The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1964-1989 (Part 2) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1964-1989 (Part 2)

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Begin, Reagan, Palestine
Terror on the airlines,
Ayatollahs in Iran,
Russians in Afghanistan,
Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride,
Heavy metal suicide

We continue Billy Joel's extended final verse with memories of Middle East political strife; mostly tragic popular culture; and a chap famous for both Westerns and Star Wars. Oh, and being President, as well.


Menachem Begin was born August 16, 1913, and fled his birthplace of Brest-Litovsk, Poland, with his poor Zionist family during World War I, to escape fighting between the German and Russian armies. His early passion for Zionism led him to join first a scout organization, and then the Betar Czechoslovakian youth movement where, by 1936, he was in charge of the organization.

He was imprisoned in 1937 for leading a demonstration protesting against British policies in Palestine. By 1938 he became the head of Betar Poland with over 100,000 members engaged in weapons training. Their goal was the defence of Polish Jews, aiding immigrants to Israel, and improving agricultural training and communications.

Menachem Begin married in 1939 to Aliza Arnold, whose father was the head of the Revisionist party in Drohovitz. They would have three children: Ze'ev Binyamin, Hassia and Leah.

When World War II broke out Begin was arrested and imprisoned in Siberian labour camps by Josef Stalin's NKVD, and released in 1941 under the terms of the Stalin-Sikorski agreement due to his Polish citizenship. He then joined the Free Polish Army and was transferred to the Middle East, and in 1943 made his way to British-controlled Palestine for training.

After demobilisation in 1943 he contacted the dormant Jewish underground organisation Irgun Zvati Leumi (National Military Organization), known by the initials of its Hebrew name as 'Etzel'. The group began planning an uprising against the British from 1944 to late 1947. Begin ordered many of the Irgun's operations, including the Akko prison breakout and the destruction of the central British administrative offices in the King David Hotel.

At one time, the Palestine Government offered a reward of £10,000 for information leading to his arrest, yet he evaded capture by living in disguise in Tel Aviv.

In 1947 he met in secret with several members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, as well as the foreign press, to explain the outlook of his movement. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Begin disbanded the organisation. Later, he founded the Herut Movement with his colleagues, headed the party's list of candidates for the Knesset and led the movement against accepting German reparations for the Nazi Holocaust.

In 1965, Begin's Herut Party merged with the Liberals to form 'Gahal' which later became the Likud Party. Two years later saw the establishment of the National Unity Government which brought Begin to the Cabinet table. He served as Minister without Portfolio until 4 August, 1970.

Begin insisted that Israel place conditions on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's extension of a cease-fire, on the signing of a peace treaty recognizing Israel. On 30 June, 1977, Mr Menachem Begin, head of the Likud party1 presented the new government to the Knesset and became Prime Minister of Israel. As Premier, he helped initiate the peace process with Egypt's Sadat and President Jimmy Carter which resulted in the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.

Begin made heavy investments of national resources as Prime Minister, to develop Israel's poorer neighbourhoods, and he sought to liberalise Israel's economy.

He ordered the Israeli Air Force bombing of the Iraqi Osizrak nuclear reactor in 1981. The regime was developing a nuclear weapons programme there; the bombing hampered Baghdad's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, although the actions were condemned at the time by the international community.

In 1982 he initiated operations to remove terrorist threats from Israel's northern border. He also encouraged Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel, bringing thousands, in Operation Moses.

He wrote two books: 'White Nights' about his wartime experiences; and 'The Revolt', which has been translated into other languages.

Menachem Begin announced his retirement on 15 September, 1983, and went into seclusion without offering any further explanation. He died on 9 March, 1992.


