Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a classic song, but he said he actually hates it.
Joel told the University of Oxford in 1994 that he wrote this song in a stream of consciousness after a conversation with a friend of Sean Lennon’s (son of The Beatles’ John Lennon).
Sean Lennon’s friend had just turned 21-years-old and was complaining about how difficult it was to be 21. Joel said he could relate to that.
“Yeah,” Joel said to the friend. “I remember when I turned 21 and it was an awful time,” bringing up the Vietnam War, the drug epidemic, and the Civil Rights Movement.
“Yeah, yeah,” said the friend. “But it was different for you because you were a kid in the 50s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50s.”
But Joel was surprised by this because so much happened in the 50s.
So he started writing down all the things that happened from 1949 up until 1989 when the song came out.
The first verse is packed with so much, and it’s only one of nine:
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe
But Joel is not happy with this song, telling the audience at Oxford University he “didn’t think it was that good to begin with” saying it was “almost like a dentist drill.”
He said he wrote the lyrics first, which he did only for this song. And the melody he came up with doesn’t meet his own standard.
“It’s terrible musically,” he told Billboard. “It’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head.”
He was actually sued for allegedly stealing the melody, which he is dumbfounded by.
“Some guy actually thought I had to steal that from him,” Joel said in disbelief.
As a songwriter, you won’t like every one of your songs. In fact, most of them will probably be throwaways.
Just be ready for it so you don’t give up when that happens.
Check out the full Q&A at Oxford University below:
I first wrote a version of this article for Crazy4Rock