“We Didn’t Start the Fire”: An Ode to YouTube

The beauty of YouTube…

It’s hard to believe that YouTube was only started in 2005 by three young guys from PayPal.  It has now become so ubiqutous (allegedly the third most popular website in the world) that it seems it has been around since… well since we could surf the net.  That’s because it’s such a simple idea – allowing anyone to ‘broadcast yourself,’ that is, upload your own videos so that they are instantly available for the world to see.

Jawed Karim and Steve and Chad

The three guys who started YouTube: Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim

Of course the problem with allowing absolutely anyone to ‘broadcast themselves’ has come with the inevitable pitfalls involving quality (or more specifically the lack of it) and increasing levels of stupidity and downright ugly behaviour.  Needless to say, I’m sure YouTube is popular enough for you to know what I am referring to! But regardless of how this platform has been unfortunately abused, it can also be used to powerful effect.  How many times have you been directed by a tweet or e-mail to a video clip that has made you laugh, or recall a moment in history, or see a television program that you had long forgotten about?  In my opinion, if you are able to ignore the rubbish and associated immature comments you can actually find a virtual treasure trove that will provide a far more satisfying experience than watching television broadcast channels.

A research project…

To explore how powerful and enlightening YouTube can be I embarked on a personal research project, doing something I have always wanted to do but never found a reason good enough to try. It involves Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” which in addition to being a very catchy rock song is a fascinating catalogue of headlines the singer remembered from 1949-1989. What many people do not know is that in addition to the clever rhyming of names and events, Joel had actually listed them in almost precise chronological order. Many years ago I thought of making a video to show this, partly inspired when I saw it used in a history programme -although in that programme they only used a small portion of the song and did not match the lyrics with any particular accuracy.

Billy Joel performing in Jacksonville, Florida...

Image via Wikipedia

My idea was to create the ultimate video -with moving footage that represented everything mentioned in the song.  A decade ago this would have been a very difficult undertaking and even if it was successful there would be very little means of using it -as the footage and music would be heavily copyrighted.  Then came YouTube.  And the rise of ‘supercut‘ videos.  It seemed the time had come.  Not that this was going to break new ground – there are numerous “We Didn’t Start the Fire” videos out there, but most are low quality, inaccurate and most critically use only still images, like some pumped up death-by-PowerPoint presentation.  I wanted it to be historically accurate, have moving, archival footage in HD that was as close to the year as possible and then go one step further: also include events from the very first motion picture until now, charting the ‘fire’ like events that have ignited in the last 120 years.

And so the video I have made (at the top of this blog) begins with the ‘Roundhay Garden Scene‘ (1888) the oldest surviving film and ends with a montage of events from 2011 but most notably, all extracted from YouTube and presented in HD. This was also achieved with the assistance of the song’s wikipedia page here.

Some references were really difficult to find. If I could not find an exact reference for the year then I endeavoured to find the closest possible.  All except one reference was sourced from YouTube (see if you can spot the odd-one out!).  And of course, this video is not an attempt to infringe copyright; it is only made possible by recent changes in YouTube policy that allow the use of copyrighted music, along with a link to iTunes to purchase the song.  It is for personal research only and is not being used for commercial purposes (which would be virtually impossible).

Hopefully the end result is as fascinating and enjoyable as it was for me making it!


As a matter of reference, here is a list of all the sources used in the video (thanks to YouTube and Wikipedia).  Just click on the line from the lyrics to go to the YouTube video I used (it is quite likely that some may become broken links):


  • Harry Truman is inaugurated as U.S. president
  • Doris Day enters the public spotlight
  • Red China, Communist Party of China wins the Chinese Civil War, establishing the People’s Republic of China
  • Johnnie Ray signs his first recording contract with Okeh Records
  • South Pacific, the prize-winning musical, opens on Broadway on April 7.
  • Walter Winchell is an aggressive radio and newspaper journalist credited with inventing the gossip column.
  • Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees go to the World Series five times in the 1940s, winning four of them.


  • Joe McCarthy, the US Senator, begins his anti-communist crusade with his Lincoln Day speech.
  • Richard Nixon is first elected to the United States Senate.
  • Studebaker, a popular car company, begins its financial downfall.
  • Television is becoming widespread (in black and white format).
  • North Korea and South Korea declare war after Northern forces stream south on June 25.
  • Marilyn Monroe soars in popularity with five new movies, including The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.


  • Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, were convicted on March 29 for espionage.
  • H-Bomb is in the middle of its development as a nuclear weapon.
  • Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion welterweight boxer.
  • Panmunjom, the border village in Korea, is the location of truce talks between the parties of the Korean War.
  • Marlon Brando is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • The King and I, musical, opens on Broadway on March 29.
  • The Catcher in the Rye, a controversial novel by J. D. Salinger, is published.


  • Dwight D. Eisenhower is first elected as U.S. president, winning by a landslide margin of 442 to 89 electoral votes.
  • Vaccine for polio is privately tested by Jonas Salk.
  • England’s new queen: Queen Elizabeth II succeeds to the throne of the United Kingdom.
  • Rocky Marciano defeats Jersey Joe Walcott, becoming the world Heavyweight champion.
  • Liberace has a popular 1950s television show for his musical entertainment.
  • Santayana goodbye George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, dies on September 26.



