Published May 22, 2009They were darlings of the underground, then spokesmen for a generation of apathetic MTV youth. And just when it seemed like everyone had written Green Day off, they returned with tidy new outfits, a liberal amount of eyeliner, and the best album of their career since the breakout, diamond-certified Dookie. Real life rarely gets second acts this strong, but more than a decade after defining pop punk for a disaffected new era, Green Day have defined revolutionary-minded rock'n'roll for a world mired in illegal wars and political unrest. While their current image, newfound politics, and tendency to break their albums into conceptual movements is growing a little thin in 2009, there is no denying Green Day's relevance to the current state of everything from pop punk to radio rock. And there is no way anyone could have seen that coming in 1994.
Billie Joe Armstrong is born in Oakland, California, the youngest of six children in a working-class home. Michael Ryan Pritchard is born in Berkley, California, and is immediately given up for adoption by his heroin-addicted mother. And on the other end of the planet, Frank Edwin Wright III is born in Frankfurt, West Germany. His father, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war, relocates his new family to Willits, California.
1973 to 1981
In the decidedly blue-collar suburb of Rodeo, California, Armstrong is frequently left to fend for himself while his mother picks up shifts Rod's Hickory Pit in Vallejo, the same restaurant she's worked in since she was 16. His father, a truck driver for Safeway who moonlights as a jazz drummer, fosters an early interest in music in his son. With his dad's encouragament, in 1977, a chipmunk-voiced Armstrong records the single "Look For Love," written by some local musicians, for local Fiat Records. Fewer than 1000 copies are pressed. Pritchard, who develops heart problems at an early age as a complication of his mother's addiction, has difficulty in his adoptive home. By 1978, his parents are divorced.
1982 to 1986
Armstrong's father develops oesophageal cancer, and dies within three months of his diagnosis. Armstrong's mother begins dating almost immediately, and soon marries a man that Armstrong despises. Pritchard finds himself in a similar situation when his mother marries a man with whom he frequently clashes; hatred of their step-dads is one of the many things the two share when they meet for the first time in late 1982 in the halls of Carquinez Middle School in Crocket, California. The two don't really hit it off until 1985, when they discover a mutual love of metal and punk; that same year, Wright is asked to join his first band. Next door neighbour Larry Livermore, the founder of legendary punk label Lookout! Records and co-founder of venerable punk venue 924 Gilman Street, taps Wright to play drums in the Lookouts, teaching him punk basics by hiding all the cymbals in the closest and starting with the tom-heavy beats that will become Wright's trademark later. Recognizing the decidedly un-rock flavour of the name Frank Edwin Wright III, Livermore christens his new drummer "Tre Cool." Somewhere off in Rodeo, Armstrong, now known at school as "Two Dollar Bill," a reference to the joints he sells, writes his first song on his first guitar, a blue Stratocaster copy he appropriately dubs "Blue." The song is "Why Do You Want Him," a plea to his mother and a rant against his stepfather.
Armstrong and Pritchard, now going by the last name "Dirnt" (an onomatopoeia for the bass sounds he frequently makes in class), attend their first show at 924 Gilman Street. Nurturing a scene that includes notable punks like Operation Ivy, Blatz, Jawbreaker, and Crimpshrine (a band whose farewell show Armstrong and Dirnt would play in 1989), Armstrong refers to the venue as his "salvation," while Dirnt simply calls it "my high school." Inspired by the DIY attitude of the Gilman scene, as well as the Ramones, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü, Armstrong and Dirnt form their first band, Sweet Children, along with drummer Jeff Kiffmeyer, also known as Al Sobrante. With help from Armstrong's mother, their first gig is on October 17 at Rod's Hickory Pit. With a few friends in attendance, the show goes well enough that the band is offered a second. It is against this promising backdrop that Dirnt's homelife deteriorates to the point of him leaving home at 15; for a time, he lives in Armstrong's house, then, in his truck.
