Who knew? One day, punk was thundering along, minding its own business, comfortable in a seemingly permanent role of rocking the converted. Stuck in the past and digging it, the hellions of hardcore could wallow merrily in their noisy state of mindless grace without any need to peer over the edge of the commercial gutter. There was, everyone knew, nothing beyond. So far as punk was concerned, Nirvana’s success had ultimately led nowhere; even Fugazi’s hard-won popularity wasn’t spreading to other bands.
Then came Dookie. The bratty cartoon cover — a fighter jet dropping shit bombs, with matching brown CD tray — should have limited the album’s appeal to the crudest adolescent elements of snotnosed society, but it didn’t. Young enough to be naïve and smart enough to be cynical, California’s Green Day — an East Bay trio loaded up on irreverent, vulgar humor, catchy pop tunes, aggressive guitar power and harmlessly obnoxious slackertude — made a third album that differed substantially from its second only in that it sold nine million copies and opened the floodgates to loud/fast/pushy guitar bands. All of a sudden, a sound that had been around at least since the Ramones first counted off a song in the mid-’70s was good as, well, gold-plated dookie.
The teenagers’ first outing was 1,000 Hours, a buzzsaw guitar roar with songs of little note. It’s impossible to conceive of Green Day now finding any use for a lyric like “Starlit night/The moon is shining bright” (“1,000 Hours”), but the imaginary video could be pretty funny. The subsequent album didn’t set Green Day on destiny’s course, either: 39/Smooth (later repackaged on CD, with the contents of the surrounding EPs and a compilation contribution, as 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours) is a relatively tame power-pop affair. Although plucky and brash, the music is too timid to even flirt with punk intensity levels. Singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong’s well-mannered lyrics-hopeful, uncertain, self-conscious-manage only mild psychic discomfort (“I feel forgotten”) and romantic tension rather than any rebellious insurgence; the music never even threatens to overpower such adolescent winsomeness as “I throw away my past mistakes and contemplate my future/That’s when I say…What the hey!?!” (“Going to Pasalacqua”) or the teen horniness of “Can we find a way / So that you can stay/I think I’m gonna pop” (“The Judge’s Daughter”). Bassist Mike Dirnt (né Pritchard) and a competent drummer named John Kiffmeyer move the songs along, and Billie Joe sings them earnestly, without the contrived English accent he would later affect. A very tentative start. The 2004 reissue adds 1991 live material. After Green Day regained the master tapes from Lookout!, Reprise reissued 39/Smooth in 2007 under its original title, appending the EPs to the album. Another reissue, this time on vinyl, came out on Reprise in 2009.
The trio’s sound and stance began to coalesce a bit more clearly on Slappy, specifically in the song “409 in Your Coffeemaker,” which hits harder and louder and employs such essential vocabulary as “daze,” “lazy” and “wasted.” The EP is also notable for containing “Knowledge,” a good- natured Operation Ivy cover that became (and remained) a Green Day concert staple.
With Tré Cool (Frank Wright III) smashing away as the band’s new drummer, Dirnt asserting his equal place in the arrangements and Billie Joe toying with his inflection, Kerplunk! reintroduces Green Day as pop-punks, plundering the past for chord changes and their own lives for lyrical concepts. “Welcome to Paradise,” a Clashy song (whose chorus melody owes a debt to the 1968 Wild in the Streets soundtrack song, “The Shape of Things to Come”) of mixed feelings about moving out of the house for the first time, is the pivot connecting the band to its future; “80” introduces the anxious paranoia and suspicion of mental instability that developed into “Basket Case” on Dookie; “2000 Light Years Away” charges the sound but blows the vision thing. Elsewhere, Kerplunk! falls back to the softhearted romantic pleasantries and loneliness of 39/Smooth (except for Cool’s juvenile novelty, the country-fried “Dominated Love Slave”). The CD adds the prior Sweet Children EP: the title track’s huggable punk, two buzzing soundalike originals and a lame cover of the Who’s “My Generation,” marked mainly by a transient drummer’s tin-can clatter. Reprise’s 2007 reissue of Kerplunk! also includes the Sweet Children EP, as does its 2009 vinyl reissue of the album.
