Billy Joel Didn't Start The Fire

GRAMMY winner's "We Didn't Start The Fire" sparks a pop culture trip through time
  • Billy Joel in "We Didn't Start The Fire"
May 09, 2012 -- 4:51 pm PDT
By Chuck Crisafulli / GRAMMY.com

Welcome to Forgotten Videos. For some, these videos are forgotten, for others just filed away, and for others still, a totally brand-new discovery. Whichever category you fall into, each week we'll feature a video that's possibly been collecting dust when what it really deserves is a fresh look. Or vice-versa. … We're not here to judge, we just want to take you on a little trip down memory lane. Yep, you'll remember when hair was really that big, when drums were that up front in the mix, when video was young(er) and so were you.

Billy Joel
"We Didn't Start The Fire"
1989

Five decades, multiple kitchens and more than 100 cultural milestones — those are the basic ingredients for Billy Joel's 1989 baby boomer apologia, the Record Of The Year GRAMMY-nominated "We Didn't Start The Fire." Lyrically, the song works as a rapid-fire rundown of burning headlines and pop culture sparks from the '40s through the '80s, with clever word pairings to boot ("communist bloc" rhymes with "'Rock Around The Clock'" and "Lawrence of Arabia" rhymes with "British Beatlemania").

For the song's video, Joel and director Chris Blum came up with the idea of moving visually through the decades, using one family's kitchen as the focal point. The particulars of that concept fell to art director and production designer Sterling Storm, who, over the course of the video's hectic three-day shoot, was tasked with accumulating hundreds of period-perfect details. From evolving refrigerators, lunchboxes and wall hangings, to Jell-O molds and floor tiles, every element of every frame had to be era-evocative.

"I hit every prop shop in Hollywood," recalls Storm, whose work earned him a nomination for Best Art Direction at the 1990 MTV Music Video Awards. "And I didn't sleep much."

The production took a pre-digital approach to creating real flames. When Joel is seen sitting before a wall of burning iconic images featuring figures such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Oliver North, among others, he was in fact sitting feet away from 12' by 12' photo panels that Storm had blown up and then set fire to. "He could only sit there for about 20 seconds at a time before it got too hot on his back," Storm remembers. "And there were no second takes." 

The art director's most memorable moment on the set involved a smaller fire — the burning of a bra worn by a teenage daughter played by Marlee Matlin. "I had to rig her bra with rubber cement so it would burn quickly," says Storm. "At first she would take it off, I'd rig it, then she'd put it back on for the shot. But we were under such a time crunch that the director asked me to just put the rubber cement on the bra while she was wearing it, and I said, 'OK.' I was totally focused on getting the job done, and I started rubbing rubber cement all over the bra when I hear this horrified gasp. I realize that without thinking about what I'm doing I'm basically manhandling Marlee Matlin's breasts. I must have turned red and I started apologizing profusely, but then she smiled and said, 'Just kidding, got ya.' She was a total trooper — just [messing] around with me to keep things fun. And on the next take she started the fire — the bra fire — without any trouble." 

Joel didn't have a problem starting a fire with this song either; it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the album from which it's taken, Storm Front, reached the peak of the Billboard 200. We wonder what kind of fires Joel is starting now as today marks his 63rd birthday.

Have you ever started a fire? Leave us a comment.

(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)

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