All of the references in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" explained

It was always burning, since the world's been turning
Billy Joel
Billy Joel / Luciano Viti/GettyImages
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Sally Ride Mit Frederick Hawck In Köln
Sally Ride Mit Frederick Hawck In Köln / United Archives/GettyImages

Verse 9 (1980-1989)

Wheel of Fortune

Wheel Of Fortune is America’s longest-running game show, with over 7,000 episodes taped and aired since its inception in 1975. The current iteration debuted in 1983, with Pat Sajak and Vanna White hosting. Sajak retired in 2023, after becoming the longest-serving host of any game show in 2018. He’ll be replaced by Ryan Seacrest, but Vanna White will continue as co-host.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride was an astronaut who became the first American woman in space in 1983. She was also the youngest American astronaut, flying her first mission at the age of 32. That mission was on the Space Shuttle Challenger, which she flew on again a year later. She also served on the Rogers Commission, the investigation into the catastrophic loss of the Challenger on takeoff in 1986.

After her death in 2012, it was revealed that she’d blown the whistle on NASA’s dysfunctional management and risk assessment process and revealed information about the faulty O-rings that caused the disaster. After her death, it was also revealed that she’d had a 27-year relationship with professional tennis player Tam O'Shaughnessy, making her the first known LGBT+ astronaut.

Heavy Metal Suicide

In 1985, Ozzy Osbourne was sued by the parents of John Daniel McCollum, a nineteen-year-old who died by suicide allegedly after listening to “Suicide Solution,” a song from Ozzy’s 1980 solo debut Blizzard of Ozz. Similarly, in 1990, Judas Priest was sued by the parents of James Vance, a young man who’d entered into a suicide pact with a friend. Vance survived the suicide attempt, but was left disfigured, and died three years later.

While the parents in the Ozzy Osbourne case simply alleged that the lyrics to “Suicide Solution” encouraged suicide, the parents in the Judas Priest case alleged that the song “Better by You, Better than Me,” contained a  subliminal message saying “Do it,” which could be heard when the song was played backward. Both cases were dismissed.

Contrary to the lawsuit, “Suicide Solution” is clearly about alcoholism. Ozzy says he wrote it about the late AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, while co-writer Bob Daisley says he had Ozzy himself in mind when he wrote it. “Better by You…” is a cover of a song by Gary Wright, who was responsible for soft rock hits like “Dreamweaver.”

Foreign debts

The United States has had a public debt since its formation in 1776. That debt reached its peak during the administration of Harry Truman and reached a low in 1973 under Richard Nixon. Debt rose rapidly again under the Reagan administration when Reagan cut taxes and increased military spending. Meanwhile, Congress blocked cuts to social programs.

In 1990, the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis concluded that “the larger budget deficits 'crowded out' … productive investment in the private sector…. The overall effect of the Reagan program was to reduce the capital stock relative to what it otherwise would have been, thereby reducing productivity, real wages, and real GNP for future generations.”

Homeless Vets

After American forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, there was a feeling amongst the public that America had been defeated in the war, a traumatic new experience for the American people. Between the anti-war protests and that feeling of defeat, the American public wanted to simply forget Vietnam. There were also supporters of the war, who blamed Vietnam veterans for “losing” the war.

As a result, many veterans had difficulty reintegrating into civilian life, and many suffered from the mental and physical scars of the war. Of course, it was in the decade that followed the withdrawal that the issue of the neglect of Vietnam vets came to a head, with the number of homeless vets reaching as high as 750,000 in 1987, about two-thirds of whom served in Vietnam.


Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, was first reported in the United States in 1981, beginning an epidemic that has killed around forty million people. Around 630,000 people still die each year from AIDS.

The AIDS epidemic hit the gay community particularly hard, leading to a stigma that made the epidemic worse, as AIDS was dismissed as the “gay plague” by politicians and the media. The CDC even initially dubbed it “GRID,” or “gay-related immune deficiency.” Public awareness of AIDS increased when it claimed celebrities like Liberace and movie star Rock Hudson.

Thankfully,  through a “cocktail” of antiretroviral medications, it is now possible to prevent HIV, the virus that causes AIDS from progressing to full-blown AIDS, and it’s even possible to render the virus “undetectable” and non-transmissible in HIV-positive individuals.


