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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Malcolm X, Malcolm Little
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Verse 7 (Early 1960s)

Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was an author and journalist who wrote classics such as “A Farewell To Arms” (1929) and “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (1940). Hemingway is best remembered for his minimalist and laconic style, which he dubbed “iceberg theory.” Iceberg Theory states stories are stronger when certain things are omitted, the reader gets a stronger sense of what’s lurking beneath the surface.

He passed away in July 1961. His cause of death was self-inflicted gun wounds, although it was officially reported as an accident.

Eichmann

In May 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad tracked down and arrested Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Eichman was a Nazi SS officer who had been one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. He was tried before the Supreme Court of Israel and was executed by hanging in 1962.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land is a 1961 novel by Robert Heinlein, featuring a young man named Michael Valentine who returns to Earth after being raised from infancy by Martians. The novel explores how a human raised on Mars could barely be considered human, due to their alien perspective on life and existence. The idea that life experiences and culture shape a person more than biology was revolutionary at the time.

It also explores how language shapes one’s perspective, and popularised the “Martian” word “grok,” whose literal meaning is to drink, but figuratively speaking, to “grok” an idea is to understand it so completely you take it into yourself. Because of the way Michael Valentine questions the dogma of the time from an outsider’s perspective, Stranger in a Strange Land was influential to the counterculture.

Dylan

Bob Dylan is one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. As a folk musician, when Dylan gained mainstream success, he introduced folk to mainstream rock, paving the way for artists like Neil Young, The Byrds, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. Dylan is famous for his surrealistic, impressionistic, and sometimes Homeric lyrics, which would’ve paved the way for Billy Joel himself.

When Dylan switched to an electrified rock sound at the 1965 Newport Folk Fest, he was branded a traitor by folk purists, but "Dylan going electric" became shorthand for a bold and divisive artistic move. Dylan’s career has had amazing longevity, with his most recent album coming out in 2020. The album's single, “Murder Most Foul,” was Dylan’s first track to top the Billboard charts.

Berlin

Construction of the Berlin Wall began in 1961, and until 1989, the wall divided the city into East and West Berlin. The East/West divide reflected the fact that Germany itself was divided into two nations after World War Two: West Germany, which was occupied by the Allies, and East Germany, which was occupied by the Soviets.

The Berlin Wall encircled the Western side of the city, forming a walled Western enclave in East Germany. The wall was erected to stem the tide of East Germans fleeing into the West, and went up overnight with no warning, leaving Berliners with a terrifying and heartbreaking reminder of the Cold War.

Bay of Pigs invasion

After the Cuban Revolution, counter-revolutionaries in exile formed the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front to oppose the Castro government. In 1961, the DRF’s military unit, Brigade 2506, launched the Bay Of Pigs Invasion, a military operation covertly financed and directed by the US Government, aimed at removing Castro’s communist regime from power. Though the invasion force initially overwhelmed the local militia guarding the bay, they soon lost strategic initiative, and when the US government’s involvement was exposed, President Kennedy pulled support. The invasion was a foreign policy disaster for the US and solidified Castro’s hold on power.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 epic based on T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence was a British army officer who aided in the Arab Revolt, an armed revolution by Arab tribes led by Prince Faisal of Iraq against the Ottoman Empire during World War One. The film starred Peter O’Toole as Lawrence and Alec Guinness as Faisal and ended up winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

British Beatlemania

“Beatlemania” describes the fanatic adulation directed at the pop band the Beatles, mostly in the form of screaming fans who attended every public appearance made by the band. Beatlemania was a worldwide phenomenon, starting in the band’s home country, but hitting the US when the Fab Four famously played the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.

Beatlemania was often likened to religious fervor, and it was even said that the band were often presented with people who were physically impaired on the assumption that they had healing powers. Beatlemania was also exacerbated by the controversies surrounding the band, as their 1966 tour was marred by clashes between anti-Beatles protestors and adoring fans. Beatlemania came to an abrupt and forced end that year, as the band swore off touring.

Ole Miss

The Ole Miss Rebels are the team that represents the University of Mississippi. In 1947, when Johnny Vaught became the team’s coach, Ole Miss began a winning streak that reached its peak in the early 60s. In 1960 they finished 10-0-1, the only blemish on the season being a 6-6 draw with LSU. In 1962, they ended the season undefeated and untied, winning the Sugar Bowl.

John Glenn

John Glenn was an astronaut who had the honour of being the First American in orbit. This made him the third American and Fifth human to reach space, and reversed America's fortunes in the Space Race after a dispiriting number of firsts were achieved by the Soviets. He ended up becoming one of the most well-known faces of the Space Program.

Glenn was elected to the Senate in 1974 and served there until 1999. In 1998, he returned to space, becoming the oldest person in space at 77. That record was broken twice, once by Mary Wallace Funk, and then byStar Trek star William Shatner, though both those flights were suborbital, meaning Glenn was the first American and oldest person ever in orbit.

Liston beats Patterson

Boxer Sonny Liston defeated Floyd Patterson on two occasions, in 1962 and 1963. In ‘62, Patterson was the reigning Heavyweight champion, but Liston won with a sensational first-round knockout shooting the mysterious contender to fame. Though Patterson regained the title, Liston went on to capture the world’s imagination.

No one is quite sure when Liston was born, and rumours of underworld connections followed him until his death in 1970. Liston lost to Cassius Clay in the fight that made the future Muhammad Ali’s name, though since Liston was the favorite, rumors of a fix contributed to Liston’s infamy.

Pope Paul

In 1963, Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini succeded Pope John XXIII as the head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City, assuming the papal name Pope Paul VI. Paul VI was responsible for many reforms in the church and its theology, including advocating for age limits for bishops and cardinals. He remained Pope until his death on August 6, 1978.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X was a Civil Rights leader, Muslim minister, and the most prominent face of the Nation of Islam. He adopted the name X to symbolize the fact that his African ancestral name was lost in the horrors of slavery.

He is often contrasted with Martin Luther King for advocating more direct and sometimes violent action in the fight for Civil Rights, even splitting with the Nation of Islam when leader Elijah Muhammad refused to approve violent retribution against the police after the police raided a mosque, shooting seven Nation of Islam members. The split turned deadly when Malcolm X was assassinated by three Nation of Islam members in 1965.

British politician sex

In 1963, UK Secretary of State for War John Profumo was accused of having an affair with 19-year-old model named Christine Keeler. A police investigation found that Profumo lied when he denied the affair, and the “Profumo Affair” severely damaged the government of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

However, this was no ordinary political sex scandal, as there were reports that Keeler was also involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, making the affair a national security concern. The mutual connection between Profumo, Keeler, and Ivanov was Stephen Ward, a socialite who was charged and convicted of “living off [Keeler’s] immoral earnings,” implying Keeler was a sex worker and Ward her pimp. However many commentators consider this to be a deeply flawed verdict; historian Richard Davenport-Hines called it a “historical injustice,” and an “act of political revenge.”

JFK – blown away, what else do I have to say?

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, as the presidential motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Oswald was assassinated himself before he could be brought to trial, making the assassination of JFK a generation-defining tragedy with no resolution. This is perhaps why many conspiracy theories about the assassination persist, with some even being investigated by the authorities. 

The assassination of JFK was filmed by Abraham Zapruder, a civilian who happened to be there at the time with an 8mm camera. The “Zapruder Film” is one of the most famous pieces of film from the twentieth century.