By Mark Dursin
Thirty years ago, in late September 1989, Billy Joel released “We Didn’t Start the Fire”— to the delight of high school social studies teachers and the disgust (eventually) of Billy Joel himself.
The song— Billy Joel’s rapid-fire recollection of world events from 1949 (the year he was born) to 1989– set the Billboard charts ablaze, finally reaching the No 1 spot in December; in fact, it ended up being Joel’s final No. 1 song ever (well, so far).
But Billy would probably put the song on another list– namely, The Worst Songs He’s Ever Written. (He has described the melody as “terrible” and “horrendous.”) Still, the fans still love it, so he’s going to keep on playing it.
To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of “WDSTF,” I decided to create a 30-question quiz, comprised of questions inspired by the song. Now, there are lots of “Fire” quizzes out there in Internet-Land, but most of them include questions about the obscure people or events mentioned in the song; as a result, these quizzes tend to be really, really hard. (Who is Prokoviev, anyway? Or Chou En-Lai?) This quiz, on the other hand, requires only a familiarity with the song itself and a knowledge of inane pop culture minutiae! Right up the alley for frequenters of LT80s!
Hope you enjoy the quiz more than Billy Joel himself enjoys the song! (And no fair peeking at the song lyrics to answer some of these questions.)
1. Doris Day, who is the second person mentioned in “WDSTF,” is also name-dropped in another 80s song, in the line “You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day.” What is the name of that other song?
2. That first line of “WDSTF” also makes reference to an old-timey singer named “Johnny Ray,” who is mentioned in another 80s song, in the line, “Poor old Johnnie Ray/ Sounded sad upon the radio.” And that song is?
For the next five questions, identify if the proper name is mentioned in “WDSTF” or that other great “listy” song from the 80s, R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It”:
3. Leonard Bernstein
4. Buddy Holly
5. John Glenn
6. Lenny Bruce
7. Davy Crockett
8. True or False: When Joel talks about “trouble in sewers” (in the line “Princess Grace, Peyton Place, trouble in the sewers”), he’s referring to the discovery of alligators living in the sewers of Harlem in the 1950s.
9. Fill in the Blank: “_________, Reagan, Palestine,/ Terror on the airlines.” Is it…? (a) Bacon; (b) Bakin’; (c) Begin; or (d) Breakin’
10. Which of the following is NOT a musical act mentioned in the lyrics of ”WDSTF”? Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, U2, Beatles, Chubby Checker, Bob Dylan.
More about “lists”: Here are lines from four other songs that include “lists.” Name the songs. (Note: not all of these songs are from the 80s.)
11. “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson/ Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson”
12. “DC, San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge/ Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too”
13. “Aruba, Jamaica, oh I want to take you to/ Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama”
14. “Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels/ Doorbells and sleigh bells/ And schnitzel with noodles”
15. Who is a novelist– or if you prefer, what is a book title– mentioned in the lyrics of “WDSTF”?
16. As of the time of this writing, only FIVE of the individuals mentioned in “WDSTF” are still alive. Name any ONE.
17. In the bridge of her 1990 hit “Vogue,” Madonna gives shout-outs to sixteen famous people, several of whom Billy Joel ALSO name-drops in “WDSTF.” Name any TWO famous people mentioned in BOTH songs.
18. “Start the Fire, buddy!” requests an audience member listening to Uptown Girl, a strictly-80s Billy Joel cover band which appeared in a 2008 Will Ferrell film. What is the name of that film?
The following four questions have to do with artists who (unlike Billy Joel) DID start a fire in the 1980s…
19. Which rock group released the album Pyromania in January 1983?
20. Which group released “Burning Down the House” in July 1983?
21. Who wrote the novel on which the 1984 Drew Barrymore film Firestarter is based?
22. Which Australian group released its song “Beds are Burning” in 1987?
23. Which one of the following historical figures is NOT mentioned in the lyrics of “WDSTF”?
Richard Nixon, Charles de Gaulle, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy
24. One more “list” question: the INXS album Kick includes a song– more of an addendum, really, to “Need You Tonight”– that is basically a list of words that all rhyme with “–ate.” (Sample lyrics: “Depreciate/ Fabricate/ Emulate/ The truth dilate.”) What is the name of this “list” song?
