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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Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro and Advisors / Serge Plantureux/GettyImages

Verse 6 (1959 and 1960)

Buddy Holly

On February 3, 1959, a plane crash killed Buddy Holly, as well as Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. The tragedy came to be known as "The Day The Music Died," after Don McLean's epic folk hit "American Pie." Before his death, Buddy Holly was one of the first rock ‘n’ roll superstars; hits like “Peggy Sue,” and “That’ll Be The Day” are still well-known, and he’s credited with defining the rock ‘n’ roll line-up of two guitars, bass, and drums.


Ben-Hur is a 1959 biblical epic starring Charleton Heston. The movie is perhaps best remembered now for the colloquial expression “bigger than Ben-Hur,” indicating the massive scope of the film. Ben-Hur had the largest budget and largest sets at the time; it became the highest grossing film of the year, and is tied with Titanic and the third Lord Of The Rings movie for most Academy Awards.  

Space Monkey

Before humans were ever launched into space, several animals were launched as test subjects. While the first animal launched into orbit was famously a dog named Laika launched by the Soviet Union, the United States launched several apes and primates between 1948 and 1961. The first mammal in space was a rhesus macaque named Albert II, launched by the United States in 1949 (that mission was suborbital, Laika was the first mammal in orbit). Overall, 32 non-human primates flew in the space program, launched by the United States, France, and Russia.


I cannot tell you how disappointed I was that this line was not "Space Monkey Mafia."

The mafia, as America’s preeminent organised crime institution, hit its peak in the 50s, with 5,000 members and 24 families in the United States. In most cases, one family controlled each major city, but in New York, there were five: Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese, Colombo, and Bonanno. The heads of each family comprised a commission that controlled the construction and garment industries and ran activities such as prostitution, loan sharking, and infiltrating labour unions.

Hula Hoops

The Hula Hoop craze came to the US in the 50s by way of Australia. The modern plastic hoops were first sold by the Australian department store Coles, after the design was perfected by Alec Tolmer, who founded the company Toltoys to mass-produce the hoops. When the US toy company Wham-O began selling Hula Hoops, Wham-O told Tolmer that the design was too generic to warrant a royalty; Tolmer asked the US company to sponsor a bed in an Australian childrens’ hospital instead.


Fidel Castro was the Cuban revolutionary who led the nation from the Revolution until his retirement in 2011. The Revolution overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista, who had come to power in a coup in 1952 and was linked with the US Mafia.

Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1959, and due to Castro’s strong ideological commitment to communism, relations between Cuba and the US remain strained to this day. Though Castro did make overtures towards good diplomatic relations with the US, President Eisenhower refused to meet with him and sent Vice-President Nixon to meet with him instead. Nixon reported to Eisenhower: "The one fact we can be sure of is that Castro has those indefinable qualities which made him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of him he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally.”

Edsel is a No-Go

Edsel was a division of the Ford Motor company, named after Henry Ford’s son Edsel. The Edsel division began producing cars in 1958 but was quietly discontinued in 1960 after losing 250 million dollars, which is about 2.47 billion in today’s money. The name “Edsel” became synonymous with marketing failure, though there’s no one clear reason why the brand failed. Some have proposed that it was simply that “Edsel” is an awkward and ungainly word.


We’re still about 20 years too early for the Irish mega-rock band. Bono and the boys are so famous that it’s easy to forget that “U2” had a meaning before them. The Lockheed U-2 was an American spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. The incident happened around two weeks before an east-west summit in France that signified a thawing of relations between the US and the Soviet Union, but the summit was canceled as a result of the incident. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was convicted of espionage in the Soviet Union and sentenced but was released two years later in a prisoner exchange.

Syngman Rhee

Syngman Rhee was the first president of South Korea, serving from 1948 to 1960. He was an authoritarian, and South Korea saw limited economic growth and social instability during his tenure. He won South Korea’s first democratic elections, but those elections began with the mass arrest of opposition politicians.

In 1960 he was reelected with 100 percent of the vote, but after charges that the election was rigged, he was forced to resign. He and his family were rescued by the CIA as protestors converged on the presidential residences, and he lived the rest of his life in exile in Hawaii.


Payola is the practice of record companies paying radio stations to play particular songs. Under US law, radio stations must disclose such payments. The US Congress held investigations into the practice in 1959, and as a result, responsibility for radio programming was taken away from DJs and placed in the hands of station managers. However, this only resulted in the process for payola being streamlined, as record companies only had to pay off a few managers and programmers, rather than many DJs. Payola scandals have popped up repeatedly over the years, including the indictment of a New York DJ in 1976 and an investigation by the New York attorney general in the 2000s.

and Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was the 35th president, elected in 1960. At the age of 43, he is still the youngest president ever elected, as well as being the first Catholic. His short term happened at the height of the Cold War and saw many pivotal events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. He’s also seen as the president who kicked off the space race. His term came to a shocking end when he was assassinated in 1963, a tragedy that defined a generation.

Chubby Checker

Chubby Checker is a rock star whose legacy is not just his songs, but a dance craze. The Twist was popularised by his 1960 cover of Hank Ballad and the Midnight Rambler’s song “The Twist,” and his 1962 follow-up “Let’s Twist Again.” Other dances popularised by Ckecker include The Fly, The Pony, and the Limbo.

Interestingly, Chubby Checker’s stage name is a play on Fats Domino, which always makes me wonder how many people got the joke.


Psycho is a 1960 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, which established so many firsts in filmmaking that it’s considered one of the most influential films of all time. Due to the erosion of the Hays Code, which forced self-censorship on the film industry, Psycho included scenes that were shocking for the time. This included the infamous shower scene, which is one of those iconic artifacts of pop culture that everyone is familiar with. Psycho was also the first American film with a ‘no late admissions’ policy, which further emphasized its shocking story turns.

Belgians in the Congo

In 1960, when the Republic of Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) declared independence from Belgium, a series of civil wars almost immediately ensued. “The Congo Crisis” became another Cold War proxy war, with the US and the Soviet Union supporting opposing factions. It was further complicated by the intervention of their former colonialist rulers: Belgium.