“I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.”
– Steven Wright
Honorable Mention: “Play With Fire” by the Rolling Stones
“Play With Fire” was recorded one late night in January 1965. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were the only Stones to play on the track: the others had fallen asleep. Producer Phil Spector played bass and his assistant, Jack Nitzsche, played harpsichord. “Play With Fire” was released in 1965 as the B-side of “The Last Time.” The song tells the story of a high-society girl in London.
“It was just kind of rich girls’ families – society as you saw it. It’s painted in this naive way in these songs,” Jagger told Rolling Stone. “No one had really done that. The Beatles, to some extent, were doing it, though they weren’t really doing it at this period as much as they did later. The Kinks were kind of doing it — Ray Davies and I were in the same boat. One of the first things that, in that very naive way, you attempted to deal with were the kind of funny, swinging, London-type things that were going on. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time.
“But it became an interesting source for material. Songwriting had only dealt in clichés and borrowed stuff, you know, from previous records or ideas. ‘I want to hold your hand,’ things like that. But these songs were really more from experience and then embroidered to make them more interesting.”
- “This Wheel’s on Fire” by the Band
“This Wheel’s on Fire” was written by Bob Dylan and the Band‘s Rick Danko in 1967. The Band’s version appeared on Music From Big Pink in 1968 and they collaborated with Dylan on the original recording, which later appeared on 1975’s The Basement Tapes.
Dylan would visit the Big Pink house near Woodstock, NY and write lyrics, which he would pass on to The Band. “We would come together every day and work and Dylan would come over,” Danko recalled in Across the Great Divide. “At that time I was teaching myself to play the piano and some music I had written on the piano the day before just seemed to fit with Dylan’s lyrics. I worked on the phrasing and the melody and then Bob and I wrote the chorus together.”
“This Wheel’s on Fire” by the Band
“This Wheel’s on Fire” by Bob Dylan
- “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps
Many listeners first heard the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” in the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. The song served as the title track of the Philadelphia group’s 1976 album. “When disco came out, we had just left Philadelphia International Records and signed with Atlantic, and we had out ‘Where Do We Go From Here?'” Earl Young told the Philadelphia Tribune.
“Ronnie Baker decided, ‘Let’s cut a song called, “That’s Where the Happy People Go,” — to the disco, and we cut ‘That’s Where the Happy People Go’ and ‘The Night the Lights Went Out,’ and that started us out as disco. We were selling records, so Atlantic said, ‘Well, let’s keep ’em disco!’
“That was a bad mistake for us, because everything they cut after that was disco! When we put out ‘Disco Inferno,’ it didn’t do well, at first! Our attorney, David Steinberg, made a deal when they were putting Saturday Night Fever together to use the song, because they needed another song, and luckily they remembered ‘Disco Inferno.’ They put it in the movie, and wherever that movie went, it made us go around the world too! It made us popular too — that one song!”
- “Burnin’ for You” by Blue Oyster Cult
Rock writer Richard Meltzer co-wrote “Burnin’ for You” with Blue Oyster Cult singer-guitarist Buck Dharma. The song, on the band’s Fire of Unknown Origin LP, reached the Top 40 in 1981. “‘Burnin’ for You’ is a Richard Meltzer lyric that probably has the most sincere sentiment from my view,” Dharma told Songfacts. “I wrote the music to that, because I thought I could do a good job … and I guess I did.”
BOC producer Sandy Pearlman played a part in having the song recorded by the band. “Richard would write on a typewriter and we’d have sheets of lyrics and on the page it would look like poetry with a lot of lower case and free form, free association,” Dharma explained in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “I don’t know how long I’d had his lyric but it was about 1980 and we’d moved to Connecticut. Originally it was going to be on my solo record [1982′s Flat Out] but Sandy convinced me to give to BOC. I wrote it in my garage studio. I’m quite proud of it.”
- “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” surprised Billy Joel when it became a No. 1 hit in 1990. The list song ticked off the names of the major newsmakers between 1949, when Joel was born, and 1989. “That song’s about my life,” Joel told Rolling Stone. “Most of my mail I get about that song comes from teachers who have said this is the greatest teaching tool to come down the pike since Sesame Street, which means a lot to me, since I once wanted to be a history teacher. But I wish people could understand that I did not write that song to be a hit — I wrote that one for me. And nobody liked it at first. One person in the studio said it gave them a headache.
“Sometimes I listen to records I did and think, ‘If it wasn’t my record, maybe I would have been sick of that thing, too.’ But the song mostly came off the top of my head.”
- “Jump Into the Fire” by Nilsson
Rock critics were surprised when Harry Nilsson released “Jump Into the Fire” in 1971 as a follow-up single to “Without You,” a ballad originally recorded by Badfinger. Nilsson’s hard-rocking tune was a departure from many of his previous compositions, which included “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” and “Me and My Arrow.” Nilsson credited producer Richard Perry for helping him make the transition. “What do you say to a man who writes ‘The Puppy Song’ and then writes ‘Jump into the Fire’?” Nilsson asked in Mojo. “I was so glad to meet Richard Perry, because he was thinking the same thing I was thinking at the same time: now let’s go to work and do some rock ‘n’ roll and get down!”
“Jump Into the Fire” would gain renewed attention when director Martin Scorsese used the track in his 1990 film Goodfellas. The song’s frenetic pace heightened the drama as Ray Liotta’s character tried to flee a helicopter chasing his car.
