12 May 2009

"We didn't light it but we're trying to fight it..."

We Didn't Start The Fire by Billy Joel. The Bronx midget's musical timeline was his comeback single of 1989 after a three-year hiatus and was, for me at least, one of the most bizarre songs I'd ever heard.

Joel claimed he was a history fanatic and just chose to recount events from his lifetime, some major, some less so, and put them into a patter song in the manner of Subterranean Homesick Blues. What we got was 40 years' worth of chanted occurrences, interspersed with that odd semi-falsetto chorus claiming that his generation may have been present at all these political and social phenomena, but weren't necessarily to blame for them.

I do think the song is interesting, if not necessarily endearing. Certainly it's educational, but to blithely list events from your lifetime rather than your own life seems, at face value, a slightly idle thing to do. That said, Joel must have had to do a lot of cross-referencing in his local library (assuming he didn't have his own library within the Joel estate) in this pre-internet era. It'd be a synch to pen a song like this now - just call up the BBC On This Day site and find the year you were born. Mine would probably start with the UK joining the Common Market.

The cleverest - and also the hardest - thing within the construction of this song would have been getting the rhymes. It's all very well picking out the events and personalities you wish to reference, but finding ones which fit a rhyme structure as well as the required chronology would have been a bind. Still, he makes a very good fist of it, though I do wonder whether he chose all his references and then tried to force rhymes, or deliberately ditched major events in favour of more mundane occurrences simply because they fitted the verse better.

The references selected for the song are mainly American. Given the traditional view from a sizeable chunk of the global society that America is barely aware of a world of trouble's existence beyond its own borders, it's perhaps not unexpected that Joel should do this. However, the more generous would suggest that Joel is an American, born and raised in America, and therefore should exercise all the right there is to use events and personalities of his own nation. Most of the presidents of the 40 year period are mentioned, as are a couple of American popular culture references and a few sports stars.

Our fair islands are referenced five times through the monarch, two films, a politician and a band. Not a bad haul, and at least only the Profumo affair is a faintly negative story, and it seems quite impressive to me that it reached the USA's news radar in 1963. The royalist quarters of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may also baulk at the line "England's got a new queen" but then again that's down to American ignorance of the world.

So why is it hard to like? Probably because there isn't enough meat on the bones; some of these events were horrific, others groundbreaking, and few could be regarded as trivial, although enough lighter-hearted references are made to stop the song from being inordinately negative. Yet there is little room for comment beyond the content, and even the chorus exists just to deflect blame and culpability from a certain generation rather than attempt to suggest a righting of wrongs.

The video depicts a Joel-generation family attempting to live the fabled American dream, but it's almost as interesting watching the singer's chorus bits and wondering why he, or anyone else, believed that rhythmically clouting a picnic table over the chorus would look good.

At roughly the same time, Transvision Vamp released Born To Be Sold, quite easily the worst single to come off the listenable Velveteen album, and three of the first four icons breathed into our ears by Wendy James were also used by Joel on We Didn't Start The Fire. Joel really should have thought of using Morrissey, as mourning Smiths lunatics would have bought the record on that alone - not that there could ever be another reason for a Smiths fan ever to purchase something by Billy Joel. In case you disagree with this, I'd like to point out that I and loads of other mere observers, rather than devotees, of the Smiths, bought Panic in 1986 purely because it mentioned the place where we lived.

One or two of Joel's references evaded my knowledge entirely - Bernhard Goetz was, apparently, a bloke who shot and wounded three muggers who'd threatened him on New York's public transport and was equally held up as a hero and villain by American society, prompting debates on handgun ownership, self-defence and racism. Wow. I don't know if any of his victims objected to the reference being used in song, but I suspect there'd be an outcry from both sides of the story in this country if someone decided to write about, or even idly mention in passing *thinks of anyone resembling an equivalent British felon* Tony Martin.

Sally Ride is a good one, though. For years I assumed this was about Mustang Sally, not a female astronaut.

The song was a hit, getting to an inevitable No.1 in the States and reaching No.7 here. The follow-ups, Leningrad and I Go To Extremes (which I did like), flopped completely but the album, Storm Front, was well received. We Didn't Start The Fire is often named in lazy World's Worst Records To Ram Up Your Arse-type polls by people who only use a sixth of their brain. I think intrigue keeps it from being resoundingly awful, but probably no more than that.


Bright Ambassador said...

The sad thing is, much as I hate Billy Joel, whenever I hear this song can sing along with going 'dum-di-dum' at any point. I KNOW ALL THE WORDS!
In fact it was on Newark's wanky new radio station this afternoon.

AIDS, crack, Bernie Getz.

Bernard Getz was a vigilante, by the way.

Bright Ambassador said...

And having read the post properly you already explained who Bernie Getz is. I'll get me coat...

Anonymous said...

This recording is brilliant. Better than Cliff Notes. Most history students in 1989 and 1990 passed their exams thanks to Mr. Joel's musical timeline of the Cold War era. For that alone he deserves to be canonized. Or at least beatified.

Jon Peake said...

I love this song. But have you ever tried to sing it at karaoke? A near impossibility.

What isn't so great about it though is that it concentrates loads on the pre-Kennedy assassination years, almost going year by year until then. By the time it gets to the 70s it's dispensed with a couple of lines.

And isn't it Bernie Goetz?