25. Near the end of “WDSTF,” Billy wails about “Rock and Roller Cola wars.” With that in mind… in 1984, Michael Jackson was filming a commercial for which soda company when fireworks ignited his hair?
26. The last verse of “WDSTF” deals with the 1980s. Which of the following is NOT an allusion Billy makes during that section? Pac-Man, AIDS, heavy metal, crack, homeless vets
27. What Academy Award winning actress actually appears in the video for “WDSTF”?
Jodie Foster (b) Marlee Matlin (c) Kathy Bates (d) Holly Hunter
28. In the Season 2 episode of The Office entitled “The Fire,” Dwight Schrute sang a parody of “WDSTF,” about a member of the office who accidentally started a fire by putting a cheese pita in the toaster-oven. Who started that fire?
29. In a season 7 episode of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope gloriously bungles the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Sample Leslie lyric: “Joe Mantegna, Ian McKlellan, I have to buy a new toaster.”) Whom was Leslie trying to torment with this mangled masterpiece?
30. In April 2019, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Brie Larson joined Jimmy Fallon in a version of “WDSTF” that aired on The Tonight Show. What film was this rendition intended to promote?
1. “Wake Me Up Before Before You Go-Go,” Wham!
2. “Come on Eileen,” Dexys Midnight Runners
3-7 Leonard Bernstein and Lenny Bruce are the only two on the list mentioned by R.E.M. (Trick: all of the proper names in “It’s the End of the World…” have the initials L.B.)
8. False: Trick question: he’s saying “trouble in the Suez”– as in the Suez Canal.
9. (c) Yep. Menachem Begin is the former Prime Minister of Israel. But it sure does sound as if Billy is extolling the virtues of bacon!
10. U2. Once again, I’m being a little sneaky. YES, Billy does sing “U2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy”; HOWEVER, he’s talking about the U.S. spy plane, not the Irish band. We can infer this because he includes this reference in the 1960s portion of the song. (Further proof: in the line after the “U2” reference, he mentions the film Psycho, which was released in 1960.)
11. “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson/ Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson”–
“You Only Get What You Give,” New Radicals
12. “DC, San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge/ Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too”– “Heart of Rock and Roll,” Huey Lewis and the News
13. “Aruba, Jamaica, oh I want to take you to/ Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama”– “Kokomo,” Beach Boys
14. “Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels/ Doorbells and sleigh bells/ And
schnitzel with noodles”– “My Favorite Things,” Julie Andrews
15. Authors: Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, Jack Kerouac; Novels: The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger), Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert A Heinlein), Peyton Place (Grace Metalious) Note to nitpickers: Walter Winchell was a newspaper columnist, not a novelist.
16. Among the living are Bob Dylan, Chubby Checker, Bridgette Bardot, Bernie Goetz and Queen Elizabeth II (who is not mentioned by name, though Billy does make reference to her when he says, “England’s got a new queen”)
17. Both Madonna and Billy Joel give shout-outs to Joe DiMaggio, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly (“Princess Grace”), and James Dean. And both artists rhyme “DiMaggio” and “Monroe.”
19. Pyromania = Def Leppard
20. “Burning Down the House” = Talking Heads
21. Firestarter = Stephen King
22. “Beds are Burning” = Midnight Oil
23. Martin Luther King, Jr. (That’s right: Martin Luther King is NOT among 59 names in “WDSTF.” Are you kidding me? Nixon and Kennedy are mentioned TWICE, and King isn’t mentioned at all? Missed opportunity…)
26. Pac-Man. (Nope, no references to video games. Or pro-wrestling.)
27. Marlee Matlin. (Crazy but true!)
28. Ryan Howard. (And from that moment on, Kevin ordained Ryan “Fire Guy”!)
29. Ron Swanson (in the episode entitled “Leslie and Ron”)
30. Dora and the Lost City of Gold… Just Kidding!! It was, of course, Avengers: Endgame. Here’s the video here…