Turning the rhythm section into a massive powerhouse and Billie Joe’s guitar into a surging wall of post-Spector sound, Dookie (produced by Rob Cavallo and the band) crystallizes post-adolescent disgust into a give-a-shit soundtrack for useless losers who hate everything but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. “I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out,” Billie Joe sings in the first track. Halfhearted animosity and slacker inertia rule here. “I locked the door to my own cell and I lost the key” (“Longview”) sums up the album’s dispirited outlook, which is completely contradicted by the music’s joyous release. A remake of “Welcome to Paradise,” the unsettled “Basket Case” (“Sometimes I give myself the creeps”), “She” and the magnificent “When I Come Around” (“I’m a loser and a user so I don’t need no accuser to slag me because I know I’m right”) round out the fun, which easily overcomes the mutts (“Coming Clean,” “Emenius Sleepus,” “In the End”) left yapping in the back of the kennel.
Wily enough not to fall for stardom’s stupidity, Green Day still sold itself short on Insomniac. An evident attempt to not seem overly worried by Dookie‘s impossible challenge, Insomniac sounds enough like its predecessor, but the familiar hand-me-ups have a careless air; many lack proper endings and just run out at unsatisfying points. The album doesn’t really get off the ground until halfway in, when Green Day brings something new to the table: a riveting two-minute instrumental buildup to “Panic Song.”
Returning as a grown-up-quick adult, Billie Joe acknowledges the problem without exactly confronting it, substituting rancid self-loathing, exhaustion and neurotic despair for Dookie‘s safer targets. His change of perspective reframes the band, making it harder for fans to identify with the alienation of songs that announce “I’m a loner in a catastrophic mind/Elected the rejected/I perfected the science of the idiot” (“Armatage Shanks”). With the comforting announcement that “I’ve got a knack for fucking everything up” (“Bab’s Uvula Who?”), he describes himself as a “Walking Contradiction” (in a song that borrows from the Kinks’ “She’s Got Everything”), “Brat” and “Jaded” (“I found my place in nowhere/I’m taking one step sideways”). He offers an enthusiastically ambivalent view of methedrine in “Geek Stink Breath,” complains of physical meltdown in “Brain Stew” and concludes “No culture’s worth a stream of piss/Or a bullet in my face” (“No Pride”).
Pinhead Gunpowder is an occasional Armstrong side project with other California punk brats; Carry the Banner runs through its program of eight originals and a pumped-up rock cover of Diana Ross’ “Mahogany” inside of fifteen minutes. The semi-fast, semi-tuneful popcore sound falls between Green Day and Rancid; numbers Billie Joe sings (“Walkin’ Catastrophe,” “Find My Place,” “Mahogany”) could pass for his band’s slashed-off B-sides. A useful reminder of how close Green Day remains to sub-commercial punk, this good-natured, above-average rip benefits from, but scarcely hinges on, its star power.
Pinhead Gunpowder’s subsequent ‘90s releases stick to Carry the Banner’s formula: a clutch of hard ‘n’ fast originals (most credited to Pinhead drummer Aaron Cometbus) with vocals traded between Billie Joe and raw-voiced guitarist Jason White, plus a hard ‘n’ fast rendition of a rock classic, all submitted in 25 minutes or less. Jump Salty compiles all the tunes from the 7-inch releases Trundle & Spring and Fahizah (including a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”) and adds four new originals. Goodbye Ellston Avenue hands over more of the lead vocals to Billie Joe, and exceeds the three-minute barrier on “Brother.” It also offers a take on Phil Ochs’ “Song of My Returning” and an original entitled “Life During Wartime” that bears no resemblance to the Talking Heads number. The seven-song Shoot the Moon includes harmonica on “Kathleen” and a cover selection closer to the band’s actual roots: the Replacements’ “Achin’ to Be.” (All of Pinhead Gunpowder’s ‘90s albums were reissued on Recess Records in 2009.)