1988 to 1989
Sweet Children play their first-ever show at Gilman. Armstrong and Dirnt are ecstatic. The slightly older and more connected Kiffmeyer helps get Larry Livermore out to a show. "They played like they were the Beatles at Shea Stadium," said Livermore in a 2000 episode of Behind the Music. He signs the band to Lookout! Records, home to bands like Screeching Weasel, the Queers, and the Mr. T Experience, and in 1989, releases 1,000 Hours, the band's first EP. Just before its release, Sweet Children opt to change their name in order to avoid confusion with similarly named local punks, Sweet Baby. Inspired by a full day of doing nothing but getting stoned, Armstrong suggests Green Day. Much to Livermore's chagrin, the rest of the band loves it.
Armstrong drops out of high school in his sophomore year with plans to dedicate himself entirely to music. 39/Smooth, Green Day's first full-length, is released, along with some funny (in retrospect) liner notes featuring letters from Kiffmeyer and Livermore to I.R.S. records, an A&M subsidiary, rejecting offers to sign the band and pledging their allegiance to Lookout! Preparing to tour immediately following Dirnt's graduation, the band records the EP Slappy, which includes a cover of Operation Ivy's "Knowledge," still a staple of the band's live set, which involves audience members storming the stage to take over instrumental duties. As planned, the band launches into a 45-date tour just as summer starts, including a show in Minneapolis where Armstrong flirts with a women named Adrienne Nesser; the two continue to talk regularly on the phone, Armstrong smitten with the older women's college-level human sexuality studies. While in Minneapolis, the band records Sweet Children, a four-song EP compiling older, previously unrecorded material and a cover of the Who's "My Generation." It will be Kiffmeyer's last recording with the band; in fall, he leaves Berkley to attend college, and the band enlists Lookouts drummer Tre Cool as a temporary replacement. They never get around to finding anyone more permanent. Armstrong and Dirnt move into a three-bedroom basement apartment in Oakland with seven other punks, a sort-of squat that provides the location for the music video for "Longview." Armstrong forms a side-project with Crimpshrine drummer and legendary zinester Aaron Cometbus called Pinhead Gunpowder; they remain active to this day. At the end of November, Green Day head to Europe for a three-month tour.
The band tour relentlessly and find themselves developing a sizable fanbase, from the East Bay to England. Armstrong is asked to join Rancid, a band featuring former members of Gilman regulars Operation Ivy, but declines due to his Green Day commitments; he does, however, help write "Radio," which will later appear on the band's breakout full-length, Let's Go. In Europe again at the end of the year, Green Day find themselves playing a show on Christmas in Wigan, England. They choose to recreate the birth of Jesus on stage. "One band was dressed as the Sex Pistols, another one was dressed as KISS. We decided to do the nativity scene in its entirety," said Armstrong in the book Green Day: American Idiots and the New Punk Explosion. "Tre was the Virgin Mary, Mike was the anorexic Santa Claus narrator, and I was the schizophrenic three wise men. Our friend Sean was Jesus because he had long hair. Tre was up on a table with his legs spread out giving birth to Sean, who was under the table with a plastic carrier bag that was full of ketchup, tomato soup, and rice pudding, which we then threw on the audience. Then this big guy in an Easter bunny costume came on stage and started knocking everyone's beers out of their hands, shouting 'Straight edge!' at them."
Between tours in a bookmobile purchased from the Phoenix library system (frequently driven by the elder Wright II), Green Day record Kerplunk; the record features "Welcome To Paradise," an ode to Armstrong and Dirnt's decrepit Oakland home, and later re-recorded as one of Dookie's chart-topping singles. The band's notoriety continues to expand, and Kerplunk sells 70,000 copies in the U.S. (To date, it has sold over four million copies worldwide.)
Outgrowing the capacity of a small punk label with zero distribution, Green Day begin to look around for other options. Major labels court the band aggressively, spurred on by the unexpected success of Nirvana. Green Day get a lot of free meals and a trip to Disneyland before settling on Reprise Records, primarily thanks to Rob Cavallo, who will go on to become the band's in-house producer. The decision is controversial to this day, as Gilman Street and the scene surrounding it possess a hardline attitude towards major labels acts - they are not welcome. "Sometimes I still don't know if it was the right thing to do. There's a side of me that wishes I never did sign to a major label," Armstrong will say in 2000 on Behind the Music. Knowing it meant severing ties to the community they were born from, the band forged ahead. Seventeen years later, Dirnt still has his doubts. "If I had it to do all over again, I don't know what the hell I'd do."
