Joel had just turned 40 when young Sean Lennon was in his recording studio with a friend. The friend, for whatever reason, complained that "it was a terrible time to be 21." That made Joel, who was born in 1949, reflect on the time that he was 21, when the Vietnam War was going on, there were drug problems and civil rights issues and "everything seemed to be awful."
The kid responded that Joel had grown up in the 1950s and "everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50s."
The singer/songwriter started thinking about the people and events that had populated his life, starting in the year of his birth. He went on to write and record "We Didn't Start the Fire," a signature song which became a No. 1 hit and was nominated for the Grammy Award Record of the Year.
Joel refers to more than a hundred people and events that had affected his younger days. Did they have any influence on yours? See if you can identify these references from Billy Joel's hit song by choosing the correct answer . . . and then check below to see if you're right.
1. Doris Day
a) Recorded her hit song "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" in 1950
b) Married Eddie Fisher in 1950
c) Was voted favorite female star by U. S. soldiers in Korea in 1950
d) Went bankrupt in 1951
2. Johnny Ray
a) Bolted to the top of the charts with "Cry"
b) Was Milton Berle's sidekick on "The Milton Berle Show"
c) Played Davey Crockett's sidekick on TV
d) Was convicted in the murder of Jack Ruby
3. Roy Cohn
a) Was an aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy
b) Defended Richard Nixon
c) Played Perry Mason on TV
d) Was Ray Kroc's original partner in McDonald's
4. Juan Peron
a) Starred in the hit TV series I love Lucy
b) Sang the hit song "Lemon Tree"
c) Was president of Argentina in the 1940s and '50s
d) Captured Adolf Eichmann in 1960
5. Princess Grace
a) Was Princess Di's older sister
b) Later became Queen of Luxembourg
c) Was the mother of rock star Prince
d) Married Prince Rainier of Monaco
6. Peyton Place
a) Was a book and TV show
b) Sits near Boardwalk in the game Monopoly
c) Is a Louisiana town named for Peyton Manning
d) Is the title of Katharine Hepburn's autobiography
7. Chou en-Lai
a) Was George H. W. Bush's favorite presidential meal
b) Was elected the first Asian-born mayor of San Francisco
c) Was the leader of the communist North Vietnamese
d) Served as premier of the People's Republic of China
8. The Bridge on the River Kwai
a) Starred Alan Alda
b) Won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1958
c) Dramatized the cruel practices of the British in colonial India
d) Was based on an actual event that occurred during the Vietnam war
9. Starkweather homocide
a) Took place at the book depository in Dallas
b) Took place at the clock tower of the University of Texas in Austin
c) Was the title of Huey Newton's autobiography
d) Was the name of a killing spree in Nebraska in the 1950s
10. Children of Thalidomide
a) Suffered birth defects because of the drug
b) Died from the defoliant used in Vietnam
c) Were babies born after a scandal involving Trojan condoms
d) Were children saved by the smallpox vaccine
a) Won Best Picture Academy Award in 1961
b) Starred Tippi Hedren
c) Featured a cameo appearance by director Alfred Hitchcock
d) Was filmed on location in Lewiston, Maine
12. Belgians in the Congo
a) Was a brand of candy popular in the late 1950s
b) Was the name of a hit record by the British invasion group The Hollies
c) Helped free the African nation from colonial rule by Germany
d) Tried to mediate a civil war after the Congo gained independence in 1960
13. Stranger in a Strange Land
a) Was a science fiction book by Robert Heinlein
b) Was the autobiography of James Baldwin
c) Formed the tag line in an advertisement for the ill-fated Edsel
d) Was a TV sit-com about two unlikely cousins living together in Chicago
14. Bay of Pigs Invasion
a) Occurred in 1964
b) Was JFK's first step involving us in Vietnam
c) Was a CIA misadventure set in motion by President Eisenhower
d) Saved Guantanamo from falling into Castro's hands
15. Malcolm X
a) Was a notorious Civil Rights leader
b) Was a notorious New York gang leader
c) Was a notorious 1970s rap star
d) Played Will Smith's father in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"
16. British Politician Sex
a) Refers to a sex scandal involving a British government official
b) Was a new sexual position popularized by the movie "I Am Curious Yellow"
c) Was a 1980s reference to gay sex
d) Was the CIA code name for Margaret Thatcher's husband
17. Sally Ride
a) Debuted in 1976 as a new ride at Disney World in Orlando
b) Flew as the first American woman in space
c) Climbed the charts as a hit record by The Rascals
d) Was a slang word for cocaine
18. Heavy metal suicide
a) Was the name of a Punk Rock band