Meanwhile, back in the band that made him famous, Billie Joe takes Green Day down its familiar lyrical path on Nimrod. A few of this album’s songs project his loser persona into the future, turning the “Brat” of Insomniac into “The Grouch.” “I was a young boy that had big plans / Now I’m just another shitty old man,” he whines. “I’ve decomposed, yet my gut’s getting fat / Oh my god, I’m turning out like my dad.” In “Hitchin’ a Ride” (not the Vanity Fare oldie), he complains, “There’s a drought at the fountain of youth / And now I’m dehydrating.” Amidst the self-loathing anthems, though, a few songs direct his anger toward something, or someone, else. On “Reject,” he faces his perceived oppressor(s) defiantly: “Who the hell are you to tell me what I am / And what’s my master plan / What makes you think that it includes you?” In “Nice Guys Finish Last,” he warns a social climber, “Don’t pat yourself on the back / You might break your spine.” The mix gives Nimrod‘s songs more breathing room than the claustrophobic production of Insomniac; “Redundant,” with its Leslie-enhanced guitar riffs, and the album-closing “Prosthetic Head” could almost pass for classic power-pop. And the trio rocks more confidently than ever — too confidently to waste space on filler like “Platypus (I Hate You)” and “Take Back.” With help from David Campbell, Green Day expands its instrumental palette on a few songs, including harmonica on the rootsy “Walking Alone,” shivery violin (courtesy of that dog.’s Petra Haden) on “Hitchin’ a Ride,” vaudeville-style horns on “King for a Day,” and the full cinematic treatment — horns, strings, bongos, vibraphone, waves crashing on the shore — on the surf-flavored instrumental “Last Ride In.” Then there’s the acoustic-guitar-and-string-quartet balladry of the hit single “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” After Insomniac’s tentative attempt to have it both ways, Nimrod shows Green Day taking its first real steps toward maturity.
Warning takes a long trek down that road. Through 12 new originals, Billie Joe turns away from self-hatred toward a more empathetic view of the marginalized characters he must have seen every day growing up. The title track opens the album by examining (or at least auditing) society’s efforts to keep people in line, and challenges everyone listening to do the same: “Question everything / Or shut up and be a victim of authority.” In “Castaway,” the singer declares his own response to that choice: “A conscientious objector to the war that’s in my mind / Leaving in the lurch and I’m taking back what’s mine.” “Deadbeat Holiday” and “Hold On” offer encouragement to struggling families at the ends of their ropes; “Jackass,” on the other hand, dresses down an individual whose own behavior put him there (“Everybody loves a joke / But no one likes a fool”). And in the album-closing “Macy’s Day Parade,” the singer decries the way people sometimes use consumerist gratification as a substitute for self-esteem: “The night of the living dead is on its way / With a credit card report for duty call / It’s a lifetime guarantee / Stuffed in a coffin [marked] ‘10% more free’.” The self-produced album moves further from Dookie’s buzzing pop-punk to an increasingly spacious sound, with acoustic guitars showing up prominently on several tracks. The trio continues to broaden its instrumental reach with surprising cameos by jazz saxophonist Gary Meek and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Over haunted-house organ, mournful gypsy accordion, mandolin and strings (again, arranged by David Campbell), the five-minute “Misery” intertwines the stories of several trouble-laden characters — the first example of a songwriting approach that Green Day would subsequently take to the bank.
International Superhits! compiles the band’s Reprise singles up through Warning. It also includes the Mike Dirnt original “J.A.R.” (from the Angus soundtrack), the B-side “Maria” and the previously unreleased “Poprocks and Coke.” Devoted Green Day fans will want this disc for those three songs, of course; newcomers (if there are any by this time) will find it a fine sampler and a good starting point.
Shenanigans gathers up more B-sides, compilation tracks and other rarities. As with most such collections, a few good tunes stand out, but overall, it’s pretty easy to hear why most of these tracks were left off Green Day’s albums in the first place. “Suffocate,” “Sick of Me,” “On the Wagon,” “Ha Ha You’re Dead” and the swaggering, horn-section-enhanced “Espionage” (basically a mash-up of “Pipeline” and the Peter Gunn theme) are the highlights here. Shenanigans also includes faithful covers of “I Want to Be on T.V.” (by East Bay hardcore band Fang), the Ramones’ “Outsider” and the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You.” It does not include “D.U.I.,” a song that appeared on advance promo copies of the album but was deleted before its official release. (The title shows up in the liner notes, with the accompanying information hidden by a blob of spray paint.)