Popularly stereotyped (outside of the USA at least) as a dim-witted geriatric war-monger with a yearning to press the big red button, Ronald Reagan took control of the White House in 1981, at 69 the oldest ever incumbent of the Oval Office. During the subsequent eight-year two-term tenure of his presidency, he converted an uneasy defeatist United States from looking down the barrel of expansionist Soviet military superiority into a nation of self-believers that had the brass to stare down the Soviet Union and provoke the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

From modest beginnings, born above a shop in Tampico, Illinois in 1911, Reagan possessed both grit and front in abundance, and possibly not a little luck. He started out on the wireless, broadcasting energetic and convincing commentaries on sporting events he wasn't even watching, and then went on to pursue what amounts to an undistinguished acting career in Hollywood. As demand for his thespian contributions waned he turned to politics, striding firmly to the right while those around him, including those who could enhance his career, were leaning left.

Eventually, in 1980, Reagan won the presidency of the United States (at the second attempt, having failed in 1976) on a ticket of conservativism and anti-governmentalism. With scant regard for Cold War detente, Reagan immediately embarked on a far right agenda of defence spending partly paid for with drastic welfare programme roll-backs, which he secured with cheerful bumbling simplicity. Pushing an infectiously optimistic paternalistic mix of libertarianism and authoritarian moralism, Reagan won a landslide 49-state victory in the 1984 election to secure his second term.

In retrospect, his presidency will perhaps be remembered for three things. Firstly, on 30 March, 1981, he was shot, John W Hinkley's unsuccessful assassination attempt outside the Washington, DC Hilton Hotel apparently an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. Secondly, during his first term, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), colloquially known as the Star Wars programme, a controversial orbital weapons system designed to scare the pants off the USSR. And thirdly, his alleged commitment to the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, which essentially subverted the Constitution of the United States, almost landed him in jug, but adroit mumbling and a faceful of grandfatherly smiles from the President ensured no further action was taken on the matter.

In 1989, at the end of his tenure, despite the nation-rocking scandal, he left an America for once feeling good about itself… as well as shouldering the largest budget deficit in any nation's history.

His death on 5 June, 2004, left a nation in mourning and a career on the verge of reappraisal.


Palestine - where to start? A hundred years BC? Or a few thousand years AD? In the 1960s, the conflict over the land was in one of its deadliest phases. Wars went back and forth, but the Palestinians went mostly backwards. Mostly they went into camps in Israel and Jordan, but for some, further afield was the destination. It was in exile that the PLO2 was formed; radical from the word go, it made the headlines with hijackings and bloody terrorist attacks.

In the meantime, a generation that had grown up in the overcrowded and poorly equipped camps took forward the intifada. Rocks were thrown, bullets fired and bombs exploded as atrocity followed atrocity in the endless repetition of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. On the political front, the Camp David talks helped stabilise the wider Middle East, but for the Palestinians little changed. It is said that those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it. On both sides of the battle lines around Palestine the history of the land is too well known, deformed one way or the other to fit the current dogma. Few would seem to learn anything from it. And so the cycle continues.

Terror on the Airlines

As former head of MI5, Stella Rimington notes in her autobiography that terrorism didn't begin with September 11, and, sadly, nor will it end there; terrorism has proven too effective in getting the world's attention. Since the late 1960s, MI5, the CIA and other security organisations have seen a rise in what became known as 'international terrorism', with groups like 'Black September', a Palestinian terrorist group led by 'Carlos the Jackal', who targeted Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Whereas traditionally the British Security Service's targets were Soviet-backed groups intent on stealing state secrets and trading information, these new enemies were different. For one thing, they didn't strike quietly like the Russians; they had no intention of returning to a target more than once; they struck fast and hard to focus the world's media on their cause; and they were more than willing to kill to achieve their aims. The gentlemanly act of spying swiftly became a thing of the past.

Aeroplane hijackings are not, sadly, a recent invention, no matter how firmly the events of 9/11 are ingrained in our memories - indeed the first time an airplane was hijacked was back in the 1930s. But the events Billy Joel refers to when he sings about 'terror on the airlines' concern the kind of politically motivated hijackings that began to spring up from the late 1960s onwards, campaigns organised as part of an attempt to draw attention to the broader political cause of the hijackers themselves. The first of these took place on 22 July, 1968, which saw the first airplane hijacking by Arab terrorists. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) took control of an El Al flight, holding its passengers hostage and demanding that the plane be redirected to Algiers.

