The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1955 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1955

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Einstein, James Dean
Brooklyn's got a winning team
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan
Elvis Presley, Disneyland

'55 was not just the year of Rock n' Roll. The Warsaw Pact was signed, Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in ill-health, and Berbers from Algeria invaded Morocco. The 1955 verse of Billy Joel's song, however, remembers some of the losses and the recreational highlights of the year...


The image of Albert Einstein that everyone is familiar with is of a rather rumpled individual with a moustache and wild hair. He is often pictured as looking rather distracted, as if thinking great and momentous thoughts. His appearance has become embedded in western minds as the image of the mad, or at least absent-minded, professor.

We also know him to be a genius. That whole 'theory of relativity E=mc2' thing is his, right? We all know about that. Of course, most of us don't understand it or why it is important (except those of us who read science fiction, who might have come across comments about the speed of light and time dilation). Nevertheless, we're all agreed that he was a genius even if we don't know why.

A Life, in Brief

Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany in 1879. His early academic career was less than spectacular, although he demonstrated an interest in mathematics and physics from an early age. He attempted to get into the Swiss Institute of Technology but failed the entrance exam. His second attempt was successful, but following gradutation he couldn't find work teaching at a university and ended up at the Patent Office in Bern.

It was while working at the Patent Office, where he was employed until 1909, that he produced some of his most important work - in 1905 he published what would later become known as The Special Theory of Relativity. All the more remarkable was the volume of work he put out - three groundbreaking papers in 1905 alone - and the fact that he was doing all of this in his spare time and without access to scientific literature or colleagues. He was working very much in the dark. One such paper, 'On a New Determination of Molecular Dimensions' earned him a PhD from the University of Zurich and others secured him an Associate Professorship of Physics at Zurich in 1909.

In 1914 he was given the highest paid job in European science - a research position in the Prussian Academy of Sciences together with a chair (but no teaching duties) at the University of Berlin. He was also offered the Directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin which was about to be established. He was recognised as a leading, if not the leading, scientific thinker in Europe.

In 1915, he published his paper on General Relativity and four years later made headlines when British studies of the solar eclipse proved his theories correct. The Times headlined: 'Revolution in science - New theory of the Universe - Newtonian ideas overthrown.'

During the 1920's Einstein had to contend with colleagues who saw his Jewish faith as a problem, his pacifism as defeatist and who consequently downplayed his ideas and himself. Einstein's lectures were disrupted by anti-semites. He shrugged this off, changed nothing about himself and went on with his life. However, in 1932 he was offered a position at Princeton and took it, intending to divide his time between the USA and Berlin. The rise of the Nazi Party took care of that and Einstein never went back to Germany, becoming a US citizen (and keeping dual Swiss nationality) in 1935.

Einstein was a lifelong humanitarian, a gentle and intelligent philosopher in addition to his scientific genius. A true thinker, his contributions to human knowledge and thought are simply too wide and varied to list here. His influence on the 20th and 21st century are still being felt, not just in the field of science. He has appeared as a character in over two dozen movies and many more TV shows, books and plays. Stories about him continue to circulate (he was rumoured to have dated Marilyn Monroe, he had seven identical suits so he didn't have to waste brainpower deciding what to wear each day) and have reached the status of myth, even veneration. If you had to sum him up in a sentence, you'd have to use words like intelligence, depth, wit, humility, humanity and faith. Despite his death in 1955, Albert Einstein is very much alive in the minds of countless people.

James Dean


That's what 24-year old James Byron Dean was when his Porsche 550 Spyder careered into Donald Turnupseed's 1950 Ford Tudor on the last day of September 1955. And while the crash certainly ended Dean's life, it may somewhat paradoxically have served to immortalise him.

Perhaps conveying on celluloid what Presley and Kerouac were respectively recording on vinyl and paper, James Dean, both on- and off-screen, epitomised the rebelliousness and restlessness of an angst-ridden adolescent post-war America.

A heap of twisted legs and denim rags, forever belligerent and looking resentful for no particular reason, Dean won the role of Cal Trask in Elia Kazan's 'East of Eden' in 1955. It is possibly true that Dean didn't even need to act the role but nevertheless he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He followed up his success with two more starring roles, first in 'Rebel Without a Cause', and then with 'Giant', which was released in 1956. However, despite being again nominated for another Academy Award (Best Actor, 'Giant'), he never lived to experience his success.

But perhaps more poignantly, he never lived to experience failure.

Brooklyn's got a Winning Team

In 1955, and for many years before, New York City had three teams. The Dodgers were Brooklyn's team. The Yankees reigned in the Bronx and the Giants were traditionally associated with Manhattan. These three teams were often the three best in baseball. A World Series between two New York Teams was often called a 'subway series' because of NYC's association with the subway.

After years, intense rivalries formed. The Giants versus Dodgers playoffs were often more dramatic than the World Series. Almost inevitably, though, the Yankees would win the World Series, year after year. In 15 years, the Dodgers had faced the Yankees in the World Series, and lost every time.

