Icon: Green Day
Green Day couldn’t get critically arrested or commercially noticed when they first showed up on the Bay Area’s early-’90s punk scene. But over the course of a shockingly resilient career, they’ve found new ways to nuance their vision of punk rock populism. Who’d have thought that the brain-drained brats of their first great record, 1991′s Kerplunk, would be the band to bring open-souled thrash to the top of the charts after so many had failed at that mission? Or that the same band would turn around and write an acoustic ballad that would soundtrack a jillion Flickr montages, and then vanish almost entirely into adult-oriented pop-craft? And then – even more amazingly – blitz back from the grave with an operatic indictment of Bush’s Babylon that put them right back in the center of pop music? As it turned out, we had more time to listen to Billy Joel Armstrong whine than we – or he – ever thought possible.
It’s one of rock’s minor miracles.
The Gilman Street Days
In 1990, the notion of punk rock taking over the mainstream seemed utterly inconceivable. Green Day's debut wasn't much more than another shiny, sharp shot of good-time pogo-ready ranting from the Lookout! punk scene — better than the Horny Mormons or Drippy Drawers, for sure, but certainly no Operation Ivy. The tempos are Ramones-crisp, the tunes shiny, if monochrome, and Billy Joel Armstrong and Mike Dirnt harmonize like pros. What sets... them apart from their peers and suggests greatness to come is Armstrong's almost Paul Westerbergian emotional empathy. Songs like "Don't Leave Me" and "Disappearing Boy" are girl-zonked admissions of haplessness and need, and while a song like "409 In Your Coffee" celebrates cheesy pranksterism, the gross-out lyrics of forebears like the Descendents are mostly replaced by introspect and a stoner-ness that'd soon help them build a bond with suburban bros in backwards hats. On "16," Armstrong looks around and sees his youth wasted before he can even drive a car; on "Don't Leave Me" he pleads like a green-haired soulman. His alienation makes the music feel less alien, like something from down the block rather than the gutter-punk club downtown. Like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, he transports the ruination of the outside world into the bedroom.more »
Kerplunk established Green Day as the premiere band on the Gilman Street scene and set the stage for their pop success. The songs are tighter and more assured, thanks in large part to the addition of agile, speed-drunk drummer Tre Cool. Armstrong's writing breaks from the one-trick thrash of the band's debut, with more dynamic surges and smartened-up songcraft. The obvious high-point, and their first great song, is "2000 Light Years Away,"... a riff on an old Stones song, that perfects Green Day's great skill: writing fast, easy songs about slow, hard emotions (in this case staying up all night staring at the stars and thinking about the distance between himself and his ex). The other classic is "Welcome to Paradise" (reprised on Dookie), where Armstrong brilliantly adds to the canon of California-sucks punk anthems. Elsewhere, Armstrong satirizes teen-angst ("Who Wrote Holden Caulfield") and S&M chic (the country spoof "Dominated Love Slave"). "Words I Might've Ate" translates the racing tempos and shame sharing to acoustic instruments, seemingly for the sake of upending punk form. A tacked on version of the Who's "My Generation" (originally on the Sweet Children EP), is another risky move, but one that falls flat. Yet, it indicates he's already imagining a broader context for his music.more »
The Mainstreet Days
Released two months before Kurt Cobain's suicide, at the pinnacle of alt-rock's tortured ethics wars, Dookie made self-pity fun again, exploding in the summer of '94 to re-wire alt-rock's circuitry at a crucial moment. "So close to drowning but I don't mind," Armstrong sang on "Burnout," a line that resonated with kids who hungered to outgrow teen angst rather than turn it into an immolating worldview. Where In Utero made entombed isolation... feel like something you soak in, Dookie exploded into the real world; you could deliver pizzas to it, drink 40s in the woods to it, lift weights to it. Its poppy economy was stunning, each song felt like a perfectly shaped phlegm globber hawked in the face of grunge's self-absorbed slovenliness, and big-time production gave the churning riffs a peppy menace, like the guitars are chasing Armstrong down the hall to give him a swirly.more »
"Longview" rumbled and splayed, and turned boredom into a head-banging party. A revised "Welcome to Paradise" rode a sunny monster thrash riff into the heart of American Hell. But Armstrong's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" moment came on "Basket Case." He sings, "sometimes I give myself the creeps" like he's a bad hair day away from pipe-bombing the local Kwiki-mart, then lets the rush of the song's raging, Clash-hot, chorus whisk him away to pop heaven. "When I Come Around" is metal-punk that creates an essential link between Rancid and Poison. Throughout, Dirnt and Cool lock in like a punk rock Sly and Robbie. And even throwaways like "Coming Clean" and "Sassafras Roots" have a buoyant pummeling gleefulness that the NOFXes of the world couldn't touch. Not since the Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat had a band translated new wave to a mass audience with such joy and freedom. Suddenly, Green Day was the biggest American punk band ever.
