Is Green Day punk? Or a band of a different color?
By Jim Lenahan
Some 18,000 people packed the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C., on a Monday evening—a cold, windy night with wet snow just beginning to fall and lots more in the forecast. It was the kind of night that normally would have kept people securely in their suburban homes. But they braved the storm, not for a political rally nor a major sporting event, but for all things, a rock concert. And you thought rock was dead.
Not when it’s Green Day. What makes this both heartening and confounding is that this is a band most would associate with punk rock, music that a generation ago was relegated to dingy basement clubs and skateparks.
Like many of the band’s fans, I was turned on to Green Day with the release of “Dookie” in 1994. With songs “Burnout” and “Longview” and “Basket Case,” the album was a shot of sonic adrenaline — super-catchy, ultra-tight, melodic, propulsive. It pushed all the right buttons for a young man raised on “alternative rock” when that wasn’t a mainstream term. The “Dookie” CD immediately became part of the regular rotation for my car stereo and boombox. Even so, I knew that, culturally, this wasn’t music born of the working-class neighborhoods of London or New York’s Bowery. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong music was more measured, more knowing; his snarl came with tongue planted in cheek. This was “underground” like the rec room in your split-level.
Standing at the show this week (not sitting; this was not a sitting kind of show), I pondered the enduring appeal of Green Day. Why does this band continue to draw old fans to shows and continue to develop a new fanbase (my 16-year-old daughter among them, along with numerous other Hot Topic patrons) while so many of its peers (Blink-182, Sum 41, the Offspring, Rancid), if they are still together, are off playing casinos or county fairs?
Watching the concert, I reached this conclusion: Green Day comes off as a simple band playing simple songs, but in reality, these guys are so much more. Let’s break this down:
Green Day as punk band
This is where the band started and where we start. The spiky hair (the drummer’s is green!), the thrift store-ish wardrobe, the oh-so-clever nom-de-plume (Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders, meet Tre Cool!), the aforementioned snarl, the anti-rock star aesthetic, on-stage cursing, political rants, stage diving—all the elements except safety pins are there (maybe Billie Joe wears safety pins too; I couldn’t tell from the back half of the arena). Oh, and the songs, the early songs especially—they’re pure Ramones. Fast, short with buzzsaw guitar, thumping bass, pounding drums and melodies to die for. The main difference is that the Ramones played grimey CBGB, never sold many records and struggled to play venues larger than clubs in the U.S. (But they were huge in South America!)
And true fans know that Green Day did emerge from the Bay Area punk scene, with Operation Ivy as key inspiration/mentors. The band’s two pre-“Dookie” albums were on street-cred indie label Lookout!
Green Day as emo band
After a few more albums with the punk-pop formula (plus a couple of radio-friendly ballads), sales were waning. So Billie Joe did a very smart thing: He wrote a rock-opera. Now that’s something the Ramones would never consider. “American Idiot,” released in 2004, kept the basic guitar-bass-drums instrumentation mostly intact, but mixed dynamics and tempo changes and complex song structures in with the power chords. If this all sounds a little My Chemical Romancey, it’s no coincidence. Billie Joe saw what the next wave of kids responded to, and it wasn’t bursts of teen anger, it was symphonies of teen sadness. The attitudinal defiance remained—our leaders mislead us, our institutions are a joke, our suburban lives are boring—but this ride was more roller-coaster than rocket.
And the album—a blistering assault on George W. Bush’s America—is kinda brilliant, not just as a business move but as a work of art. In the years since, Green Day has stayed on the emo-anthem path, and there is no lack of money to be made playing to sensitive kids.
Green Day as classic rock band
The Ramones may have deconstructed rock to his core components, but that doesn’t mean much of that artifice couldn’t be built back up again. Rock star poses, audience participation, call-and-response to fill in the set’s dead spots, light shows, flames, so many flames—Green Day has come a long way from the skatepark.
Musically, Green Day has always had touched on some of the best of classic rock—covering the Who way back on 1992’s “Kerplunk!” Even on “Dookie,” there was “When I Come Around,” which fit nicely on FM radio between spins of the Eagles and Zeppelin. It’s seems fitting now that Green Day emerged as the stars of yet another muddy Woodstock.
And then there’s this: I rarely go for big arena rock shows anymore, and yet the last two acts I have seen at Verizon Center both played a cover of ‘60s party rock staple “Shout”! That Green Day has so much in common with Bruce Springsteen says that this band has studied the finer points of rock showmanship. That Billie Joe emerged at the end of Green Day’s encore to play two ballads by himself on acoustic guitar, solo spotlight shining down, says that he understands how to cool down the crowd and let them leave satisfied. And like any proper classic rock band, Green Day doesn’t fail to trade on nostalgia (the new album is called “Revolution Radio,” the image of a burning boombox prominentl). Also like any proper classic rock band, no one really wants to hear much of the new stuff.
Green Day as power pop band
And this is where we land on true Green Day. To understand this band’s appeal is to understand this subgenre. Power pop emerged in the late ‘70s, related to punk in simple songs, but less abrasive. In this light, Green Day is more similar to the Jam or the Buzzcocks or the Undertones than to the Dead Boys or the Damned or Black Flag. Interestingly, when Green Day broke in the early ‘90s, so did a resurgence of power pop. Other than perhaps stage attire and marketing campaigns, is there all that much difference between Green Day and Urge Overkill or Redd Kross or Matthew Sweet? None of those acts is considered punk.
And this is ultimately what makes Green Day work: Melodic songs, played with power and drive and practiced skill. This is what attracts the masses. Even on a snowy school night.
Bonus points (or other things I think are cool about Billie Joe Armstrong):
He filled in on guitar for an injured Paul Westerberg during the Replacements reunion tour, and hung around for a few shows even after Paul got better (I saw one of those later shows, and it was delightful).
He recorded an album of Everly Brothers cover songs with Norah Jones.
He made an apparent fortune turning “American Idiot” into a hit Broadway show. (Pete Townshend smiles.)
He and Green Day subbed for the Ramones at that band’s Rock Hall induction in 2002, ripping through “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Rockaway Beach” and “Blitzkreig Bop.”