Green Day - Biography
Green Day have come a long way from their beginnings as a snotty faux punk band from the East Bay area of Northern California to their current position as a million-selling, respected rock trio keen on social commentary and known for their prowess in writing catchy songs that appeal to a wide age spectrum of music fans. They, along with other California bands like Rancid and The Offspring, have been credited with bringing the long bubbling under sound of California punk to the mainstream, as well as crticized for their slick, corporate take on a once raw art form.
Billie Joe Armstrong was the youngest of six children in a working class family that lived around the Oakland and East Bay areas of Northern California. His father was a truck driver and part-time jazz musician and his mother worked as a waitress. From an early age Billie Joe showed an interest in music. He took singing lessons when he was a young boy and often volunteered to sing at local hospitals to cheer up patients. Billie Joe was close with his father and, after expressing an interest in playing guitar, his father gave him the pale blue Fender Stratocaster for his tenth birthday that he uses to this day. Unfortunately, Armstrong lost his father to throat cancer the next year. The loss deeply wounded Armstrong, as did his mother's remarriage to his new stepfather, whom none of the kids in the family liked. Around the same time, Armstrong was introduced to punk and the home-grown scene that developed in the East Bay area, centered around the legendary 924 Gilman Street venue in Berkeley.
Armstrong soon developed a friendship with another teenage punk rocker, Mike Pritchard, who was also having troubles at home with his adoptive parents. Things got bad enough for Pritchard that he asked if he could move in with Armstrong’s family. Consequently, he occupied a part of the house set up as a small apartment for him. Armstrong convinced Pritchard to buy an electric guitar and soon the two were constantly practicing in their garage, trying to write their own versions of the punk rock anthems they admired. Pritchard, now calling himself Mike Dirnt, switched to bass and the two fourteen year olds recruited the slightly older John Kiffmeyer (who also called himself Al Sobrante) to play drums. At first they named themselves Sweet Children, but they soon rechristened themselves Green Day after slang for spending a whole day stoned.
The young band started playing around the East Bay area wherever they could, with many gigs taking place at Rod’s Hickory Pitt — where both Armstrong and Dirnt worked alongside Armstrong’s mom. The band soon came to the attention of Larry Livermore, the owner of a local punk rock label, Lookout! Records. He signed the band to a record deal. Their first EP, 1,000 Hours (1989 Lookout!), came out on vinyl only and was printed on several different limited colors of vinyl.
Green Day followed the EP with their debut album, 39/Smooth (Lookout!) in 1990 on vinyl and cassette. 39/Smooth was everything you would imagine a teenaged punk band would sound like circa 1990 - snotty lyrics, fast tempos, metallic guitars and attitude to spare. It was obvious the band had listened to plenty of Ramones, Buzzcocks and Dickies albums. Armstrong even sang with a mock-English delivery that would be a focus of some critics’ derision in years to come. Green Day released two more EPs in 1990, Slappy (Lookout!) and Sweet Children, released on the Minneapolis-based punk label Skene!.
Soon after the band returned from their first nationwide tour, Sobrante left the band and the East Bay to attend college. Armstrong and Dirnt asked Tre Cool, (real name Frank Edwin White III), the drummer from Livermore’s The Lookouts, to fill in while Sobrante was away at college. It soon became apparent that Sobrante wasn’t coming back so Cool took over the drum seat permanently. The group jelled with Cool and quickly built up a cult following by playing punk shows up and down the Pacific Coast. They were also a crowd favorite at Gilman Street and played there so often that many people considered them the house band in the early ‘90s. There was enough interest in the band that Lookout! issued a CD compiling 39/Smooth, Slappy and 1,000 Hours as 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours (1991). Armstrong also joined the East Bay all-star punk side band, Pinhead Gunpowder, as a guitarist and singer. That group has released a series of CDs and singles over the years, including Jump Salty (1994 Lookout!), Goodbye Ellston Avenue (1997 Lookout!) and Compulsive Disclosure (2003 Lookout!).
The group went back in the studio and recorded their second album, Kerplunk (Lookout!), released in 1992. The band, now considerably more polished, were poised to make a much bigger impact on the punk rock world. What they didn’t know was that they were about to be caught up in the excitement of Nirvana’s breakthrough success which opened the door for the mainstream acceptance of punk. They also enabled lots of bands that would have been stuck on smaller labels to graduate to the big leagues, the major labels. Green Day already had a large following and Kerplunk managed to increase the band’s audience even more. Kerplunk went on to sell over 50,000 copies in the US. After the group completed a successful tour of the US and their first tour of Europe, they came back to the East Bay and found themselves being courted by several of the major labels, all hunting around for the next Nirvana. The band were torn on what step to take next. Though they wanted the greater success and distribution the major labels could offer them, they still felt a strong connection to the label and the scene that fostered them. With Lookout!’s and Livermore’s blessing, (the band let Lookout! continue to distribute their early material until 2005), the group signed to Reprise Records in 1993, and soon started work on their debut album for the label with producer Rob Cavallo.
