Monday, March 13, 2023

"We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel

#1 Alert!
Gold Record Alert!
Song#:  4073
Date:  10/14/1989
Debut:  58
Peak:  1 (2 weeks)
Weeks:  19
Genre:  Pop, Rock

Pop Bits:  Joel's '86 album The Bridge signaled a bit of a downturn in popularity. Although the LP would reach #7, featured a pair of Top 10 singles, and go double-platinum, it wasn't particularly well-received and didn't get close to the five million (later seven million) sales mark of his previous effort An Innocent Man. Feeling the need to branch out and make changes, Joel parted ways with his long time producer Phil Ramone and chose to work with Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones. He also scrapped most of his backing band in favor of new musicians. The resulting LP, Storm Front, was a slightly darker and denser affair, which was highlighted by this intense first single. The rapid fire history-lesson-in-five-minutes track piqued the interest of radio listeners and it wasn't long before the song was bolting up the Pop chart. It would become Joel's third (and final) #1 at Pop while also getting to #5 AC and #6 Rock. It would sell well enough to go gold. The hit would help send the album to #1 for a week. It was Joel's third #1 and first since 1980's Glass Houses. "We Didn't Start the Fire" would earn three Grammy nods including for Record and Song of the Year. The following year, the album would get Joel nominations for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Producer of the Year. The LP would eventually reach the 4x platinum mark. Helping it along was a second hit "I Go to Extremes" (#6 Pop/#4 AC/#10 Rock). Three other singles would reach the charts including the ballad "And So It Goes" (#5 AC/#37 Pop). During its time on the charts "We Didn't Start the Fire" would go gold, but over the years it became a sort of cultural touchstone and the tune's digital version would reach the triple-platinum mark in 2021 thanks in part to a viral tweet (see below).

ReduxReview:  I have to say that when this song first arrived, I was all about it. I got the single and played it to the point where I had the lyrics down pat. If karaoke was around at the time in my area I would have killed with this tune! I thought it was a truly interesting song and I liked its message, which was basically that every generation is fucked up in its own way. I remember some reviewers dismissing the song for delivering a message like that but offering no solution. Like, what was he supposed to do? Provide a wish list of future initiatives and then sing "we can stop the fire?" It was ridiculous. As much as I still like the tune, I have to say it is one that I can't hear a lot anymore. It's a fun lark once in a great while to see how many of the lyrics I remember, but it was a song of a certain time and place. At least for me. However, the song still gets used and parodied in various ways and even went viral in 2020 thanks to a TV writing using Twitter to point out all the shitty things that happened on a specific day (March 11, 2020). His tweet was simple: "Today was like if 'We Didn't Start The Fire' was a day."

ReduxRating:  8/10

Trivia:  Double Shot!  1) Joel got the idea for this song during a visit with John Lennon's son Sean and his 21-year-old friend. It seems the friend was talking about how bad the times were as he was growing up and that it seemed like everything was more or less hunky dory in the 50s. Joel disputed the assumption saying that growing up in the 50s was just as bad and cited several historical events. That conversation sparked Joel's creativity and he decided to continue to list out various historical events (or people involved) in a mostly chronological over a 40 year period from Joel's birth year of 1949 through to 1989. The song mentions 118 people/events from the worlds of politics, entertainment, science, and pop culture. The references sent many listeners scrambling to find out more about certain items in Joel's list. Even some history classes in schools would use the song as a springboard for lessons and discussions. Yet despite its teachable moments, weeks at #1, and multiple Grammy nods, the song would later find its way on a few "worst of" lists and the one person seemingly in partial agreement was Joel. When interviewed about the song, Joel once said of the music that "if you take the melody by itself, terrible. Like a dentist drill." He said he also forgets the lyrics often when performing it and relies on the audience to help along.  2) Joel's upturn of success with Storm Front would continue with his next album, '93's River of Dreams. It would reach #1 and sell over 5 million copies thanks mainly to the #3 gold title-track single. The LP would earn a Grammy nod for Album of the Year while the single would receive three nods including Record and Song of the Year. And then just like that, it was over. According to an interview with Joel, he got bored of writing 3-minute pop songs and wanted to do something different. While he could continue to tour on his own and with Elton John over the years, Joel would spend time coming up with that "different" thing. It would finally see the light of day in 2001 when Joel unveiled his first classical compositions with Fantasies & Delusions. The effort would get a mixed critical reaction, but it did reach #1 on the Classical chart and even got to #83 at Pop. As of this posting date, it remains Joel's last studio album. Since the time of River of Dreams, Joel has only released a couple of new pop songs. Both came in 2007. Joel wrote "All My Life" as an anniversary gift for his third wife Katie Lee. He would also write the charity single "Christmas in Fallujah." While the song was credited to Billy Joel, the vocals were done by singer Cass Dillon. Joel thought a younger voice would portray the lyrics much better. In addition to record breaking tours and stints at Madison Square Gardens, Joel would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.


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