In 1955, the Dodgers captured the National League Pennant which meant they would go on to face the Yankees in the World Series again. The Dodgers lost the first two games to the powerful Yankees, and it seemed to most people that the Dodgers couldn't win. At the time, no team had ever come from a two game deficit in the World Series to win the championship. However, young pitcher Johnny Podres kept the Yankees from winning Game Three with a 2-0 shutout. That, combined with a bit of luck, drove the Dodgers to win Games Four, Five and Seven, winning them the World Series title.

The Dodgers fans were beyond ecstatic. They danced in the streets. It was the first time that their team won and finally ended the reign of the 'Damn Yankees' and the idea of their invincibility.

Davy Crockett

'The Ballad of Davy Crockett' was composed in twenty minutes by Tom Blackburn (lyrics) and George Bruns (music) who worked for Disney. Amazingly, for a song which went on to sell over 10 million record copies across the world, it was written as an afterthought, needed for padding for the first episode of 'Disneyland' on 27 October 1954, and put there to advertise the forthcoming Davy Crockett film trilogy to be released by the Disney Corporation.

Walt Disney himself approved of using the song as a device to help move the story along in the films, saying 'The lyrics will pick it up for the kids. It's what I call a comic book approach'.

The Ballad was originally sung by Bill Hayes for the film. Since then, more than 40 artists have recorded the song, including Tennessee Ernie Ford, Eddie Arnold, Fred Waring, the Sons of the Pioneers, Steve Allen, Mitch Miller, Rusty Draper and Burl Ives.

See the full lyrics at The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

Peter Pan

In 1902 J M Barrie wrote a book entitled The Little White Bird. Hidden within its pages was a character who became something of a favourite with Barrie (and the rest of the world), Peter Pan - 'the boy who wouldn't grow up'.

By 1904 Barrie had perfected the character and written a play using Peter in the title role. Despite early rejections on the grounds that the play was too difficult to produce, it was accepted by a good friend of Barrie's, Charles Frohman, who agreed to stage it at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. It opened on December 27 of that year and was an instant success.

Unaware of how popular the play (and character) would become, this early production set a precedent for the future. The title character was played by a woman, Nina Boucicault, a tradition which would continue well into the 1980's1. Two actors were required to take double roles: Mr Darling/Captain Hook and Nana the dog/the crocodile. Although written as a play, it was soon established as a 'pantomime' in the eyes of the British with the introduction of familiar phrases such as: He's behind you' and 'Oh no I didn't - oh yes you did'

By 1905 Peter Pan had flown the Atlantic, debuting in New York. It was to remain and enjoy consecutive performances in both countries for the next 50 years, featuring such well-known thespians as Gladys Cooper, Hayley Mills, Elsa Lanchester and Jean Arthur in the role of Peter; and Charles Laughton, Allastair Sim, Ron Moody, Boris Karloff, Danny Kaye and Joss Ackland as Hook.

Although the part of Wendy was secondary to that of Peter Pan, the name2 was to find fame both as a new name for girls3 and also as the 'Wendy' of 'Wendy House' - a house in miniature, the equivalent of a 'den' for boys. Other popular characters, apart from the Darling children and lead roles, include Tinkerbell the fairy - If you believe... clap your hands; don't let Tink die', Smee, the inept pirate bosun, Tiger Lily the 'redskin' and the Lost Boys.

In 1954, Disney produced a full-length animated feature film. The outcome was a much lighter, humorous version which included slapstick sections and was less dark than the original. It is difficult to know whether the mention in the song refers to the Disney film, the original stage play or the book, Peter and Wendy, written in 1911.

Elvis Presley

Heartbreak Hotel first hit record shelves in 1955, leading to quite simply one of the most successful entertainment careers of all time. What more need be said about the one and only Elvis Presley?


The first Disneyland park opened on 7 July, 1955 in Anaheim, Los Angeles, California. The park was the brainchild of Walt Disney himself who, along with John Hench, was very involved with the design and construction. His first plan was for a park where his employees in Walt Disney Studios could go to relax, but the idea snowballed until it became the 100 acre kingdom it is today.

Opening Day

Construction of the park took barely 12 months, and the opening day itself was disastrous 4. 6,000 invitations to the Grand Opening had been sent out - but they were easily counterfeited and by mid-afternoon over 28,000 vistors had been recorded. The opening took place in the midst of a heatwave, with temperatures up to 110°F, melting the not-yet-set asphalt on Main Street, and catching high-heel wearers by surprise. The water fountains were not operating properly due to a plumbers' strike.


Despite such an inauspicious beginning, by its 10th anniversary the park had welcomed over 50 million guests, and remains one of the world's most popular attractions even today.

Other Parks

Further Disney parks were opened in:

  1. Florida - Opened in 1971. The world's most popular holiday destination and honeymoon spot.
  2. Japan - the most visited Disney park - 1983
  3. Paris - 1992

There is also a Disney cruise ship which sails in the Caribbean, and a Disney Hong Kong is planned for 2005.

1Although a German production cast a man in the role as early as 1952.2Which Barrie invented.3The name Wendy regularly appears in the top one hundred baby names, peaking in the 60s and 70s.4It is referred to in Disney circles as Black Sunday

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