On this rare occasion, the hijackers were successful, to some extent. As a consequence, terrorism takes to the skies. Just two years later, on 6 September, 1970, the PFLP again orchestrated a campaign of hijackings, targeting five planes over three days and managing to capture four of them. Three of the planes were redirected to the Jordanian desert, emptied of passengers and crew and then blown up in front of the horrified cameras of members of the world's press. The event was the catalyst for the Black September civil war in Jordan. When the Palestinians lost that battle, more terrorist groups emerged, including the 'Black September' group mentioned earlier. It was they who, on 1 March, 1973, took control of the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum and eventually shot three of their hostages.

Almost exactly one month later, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were officially opened.

Ayatollahs in Iran

'Ayatollahs in Iran' are men of enormous power and prestige. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the leaders of Iran have been Ayatollahs. As there is no clergy in Islam comparable to the hierarchy of Christianity, 'Ayatollah' is a title descriptive of great wisdom and knowledge of the Holy Qu'ran (Koran), which Muslims believe to be the word of God. Ayatollah is an Arabic term meaning 'sign of God'.

Perhaps rather confusingly, Ayatollahs are also often referred to as 'Imams'. To the Shi'ite Muslims of Iran, an Imam is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and, therefore, a person of vast importance.

The most famous Ayatollah, of course, is Ayatollah Khomeini who replaced the deposed Shah of Iran as head of state. His stern paternal image, with furrowed brow, black turban (signifying his decendency from the Prophet), and immaculate white beard, is still perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable faces in the world.

Ayatollah Khomeini was demonized in the West, particularly in America - which, for his part, he famously described as 'The Great Satan'. When Americans were held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, and, in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence on author Salman Rushdie in reaction to the publication of his book, The Satanic Verses, his image assumed a sort of anti-Santa notoriety in the Western news media.

Judged by any standard, Ayatollah Khomeini was a powerful figure who returned from 14 years in exile with enormous religious authority and a moral authority made greater by comparison to the puppet regime of the corrupt and despotic Shah.

Russians in Afghanistan

In 1978 the Cold War entered a new phase as the Red Army rumbled into Afghanistan. The aim had been that the government of Noor Taraki would create a Marxist client state, but as in other countries, the USSR rapidly found itself implicated directly.

Afghanistan was, however, more than just one of the myriad of proxy combats that were ongoing at that time as a substitute for World War Three. It was more strategic than that. Victory in Afghanistan would move the Russians closer to their historic quest for a warm water port, and give them influence over the oil rich Middle East.

However, the conflict dragged on and the Russians began to suffer heavy losses at the hands of the Mujahideen. The CIA had started to sow the seeds of future disasters, encouraging and exploiting the Wahabite branch of Islam in an attempt to organise resistance to the Soviets through a Jihad against the infidel. One Osama Bin Laden first pops up here as a not particularly successful leader but a more successful financier.

By 1989 the Russians had had enough - in a mirror of Vietnam, they were forced to retreat. The puppet government began to lose control soon after and Afghanistan was in the hands of the warlords, moving inexorably towards the failed state and brutal regime of the Taliban. At that point though, the world had lost interest, negligence for which it was to pay heavily later on.

Wheel of Fortune

'Wheel of Fortune', premiering on American TV on 6 January, 1975, is arguably the world's most popular game show. It involves three contestants spinning a large wheel, and landing on a 'fortune'. This can include a money value - ranging from about 100 dollars to thousands of dollars. It could also be a bad fortune - such as a Bankrupt place on the wheel that takes away all of the contestant's money.

Assuming a contestant does not land on an unfortunate place on the wheel that takes away their turn, he or she gets to guess a consonant, hoping it will be among one of several unknown letters on a board. For every consonant that is on the board, the contestant gets as many times the money value that they landed on.

There is also a process of 'buying' vowels, which costs 250 dollars (it has not risen with inflation since 1975) for each vowel on the board. As such, the phrase 'I'd like to buy a vowel' is a popular expression, especially among Americans.

