The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1960 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1960

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U-2, Syngman Rhee
Payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, Psycho
Belgians in the Congo

African Independence was the theme of 1960, with Cameroon, Chad, Togo, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon breaking free of European control. It was also the year of weather satellites, Polaris missiles, and the prosecution of dirty books by DH Lawrence1.


The U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance 'spy' plane was designed and built by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and first flew in August 1955. An unusual single-engine aircraft with glider-like wings, the original model had a wingspan of 80ft for its length of 49ft 7in. With a range of over 6,000 miles and a ceiling of more than 70,000ft, the aircraft project was initiated by the CIA who wanted accurate information on the Soviet Union. The aircraft was very tricky to fly, particularly because at the extreme altitudes it usually cruised at, the maximum speed it could reach and the minimum speed to prevent stalling are very close to each other2. Despite this, the aircraft proved to be very reliable and had a high success rate. It was a U-2 that photographed the Soviet missile facilities which precipitated the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Later models of the aircraft also provided intelligence data during Operations Desert Storm and Allied Force and the U-2R is still in service today, used for 'high-altitude research'.

The most famous incident involving this aircraft took place on May 1, 1960. A U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers and flying from Peshwar in Pakistan was brought down near Svedlovsk in the Soviet Union. To this day there are unanswered questions as to how the plane was brought down and the circumstances resulting in the pilot's survival and capture by Soviet forces. Theories range from the mundane (shot down by missiles) through the unlikely (rammed by a Soviet plane) to the imaginative (damaged by the shock wave resulting from the explosion of a Soviet jet blown up by a missile fired at the spy plane)3. The incident led to the collapse of a summit meeting between the heads of government of the United States, Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom, which began in Paris on 16 May.

Following a show trial in Moscow, Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment and 7 years of hard labour, but was exchanged for the Soviet agent Colonel Rudolph Abel in February 1962.

Syngman Rhee

Syngman Rhee was born in Korea on 26 March, 1875, the son of an impoverished yangban4, Rhee Kyong Sun. An early advocate of Korean independence, he is credited with leading a demonstration against the government, for which he was condemned to life imprisonment in 1897.

However, in 1904 he was released under an amnesty and went to America where he studied at Harvard and Princeton Universities. All this time he was working for American support for Korean independence from Japan, but in vain. In 1910, Rhee returned to Korea as a teacher at Seoul YMCA and as a Christian missionary. He stuck it out for only two years before leaving, this time to become the headmaster of a Methodist school in Hawaii.

When, in September 1919, General Yi Tong Whi took over the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, Rhee was elected president (in absentia). These exiles quickly split into two main groups. One, led by General Yi and Kim Rip which favoured military action with Soviet backing and the other which favoured diplomatic channels and working with the USA.

On 26 January, 1921 these differences erupted into open hostilities with Rhee accusing both General Yi and Kim Rip of embezzling funds. Kim Rip was assassinated and General Yi was persuaded to leave. Unfortunately Rhee was the next to go when he too was expelled in 1925 and returned in disgrace to Hawaii.

The next twenty-odd years were spent constantly working for his version of independence for Korea, while supporting his family (he married an Austrian woman Francisca Donner in 1934) on contributions from other Koreans living in the USA. Then in 1948 (some say with American backing) Rhee was 'democratically elected President of the First Republic of Korea'.

South Korean politics throughout Rhee's regime, which lasted from 1948-1960, was dominated by his struggle to remain in power and the opposition's efforts to unseat him. This went on until March 1960, when following his re-election, Rhee was accused of election rigging. Student-led riots followed, and with them came civil disorder all of which came to be known as the April 19th Students Revolution. In May, Rhee resigned and retreated once more to Hawaii where he died in exile on July 19, 1965.


During the mid-1950s, concerns were raised that independent recording companies were dominating radio airplay in the USA. ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) were convinced that this was purely because record companies were paying DJs and nothing to do with the fact that teenagers preferred the music. This perceived threat was dubbed 'payola' from the words 'pay' and 'Victrola5'. ASCAP looked on rock and roll as a passing fad, possibly harmful, and convinced the US government, in the person of Oren Harris, to prosecute the smaller record manufacturers and distributors. Complaints were filed in early 1960 and companies given 30 days to agree to a Consent Order. Many did and subsequently folded.

Attention then turned to the DJs. The record companies supplied the names of 25 DJs suspected of taking money. Of these the two most well-known were Dick Clark and Alan Freed. Clark was ordered to give up his musical interests by ABC-TV. He claimed that he only got involved in the first place as a means of gaining tax advantage. He admitted to investing $125 in Jamie Records but denied the claim they made that he had received $15,000 in payola. He was admonished but seemed to escape unharmed.

Freed, on the other hand, was indicted for accepting $2,500 which he denied. He was found guilty and sentenced to pay a small fine and received a six months suspended sentence. Because of his stance he had lost all his contracts and never recovered from the blow. After his trial the anti-payola statute was passed under which payola became a misdemeanour subject to a penalty of up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison.


In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was standing for Presidential election, winning the 'Great Debates' with his charisma, plans for a Peace Corps and grasp of the televisual issues affecting politics. Read a lot more about it here.

Chubby Checker

Ernest Evans was born on 3 October, 1941 in Spring Gulley, South Carolina and later moved with his family to Philadelphia. He was given the nickname 'Chubby' when working at a produce market but soon tired of this work and moved on to a chicken store which encouraged its employees to sing to entertain customers. The owner of the store was friends with Kal Mann, a songwriter associated with a recording studio in the Philadelphia area. He invited Chubby to sing on a Christmas recording of Jingle Bells and the wife of the producer jokingly compared him with Fats Domino, saying he should call himself Chubby Checker. He did - and the name stuck.

In 1958 a little-known band called Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had invented a dance routine to perform with their act. Hank composed a song to complement the gyrations and 'The Twist' was born. Released on the 'B' side of another song it soon became popular with local teenagers and the band were asked to appear on a radio show. They failed to turn up and, when another group, Danny and the Juniors, also failed to impress with their recording, Chubby was asked to step in and sing over a pre-recorded instrumental track instead. Originally also released on the 'B' side, it didn't do too well but Chubby was determined and set off on a promotional tour to demonstrate the song and the dance. This ploy worked and The Twist became a number one sensation in 1960 - and Chubby Checker an international star.


One of the most important thrillers ever written and one of the scariest (and most innovative) films of all time, Psycho was written and directed firmly tongue-in-cheek by Alfred Hitchcock. It was released in 1960 with firm instructions that no audience member was to be admitted after the start of the film - a first for audiences used to strolling into movies whenever they felt like it. Read the full story here.

Belgians In The Congo

The last of many Independences in 1960, the Congolese was perhaps the most ill-prepared and least thought out. Belgium, the previous Governors, attempted to intervene - with tragic results. This excellent entry contains all the history.

1'Lady Chatterley's Lover', for those who don't know. Read page 72!2In the case of the model U-2B only 4.6 mph of a difference!3Despite the fact that the Soviet forces at that time had neither missile nor aeroplane capable of approaching anywhere near the U-2's cruising altitude.4Korean for 'two groups'. The yangban were the highest social class of the Korean Choson dynasty, which survived until 1910. 5An LP record player.

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