The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1964-1989 (Part 1) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1964-1989 (Part 1)

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Title Page | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964-1989 (Part 1) | 1964-1989 (Part 2) | 1964-1989 (Part 3)
Birth Control, Ho Chi-Minh
Richard Nixon back again,
Moonshot, Woodstock,
Watergate, Punk Rock

Obviously realising that writing verses year-by-year would take forever, Billy kicks into hyperdrive for the last verse and takes in a multitude of events from 1964 to 1989. This has the effect of piling on the sense of history rapidly and uncontrollably slipping from our fingers, hence finally making sense of the confrontational words of the chorus.

Birth Control

Only one prescription drug in all of medical history has been so controversial and so popular that it can simply be called 'the Pill.'

When the birth control pill Enovid was granted FDA1 approval on 11 May, 1960, it had already been available on the market for two years as a treatment for gynaecological disorders. The new FDA approval meant that Enovid could be prescribed by doctors specifically for the prevention of pregnancy, and it became the first drug to be prescribed to healthy patients and for social reasons.

Enovid was a high-dose hormone therapy drug developed by Gregory Pincus and pharmaceutical company GD Searle that consisted of synthetic progesterone in 10 or 5 milligram doses and 0.15 milligrams of oestrogen. Taken daily the hormones would act the same as the same natural hormones would in a woman's body, making the body think it was pregnant so that ovulation would not occur. Enovid was virtually 100% effective when taken properly.

Approval and legalisation2 of the Pill had a twofold effect on American culture. The first was immediately apparent. There was widespread perception that the Pill would lead to infidelity, promiscuity and the general decline of sexual morality. Women enjoyed greater sexual freedom without the exclusions that childbearing created, such as having a career or continuing education. It wasn't long before the Pill was seen on college campuses, and even in high schools. Demand was astonishing; in less than two years more than 1,200,000 women were taking the Pill.

The second and more serious effect was on women's health. Side effects of taking the Pill included nausea, bloating, weight gain and depression, all of which doctors deemed inconsequential given the benefit of the drug. Many women were also angered that the possible side effects had not been explained to them prior to starting the medication. Other more serious symptoms weren't immediately linked to birth control because they didn't appear to be connected to the reproduction system, such as blood clots and strokes. In the first year alone there were 132 reports of blood clots in women taking the Pill, eleven of which resulted in death.

By the late 1960s there was enough buzz about the dangers of the Pill, compounded by the book The Doctor's Case Against the Pill by Barbara Seaman, to prompt US Senate hearings on the safety of the Pill. These hearings resulted in drastically lowering the dosages in the Pill making it safer, if slightly less effective. Manufacturers were also required to include a patient information sheet with every prescription of birth control pills outlining the possible side effects. High-dosage pills were removed from the American market completely in 1980; the Pill today has an average effectiveness rate of about 97%. The patient information requirements were later expanded to include all medications.

Ho Chi-Minh

Born in 1890, Ho Chi-Minh is the adopted name of Nguyen That Tan. In 1930 Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnamese Communist Party, which dedicated itself to securing independence and political power. By 1941 he was heading the Communist Viet Minh, after being trained in Moscow shortly after the Russian Revolution.

Over time Vietnam has been in many wars and has come up against France and America several times. Ho Chi-Minh was just one of many to see his country go to war and one of these times was during World War II. During this war, he helped set up safe bases for retreat when France fought Japan. The Japanese surrendered in September 1945, leaving Ho Chi-Minh to declare independence for Vietnam. He would only further face French opposition, Vietnam having its roots firmly in opposition to French rule. In 1947 Ho Chi-Minh had withdrawn to the safe bases, determined to wear down his opposition using political subversion and guerrilla tactics.

The First Indochina War began in earnest with Viet Minh attacks against isolated French outposts, forcing the colonial rulers back to defensive positions around Hanoi. In 1951 the Communists assaulted these positions head on but were badly defeated. But Ho Chi-Minh was still not prepared to surrender, so he turned to guerrilla tactics and waited for his enemy to make a mistake. This came in November 1953 when French airborne replied to a Viet Minh move in Laos, by capturing the isolated valley of Dien Phu.

During the years 1954-1969 Vietnam was under the Vietnamese Communist rule of Ho Chi-Minh, who was also the North Vietnamese Communist Politician, Premier and President at that time. He was successful in leading his country's fight against the US between 1954-75 during the so-called Vietnam War and led the Viet Minh to force the French to surrender after a 55-day onslaught in April and May 1954. The Geneva Records reflected this in July 1954, which granted independence to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Vietnam at this time was split up into a Western-style government ruling the South and a Communist-style government ruling the North. The South disagreed to elections in 1956, and by 1959 South Vietnam was facing renewed pressure from the North who wished Vietnam to be reunited.

During the Second Indochina War, guerrillas in the South known as the Viet Cong (VC) began to mount attacks in rural areas. They were helped by the North via jungle paths (networks) through Cambodia and Laos known as the Ho Chi-Minh trail. America sent help to South Vietnam but it did little use and 60% of the population was taken over by Viet Cong causing political chaos in the south.

Ho Chi-Minh spent his last years before his death, at the age of 79 years, as President, overseeing his country at war with America. North Vietnam was successful in that it weakened America's defence of South Vietnam by using gunboats to strike the US warships in August 1964. Even though, between 1965 and 1968, America tried to stay out of conflict, the country instead got drawn in deeper, supporting South Vietnam. Finally, before Ho Chi-Minh's death, the Vietnamese surprised the Americans (who thought victory was in sight) by stepping up their military tactics against 550,000 American troops in Vietnam, forcing Johnson to step down as president and Richard Nixon to be elected in his place.