Once a contestant believes that he or she has uncovered enough vowels and consonants to figure out what the words that the letters combine are, he or she may 'solve the puzzle'. If the guess is correct, he earns the money that he has accrued since the beginning of the round. The others do not. However, there are several rounds in one show, and the overall winner moves on to a much more complicated way of earning money by solving word puzzles.

'Wheel of Fortune' was created by Merv Griffin, and was hosted by Chuck Woolery from its premier until 1981, and by Pat Sajak since then. A popular version in the UK has been hosted by assorted hosts, including Nicky Campbell, Bradley Walsh and John Leslie.

Sally Ride

Sally K Ride was born 26 May, 1951, in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from Westlake High School, Los Angeles in 1968 and furthered her education by attending Stanford University. It was here she gained a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Bachelor of Arts degree in English, both in 1973, and Master of Science and Doctorate degrees in Physics in 1975 and 1978, respectively.

In January 1978, Dr Ride was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA. By August 1979 she had completed a 1-year training and evaluation period and was eligible to be assigned as a mission specialist on future Space Shuttle flight crews. On 18 June, 1983, she became the first American woman to orbit the Earth when she flew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. This was the first mission using a five-person crew and only the second for the Orbiter Challenger. Most of the mission was taken up with deploying satellites and performing scientific experiments and lasted 147 hours.

She was Mission Specialist for a second flight aboard Challenger in 1984 and was destined for more space travel until the tragic loss of Challenger in 1986. She terminated mission training when she was chosen to take part in the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. On completion of the investigation she became Special Assistant to the Administrator at NASA, concentrating on long range and strategic planning.

In 1989, Dr Ride left NASA to work for the University of California at San Diego, where she also heads the California Space Institute. Concerned about the lack of women scientists she started a design competition called ToyChallenge through which she hopes to encourage more girls to take an interest in science and engineering.

We need to impress upon girls that engineering is creativity, it's curiosity, it's common sense and it's cool stuff... it's not just geeks with pocket protectors.

Sally Ride has also committed her thoughts to paper. She wrote a book for children, To Space and Back, detailing her experiences on Challenger and also Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System and The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space.

Heavy Metal Suicide

Do rock bands really hide backwards messages in their records? Can your brain really decode them and act upon them without you knowing? Is this why every time you hear a Westlife record, you automatically change the radio station without even thinking about it? Probably not. However, rumours of hidden messages in records have been around ever since the Beatles' experiments with running tapes backwards in the mid 1960s. It has been alleged, for example, that Queen's 'Another One Bites The Dust', played backwards, contains the message 'Start to smoke marijuana.' These rumours, however, were disproven in an infamous 1990 court case.

One day in 1985, two heavy metal fans, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, from Nevada, USA, decided to devote their day to drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana3 and listening to records by the British heavy metal band Judas Priest. By the evening, the two friends had acquired a sawn-off shotgun and entered into a suicide pact. Belknap killed himself with the gun; Vance only managed to inflict serious facial injuries upon himself, although he subsequently died following an overdose of painkillers and complications arising from surgery. Before his death, however, he alleged that Judas Priest's music had 'mesmerised' himself and Belknap into their actions.

Following the deaths, a civil action was brought against the members of Judas Priest, alleging that the song 'Better By You, Better Than Me'4 contained the subliminal message 'Do it,' recorded backwards. The prosecution claimed that this message persuaded Vance and Belknap to take their own lives. Over the course of the trial, several Judas Priest tracks were played in reverse to the court as evidence of subliminal messages. However, it was eventually ruled that these alleged 'messages' were mere coincidence, and the band members were cleared of any wrongdoing. The band subsequently said that if they had included subliminal messages in their records then 'Buy more of our records' would have been more appropriate.

1After having won the Knesset elections (17 May 1977)2Palestine Liberation Organisation3It is not known whether or not they had been listening to 'Another One Bites The Dust' beforehand.4A track from the band's Stained Class album.

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