“Jump Into the Fire” by Harry Nilsson
“Jump Into the Fire” by Harry Nilsson (from Goodfellas)
- “Smoke From a Distant Fire” by the Sanford-Townsend Band
John Townsend and Ed Sanford’s Sanford-Townsend Band had a Top 10 hit in 1977 with “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” The pair wrote the song with their friend, classical guitarist Steve Stewart, whom Sanford called out one day. “Ed just made some comment, ‘When you gonna quit playing that crap and write something that’s gonna make you some money?'” Townsend recalled in Classic Bands. “He had his guitar around his neck at that time. He started playing this amazing rhythm and blues riff. It would be something like from a Jackie Wilson song. I’m going, ‘Now that’s cool! Play that again.’
“And I went to the piano and we figured it out on the piano. I said, ‘Hey, this is really nice.’ So, Ed and I sat down and started writing some lyrics. We didn’t finish it that day, but the next day I was coming back into town. We had another meeting that afternoon and getting off the freeway a line came to me from a poem Ed had written in college about a lost girlfriend. We didn’t use anything except the title ‘Smoke From A Distant Fire,’ and the song just came about. It started as a joke, but it just came about. When we finished it we knew we really had something then.”
- “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
When Jerry Lee Lewis dropped “Great Balls of Fire” in 1957, it sold one million copies in its first 10 days of release, making it the fastest selling single at the time. “Great Balls of Fire,” which reached No. 2, was The Killer’s follow-up to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The song’s popularity was helped by its appearance in the 1957 film Jamboree.
Lewis, born in Ferriday, LA, came from a strict Christian background. Some radio stations banned “Great Balls of Fire” for what were considered sexually suggestive lyrics. Lewis told People, “It didn’t hurt me, but it made me wonder — how could I be so stupid that I didn’t know what this meant? I am not risqué!”
- “Light My Fire” by the Doors
“Light My Fire” was the Doors‘ breakout hit. Its 2:52 single version reached No. 1 in 1967. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek explained on NPR how the song was written. “Somebody would bring a song in and then everyone would go to work on it. So Robby came in with a song. He said, I’ve got a new song called ‘Light My Fire,’ the first song Robby Krieger ever wrote.
“And Robby’s only got one verse. He needs a second verse. And [Jim] Morrison says, OK, let me think about it for a second. And Jim comes up with the classic line, ‘And our love becomes a funeral pyre.’ You know, ‘You know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar, if I were to say to you, girl, we couldn’t get much higher’ is Robby’s. Then Jim comes, ‘the time to hesitate is through.’ In other words, seize the moment. Seize the spiritual LSD moment. ‘The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Try now, we can only lose.’
“Whoa, that’s kind of heavy. ‘Try now, we can only lose’ meaning the worst thing that can happen to you is death. ‘And our love becomes a funeral pyre.’ Our love is consumed in the fires of agony. And it’s like, God, Jim, what a great — great verse, man. So we’ve got verse, chorus, verse, chorus. And then it’s time for solos.
“Seven minutes. We had to cut down seven minutes to two minutes and under three minutes.”
3. “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen
“I’m on Fire,” from Bruce Springsteen‘s Born in the U.S.A. LP, reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985. “‘I’m on Fire’ is one of his most intimate songs,” Jackson Browne told Rolling Stone. “It’s about fundamental deep-seated desire.
“The performance has its own power. It’s something that exists in him. It’s just there. And it’s astonishing to see somebody who relied that much on physical power to let the music and his voice be understated like this. It’s a great moment.”
John Sayles directed the music video, in which Springsteen plays a working-class mechanic who dreams of having an affair with a rich, married woman who leaves her Ford Thunderbird for repair. “That song was always a highlight when he’d perform it, and it has a heat to it, a driving quality to it. And ‘I’m On Fire’ is a really well-crafted song,” Sayles said in VideoStatic. “I came up with shots and stuff like that, but Bruce had a real idea of what he wanted the video to be. They were good ideas, and they were fun to work on.”
2. “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
“Fire” reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart in 1968, a highlight of the band’s debut album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The song opens with Arthur Brown memorable shriek: “I am The God of Hellfire. And I bring you – fire!” To this day, Brown performs wearing a flaming helmet. He explained to the Red Bull Music Academy how fire became a major part of his psyche. “I always had a fascination with fire. Once, my brother and I set my grandfather’s hair on fire while he was asleep to see if it would burn, and it did. I recommend that nobody does this. It’s nasty and it’s liable to get you a smack around the head. Also I loved just watching, looking into flames. It does have a deep effect, because it’s an element, a basic factor of the existence of our world, so it ties you back into that.
“The album starts with the track ‘Nightmare,’ and that’s the guy looking around at the world and finding that nightmarish, and so he goes inwards, and he goes into the fire. When he goes into the fire, he meets various entities. And I thought, ‘Well, if we are going to have any, we might have gods.’ The first one was The God of Hellfire.”
1, “Fire” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Of course, few recording artists are more associated more with fire than Jimi Hendrix, who famously doused his guitar with lighter fluid and lit it on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. His songs have included “House Burning Down,” “Burning Desire” and “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” Best known is “Fire” from the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album Are You Experienced.
One of the best-remembered lines in “Fire” came about during a visit to the home of Experience bassist Noel Redding’s mother. The scene is described in the book Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy.
“The mundane routine of ‘man chats up woman’ was itself inspired by an even more ordinary incident. When Jimi arrived at Margaret Redding’s house at Folkestone for Christmas 1966, he was greeted by a roaring fire in the grate. Always under-dressed for the climate, Jimi, ever polite, asked if he could stand in front of the fire to warm himself from the cold December night air. The German Shepherd dog was in the way, hence one of Jimi’s most famous lines, ‘Oh, move over Rover and let Jimi take over.'”