Dookie is released on February 1. To date, it remains one of the best-selling albums in history, despite an unimpressive debut at #141 on the Billboard charts. Through early word of mouth and the eventual explosion of the single "Longview," Dookie would eventually go diamond, selling 15 million copies worldwide and leading to three number one singles. The band is vilified by the militant punk community, leading to furious op-eds in the pages of Maximum Rock and Roll and a regular single-man picket outside of Green Day concerts. But the band stay true to earlier promises, taking burgeoning queercore band Pansy Division on their first headlining national tour. They spend the summer opening Lollapalooza, but take a day off to play Woodstock 2; the set becomes one of their most legendary performances. Horrendous weather turned the festival site into a pit of mud, and at the band's insistence, the crowd begins a full-fledged mud fight that ends in Dirnt whipping off his bass to slide across the stage with a group of fans. A security guards mistakes Dirnt for an audience member and tackles him, Armstrong jumps in to defend his band-mate, and Dirnt smashes his face into a monitor, breaking several teeth. The band is flown out of the ensuing mêlée in a helicopter. "It was the closest thing to anarchy I've ever seen in my entire life," Armstrong says in a 1994 interview with SPIN. "By the time we started playing, there had been 750 broken legs. At any moment, that place could have fully self-destructed. Afterward I was like, 'Godamn, a year ago I was playing Gilman Street.'" In September, the band plays a free show at the Boston Esplanade, and when 40,000 more people than expected show up, a mini-riot erupts and 100 people are injured, another 45 arrested. In the middle of the chaos, Armstrong marries Adrienne Nesser, who realizes she's pregnant the day after their wedding, and the band win a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Armstrong goes back to Gilman. All an old friend can say is, "Wow, what the fuck are you doing here?"
Nesser gives birth to Joseph 'Joey' Marciano, named after punk legend Joey Ramone, and Cool marries Lisea Lyons, who gives birth to Ramona Isabelle, while the band trashes their green room after an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Pointing to the cancellation of Jennifer Aniston as the catalyst for the destruction, they spread peanut butter over all the couches and hang an Elmo doll from a noose in the centre of the room. In an interview with The Advocate, Armstrong opens up about his bisexuality, a subject touched on obliquely by the song "Coming Clean": "I think I've always been bisexual. I mean, it's something that I've always been interested in. I think people are born bisexual, and it's just that our parents and society kind of veer us off into this feeling of 'Oh, I can't.' They say it's taboo. It's ingrained in our heads that it's bad, when it's not bad at all." The new single "J.A.R." is released with the Angus soundtrack, which Green Day work to have old friends Tilt and the Riverdales included on. "They've made good on everything they were going to do," said Screeching Weasel / Riverdales brain trust and Maximum Rock And Roll columnist Ben Weasel. "But I like the fact that they don't make a big production out of it." Then, less than a year after Dookie, the band releases Insomniac to mixed reviews, comparatively minor commercial success, and lukewarm support from a record label that would have preferred more singles from the still-selling Dookie. Rife with dark lyrical imagery and sonically striped to the bone, Insomniac seems aimed squarely the criticisms that young band was facing every day. "I was under a lot of stress - I had just had a new baby and I was only 23 year old," said Armstrong in a 2001 interview with Kerrang! "I didn't think things would be that huge. And that was a real shock. I went from one year not even being in a tax bracket to the next year being in the very highest tax bracket. We were fighting to prove we weren't this Disney punk band, that we were coming from someplace real." In the midst of the panic attacks which had been plaguing both Dirnt and Armstrong since Dookie, the band fires their management and begin to manage themselves. Their European tour is cancelled due to exhaustion. "I've been having heart problems for the last few years, where I felt like I was having minor heart attacks all the time," Dirnt tells Guitar World in 1995. "The doctors don't know what it is. I'm at the point now where I'm sick of looking for it. If it kills me, it kills me."
The stress of their success and other pressures nearly cause Green Day to break up. Cool and Lyons divorce, while Dirnt fathers Estelle-Desiree with his long-time girlfriend. In November, Armstrong is arrested in Milwaukee after exposing himself at a show in front of 6,000 people. He is taken into custody and released after posting bail of $141.85.
