Billy Joel Said He Hates “We Didn’t Start The Fire”

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.

RELATED: Did Aloe Blacc Rip Off Elton John?

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.


I first wrote a version of this article for Crazy4Rock

How To Get Better At Songwriting

For those of us who love songwriting, we find it frustrating. Sometimes it’s just the worst.

Songwriting
How songwriting feels sometimes

It’s difficult, but practice is what makes us better at spitting rhymes and stringing together melodies.

Professional lyric and songwriters didn’t start there — they, like a lot of us, started as amateurs. So with that in mind, here are four tips on how to become a pro at writing song lyrics.

Study The Pros

Songwriting
Leonard Cohen

The greats learned from the greats, and so should you. Study the best of the best, print off their lyrics, break down their phrasing, rhyming, imagery, and storytelling. Use their techniques.

Some pros you could start studying are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Lennon — these guys knew how to put words together in a beautiful way.

It’s time to become a student again and stay one until you’re done writing songs (which should be never).

Copy The Pros

Songwriting
Bob Dylan

Austin Kleon is an artist and author who wrote a book called Steal Like An Artist. The whole idea of the book is to take ideas from others (i.e. the pros), add your own spice, and create something of your own.

For example, if you, just for fun, rewrite “Like A Rolling Stone” by Dylan, you’ll get a better feel for how he structures his words, how he describes things, and his storytelling process.

Then jot down what you’ve learned and try using the same methods on your own song.

Be Consistent Like The Pros

Songwriting
Paul Simon

Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling, deep-thinking author who does meticulous journalistic research, writes in his book Outliers  that “ten thousand hours [of practice] is the magic number of greatness.”

He cites Bill Gates, who started coding as a teenager, and The Beatles, who played an extremely high number of gigs before becoming stars in the States.

The point is, practice songwriting like heck. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. You’re not born amazing, you have to earn it.

RELATED: How To Write A Song In 5 Simple Steps

Re-write

Songwriting
Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway writes in his book A Moveable Feast, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” And, boy, that’s true.

The first thing you put down on paper is not always the best. The first draft is almost never the last. Rewriting your lyrics is part of the songwriting process.


I first wrote a version of this article for iSing Magazine

How To Write A Song In 5 Simple Steps

Songwriting is a craft anyone can learn. Everyone starts out as a non-songwriter before they become one.

So for those of you who have never tried this before, here’s how to write a song in 5 simple steps.

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