A requiem for Green Day

Posted by Mike Amin On 8/28/2009
Ah, Green Day. Possibly one of the best bands of the 90's, and one of my all-time favorites. It's a shame they broke up and stopped making records after 1999... wait, what? Nah, nah - that can't be Green Day - that sounds like Scissor Sisters... no, maybe more like Robbie Williams... No wait, maybe more like... well, NOT Green Day.

Obnoxious fictional scenarios aside, this post is about Green Day and how one of the best bands ever has completely transformed over the last 10 years, and left the old Green Day for dead.

While many people may remember Green Day in the 90s, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize they sound like a radically different band in 2009. Green Day's early material had a tremendous impact on the mainstream appeal of punk with their release of Dookie in 1994. The album was amazing - maybe one of the best ever. Not to say their earlier releases weren't good: 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Kerplunk are terrific in their own ways. While the latter two had lower production values, the songwriting and music was amazingly infectious and still hold up to this day. Dookie raised the bar on production and it was one of those rare moments where major label support actually helped improve a band. Case in point: "Longview".

UPDATE OCT 27 2009: Looks like Warner has removed the video for Longview and Warning from YouTube, no doubt because they want to push people to the Green Day website. Anyway you can check out the music video here:
http://www.greenday.com/site/picsnvids.php#videos


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueO1Lh6S0Do

It wasn't just "Longview" though - Dookie is a masterpiece from beginning to end, and it opened up punk rock to millions of American teens. Thing is, there was an honesty to the music, despite being on a major label. To me, that is the essence of punk rock: honest, kick-ass music.

Insomniac, Green Day's follow-up to Dookie, came out toward the end of 1995, and was panned by critics. This was not surprising as there was a tremendous amount of pressure on the band at the time, and no doubt their popularity was overwhelming, mainly to the band themselves. I recall vividly seeing interviews with Green Day in 1996, just after Insomniac was came out. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt were humble punk rockers, and their goal was to just create good music, album sales or popularity be damned. This was the essence of the band I loved, and the same reason I love punk rock: the goal is to create good stuff. Check the boys out in a 1996 interview below - they discuss the fact that they don't really expect the album to sell more, but it didn't really matter to them:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7x64G00RZA

Insomniac has actually gotten better as the years have gone on, and there are a number of highly underrated songs on it, including "Stuck With Me", "No Pride", and what may be the best track off the album (as well as the closing track), "Walking Contradiction". Not only is "Walking Contradiction" an excellent track, but it could be the best video Green Day has ever done after "Warning" (the band has never had particularly compelling music videos). Check it out:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN_fps-tia0

Post-Insomniac, I was fortunate enough to meet the band in 1997 as they were passing through Montreal to support the outstanding just-released album Nimrod. I chatted with them for a bit and was not surprised to see that they were fairly cool, down-to-earth folks, who were more interested in playing great tunes than being rock stars. This really came through on the album.

Nimrod demonstrated that the guys could create amazing punk rock and even tip their hats to associative punk rock genres like melodic hardcore on "Platypus (I Hate You)" and surf on the instrumental track "Last Ride In". Unfortunately the lead single "Hitchin' a Ride" was a mess, and it seemed to have been created in order to regain mainstream appeal. Bad news for those unfortunate casual listeners that ran out to buy the album because they loved "Hitchin' a Ride"... the rest of the album, with one other exception (as I will detail below) was a focused, brilliant punk rock ride which was slicker than Dookie but just as compelling to any pre-Dookie Green Day fan because the music was still honest.

Then something major happened. As a listener got toward the end of the album, a frighteningly bizarre track popped up... that track was the now ubiquitous "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)":


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFgok5SceLw

What the...? Why is there a sappy acoustic track on a Green Day album? And why does it sound like James Taylor with a string section?? Hardcore Green Day fans were baffled, and it got worse. Light rock radio stations started to pick the song up. LIGHT ROCK. The idea of Green Being played on a light rock station was mind-blowing to anyone who had been following the band closely up to that point... unfortunately I knew this was the beginning of the end, because it all went to hell from that point on. And not in the good way.

The year 2000 hit, and Warning came out. It was startling. The band started to depart from their core sound... no longer did we hear punk rock chords and great songs - instead, we had what sounded like a cross between burlesque music and mainstream rock. Think an entire album of "Hitchin' a Ride". Really? REALLY? What happened? Maybe it was the fact that Rob Cavallo was no longer on board as a producer (he had produced every Green Day album up to that point). In fact, I have not been able to find who actually produced the album (there is no credit), which leads me to believe they boys produced it themselves. Maybe they were getting tired of their old punk rock sound, or maybe they were just getting older and wanted to start appealing to a different, more mainstream audience, but either way, it didn't work for me, and many I'm sure many other fans. Perhaps the only redeeming part to Warning was that the band released the awesome video for the title track, which is also the only decent song on the album:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=da0JwKT3GyM

An album of covers, Shenanigans, dropped in 2002 and it was fairly good for what it was, but simply because when you're covering Ramones songs it's hard to go wrong. At this point though, there was a glimmer of hope that Green Day would come back and knock our socks off like they did with Nimrod. They were Green Day, after all, right? We could forgive the aptly-named "Good Riddance" and bland disaster that was Warning because we figured the guys we always knew and loved would do what they do best: honest punk rock.