Green Day don't break up. Armstrong co-founds Adeline Records with his wife, releasing records by the Living End, One Man Army, AFI and more. The band travel to Japan to play the Mt. Fuji Rock Festival, but when a typhoon forces promoters to cancel the show, they go to an amusement park instead where Cool shoots William Goldsmith from the Foo Fighters with a BB gun. After endless recording that yields over 40 songs, the band whittles the collection down to 18 and releases Nimrod in October. The album is hailed as a return to form for the band after the critical disappointment of Insomniac, heavily praised for its (comparative) maturity and incorporation of new styles, from surf to an acoustic ballad called "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." Released as a single at the very end of the year, it has since become the band's best-known song, used in the finale of Seinfeld, featured during Wayne Gretzky's last game, and played over coverage of Princess Diana's funeral. It is also the last song at every prom and wedding you will attend for the rest of your life. Green Day's newfound mom-fame doesn't keep their destructive behaviour at bay, though, and an in-store at Tower Records results in $50,000 in damages. Realizing it might be time to tone things down a notch, the band decide go on one final trashing spree while on tour in Belgium, an event commemorated by a tattoo of a smashed television somewhere on Cool's body. "We completely destroyed six rooms beyond recognition," said Dirnt in a 2004 interview with Stuff. "It cost a couple hundred grand to even leave Belgium. Eight people got arrested. We were breaking open the mini-bars by dropping them on the ground. All the carpets had to be removed because they had been urinated on. And we broke the restaurant's glass ceiling. And a mezzanine picture window or something. I blame the hotel for bringing more alcohol to our room."
With a never-ending tour cycle keeping him away from his family, which now includes newborn son Jakob Danger, Armstrong slows the band's schedule to a halt, playing a minimum of shows. They do, however, play a radio festival in LA where the bassist from Third Eye Blind gets on stage and smashes Dirnt in the head with a beer bottle, leading to skull fracture and the cancellation of what few dates the band had planned for the remainder of 1998.
1999 to 2000
Returning to a weekly practice schedule late in 1999, the band abandon their frantic writing style in favour of a more natural approach; they write only 12 songs, all of which appear on Warning, which the band begin recording in March of 2000. Working without Rob Cavallo for the first time, the bands enlists R.E.M. producer Scott Litt (Document through New Adventures in Hi-fi). Litt jumps ship one week into pre-production, and the band opts to produce themselves. The result is their first non-platinum record, and one that continues to divide fans, some of whom praise its maturity, and others who hate how straight-up boring it is. The band does manage to film a super-sized video for first single "Minority," shutting down large portions of downtown San Diego for a huge parade. "Did it cost a lot of money? Yeah, it tends to cost a lot of money to hire out a whole town," said Armstrong to Kerrang! in 2004. Cool marries a woman named Claudia who gives birth to Frankito, or "Little Frank. Dirnt goes under the knife for carpal tunnel syndrome.
2001 to 2002
The band continues on a downward slope, playing to consistently smaller audience and growing more frustrated with the band and each other. Reprise compiles a greatest hits record and a b-sides record. In 2002, the band heads out on a "co-headlining" tour with mall-punk monsters Blink-182, though Green Day play first every night. The unexpected result is the nightly obliteration of Blink-182, as Green Day set out with the expressed intent of showing the kids who's boss. Everyone agrees Green Day are boss. But they need a new record to prove it.
The band settles in to the studio alone once again to begin tracking Cigarettes and Valentines. Intent on fixing their personal relationships, they institute mandatory weekly "band conversations." They spend four months recording, complete 20 songs, and then have the master tapes stolen out from under them. To date, no sign of this lost record has ever surfaced. Deciding that the record wasn't the best they could do, they scrap every song and start from scratch, re-hiring Rob Cavallo. One day alone in the studio, Dirnt writes and records a 30-second ditty about being alone in the studio. He shows it to Armstrong, who laughs and makes his own 30-second song. Cool then makes one, and they work them into a single song. They laugh. Then they write a nine-minute, mini-suite and call it "Jesus of Suburbia." Newly energized, they begin the frantic process of writing a punk rock opera, and somewhere in there, they write and record an entire album of new wave under the name "the Network," using pseudonyms like "Captain Underpants" and "the Snoo." "We became so fucking creative we could have written a whole record in a day. It's arguable that some records were written in a day," Dirnt will tell Spin in 2004. "No Green Day records, of course." The band collaborate on Iggy Pop's comeback album, Skull Ring, and Armstrong gets arrested for drinking and driving while cruising Berkley in his BMW (punx!) at twice the legal limit. Dirnt marries his long-time girlfriend, Sarah, and Cool divorces Claudia.