If Dirnt, Cool and Armstrong recognized that their original loud, fast ‘n’ snotty aesthetic could take them only so far, opting toward maturity didn’t sit well with Green Day’s loud, snotty fan base. The band experienced steadily diminishing commercial returns with Nimrod and Warning; it even found itself reduced to an opening slot for one of its biggest (and snottiest) acolytes, Blink-182. During a hiatus following that tour, Billie Joe opted to rejoin his buddies in Pinhead Gunpowder to record Compulsive Disclosure, which differs from Pinhead’s previous releases only in that it includes no covers. Dirnt, meanwhile, recorded with the Frustrators, a similarly structured quartet whose albums, to date, have followed the same basic template as Pinhead’s ‘90s discs. Bored in the USA combines seven originals with a cover of Blondie’s “Living in the Real World.” Achtung Jackass — nine originals (assuming the album-closing, backward-recorded “Bonus Track” isn’t someone else’s song) plus a cover of the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” — shows both musical advancement (in the power-pop arrangements and female harmony vocals of “AAA” and “The End”) and more musical tomfoolery (“Pirate Song,” with its swashbuckling sound effects, and the silly “Frustrators Jingle”). Like Pinhead Gunpowder, the Frustrators fill their albums with high-spirited, entertaining punk rock.
Those two side projects apparently didn’t provide Green Day with enough opportunity to resolve all its internal issues. So Dirnt and Armstrong invited Cool (and Green Day touring guitarist Jason White) to join them on their next busmen’s holiday. The musicians adopted pseudonyms and disguises — two of them wear Mexican wrestling masks; another has his face bandaged à la Nash the Slash — and, as the Network, recorded the new wave album Money Money 2020. From analog synths and mechanical rhythms to echo-laden vocals and sci-fi-nerd lyrical themes, all the futuristic sounds of yesteryear are here. The album sounds like a lo-fi version of the Buggles or early Devo. (A couple of Devo’s members were rumored to be involved in the project; one of the lead vocalists here sure sounds a lot like Jerry Casale. Devo has denied any involvement with the Network — but so has Green Day.) The Reprise reissue adds two tracks, “Hammer of the Gods” and a cover of the Misfits’ “Teenagers From Mars.”
Following the Network disc and an aborted album of new material with Green Day, Billie Joe decided he wanted to push his primary band’s envelope further. The trio started from scratch, and came up with the “rock opera” / concept album American Idiot. Through 13 tracks (two of which are five-song suites), Billie Joe sings about dead-end characters named Jesus of Suburbia (“From the Bible of ‘None of the Above’ / On a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin”), St. Jimmy, and a girl called Whatsername (“Seems that she disappeared without a trace / Did she marry old Whatshisface?”). The characters wander through the “City of the Damned,” meeting up at the intersection of “East 12th St.” and the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” complaining about their homes, their upbringings, their schools, their prospects, and, well, everything else. Billie Joe may have wanted to pick up Pete Townshend’s mantle and write the next Tommy, but his ambition exceeds his reach. The songs really don’t cohere into a storyline at all. Apart from Whatsername’s departure in “Letter Bomb” and Jimmy’s suicide in the Who-like “The Death of St. Jimmy,” none of these characters actually does anything. (On shuffle, the album offers just as much narrative.) The band plays with energy and fervor throughout, but compared to the instrumentation on the preceding two albums (not to mention the Network disc), most of the arrangements on American Idiot seem a bit reactionary. That’s not a bad thing. The disc offers some of the most stripped-down punk rock Green Day has committed to tape since Dookie or Insomniac (albeit with more polished production). The pseudo-African percussion intro to “Extraordinary Girl” stands out, as do the chimes on ”Nobody Likes You,” the acoustic strumming, slide guitar and vibraphone on “Give Me Novacaine” and the saxophone wailing in the sock-hop-flavored “Rock and Roll Girlfriend.” And, of course, there are the ballads: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (the two biggest hit singles of Green Day’s career), both of which get old awfully fast. American Idiot is an enjoyable collection of rock ‘n’ roll songs — the sort of disc that sounds great in the car. Attentive listening, however, reveals an album that’s almost impossible to take as seriously as Green Day must have while recording it.
At its best, American Idiot is an outcry against the repressive, deadening culture of America at the beginning of the 21st century — a viewpoint no different from the one that’s driven punk since Johnny Rotten averred that “there is no future.” Millions of listeners, though, took something else from the album. From its title to the lyrics of such songs as “Holiday” (“Sieg heil to the President Gas, man / ‘Bombs away’ is your punishment”), Green Day’s first rock opera was widely (and inaccurately) seen as a wholesale indictment of George W. Bush himself. That perception elevated the trio (at least in the public’s mind) to the level of campaigners for change, sounding the clarion call to young voters to deny the “American Idiot” a second term. (Why else would they release it during an election year?) It was too little, too late, of course, to affect the outcome of the 2004 election…but not to affect Green Day. American Idiot topped charts around the globe, sold nearly six million copies in the US, and transformed the musicians from fading punk upstarts to global arena-rock titans.