When powder cocaine is disolved in water with baking soda, this creates solid masses (or “rocks”) of “crack” cocaine that can be sold to more people, making it cheaper. Crack also creates a quicker, more intense, high. These factors made crack an epidemic in the 80s.

However, as crack was (incorrectly) associated with the black community, enforcement was highly racialized. A person found in possession of just five grams of crack faced a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, whereas a person charged with possession of powder cocaine would face the same penalty only if they possessed 500 grams. The media also perpetuated a narrative of crack users as violent inner-city criminals.

Bernie Goetz

In 1984, Bernie Goetz shot four young black men who allegedly attempted to rob him on the New York subway. All four survived the shooting, but one (Darryl Caby) was left paralyzed and with severe brain damage. Goetz was charged with attempted murder but was acquitted on all charges except one count of possessing an unlicensed firearm. He served eight months in prison.

The incident prompted debate about inner-city crime, and what role race played in the shooting. At the time, public support for Goetz was high, but in a 2007 interview with Dateline NBC, Goetz admitted that his fear of the four men may have been enhanced by the fact that they were black.

Hypodermics on the shore

On August 13, 1987, a tide of medical waste, including hypodermic syringes, washed up on a shore in New Jersey during the peak of the tourist season. The origin was the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. The ominously-named landfill was the largest in the world and ranked among the largest man-made structures in history.

Some of the syringes had visible residue of blood, and some tested positive for HIV and hepatitis. The city of New York erected a “super boom,” a 15-foot barrier to prevent the waste from entering the waterways, but it failed. Throughout 1988, syringes were washing up from North Carolina to Massachusetts; 2,000 needles washed up in New York that year alone. The New York Times remarked that “The repeated discoveries of waste had made [officials] realize that needles were becoming as common on beaches as jellyfish and cracked seashells.”

Single-use disposable syringes were introduced in the 80s to protect healthcare workers from having to handle used needles that may be contaminated with HIV and as a harm-reduction measure for intravenous drug users. Politicians and the media blamed “junkies” for the crisis, linking it to the stigma surrounding HIV.

China's under martial law

We are now up to just a few months before “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was released. 

In June 1989, after two months of student demonstrators occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government declared martial law and deployed troops to clear the square. China’s economic reforms of the 80s had resulted in a limited free-market economy, which delivered affluence to some but increased economic equality, leading to frustration with the one-party political system.

When Hu Yaobang, a pro-reform politician, passed away, protests broke out. Though they were spontaneous and unorganized, at the peak of the protests about a million people were occupying Tiananmen Square. The response by the Chinese government was violent, with even the government admitting to a death toll of around 300, though the Red Cross puts the figure at 2,600.

The international reaction was almost universal condemnation of the Chinese government’s actions, even from the Soviet Union, as it contrasted with the Soviet’s policy of “Perestroika and Glasnost,” meaning “restructuring and transparency.”

Rock and Roller Cola Wars, I Can't Take it Anymore

The very last reference calls for a little speculation. Most sources have “rock ‘n’ roller” and “cola wars” as two separate references, but what would “rock ‘n’ roller” refer to? We’re about two decades too early for the 2008 Guy Ritchie vehicle.

But “rock ‘n’ roller cola wars” is a thing. The use of rock and pop as a weapon in the cola wars is its own story. Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, and Elton John all advertised Coca-Cola, while Pepsi’s collaboration with Michael Jackson changed the history of advertising.

Jackson suggested using his hit "Billie Jean", with the chorus rewritten as “You’re the Pepsi generation/Guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day/And feel the Pepsi way,” forever trampling the already fine line between art and commerce. Pepsi’s collaborations with famous artists have continued through the years, with their ads featuring the likes of David Bowie, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Papa Roach, Kanye West, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. 

After all the tumult of the 20th century, it may seem strange that the cola wars were the point where Billy Joel couldn’t take it anymore. But then again, as a mainstream rocker, it makes sense that the commercialization of rock might be his breaking point. It’s worth noting here that Billy Joel has not made a rock album in over thirty years, and his surprise new single "Turn the Lights Back On" is his first in 17 years. 

With nine verses and over a hundred references, Billy Joel managed to capture many of the most important cultural and political beats in the 20th century. It takes a lot of effort to track down each moment, and there may yet be references that only Joel himself fully understands.

But looking back 35 years later, it's hard to find any song that has done such a good job capturing the chaos of decades of history. Perhaps it's necessary to look at Fall Out Boy's 2023 version, to see how the next three decades played out.

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