  • Roy Cohn resigns as Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel
  • Juan Perón spends his last full year as President of Argentina before a September 1955 coup.
  • Arturo Toscanini is at the height of his fame as a conductor
  • Dacron is an early artificial fiber made from the same plastic as polyester.
  • Dien Bien Phu falls, a village in North Vietnam, falls to Viet Minh forces leading to the creation of North and South Vietnam.
  • “Rock Around the Clock” is a hit single released by Bill Haley & His Comets in May, spurring worldwide interest in rock and roll music.


  • Albert Einsteindies on April 18 at the age of 76.
  • James Deandies in a car accident on September 30 at the age of 23.
  • Brooklyn’s got a winning teamas the Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series for the only time before their move to Los Angeles.
  • Davy Crockett is a Disney television series about the legendary frontiersman
  • Peter Pan is broadcast on TV live and in color from the 1954 version of the stage musical starring Mary Martin on March 7. Disney released an animated version the previous year.
  • Elvis Presleysigns with RCA Records on November 21, beginning his pop career.
  • Disneyland opens on July 17 as Walt Disney’s first theme park.


  • Brigitte Bardotappears in her first mainstream film And God Created Woman and establishes an international reputation as a French “sex kitten”.
  • Budapestis the site of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
  • Alabamais the site of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which ultimately led to the removal of the last race laws in the USA.
  • Nikita Khrushchevmakes his famous Secret Speech denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” on February 23.
  • Princess Grace Kellyreleases her last film, High Society, and marries Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
  • Peyton Place, the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious, is published and shocked the reserved values of the ’50s
  • Trouble in the Suez:The Suez Crisis boils as Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal on October 29.


  • Little Rock,Arkansas is the site of an anti-integration standoff, as Governor Orval Faubus stops the Little Rock Nine from attending Little Rock Central High School and President Dwight D. Eisenhower deploys the 101st Airborne Division to counteract him.
  • Boris Pasternak, the Russian author, publishes his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.
  • Mickey Mantle is in the middle of his career as a famous New York Yankees outfielder and American League All-Star for the sixth year in a row.
  • Jack Kerouacpublishes his first novel in seven years, On the Road.
  • Sputnikbecomes the first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, marking the start of the space race.
  • Zhou Enlai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, survives an assassination attempt on the charter airliner Kashmir Princess.
  • Bridge on the River Kwaiis released as a film adaptation of the 1954 novel and receives seven Academy Awards.


  • Lebanon is engulfed in a political and religious crisis that eventually involves U.S. intervention.
  • Charles de Gaulle is elected first president of the French Fifth Republic following the Algerian Crisis.
  • California baseball begins as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants move to California and become the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. They are the first major league teams west of Kansas City.
  • Charles Starkweather homicidescapture the attention of Americans, killing eleven people before he is caught in a massive manhunt in Douglas, Wyoming.
  • Children of Thalidomide Mothers taking the drug Thalidomide had children born with congenital birth defects caused by the sleeping aid and antiemetic, which was also used at times to treat morning sickness.


  • Buddy Hollydies in a plane crash on February 3 with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, in a day that had a devastating impact on the country and youth culture.
  • Ben-Hur a film based around the New Testament starring Charlton Heston, wins eleven Academy Awards.
  • Space MonkeyAble and Miss Baker return to Earth from space aboard the flight Jupiter AM-18.
  • Mafia are the center of attention for the FBI and public attention builds to this organized crime society with a historically Sicilian-American origin.
  • Hula hoopsreach 100 million in sales as the latest toy fad.
  • Fidel Castrocomes to power after a revolution in Cuba and visits the United States later that year on an unofficial twelve-day tour.
  • Edsel is a no-goProduction of this car marque ends after only three years due to poor sales.


  • U-2 An American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, causing the U-2 Crisis of 1960.
  • Syngman Rhee was rescued by the CIA after being forced to resign as leader of South Korea for allegedly fixing an election and embezzling more than twenty million U.S. dollars.
  • Payola illegal payments for radio broadcasting of songs, was publicized due to Dick Clark’s testimony before Congress and Alan Freed’s public disgrace.
  • John F. Kennedy beats Richard Nixon in the November 8 general election.
  • Chubby Checker popularizes the dance The Twist with his song of the same name.
  • Psycho An Alfred Hitchcock thriller, based on a pulp novel by Robert Bloch and adapted by Joseph Stefano, which becomes a landmark in graphic violence and cinema sensationalism.
  • Belgians in the Congo The Democratic Republic of the Congo was declared independent of Belgium on June 30, with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister.


  • Ernest Hemingway commits suicide on July 2 after a long battle with depression.
  • Adolf Eichmann a “most wanted” Nazi war criminal, is traced to Argentina and captured by Mossad agents. He is covertly taken to Israel where he is put on trial for crimes against humanity in Germany during World War II, convicted, and hanged.
  • Stranger in a Strange Lan: Written by Robert A. Heinlein, is a breakthrough best-seller with themes of sexual freedom and liberation.
  • Bob Dylan After a New York Times review by critic Robert Shelton, Bob Dylan is signed to Columbia Records.
  • Berlin The Berlin Wall, which forcibly separated West Berlin from East Berlin and the rest of East Germany, was erected on August 13 to prevent citizens escaping to the West.
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion  Failed attempt by United States-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro.


