Anyone who thinks that the only place you could find the likes of, say, Stalin, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein and Elvis Presley together would be in an encylopaedia or a detailed tome of socio-cultural history, would not be entirely right. For creative expression can sometimes take some very unexpected forms and unlikely inspirations.
But rarely could anyone, even in his wildest guess, imagine that these — along with over 100 other significant and/or notorious personages, events and trends across four decades of the 20th century’s second half — could be the basis of a chart-busting, Grammy-nominated pop music song.
This is what American singer-songwriter William Martin Joel, or Billy Joel as we know him, did in his 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, part of his album “Storm Front”. The roughly five-minute song contains over 100 brief references to nearly 120 headline events between 1949, the year of Joel’s birth, and 1989, the year of the song’s release.
Joel, who embarked on a musical career after dropping out of school, confessed to have always had an interest in history. “I’m a history nut. I devour books. At one time I wanted to be a history teacher,” he once said, while his mother revealed he was a bookworm from a young age.
But the actual trigger came when Joel, who had just turned 40 in 1989, met an acquaintance who had turned 21 and said that it was a “terrible time to be 21”. Joel said he had felt the same when he turned that age in 1970, recalling at that time they had the Vietnam war, the drug issue, the civil rights problems and “everything seemed to be awful”.
When his friend said that it was different for the singer, who grew up in the 1950s, as “everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties”, Joel sought to correct him, citing the Korean War, the Suez Canal Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution, among others. It would be these headlines that would form the basic framework for the song.
Joel began with the major stories of the year he was born: “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray/South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio” and with scarcely a perceptible break, went on to “Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television/North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe”.
After a brief musical interlude came: “Rosenbergs, H Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom/Brando, The King And I, and The Catcher In The Rye” and “Eisenhower/Vaccine/England’s got a new queen/Marciano/Liberace/Santayana goodbye”.
This sets the trend for the song, which does have a large chunk of the lyrics occupied by political leaders or happenings or even significant battles — Dien Bien Phu, where the French army was undone by Vietnamese guerrillas. There are also social trends, scientific discoveries, business developments, sporting legends and a wide spectrum of culture — from films (Brando, Monroe) to literature, philosophy (George Santyana, who died in 1953) to even iconic journalists (Walter Winchell, a radio newsreader).
While some of the references, either by name or a short phrase, will still strike a chord — say “North Korea, South Korea”, or “England’s got a new queen” (for devotees of Netflix series “The Crown”) — but most others would only make sense to those with a good sense of history, for the phrase may be only indicative.
Take “Belgians in the Congo”, which doesn’t fully reflect the chaos in the rapaciously exploited African country after its independence, and the Cold War arena it became. The struggle between President Joseph Kasavubu, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, Army chief Joseph Mobutu and secessionist leader Moise Tshombe which saw the return of Belgian troops on one side — and a heavy influx of mercenaries and arms traders — may seem old history but can explain the happenings today in the country.
Similarly, “Little Rock” in 1957. That was when the then Arkansas Governor refused to let nine black students join a “whites” school even after the Supreme Court struck down segregation, and deployed the state’s national guard to prevent their entrance. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in the prestigious 101st Airborne Division.
There are many more and though mostly from a Western viewpoint, give a selective but incisive look at these four decades — be it political scandal (“British politician sex” in a reference to the John Profumo/Christine Keeler case), the phenomenon of terrorism (“Terror on the Airline”), imperfectly-checked medicines (“Children of Thalidomide”) and even business debacles (“Edsel is a no go”, about a Ford Motor Company failure).
It is an interesting way of knowing about history but Joel — who later said it was one of the worst melodies he had written though he liked the lyrics and that it was a nightmare to perform given the consequences of forgetting even one word — flatly ruled out any revisiting of the song to incorporate later developments.
But those who would prefer history chronologically need not get disheartened. Sir Martin Gilbert’s three-volume “A History of the Twentieth Century” is wider-ranging, though not having the same percussion arrangement.