1989. National Video Center. NYC.
I’d been working with NBC’s Tim Miller and his top producer, Don Duncan, for a few years. Don was super-talented and always oversaw the best projects. He also loved taking chances in the edit room. Like the time he used “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles for a series of promos for Tom Brokaw…without permission. When they told me we were going to do a music video for NBC News based on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” I knew it would be fun.
Don intended do a “word by word” interpretation of the lyrics. His assistant producer Jennifer Johnson had sourced massive amounts of archival footage for almost all the historic references.
Billy Joel had famously said he never wanted to do a literal interpretation of the song, because it would be too obvious for a pop video. Therefore, he would have to approve our finished video in order for NBC to obtain the rights.
We had footage for most of the lyrics, but had no clips for the song’s long instrumental sections. We had to figure out what to cover those with. We tried editing the track to shorten the instrumental sections, but that didn’t worked well. We decided to just start cutting the lyric sections and save the instrumental sections for later.
When I started cutting, I discovered a sales tape NBC News had made in the 1950s to advertise their studios for outside TV production. It was chock-full of great sound bites and imagery extolling the miracles of videotape. The opening line for the sales tape was “Did someone mention television tape?” It was perfect for what we were doing. We started putting these sound bites in the instrumental sections and flash cutting slates, leaders and TV imagery into the piece. It gave us a framework to put anything we wanted in those sections. It also allowed me to throw type in to underscore what we were seeing or going to see. I had transferred different types of film grain, countdowns, and film leaders to one-inch tape, so that reel stayed on a tape machine during the entire week-long edit session.
When the NBC News execs saw the piece, they loved it but they wanted all their reporters included in it. Don hated the idea but we were forced to do it anyway. We had no beauty footage of the reporters so the back end of the video is a festival of “Lip Flap.” I hated that part. I still do. Bob Chapman did his usual amazing mix and the tape was sent to Billy Joel. He loved it and gave NBC News permission to air it. For the next couple of years, local NBC affiliates re-edited it and added their local reporters, usually airing it on New Year’s Eve.