  • Lawrence of Arabia The Academy Award-winning film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence starring Peter O’Toole premiers in America on December 16.
  • British Beatlemania The Beatles, soon become the world’s most famous rock band , with the word “Beatlemania” adopted by the press for their fans’ unprecedented enthusiasm. It also began the British Invasion in the United States.
  • Ole’ Miss James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi
  • John Glenn: Flew the first American manned orbital mission termed “Friendship 7” on February 20.
  • Liston beats Patterson Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson fight for the world heavyweight championship on September 25, ending in a first-round knockout. This match marked the first time Patterson had ever been knocked out and one of only eight losses in his 20-year professional career.


  • Pope Paul VI Cardinal Giovanni Montini is elected to the papacy and takes the regnal name of Paul VI.
  • Malcolm X makes his infamous statement “The chickens have come home to roost” about the Kennedy assassination, thus causing the Nation of Islam to censor him.
  • British politician sex The British Secretary of State for War has a relationship with a showgirl, and then lies when questioned about it before the House of Commons. When the truth came out, it led to his own resignation and undermined the credibility of the Prime Minister.
  • JFK, blown away President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22 while riding in an open convertible through Dallas.


  • Birth control In the early 1960s, oral contraceptives, popularly known as “the pill”, first go on the market and are extremely popular. Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 challenged a Connecticut law prohibiting contraceptives. In 1968, Pope Paul VI released a papal encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae which declared artificial birth control a sin.
  • Ho Chi Minh A Vietnamese communist, who served as President of Vietnam from 1954–1969. March 2 Operation Rolling Thunder begins bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line from North Vietnam to the Vietcong rebels in the south. On March 8, the first U.S. combat troops, 3,500 marines, land in South Vietnam.


  • Richard Nixon  Former Vice President Nixon is elected in the 1968 presidential election of the United States


  • Moonshotthe first manned lunar landing, successfully lands on the moon. (and also this link).
  • Woodstock Famous rock and roll festival of 1969 that came to be the epitome of the counterculture movement.


  • Watergate Political scandal that began when the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC was broken into. After the break-in, word began to spread that President Richard Nixon (a Republican) may have known about the break-in, and tried to cover it up. The scandal would ultimately result in the resignation of President Nixon, and to date, this remains the only time that anyone has ever resigned the Presidency.
  • Punk rock The Ramones form, with the Sex Pistols following in 1975, bringing in the punk era.


  • Palestine a United Nations resolution that calls for an independent Palestinian state and to end the Israeli occupation.
  • Terror on the airline Numerous aircraft hijackings took place, specifically, the Palestinian hijack of Air France Flight 139 and the subsequent Operation Entebbe in Uganda.


  • Menachem Begin becomes Prime Minister of Israel in 1977 and negotiates the Camp David Accords with Egypt’s president in 1978.
  • Ronald Reagan President of the United States from 1981 to 1989; first attempted in 1976 to run for president.


  • Ayatollahs in Iran  During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West-backed and U.S.-installed Shah is overthrown as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gains power after years in exile.
  • Russians in Afghanistan Following their move into Afghanistan, Soviet forces fight a ten-year war, from 1979 to 1989.


  • Wheel of Fortune A hit television game show which has been TV’s highest-rated syndicated program since 1983.
  • Sally Ride In 1983 she becomes the first American woman in space. Heavy metal suicideIn the 1980s Ozzy Osbourne and the bands Metallica and Judas Priest were brought to court by parents who accused the musicians of hiding subliminal pro-suicide messages in their music.
  • Foreign debts Persistent U.S. trade deficits
  • Homeless vets Veterans of the Vietnam War, including many disabled ex-military, are reported to be left homeless and impoverished, the country unable to yet handle its failure to succeed.
  • AIDS: A collection of symptoms and infections in humans resulting from the specific damage to the immune system caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is first detected and recognized in the 1980s, and was on its way to becoming a pandemic.
  • Crack was a popular drug in the mid-to-late 1980s


  • Bernie Goetz On December 22, Goetz shot four young men who he said were threatening him on a New York City subway. Goetz was charged with attempted murder but was acquitted of the charges, though convicted of carrying an unlicensed gun.


  • Hypodermics on the shore Medical waste was found washed up on beaches in New Jersey after being illegally dumped at sea. Before this event, waste dumped in the oceans was an “out of sight, out of mind” affair. This has been cited as one of the crucial turning points in popular opinion on environmentalism


  • China’s under Martial law On May 20, China declares martial law, enabling them to use force of arms against protesting students to end the Tiananmen Square protests.
  • Rock-and-roller cola wars Soft drink giants Coke and Pepsi each run marketing campaigns using rock & roll and popular music stars to reach the young adult demographic.(also here).