b) Was the name of a film by Andy Warhol
c) Refers to the suicide of Nirvana star Kurt Cobain
d) Refers to lyrics from Ozzie Osborne and Judas Priest allegedly glorifying suicide
19. Homeless Vets
a) Was the name of a movie starring John Voight
b) Refers to the number of Vietnam vets who were poor and homeless
c) Was a NY Post headline about New York's homeless problem
d) Was Donald Trump's plan to register the homeless in Atlantic City
20. Bernie Goetz
a) Manufactured Guess jeans
b) Was a character actor in the first Star Wars movie
c) Shot four people in the New York subway
d) Was the last person killed at the Berlin Wall in 1988
So do you still think you know a lot about the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s? Here are the answers to the references from "We Didn't Start the Fire, " a test of how well you know 20th century history, according to singer/songwriter Billy Joel:
1. c) Doris Day, born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in 1922, scored the hit solo "Sentimental Journey" which became an anthem for soldiers returning from World War II. She was then voted favorite female star by U. S. soldiers in Korea in 1950. But her popularity went way beyond the armed forces. She made a number of movies and was named number one female box office star four times in the early 1960s. Day has been married four times (but not to Eddie Fisher); she went bankrupt in the late 1960s (not in 1951) and won a substantial judgment against her lawyer. She currently lives in Carmel, Calif., and is still active in animal rights.
2. a) Johnny Ray (1927-'90) scored several hit records in the 1950s, including the double-sided hit single "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud that Cried." He is credited as a significant precursor to rock and roll and was a magnet for teen hysteria in the pre-Presley days of the early 1950s.
3. a) Roy Cohn (1927-'86) made his name prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American citizens convicted and executed for passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Cohn went on to become a key aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy when he launched his crusade against communists. Cohn was accused of doctoring evidence and resigned to go into private practice, then represented clients ranging from Donald Trump to John Gotti, from the Catholic church to the New York Yankees.
4. c) Juan Peron (1895-1974) was president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 when he was overthrown in a coup d-etat. Peron was controversial, pushing to improve the lives of laborers, but also inviting criticism for his strong-arm tactics. Peron's considerable popularity was eclipsed by his wife Eva Duarte (Evita), the poor actress who became his First Lady. Duarte died of cancer in 1952, at age 33, and later made her mark on popular culture with the 1970s musical Evita.
5. d) Princess Grace (1929-'82), as American actress Grace Kelly appeared in High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in The Country Girl. Then in 1956, at age 26, she retired from the movies. She married Prince Rainier and became Princess of Monaco -- no relation to Princess Di or the rock star Prince.
6. a) Peyton Place was the first American nighttime soap opera, which ran from 1964 to 1969. The TV series was based on the novel by Grace Metalious and the 1956 film starring Lana Turner. The TV show featured Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal, and gained fame for addressing relationships, violence, and political issues in a more modern, realistic manner.
7. d) Chou en-Lai (1898-1976), also known as Zhou Enlai, was the first premier of the People's Republic of China. He served under Mao Zedong, survived The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, and was credited for thawing relations with the West by arranging for President Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Chou died in 1976, a few months before Mao passed away.
8. b) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was a fictional account of British prisoners of war in Burma during World War II who built and in the end destroyed a railroad bridge for the Japanese. The movie, which dramatized the brutality of the Japanese toward POWs, won Best Picture Academy Award in 1958 and starred not Alan Alda, but William Holden and Alec Guinness.
9. d) Charlie Starkweather (1938-'59) perhaps inaugurated the modern era of serial killers. He murdered 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming in December 1957 and January 1958. He was convicted, along with his teenage girlfriend, in 1959. He was executed, and she served 17 years in prison. Starkweather is not to be confused with Charles Whitman who killed 14 people form the clock tower of the University of Texas in 1966.
