Where To Start With... Green Day
With a career spanning some 25-odd years, 11 albums that have, in total, sold somewhere north of 80 million copies and even a musical based on their 2003 album American Idiot, it's easy to forget Green Day's humble roots. Originally formed by 14-year-old school friends Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt in their hometown of Berkerley, California, Green Day spent several years carving out a reputation for themselves on the West coast's burgeoning punk scene, signing to local punk label Lookout! Records and releasing their debut 39/Smooth before adding drummer Tré Cool and completing their second album for the small label, Kerplunk, shifting over 60,000 copies and touring two continents without the aid of any real promotion or marketing budget to speak of.
By then, it seemed obvious that Green Day were destined for greater things; compared to their contemporaries they were louder, faster and had much more of a knack for a melody, so it wasn't long before major labels began sniffing around the group and by 1992 the trio had become the subject of a bidding war. But the band were in no rush and had seen too many of their favourite punk bands sign with big labels, only to end up compromising or diluting their sound, so they made it a priority to hold out for complete creative control over their music. “We held off for quite a long time” drummer Cool would later tell the NME. “Why? Because David Geffen's money was paying for us to go to Disneyland. We kind of milked them.”
When they eventually signed to Reprise Records, the Warner Bros. subsidiary founded by Frank Sinatra in the 1960s, within months they had turned in Dookie, the breakthrough album that included songs like 'Basket Case' and 'When I Come Around', and became regulars on the airwaves and on MTV, selling millions of albums in the process and becoming one of the leading lights in the punk rock revival that had begun with Nirvana's epoch-changing Nevermind.
Over the next couple of decades, like any band that's been around for a while, there were highs and lows; just when it seemed the might be on the wane at the beginning of the next decade, they turned in American Idiot, their best and biggest-selling record in years, filled with Armstrong's acerbic rants aimed at Bush-era politics and bemoaning the image the nation was projecting onto the world stage. If there's anything Green Day do better than almost anyone, it's channelling rage and disenfranchisement into blistering, three-minute sermons of noisy guitars, light-speed drums and angst-ridden lyrics.
The end of the 2000s brought their most ambitious projects yet; first the epic, sprawling punk-opera of 21st Century Breakdown, then the trilogy of albums – ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré! – that appeared in 2012. Billie-Joe has since dismissed the latter, perhaps a little unfairly on himself, as having “absolutely no direction to them” and when they set about working on the newest album Revolution Radio, which arrives in stores this week, there was a clear ambition to strip things down to the essentials; all killer, no filler.
As such, Revolution Radio is a much leaner affair at just 12 tracks, which Armstrong described in a Q Magazine interview recently as being “not so much a makeover as a make-under.” One listen to the album's lead-off single 'Bang Bang' is enough to see what he means. Fuelled by anger and bewilderment at the wave of mass-shootings that have become so tragically prevalent in the last few years, Armstrong skewers the American gun culture and the obsession with social media, with its ability to amplify any tragedy by documenting it in excruciating detail. But it's also the first time since 21st Century Breakdown that the band have returned to recording as a three-piece, with touring guitarist Jason White having gone back to being just that. The result is a return of the urgency and blistering pace of their early records, combined with a lyrical sensibility that marks a more mature perspective.
The album's title track continues in a similar vein, while 'Still Breathing' combines this with the anthemic, stadium-filling feel of some of their later work, but on the whole this is a back-to basics album that reveals a Green Day that is refreshed and sharply focussed.
You can find the video for 'Bang Bang' below, beneath that we've picked five of the best tracks from Green Day's career so far as a guide for the uninitiated...
'Welcome To Paradise'
First appearing on the band's second album Kerplunk (although later re-recorded for Dookie), 'Welcome to Paradise' was one of the songs that caught the attention of the big labels thanks to its melodic hooks, but although the later, re-recorded sounds beefier and more polished, the song's arrangement is practically identical and shows that the band were already starting to fulfil their potential. Written about the dingy basement flat the trio lived in while writing and recording their second and third albums (“some call it slum, some call it nice”), it was an early indicator of Armstrong's ability as a songwriter and of what was to come next.
Taken from Dookie and still one of their most enduring songs, 'Basket Case' features Armstrong trying to make sense of the anxiety attacks he was experiencing (it would be several years before he was diagnosed with a panic disorder), later telling the makers of a VH1 documentary about the album “"The only way I could know what the hell was going on was to write a song about it." The video was filmed in a real psychiatric facility, although it had been abandoned, and was originally shot in black and white before being artificially colourised, helping create and bizarre and vivid feel, as you can see below...
'Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)'
Taken from the band's fifth album Nimrod, this was a change of pace from the brash, loud and fast sound that had become Green Day's trademark and it's more proof, if any were need, of Armstrong's strength as a songwriter. It was actually written as early as 1990 and Armstrong originally presented it during the recording sessions for Dookie, but felt that it didn't fit with the rest of the album. When they revisited the track a few years later, producer Rob Cavallo suggested they keep it sparse but add some strings. The song has since been covered by a number of country artists, including Glen Campbell, who recorded his version in 2008.
After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the resulting war in Iraq, Armstrong was alarmed by the media coverage of the war, particularly the weird juxtaposition of journalists in tanks live-broadcasting the violence, cut with TV advertisements. But he was also reportedly inspired by the Lynyrd Skynyrd song 'The Way I Like It', which seemed to him to boast about being proud to be a redneck. 'American Idiot' was intended as the antithesis to that sentiment and while there was some worry about whether they would offend most of their fellow Americans, the song found popularity with the many that opposed the war, both in and outside of the United States, and represented a return to form for the band.
Our final pick is taken from 21st Century Breakdown, a record that is probably their most ambitious in terms of the scale of production. This is a big, hand-in-the-air anthem aimed squarely at the arenas and touches on the themes of war and patriotism, misguided or otherwise. It's a long way from the fast and furious punk of Kerplunk, but it's a great song all the same and remains a favourite at their live shows.