The Top 10 songs about historical events

Musical accounts of great events

John Rentoul
Friday 10 March 2023 14:24
<p>9. <strong>“We Didn’t Start the Fire”</strong>, Billy Joel, 1989</p>

9. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, Billy Joel, 1989

This list was borrowed from Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose book The World includes the claim that “Sympathy for the Devil” is “the best history song of all time”. I agree, but Andy McSmith said “Battle of New Orleans” by Lonnie Donegan is better. Sebag Montefiore has a Spotify playlist of 387 songs, which he calls the soundtrack to his book; here is my list of 10, in chronological order.

1. “Battle of New Orleans”, Lonnie Donegan, 1959. “Which was fit between the Yankees of course and them there English people, in which the British came off rather ignominiously.” The battle was in 1815; the song was written by Jimmy Driftwood in 1936, to teach his students about history. Eliot Wilson and Jasper Ogle nominated the Johnny Horton version, also 1959.

2. “5-4-3-2-1”, by Manfred Mann, 1964. “They get basic facts about historical events (the Charge of the Light Brigade and the wooden horse of Troy) dramatically wrong, pass them off as the truth and make it all about them,” said Andy Lewis. “Uh-huh, it was the Manfreds.”

3. “Sympathy for the Devil”, The Rolling Stones, 1968. The best. From “when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain” to “Who killed the Kennedys?”.

4. “Nostradamus”, Al Stewart, 1973. Includes references to Hitler, Napoleon, Charles I, the Great Fire of London, Franco, the Kennedys and Pope Paul. Nominated by Temerity Drax. Several nominations for Al Stewart’s “Road to Moscow” as well.

5. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, Gordon Lightfoot, 1976. About the sinking of the bulk carrier on Lake Superior only the year before, but it feels like History with a capital H. Nominated by Alastair Meeks, Phil Riley and Jeff Stirling.

6. “The Gresford Disaster”, The Albion Band, 1977. “The song chronicles one of Britain’s worst mining disasters – 266 killed in the pit near Wrexham in 1934 – and the crass actions of the authorities afterwards; deeply affecting and contains a memorable guitar solo,” said David Lister.


7. “Enola Gay”, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 1980. About the plane that dropped the first atom bomb. Nominated by Ben Stanley and Whoneedstoknow.

8. “The Trooper”, Iron Maiden, 1983. “The only heavy metal song about the Charge of the Light Brigade,” according to David Wilcock.

9. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, Billy Joel, 1989. “Machine-gun summary of post-WW2 US history,” said Graham Sutton. Also nominated by Madhavi, Alex Taylor, Malcolm Redfellow, Ian K, Matt Triggs, Paul Goldsmith, Malcolm Tucker, Derek Nash and David Herdson (“in many ways an awful song, but it’s about the nature of history itself rather than a historical moment or event, so deserves a mention”).

10. “Big Bang Theory Theme”, Barenaked Ladies, 2007. Thanks to Xlibris1, Steve Fraser and John Hubbard.

Lots of good nominations this week, but no, I was not going to include Boney M.

Honourable mention for “The English Kings and Queens Song”, from Horrible Histories, nominated by Ben Willcocks and Mike Albert. Aide memoire for a whole generation.

Next week: Points, starting with Point Nemo, furthest from land in the world’s oceans.

Coming soon: One-word sporting commentary moments, starting with Martin Tyler’s “Aguerrooooooo” when Sergio Aguero scored the injury-time goal to win Man City the Premier League in 2012.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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