10. a) Thalidomide was first marketed in West Germany in 1957 as a sedative to treat anxiety, nausea and insomnia, and was later prescribed to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. Its use spread to England, Canada and other countries before it was found to cause birth defects, including severe malformation of the limbs. Some 10,000 cases were reported, and only about half of those affected survived past infancy. The FDA prohibited attempts to market Thalidomide in the U. S., but the drug was distributed for testing purposes and resulted in 17 babies born in America with birth defects attributed to thalidomide.
11. c) Psycho (1960) was nominated for four Academy Awards -- but not best picture -- and did not win a single one. The only Oscar director Alfred Hitchcock ever received was the Irving Thalberg award for lifetime achievement. Tippi Hedren starred in The Birds, but not Psycho, and most of the movie was shot in Hollywood and Arizona. Hitchcock made a cameo appearance, as he did in most of his films, as a man in a cowboy hat standing outside the office of Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh of the unfortunate shower scene.
12. d) Belgians in the Congo refers to a period of upheaval after the Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960. There was a series of civil wars that involved the Belgians as well as UN troops, and brought the United States, the Soviet Union and communist China into the conflict. The war claimed some 100,000 lives -- including UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjold who died in a plane crash on Sept. 18, 1961. The crisis finally ended in 1965, at least for a time, when Joseph-Desire Mobutu established a dictatorship.
13. a) Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein is a science fiction novel published in 1961. It tells the story of a human, born and raised on Mars, who arrives on Earth after World War III. He had never seen a woman, and struggles to understand and adapt to human culture. He studies various religions and eventually starts his own church and preaches free love -- and thus became a hero to many in the 1960s counterculture.
14. c) Bay of Pigs invasion occurred in April 1961 as a CIA-sponsored counterrevolutionary effort against Fidel Castro who, the Americans feared, was inching closer and closer to communism. The exercise was planned under President Eisenhower and took place just months after John Kennedy was inaugurated. After the invasion Kennedy, who took most of the blame for its failure, imposed a trade embargo against Cuba, which in turn set the stage for the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
15. a) Malcolm X (1925-'65) was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. After his father was killed and his mother institutionalized, he quit school and spent time in prison. He became a Muslim, dropped his "slave name" in favor of Malcolm X and rose to be a leader of the Nation of Islam. He declared himself a communist, preached separation of the races, and promoted drug rehabilitation programs. In 1965 after he turned away from extremism and began to champion economic and social equality, he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam.
16. a) British politician sex refers to a scandal involving British Secretary of State for War John Profumo who had an affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler. In March 1963 Profumo denied the affair in front of the House of Commons, only to confess a few weeks later. The scandal took on a new meaning when Keeler was also found to have been involved with a Soviet naval attache. No security breaches were discovered, but Profumo was forced to resign. He lived out the rest of his life doing volunteer work, and died in 2006 at age 91.
17. b) Sally Ride (1951-2012) was the first American woman in space as a member of the 1983 Space Shuttle crew. She is not to be confused with astronaut Judith Resnik or teacher Christa McAuliffe, both of whom perished in the Challenger disaster of 1986. Altogether, 59 women have been to space, 45 of them Americans. Ride died of cancer at the age of 61.
18. d) Heavy Metal Suicide refers the rise in the suicide rate in the 1980s, which peaked at 13 per 100,000 people in 1986. Families of several young suicide victims brought lawsuits against the heavy metal bands of Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, claiming the lyrics caused young people to commit suicide. The suits were unsuccessful.
19. b) Homeless vets back from Vietnam became an issue in the 1970s and '80s as many traumatized soldiers found it difficult to reintegrate into society. They had trouble finding jobs; many turned to alcohol and drugs to soothe their problems; and a disturbing number ended up poor and homeless and living on the streets.
20. c) Bernie Goetz boarded a New York subway in December 1984 where he was approached by four young black men who demanded $5 from him. Goetz pulled out a pistol and shot all four men, then shot one of the men again as he lay on the floor, seriously wounding all of them. Goetz escaped, but turned himself in a few days later. He was charged with attempted murder and assault, but convicted only of carrying an unlicensed firearm. He spent eight months in prison and later lost a civil suit for $43 million. In the court of public opinion Goetz was praised by conservatives frustrated with high crime rates and vilified by liberals concerned about race relations and vigilantism -- a controversy that, apparently, still goes on to this day.