Enter American Idiot. This is probably what most true fans agree was the turning point of Green Day from punk rockers into a mainstream rock act. The album had a over-produced sound, with tons of reverb and a larger-than-life sound. This is punk rock - it should NEVER sound larger than life. These guys sounded like cheesy over-the-top stadium rock acts, as opposed to a humble punk trio belting out three-chord goodness. Who knows how many studio players they had on this album, but the sound transformed - subsequently, so did the band. While the record didn't necessarily have bad songs on it, the sound and feel was just not Green Day. It was something else, something foreign to those who played Kerplunk over and over on their walkman until the cassette got worn out and a new one would have to be recorded at a buddy's place.

The attitude changed.

No longer were these guys who just wanted to create good music. Instead, they wanted to be the biggest band in the world. They had a message, maaaan. The took the popularity of 2000s-era emo and capitalized it in a big way, pandering to millions of kids just discovering Green Day. The band themselves started to sound like egomaniacs in interviews: our music is important. WE are important. Buy our record.

You can't exactly blame them. American Idiot was HUGE. I'm sure dump trucks full of money started appearing at their places of residence, and the fame... oh, the fame. They started playing massive shows to 40,000 people and whatnot. They were rock gods, once again. And the guys, well into their 40s late 30s, probably realized this was a last chance at staying relevant.

Green day's latest album, 21st Century Breakdown, is more or less an extension of American Idiot (both could have easily been packaged as a double album), and with it comes the official end of Green Day. The album is essentially a pop-rock effort.

Both albums represent the shift of Green Day from pop-punk trio to 70s rocker-esque gandiose sideshow, which is fundamentally the reverse of the concept of punk, and therefore the core fans have been alienated, but the band has attracted literally millions of casual listeners. They say timing is everything - Green Day succeeded in capitalizing on both the shift in teenage musical tastes and the political conditions of early-2000s America. They now represent a style of music that is rife with over-ambitious complexity - something that is very hard to swallow for me and for old-school fans. What happened to a guitar, bass and drums? Do you really need an entire ORCHESTRA behind you? You might as well rename yourselves Metallica and start drinking FibreCon.

We have to thank Green Day for the legendary albums they did - unfortunately the band we loved no longer exists. Goodbye Green Day - rest in peace.

2 Responses to 'A requiem for Green Day'

  1. mesanna said...
    http://mikeamin.blogspot.com/2009/08/requiem-green-day.html?showComment=1251634444591#c3432665128148840165'> August 30, 2009 at 8:14 AM

    I enjoyed your article though I don't entirely agree with your conclusions. I wasn't a particular fan of early Green Day (though everyone likes Dookie), but I love the later stuff. I'm more of a rocker than a punk so they have evolved into a sound that suits my tastes more than the earlier releases. I actually think they were pretty brave when they released American Idiot *because* it was so different from everything they'd done before and they must have known they risked alienating many of their fans. As it happened, AI was a huge success and they gained lots of new fans, but it could have bombed worse than Warning. Billie talks about it in the Bullet in a Bible video and he says "If they fucking hang us, fuck it". Now that is a total punk attitude!

    Everyone changes as they grow older (and they're not into their 40's yet, none of them are more than 37 right now). I know I'm not the same person I was in 1994. I always feel it's a little unfair to criticize a band for trying to take their music further. I'm not sure I want to hear 8 albums regurgitating the same theme. Sometimes you'll like a direction a band goes in and sometimes you won't. But I can't blame them for trying something different.

     

  2. Mike Amin said...
    http://mikeamin.blogspot.com/2009/08/requiem-green-day.html?showComment=1251649635017#c3141364381387876585'> August 30, 2009 at 12:27 PM

    Point well taken, Mesanna. I'll put this out there for consideration: they may have said "fucking hang us" but I can assure you they were aware the album would sells oodles, so the statement was inconsequential. The record label was fully behind AI and committed to push it with a tremendous marketing effort. Remember seeing those AI posters everywhere you went? The point here is that they played it very safe with the last two records, and I think they took very few risks by putting out what they did.

    More importantly, while I appreciate the "we're gonna do whatever we want" punk attitude, the issue is that what they wanted to do was create a very generic mainstream rock sound. If they had gone off and done a completely instrumental record using only harmoniums for example, I feel like that would be far more true to the honesty of the music as opposed just churning out what sounds like everything else on the radio. I'm certainly not criticizing them for trying to take their sound further, because I really don't think they are taking it further. They seem to have just regressed and almost used a cookie-cutter approach to the music.

    I'm not saying that I wanna just hear another Dookie - in fact, I think 1,039, Dookie and Nimrod were all COMPLETELY different sounds, but all phenomenal albums. They were doing different things on those releases, and I applaud them for it... especially because the sound was UNIQUE. American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown however, are difficult to differentiate from most other radio-friendly rock fodder.

    Also, thanks for the age note - I've made the correction.

     

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