Punks usually put out as much music as they can as quickly as possible. Pop acts pounce on big success. So, it was not a surprise that Green Day had a new disc in the malls a year after their breakthrough. Insomniac could've been called Twokie; it's that similar to its predecessor. No harm there. The songs aren't as indelible, but there was plenty to keep the band's new nation of all-American... rejects happy. "86" is a standard, if searing, lament for the days when he was one of punk-rock anonymous true believers, rather its ambassador to the hinterlands. "Stuck With Me" is another speed-demon gripe about feeling too crazy to leave your bedroom. "Panic Song" is their harshest song to date, a torrid, grinding beat-down that breaks from friendly power-pop. A predictable theme emerges: fame sucks. On "Stuart and the Ave," Armstrong stands on an East Bay corner feeling outside the punk community that raised him. But Green Day are too good-natured to sink into Cobanian depths of depression; Armstrong's everydoof posture undercuts the kind of artistic self-regard that turned so many alt-rock stars into conflicted babies. He may be a "Walking Contradiction," but his faith in the fast, bold and snotty keeps him from afloat.more »
"Feel washed up and just go down the drain," sang Armstrong on "Nice Guys Finish Last," like he wants to clear out his "Tiredness Metaphors" file before moving it into the trash. Released two years after Insomniac and recorded after a hiatus from touring, the 18-song Nimrod isn't quite a concept record on the wages of making it big, but it certainly shows the band moving beyond their trademark sound and contemplating... stuff like aging and success. The tempos as slower, rarely rising to Dookie-level velocity, the tone is nostalgic and at times dark. On "Grouch" Armstrong sings "I'm just another shitty old man."more »
On "Redundant" he complains he "cannot speak," as Byrds-like guitar chime sets a weirdly elegiac tone. Elsewhere, they push up against the walls of their sound: The instrumental "Hitchin' A Ride" is a glam-rock stomp, "Last Ride In" is setting-sun surf-rock as R.E.M. would have it. "Reject" and "Prosthetic Heart" turn the jovial jaundice of their hits inside out; they're candy songs with a tough, viscous center. Ironically, the biggest departure ended up being their biggest hit. With its strings and sweetly sad acoustic melody, "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), is an ambivalent break-up song that became so big it soundtracked the Seinfeld finale.
Dirnt famously called "Good Riddance" "the most punk thing" the band ever did. That sense of liberation is all over their next disc, 2000's Warning. Stylistically far-flung and almost wholly removed from the scabrous sunshine of Dookie, it seemed at the time to be signaling a turn to maturity and craft that might remove the band from its original fan base altogether. In other words, an artistically smart commercial bomb. The title... track rips off the Kinks' "Picture Book," while "Hold On" nicks the melody of Elvis Costello's "Veronica," and "Fashion Victim" has a touch of Blur in it. Armstrong owns all these references, using them to explore his favorite punk subjects (isolation, confusion, growing up, community). "Church on Sunday," is a sweet, driving song about love-as-compromise, the peppy "Castaway" quotes Dylan in one final kiss-off to Armstrong's old scene, "Minority" turns punky anti-authoritarianism into a Pogues-like drinking jam. Armstrong shows himself to be an extremely astute fan of '60s rock, and there's something else very '60s going on here as well: politics. Throughout the record, Armstrong considers the wages of participation, apathy and activism. It's the perfect vibe of conflict and aimlessness for a liberal nice guy to hit during the muddled twilight of the Clinton years. Hmm, if only there was a president who could help Billy Joe hone his rage.more »
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The Bush years refocused Green Day's ambition and intensity as they laid claim to the mantle of America's Most Important Band with one of the '00s' best albums. American Idiot tapped into the fear and loathing of the post-9/11 era, mixing rage and empathy, searing punk rock and tender balladry, Red America and Blue America. "Now everybody do the propaganda/ And sing along in the age of paranoia," Armstrong sang on the... title track. The disc tells the story of the Jesus of Suburbia, a perfect character for this most mall-friendly punk band; he's a TV space case, a dupe, a mindless consumer "in the land of make-believe," in other words, just the kind of guy Green Day are trying to reach. They do it with broadsides (the Clash-torrid "Letterbomb") and subtle reflections (the open-minded Iraq War opus "Wake Me Up When September Ends"). Armstrong takes the lessons he learned working on his pop-craft during the band's years in the commercial wilderness and comes up with songs that run the gamut from summery AOR ("Extraordinary Girl") to '70s glam "Holiday"); these are the sharpest, brightest, most versatile tunes he's ever written. Even more impressive, he laces together an opera that incorporates a love story, a search for identity, politics, religion, war, and not one but two nine-minute set-pieces.more »
It's a Tommy for the age of terror scares and videogame attention spans. Armstrong's suburban kids are both the blank-slate target of Bush's testosterone politics and the victims of his policies, even if they can barely articulate why life in Longview is siphoning their souls like oil. At a time when music's biggest names were pretty much staying quiet on the issues of the day at risk of getting Dixie Chicks-ed, Green Day, a band in career limbo, found new life taking a risk and speaking its mind.
Following an opera with an opera? Even the Who didn't have cojones that grand. But Billy Joe Armstrong still had stories to tell, more personal and perhaps even deeper than those on American Idiot. Comprised of three acts splayed over 18 songs, set in Detroit and hella depressed, Breakdown replaces Idiot's Bush-inspired venom with a more resigned vision of America as a place where dreams are downsizing and hope is up on... blocks next to the foreclosure sign in the front yard. By definition, it's less thrilling and pointed, but the sense of stylistic wanderlust (from the Beatles to the Clash to Springsteen to gypsy punk to glam to piano balladry), deepens the sense of drift felt by the album's heroes, star-crossed, working-class lovers Christian and Gloria. When Armstrong sings about "scattered dreams" on "Before the Lobotomy" or rages against infidels on "Peacemaker" he taps into a centerless apathy that's more subversive in the optimistic first year of Obama than red-eyed rage was in the age of Bush. The album's centerpiece is "21 Guns," a sweeping soft-rock ballad about what happens after you've realized it's time to let go of the American dream, hits a perfect note of tearful realism from a band that's always excelled at making multi-faceted alienation feel communal.more »