product. Coke enlisted Elton John, Paula Abdul, and Whitney Houston. Pepsi, “the choice of a new generation,” recruited KISS, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. It was real heady stuff, underlined by heavy subtext and the tensions of the middle class. Not.