Richard Nixon back again

Billy Joel's regard for Richard Nixon is such that he gets mentioned twice in the song! The 'back again' here refers to his return to politics in 1968 and his subsequent victory in the 1972 Presidential election over George McGovern. The fact that the voting result was against both popular and press opinion left many people wondering who on Earth actually did vote for him.


The Apollo moon landings are, like Watergate, another subject that has been written about so many times as to render any further comment superfluous. For readers interested in a detailed history of Apollo, this set of entries can be highly recommended.


I came upon a child of God, He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going, And this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm, I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land, I'm going to try an' get my soul free

- Joni Mitchell, 'Woodstock'

Woodstock Music & Art Fair was the brainchild of four young men: John Roberts - heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing fortune; Joel Rosenman - a graduate from Yale Law School; Artie Kornfeld - a vice president at Capitol Records; and Michael Lang - producer of the two-day Miami Pop Festival, which had attracted over 40,000 people in 1968.

To this day, some of the details (such as who came up with the original idea for the concert) of exactly how the Woodstock festival came about are unclear, but the result has become legend.

The estimates ranged from 150,000 to 700,000, but the most common figure used, is that about 500,000 people showed up at Max Yasgur's alfalfa fields outside the town of Bethel in Sullivan County, New York. The festival was supposed to start on a Friday but rumours of a blockade by concerned townsfolk inspired some to set out early and the road approaches to the site were pretty well jammed by Tuesday, many people just abandoning their vehicles and hiking in. Artists and staff had to be helicoptered in, food supplies too, once the scale of the crowd was realised.

The artists included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Johnny Winter, Santana, Ravi Shankar, Credence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, Ten Years After, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the list goes on - almost a 'Who's Who' of late 1960s' music gods. The music began on Friday afternoon 15 August and carried on until mid-morning Monday 18 August, 1969.

'Three days of Love and Peace' was the rallying call - the facts show 3 deaths (one tractor accident and two drug overdoses), and over 5,000 recorded medical cases. The most common incidents were cuts caused by bare feet walking over broken glass, drug abuse and a Woodstock speciality - burned eyes from staring at the sun whilst tripping out. For a city of half a million this was reasonable, but the figure of zero violent crime is unique!

The last bedraggled fan sloshed out of Max Yasgur's muddy pasture more than 25 years ago. That's when the debate began about Woodstock's historical significance. True believers still call Woodstock the capstone of an era devoted to human advancement. Cynics say it was a fitting, ridiculous end to an era of naivete. Then there are those who say it was just a hell of a party..
- The Times Herald-Record


Watergate has become the name given to a complex web of political scandals that occurred in America between 1972 and 1974, and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Milhous Nixon.

Watergate takes its name from the Watergate Hotel in Washington where a burglary took place that started the whole ball rolling. The 'Watergate Burglars' bored into offices of the Democratic Party's National Committee on 17, June 1972. The actual motives for the break-in are, to say the least, not clear; had it not been for the quick thinking of a security guard, Frank Willis, the burglary might well have gone undetected.

The five burglars arrested in the Democratic Party's offices were:

  • Bernard L Barker, ex-CIA and was rumoured to have been involved in the Bay of Pigs scandal in 1962.

  • Virgillo R Gonzales, a Cuban refugee.

  • James W McCoed, the security co-ordinator for the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP). Another ex-CIA, he was sacked by both RNC and CREEP the day after the break in.

  • Eugenio R Martinez, an employee of Barker who also had ties to the CIA and was a Cuban refugee.

  • Frank A Sturgis, another friend of Barker who was known to have CIA links.

Nixon, who was re-elected by a landslide and subsequently sworn in to the office of President in January 1973, made the first of three speeches on the Watergate scandal on 30 April, 1973. In this speech he announced the departure of three men: Haldeman, Ehrlichman and John Dean, his White House counsel. Barely four months later, in August he had to deny allegations with another defiant speech. But still it would not go away.

This was due mainly to the work done by two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstien who, along with their insider known as 'Deep Throat', were gradually uncovering a great political scandal.

In April 1974 Nixon had to make a third speech about Watergate and at the same time he released to Congress a transcription of secret tapes of conversation made in the White House. These tapes started a major legal row between the Congress and the President which ended with the Supreme Court ordering him to release more of these tapes. One of the tapes, which came to be known as the smoking gun tape, revealed that Nixon had known about and indeed participated in the Watergate cover up back in June 1972.

On 8 August, 1974 Nixon made a televised speech of resignation to the nation and the next morning sent his resignation letter to the Secretary of State, Dr Henry Kissinger.

Punk Rock

1977 was undoubtedly the year of the punk. The Sex Pistols were banned from TV, Radio and virtually every other medium, and eventually set up camp in the middle of the River Thames, blasting their infamous 'God Save The Queen' castigation of the monarchy on Silver Jubilee day.

Punk fans were loud, oddly dressed, multiply pierced and were often politically alligned to near-fascist views while simultaneously professing to be anarchists. For all this, punk musicians had much credibility. The Clash's London Calling album is widely regarded today as a classic, and the Buzzcocks went on to influence a generation of musicians, albeit a decade after they'd split up.

1Food and Drug Administration, this department must approve all foods and drugs prior to their being released for distribution to the American public.2At this time 30 states still had anti-birth control laws in effect.

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