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How Billy Joel wrote 'We Didn't Start the Fire'

When piano man Billy Joel was in the midst of a world tour in 1990, he stopped by CBC's Midday to talk about his hit song We Didn't Start the Fire.

List of world events, people from 1949 to '89 was a hit song for American songwriter in 1990

The musician tells the CBC's Valerie Pringle how his hit 1989 song came together. 2:16

At the time Billy Joel was writing his 1989 album Storm Front, it was hard to finish one song in particular.

It wasn't that he was stuck on a melody or lyric for We Didn't Start the Fire.

"Trying to get 40 years of history into four and a half minutes," said Joel, talking to the CBC's Valerie Pringle. "That was the challenge."

The problem was, major world events kept happening as he was writing the song, including the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. But Joel didn't have time to wait for the next headline. 

"I had to get the record out," he said.

Incidentally, the vocals had been recorded at the studio of Canadian superstar Bryan Adams.  

The song had been enormously successful, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1989.

Mentioning over 100 world events and people from the headlines and popular culture starting in 1949, Joel's birth year, the song even functioned as a history lesson, he said.

"We're getting a lot of mail from teachers and students who are all of a sudden interested in recent history because of the song," he said.

Not just the Piano Man

In 1990 the songwriter tells the CBC's Valerie Pringle he draws on his pre-fame existence for inspiration. 2:49
 

Joel, whose first song to reach the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Piano Man in 1974, said despite his success he was still in touch with the struggles of, for example, unemployed people. 

"Most of my life as a musician I was out of work," he said. "Musicians know what it's like to not work."

"Before I became successful I worked at a factory, I worked on an oyster boat, I painted houses, I pumped gas, I was a short-order cook," he added.