"I feel like I'm on the cusp of something with this," Armstrong told Alternative Press several months before the 2004 release of American Idiot. "I really feel delirious about this album, like we're really peaking right now." On September 21, American Idiot debuts at number one on the Billboard chart. The album will go five times platinum in the U.S., eight times platinum in Canada, and six times platinum in the U.K., selling 12 million copies worldwide and introducing the band to a second generation of fans who weren't even conscious of popular music the last time Green Day were the biggest band in the world. The album also packs a powerful political statement, a first for the band, leading off with the first single, the straight-shooting anti-Bush doctrine of "American Idiot." "Being that outwardly political was a first for us," said Armstrong in a 2005 interview with Revolver. "I mean, we've always done stuff in our own communities - benefit shows, stuff like that, but... I never thought about what people would think of the song until after it was written." The stress of producing the album ends Dirnt's marriage.
American Idiot wins the Best Rock Album Grammy, and Green Day commence a 150-date world tour, travelling to Japan, Australia, the UK, and South America; the tour is captured on the live DVD/CD Bullet in a Bible. Mash-up artists Party Ben and team9 release American Edit under the alias "Dean Gray" and distribute it for free online; within ten days Warner issues a cease and desist. Armstrong calls the mash-up album "really cool"; it can still be downloaded at webfeedcentral.com.
A 32-year-old grocery store clerk named Paul McPike from Medford, Oregan, sues Green Day, claiming he wrote American Idiot while in high school. McPike has never performed or recorded, but assumes one of his friends secretly taped him in his home and sent the songs to Green Day. His only evidence is a copy of American Idiot, which he insists contains inaccuracies between the lyrics as printed in the booklet and as sung on the album. To McPike's disappointment, the case is thrown out, and the band win another Grammy for Album of Year for the single "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." The song catches Noel Gallagher's attention, who then accuses them of ripping off "Wonderwall" in the pages of Stuff magazine: "If you listen, you'll find it is exactly the same arrangement as Wonderwall. They should have the decency to wait until I am dead before stealing my songs. I, at least, pay the people I steal from that courtesy. They consider themselves to be - and I quote - 'a kick-ass rock'n'roll band.' They could not be less kick-ass if they tried." Green Day team up with U2 to record a cover of the Skids' "The Saints Are Coming" to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The band's worldwide tour cycles continues, though they manage to find time to record the theme for The Simpsons Movie (in which they also appear) and record a cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" for Amnesty International's Campaign to Save Darfur. This all rubs the Killers' Brandon Flowers the wrong way, and in NME, he calls band out for what he perceives as their "calculated anti-Americanism," which sounds neither human, nor dancer.
As if to avoid the pressure which was inevitably to follow American Idiot, the band reinvent themselves once again under another alias; going by "Foxboro Hot Tubs," Green Day record a whole album of '50s rock'n'roll and release it digitally, receiving an unexpected amount of critical acclaim for the truly awesome Stop Drop and Roll!!! The band eventually settles on producer Butch Vig for Idiot's follow-up, beginning the process of crafting what is easily the most anticipated album of their career.
A stage adaptation of American Idiot is announced, to be directed by Tony award-winner Michael Mayer and slated to debut in September at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. On April 7, the band plays all but two songs from their forthcoming album, 21st Century Breakdown, at a free public concert, announced only hours before, at the Independent in San Francisco. Released on May 15, the record represents the longest studio gap in the band's history, and is yet another rock opera, even grander than its sweeping predecessor, and without a doubt Green Day's final step away from the world of Gilman Street, punk squats, and songs about masturbation.