It’s been derided as one of the worst Billy Joel songs ever written, maybe even one of the worst ever, and when Christopher Bonanos of Vulture put it second to last in a comprehensive list of all of his songs*, he called it, “The biggest problem for the Billy Joel apologist, because it is so highly popular and inescapably bad.” But for me, a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is important—while Billy Joel was inadvertently summarizing the entire Cold War in three minutes, I was taking my first steps into the world of collecting music.
Released on September 27, 1989, the song, which was the first single off of Storm Front, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the weeks of December 9 and 16 of that year and came on the heels of his monstrous 1980s grand slam of An Innocent Man, Greatest Hits Volume I & II**, The Bridge, and the Russia tour. That prior success and the chart-topping first single helped Storm Front go quadruple platinum, outselling his prior studio album, something that’s impressive for what is half of a good album, although the singles, especially “The Downeaster Alexa”, “I Go to Extremes”, and “And So It Goes” have gotten many a replay over the years.
Of course, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” overshadows all of those. Its verses are laundry lists of events and people from his then forty years, which Bonanos trashes by saying, “So much is wrong here: boomer-generation narcissism, the tri-state area-news myopia (‘hypodermics on the shore?’ ‘Bernie Goetz’?), the iffy rhymes (‘James Dean’ with ‘winning team’ and many others), the double mention of the Dodgers.” But the appeal was the challenge of memorizing every single reference, which while not as tough as, say, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., was still a task, especially since Joel was not known for his ability to enunciate and it was years before I realized that “Dien Bien Phu falls” was not prnounced “Din din foo falls.”
To do so, I would need a copy of the song and while I was content to wait until I heard it on the radio and had a tape ready to record, but fate intervened in the form of Saturday Night Live and my junior high school.
In late September, NBC aired a huge prime-time special to celebrate SNL’s 15th Anniversary (which I covered in episode 45 of the podcast). It was, as these shows tend to be, a huge retrospective of the characters, comedians, guests, and sketches from the show’s history, and just about everyone in my grade wound up watching it, or at least that is what I could tell from the number of times we repeated lines in class for weeks after. This ultimately led to the last time I ever really dressed up for Halloween—my friend Rich and I wore gray sweatpants and sweatshirts and weight belts and went as Hans and Franz.
The costumes were a hit and we won “Funniest costume”*** and a $25 gift certificate to Record World, a record store in the Sun Vet Mall that even in 1989, when mall record and tape stores were still important destinations for teenagers, seemed like a relic of the decade before. The décor was deep brown shelving with gold carpeting that might have at one time held years’ worth of nicotine tar. The cassettes were locked behind glass cases, and the disaffected employees working the register stood in a perch, nearly inapproachable. Think Empire Records, but with paneling. Rich and I walked in and almost immediately saw the cassingle for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, snatched it up, and then grabbed other tapes we were interested in. I can’t remember what else we got, but the minute I got home, that cassingle of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” went into constant rotation on the boom box with its partially broken antenna that sat on my bedroom dresser.
Later that winter, Rich and I, along with my sister, would set my parents’ camcorder up on the washing machine and record a music video of us lip syncing the song, using the mallets of a croquet set as guitars and microphones, which is something we’d been doing for a while****. And while my peers and I had no context for the majority of the song, we belted out the lyrics and many of us had to research them.
Now, I was never asked to do a research project on one of the song’s many allusions, but more than a few of my friends were, and it’s even Bonanos writes that he didn’t place the song last in the list because it made him learn something. I’m pretty sure that Joel didn’t intend to hand junior high teachers a lesson plan, but he did and even to this day, you can find online lessons available. Most of them haven’t changed much in 30 years—I don’t care if you add multimedia, you’re still looking up a song lyric and doing research. So whereas Boomers could wax nostalgic, their kids could be forced to learn about all of the important things in their generation’s lifetime. And for a generation as notoriously narcissistic as the Baby Boomers, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was perfect fuel for the nostalgia that had been started by American Graffiti, ramped up with The Big Chill, and was chugging along with The Wonder Years.
Over the years, Joel has been asked about adding extra verses to the song but has declined, which I can respect, because he doesn’t need to. Future generations can take it upon themselves to follow it up, like Matchbox 20 did with “How Far We’ve Come”, a Gen-X spiritual sequel that has a similar sound (superimpose the final verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” over the song’s bridge, it fits perfectly) and a video that is flashes of events from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. And I guess it’s appropriate that a band whose Greatest Hits album is called Exile on Mainstream is paying tribute to an artist who practically defined mainstream during their youth.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was the first cassingle I ever bought. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a watershed moment. Up until that point tapes were something I flipped through as TSS while my mom was shopping***** and I only had the few that I put on birthday and Christmas lists–Thriller; Born in the U.S.A. (which I wore out and had to replace); and the soundtracks to Footloose, Over the Top, The Karate Kid Part II, and Top Gun. Songs were something I heard on the radio and taped onto a blank cassette. As I made my way through junior high and then into high school, I’d start a music collection. And while my taste could be–and has often been–called into question, to this day I will still loudly proclaim, “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!”
* Last on the list was “The Mexican Connection”, a piano instrumental off of Streetlife Serenade that isn’t bad per se but is certainly a very deep cut.
** At some point in the mid-1980s, just about every household on Long Island was issued a cassette copy of Greatest Hits I & II and I can imagine those cassette copies of the album circulate in the area’s garage sales like currency.
*** I remember someone yelling at me that it wasn’t fair because the prize was supposed to some guy named Emil who dressed in a toga and I honestly don’t remember why he didn’t get it but it just sticks out at one of many “You didn’t deserve this, loser” moments from my formative years.
**** A video that no longer exists because I threw the tape away years ago.
*****When I wasn’t staring at Samantha Fox posters.