“I never thought being obnoxious would get me where I am today.” — Billie Joe Amstrong.
Green Day hardly met any challenges ’til the 00s. From the get-go, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt witnessed success. In 1988, after only a year on the circuit, Larry Livermore of Lookout! Records signed their band, then called Sweet Children, to record a handful of EPs, which would more or less become the basis for their initial 1990 debut, 39/Smooth. Things hardly slowed down, either. They wrote, they toured, they snagged drummer Tré Cool, and they picked up fans along the way. Four years later, the trio held every teenager alive by the neck with their mainstream breakthrough record, Dookie, which served as the renegade “phoenix” for fans recently abandoned by one Kurt Cobain.
From Woodstock to any slacker-ridden film’s soundtrack, the three pranksters from Oakland graced each and every medium with spit, snot, and mud. They made punk not only hip, but accessible, sort of the same way Cobain had made guitar playing as easy as changing the TV channel. It wasn’t until 1997, with the release of Nimrod, that the band started to see what the industry refers to as, “a slump.” Despite critical acclaim and adoration (How many girls do you know that pined for “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” as their graduation song?), Nimrod‘s album sales were hardly as voluminous as Dookie, or even 1995’s heavy handed follow up, Insomniac. Alas, things started to turn, but not until the new millennium.
2000’s Warning may be the most underrated album of the decade. For one, everybody remembers it, but not until you remind them. It was swept under. The band opted for acoustics, the fan base opted out. But at its heart, it’s the band’s most decisive record in their discography, as it’s the first time they truly carved something different. Warning hardly screamed, but when it did, it wasn’t an angsty wail, it felt… mature. The mud-chucking Armstrong sounded more like John Lennon than Jesse Michaels (or Paul Westerberg) and both Dirnt and Cool spent the extra time to bring in some extra fills and key changes. Songs like “Warning”, “Waiting”, and the magnum opus “Minority” spoke different tongues, and while some fans “got it”, the album plummeted in sales, despite the broad critical support. This led to the release of a greatest hits compilation, which is just a sign that the label needs more money, the awkward Pop Disaster Tour, where the three opened for Blink-182, and even discussions about splitting up the band.
But here’s where things get interesting. Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool pushed forward, recording the long delayed follow up, Cigarettes and Valentines. Call it fate, call it a draw of luck, or call it a brilliant restart, but the tapes were stolen, and the album was eventually canceled. Shoot to 2004, the music industry receives its most iconic concept album since Radiohead’s OK Computer. It’s called American Idiot, and while it doesn’t take off immediately, it goes on to be the band’s most successful album since 1994’s Dookie. The band’s back. Radio stations of every genre play “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” ad infinitum, the American Idiot tour sells out everywhere, and by 2005, the album snags a Grammy for Best Rock Album (not counting the four other nominations, which includes Best Album). The biggest surprise? Armstrong’s a house hold name, a modern rock hero to new generations.
You don’t have to look (or think) hard about how influential American Idiot became. With a marketing scheme that channeled former war propaganda, lyrics that provided a perfect escape for those bewildered by President Bush, and poppy sensibilities that could rival any Top 40 act, it wasn’t hard for the band to win over America’s youth. If anything, it’s the older fans that crossed their arms and shook their heads… as they took their kids to the shows.
Things haven’t changed, either. While the Green Day moniker vanished for a good three years, the trio popped up just enough to stay in everyone’s minds. From a duet with U2 (“The Saints are Coming”) to a rollicking side project (last year’s Foxboro Hot Tubs), Armstrong & Co. managed to deliver to its demanding fan base, leading all the way up to this year’s eagerly anticipated follow up, 21st Century Breakdown. Some could argue the idea of following up a concept album with another concept is not only a bloated one but a trite one, too, but it worked for Pink Floyd. Guess what? It worked for Green Day, too. Packed with windmill guitar work, anthemic lyrics, and overall musicianship that bears little similarities with anything they put out pre-2000, it’s safe to say the sister concept solidified Green Day as more than just a “hit punk band from the Bay Area,” as they were pegged for years and years.
No, if the band’s taught us anything this year, it’s that they’re just a straight up, honest-to-god rock band with little to no pretensions. What else do they have to be? Not punk rockers. After all, they told the punk genre to fuck off back when “Basket Case” hit MTV in the summer of 1994, and by the time they squeezed out “Nice Guys Finish Last”, anyone still snubbing them were yesterday’s news. They are what they’ve always been: three guys with a sense of melody. It’s that same mentality that put The Beatles on the proverbial rock ‘n’ roll pedestal, it’s that sort of attitude that draws crowds of every age, demographic, and nationality. What’s more, they love their fans. Since the early ’00s, their shows attempt to incorporate older and younger audiences in any way or form possible; either through singing along, pulling tykes on-stage for support, or passing out guitars to prospective rock ‘n’ roll heroes to come. That’s why the idea of Harmonix working with the guys for an incarnation of Rock Band isn’t surprising in the slightest. In fact, it was probably just another way they wanted to reach out to kids — because really, it’s doubtful they’re in it for the money (if they ever were in the first place).
At the end of the day, they just know what it’s like to be a band. God, do we even remember what a band is anymore? One downside of this decade has been everyone’s incessant need to find some obscure act we have no idea about (and the internet’s made that easy for everyone to do, of course). Well, Green Day has always been the opposite. They want to be a band for everybody. This past July, we wrote about their time in Chicago, concluding, “Risky or not, Green Day continues to tear the house walls down, pillar by pillar and generation after generation.” This statement says it all. They’re a party that will never slow down, that will take each hurdle with the smartest consideration, and they will never tire. But don’t worry, you can always join in on the fun. They sort of pride themselves on having an open-door policy.
CoS Select Picks:
“Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” (Live in Miami 1993)
“Paper Lanterns” and the Woodstock Mud Fight (Live 1994)
“Geek Stink Breath”
“American Idiot” at Live 8 (Live in Berlin 2005)
“Know Your Enemy” (Live in Oakland 2009)