John McKay covered some big stories during his radio news career, but the one report everyone wanted to talk to him about was the Canadian re-write he gave to Billy Joel’s 1989 hit song We Didn’t Start the Fire.

“ It’s funny, I got more reaction from stations at the time on that than any of the hard news I did,” said McKay. “You do some wonky little feature, a whimsical feature and it gets more coverage than big news stories. It’s really weird.”

Among those hard news stories the retired radio news reporter covered include the time Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said he mouthed ‘fuddle-duddle’ to members of the opposition in the House of Commons. Those opposition members say they heard him say another phrase that started with the letter F.  McKay also captured the audio the day a protestor jumped on Soviet President Alexei Kosygin while he was taking a walk with then Prime Minister Trudeau on Parliament Hill.

Still, McKay’s 1990 version includes some pretty impressive lyrics and captures a number of historical and headline news, sports and entertainment events in Canadian history from 1867 to 1989.

“This was a surprise, someone wanting to talk about something [from] a quarter century ago. Didn’t think anyone remembered.”

John McKay

Wrote the lyrics first

We Didn’t Start the Fire appeared on Billy Joel’s 1989 album Storm Front and includes a list of 117 news, entertainment and sports events from 1949 to 1989.

In the 2004 book  In Their Own Words: songwriters talk about the creative process by Bill Demain, Joel said he started the song as a mental exercise.

“It was kind of a mind game,” said Joel. “That’s one of the few times I’ve written the lyrics first…It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written. I kind of like the lyric though.”

The tune was a number one hit in the U.S. and a commercial success for Joel.

“It had to fit the cadence.”

John McKay wrote his version while working in the Washington D.C. bureau for the Broadcast News (BN) wire service sometime in 1990. He explained the idea came to him on the morning of a slow news day.

“I wrote down every Canadian term I could think of, Gretzky, Diefenbaker, Passchendale, whatever,” said McKay. “ Then I had to put them in two columns where… had to fit the cadence and that was kind of fun.”

He highlighted 69 Canadian events in his piece and decided to play the Joel recording while talking over his part because, he says, he couldn’t sing. McKay posted the 2:10 second version on his feature McKay’s Journal where it was picked up by BN subscribers across Canada.

The feature, which I dubbed for myself,  was played on the news magazine show DC Digest on radio station DC 103.5 in Orangeville, Ontario where I worked as a reporter/anchor.

John McKay’s version

Stay tuned for a future Station to Station podcast where I speak to John McKay about his very exciting radio news career.

But first, and with permission from John, below is the transcript of the lyrics to his Canadian version of We Didn’t Start the Fire as well as the audio feature sent to radio stations across Canada in 1990.


JM: The following is with profound apologies to Billy Joel.

Sir John A, BNA, CPR, Northern Star,
True North Strong and Free, From Sea to Shining Sea,
Vimy Ridge, Passchendale, Van Doux, Dieppe
RCAF, Corvette, Normandy Day.

music bridge

CCF, NDP, Medicare, CBC,
Raymond Burr, Beaver Fur, Dionne Quints and Duplessis,
Hockey Night in Canada, Fosters in the Gondola,
Rocket and the Golden Jet, Gretzky is the greatest yet.

“we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the worlds been turning.
we didn’t start the fire, though we didn’t light it but we’re trying to fight it.”

7 Days, Happy Gang, Newfie Jokes, Es-tu bilingue?
Let Quebec do its thing, Bob and Doug Mckenzie King,
Lester Pearson’s Nobel Prize, Diefenbaker’s last demise,
Munsinger, Guzenko, FLQ, Pierre Trudeau.

Freedom from the British Throne, Companies the U.S owns,
Constitution, Patriation, Maggie and the Rolling Stones,
Fuddle Duddle, Brain Drain, Free Trade, Acid Rain,
Henderson made the shot, Ben Johnson he got caught.

“we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the worlds been turning.
we didn’t start the fire, though we didn’t light it but we’re just trying to fight it.”

Autopact, Oil patch, Meech Lake, sales tax,
Mounties on horse back, Peter Jennings don’t come back,
Parliament, Queens Park, Brian beats out Joe Clark,
Syrup from a maple tree, any place you would rather be.

music bridge

Tunagate, Velcro lips, Disco Dick, no new ships,
Ed and John soon be gone, tired of the commons war,
distinct society isn’t what it seems to be, Mulldoons mad, Wells is glad,
I can’t take it anymore.

“we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the worlds been turning.
But when we are gone it will still burn on and on and on and on.”