Bullet in a Bible was recorded onstage during a two-nighter at the Milton Keynes Bowl in England. Half of the CD’s 14 songs hail from American Idiot; the biggest surprise is a rendition of the Isley Brothers “Shout,” with a bit of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (from the Monty Python film Life of Brian) thrown in.
Before starting work on the next Green Day album, Billie Joe reconvened Pinhead Gunpowder just long enough to record three songs (one of which, “On the Ave.,” appears in two different versions) for the West Side Highway EP. Kick Over the Traces is a 23-song compilation drawn from all of Pinhead’s previous releases.
Before getting back to Green Day, the three, along with their usual sidemen (Jason White and keyboardist/saxophonist Jason Freese) and Kevin Preston of the LA band Prima Donna, started another genre side-project. Calling themselves Foxboro Hot Tubs, the band recorded Stop, Drop and Roll!!!, an album of ‘60s-influenced (or pilfered) garage rock. From the cover design — right down to the white arc mimicking the wear mark of a vinyl record inside a sleeve — to the mix of crunchy and jangly guitars and weedy-sounding organ, the Nuggets homage is pretty thorough. Sometimes it’s way too obvious: “She’s a Saint Not a Celebrity” cribs its guitar arrangement straight from the Who’s rendition of “Summertime Blues,” and “Alligator” is simply “You Really Got Me” with different lyrics. But Stop, Drop and Roll!!! isn’t meant to be taken seriously at all. It’s simply a fun trip through the sounds and styles of the previous generation’s rock ‘n’ roll. As Billie Joe sings in “The Pedestrian,” “It don’t take a genius to be an idiot.”
Green Day clearly has chosen to use these side projects for fun, and to reserve its regular studio discs for more ambitious conceits. 21st Century Breakdown opens with a brief, radio-static-ridden a cappella number (“Song of the Century”) that serves as an overture. What follows is divided, opera-style, into three acts — Heroes and Cons, Charlatans and Saints and Horseshoes and Handgrenades. The album’s theme isn’t very different from that of American Idiot: it focuses on Christian and Gloria, two Detroit kids from “the Class of ‘13 / Born in the era of humility…desperate in the decline / Raised by the bastards of 1969.” In Act I, the teenagers recognize each other as kindred misfits and fall in love; they spend the remainder of the album raging against America’s dead-end culture of systematic betrayal. Again, the lyrics contain a lot of anger and complaints (and a few more details than the last album provided), but no real narrative. With production by Butch Vig (and perhaps some influence from its own previous side projects), Green Day blends a lot of classic rock touches into the songs. The title track works as a mini-suite, opening with piano chords that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Who’s Next and packing three different tempos into just five minutes of music. “¡Viva la Gloria!” opens with piano and string quartet before the band locks into a speedy, driving rocker; “Before the Lobotomy” employs a chiming guitar intro to similar effect. In the ballad department, “Restless Heart Syndrome” comes across as a tougher version of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “Last Night on Earth” will, no doubt, sound great at proms for the next few years — perhaps even after the Class of ‘13 graduates. The trio blends mariachi guitars and rhythms into “Peacemaker” and melodrama-style piano into “¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl),” and pays tribute to ’80s rock with “Last of the American Girls” and “21 Guns.” Green Day still offers plenty of the punk rock it started with — the sound that Tré Cool has called “our religion, our higher education” — and plays with as much focus, energy and passion as ever. “Christian’s Inferno,” “East Jesus Nowhere,” “Murder City,” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” (which opens, “Holiday in the Sun”-style, with marching boots) and “American Eulogy” stand up well alongside any of Green Day’s earlier loud ‘n’ fast tunes. And in contrast to the why-did-we-bother? conclusion of American Idiot, this album’s final song, “See the Light,” shows the young protagonists sticking together, committing themselves to each other and to the good fight — and to figuring out just who or what they’re fighting. Like its predecessor, 21st Century Breakdown delivers less than it promises; it’s more successful as a rock album than as a rock opera. But it shows Green Day challenging itself to get deeper into the history of rock without getting too far from its punk roots. Not bad for a band that was accused of abandoning those roots the minute it signed to Reprise.