Recorded in just three weeks, Dookie (1994 Reprise) far exceeded what the band and the label had been hoping for. Though there were charges from some of their fans that they had sold out by signing to a major label, Reprise (a division of Warner Brothers) got the band pushed at modern rock radio and made videos for singles off of the album. They also exposed the band to a whole new audience. MTV, also hungry for the next big thing, played the videos for the songs “Longview,” “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case” almost to the point of saturation. Young audiences who were too young to have experienced the initial punk rock explosion in the '70s were thrilled by Green Day's throwback sound, though for the most part their presentation was of a safe, middle of the road variety, appealing mostly to suburban white kids too insulated to receive truly meaningful messages beyond the grey matter of their pre planned lives. Their boyish good looks, and pre determined mall fashions didn't hurt either. Buoyed by the success of Dookie, the group toured heavily in support of the album and showed their roots in supporting the Bay Area punk scene by asking queercore band Pansy Division to open for them. In addition to their heavy touring schedule, the group were also invited to join the Lollapalooza lineup in 1994. They also participated in the Woodstock 1994 festival, where they were involved in an infamous mud fight with the audience, and where bassist Dirnt — mistaken for a stage-diving fan — got his teeth punched out by a member of the security team. Dookie went on to sell over ten million copies worldwide, with eight million of those sold in the US. The album also nabbed a Grammy in 1994 for Best Alternative Music Performance.
Green Day released a new single, “J.A.R.,” which was included in the soundtrack to the movie Angus, in early 1995. They followed that up with Insomniac (1995 Reprise). Whereas Dookie featured lots of snotty, fun punk rock songs, Insomniac had a heavier (though no less punk) feel to it. The album artwork, by noted punk artist Winston Smith, (who frequently did the covers for the Dead Kennedys), was a collage piece called God Told Me to Skin You Alive. It was much darker and more satirical than the humorous drawings that had usually graced Green Day's record covers. The group released four successful singles from the album; “Stuck With Me,” “Brain Stew/Jaded,” “Walking Contradiction” and “Geek Stink Breath.” The album went on to sell over two million copies in the US. Though it wasn't up to the sales standard set by Dookie, it was still a successful album and got Green Day nominated for several American Music and Grammy awards in 1996. The group toured heavily again in support of Insomniac but cancelled a European leg of their tour in 1996, citing exhaustion. The group took some time off to get their bearings again and then started work on their next album, 1997's Nimrod (Reprise).
Nimrod showed the band trying to break out of the strict pop-punk stylistic genre they had established for themselves. It featured them trying their hand at ska, surf rock and even acoustic ballads with the song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” whose video won the group an MTV Video Award for Best Alternative Video. The song was also featured on numerous TV shows and has since become a touchstone for many video or multimedia presentations recalling the good times. Green Day again toured extensively in support of the album. Afterward they took some time off before starting work on another record.
By the time of their next album, 2000's Warning: (Reprise), Green Day had become more interested in letting go of their former punk rock sound, though no one would really notice since- in essence- Green day never really did anything darinf or cutting edge in the first place- Warning was more power-pop than puffed up punk bluster. Critics noted the maturity in the bands songwriting skills and generally gave the album high marks. However, by this time the band was considered somewhat unhip amongst some of its initial fans and it failed to reach anywhere near the sales of Nimrod.
Reprise gathered up Green Day's singles since being on the label and released the greatest hits compilation, International Superhits! (2001), on CD and the companion, International Supervideos!, on DVD. A compilation of some of the band's B-sides and rarities followed in 2002, titled Shenanigans (Reprise). Also in 2002, Green Day participated in the Pop Disaster Tour with fellow California pop-punkers Blink-182. Dirnt also joined a punk rock side project band, The Frustrators. That group released the album Achtung Jackass (Adeline) in 2002.
After again taking some time off, the group returned to the studio in 2003 and recorded a new album that was tentatively titled Cigarettes and Valentines. The band had already recorded over 20 tracks when someone broke into the studio they were working in and stole the master tapes. Though the band was understandably angry, they decided not to try and recreate the tracks, but vowed to hunker down and write even better material. After collaborating with Iggy Pop on two tracks on his Skull Ring album, the group participated in some group therapy sessions to work out feelings of resentment that Cool and Dirnt were feeling towards Armstrong, compunding the reality that the band were full fledged pop softies. The sessions seemed to have helped the band's feelings toward one another and they emerged as an even tighter unit than before.
To remove some pressure, the members of Green Day reinvented themselves as the synth/punk band, The Network. Sounding like a cross between Green Day and early Devo, the band was able to keep secret that The Network was actually them until their debut, Money Money 2020 (2003), was released on Armstrong’s Adeline record label.
Charged with their new-found unity and a sense of purpose, the group recorded and released the album American Idiot (Reprise) in 2004. It had been four years since the band had released an album of new material. Propelled by their hit single, “American Idiot,” the album debuted at #1 in the US. American Idiot was basically a “punk rock opera” concept album detailing the journey and travails of a fictitious “Jesus of Suburbia.” The album showed a remarkable growth in the band's songwriting abilities and, even though some of the subjects covered were controversial, it appealed to a wide base of music listeners. American Idiot was also a hit with critics and won the band seven MTV Music Awards as well as a Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005. One of the singles from the album, the moody “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” won the 2006 Grammy for Record of the Year. In support of the album, the group embarked on their most extensive tour to date, playing mostly sold-out performances around the world. Green Day played a series of two shows at the Milton Keynes National Bowl in England to combined crowds of over 130,000 people. They filmed and recorded these shows for release in 2005 as the CD/DVD Bullet in a Bible (Reprise). Also in 2005, Green Day pulled their early catalog masters from Lookout! Records, citing a breach of contract due to unpaid royalties. Their early material was subsequently reissued by Reprise in 2007.
After the exhausting touring and promotional cycle for American Idiot and Bullet in a Bible was completed, the group took more time off and took their time writing new material. In late 2007, another mysterious band appeared, this time a garage rock band called the Foxboro Hot Tubs. Bearing a remarkable musical resemblance to Green Day, when they released their debut EP, Stop Drop and Roll!!! (Jingle Town), it was revealed that it was indeed Green Day along with keyboardist Jason Freese and guitarists Jason White and Kevin Preston (from Los Angeles rock band Prima Donna). (White and Freese are also backing touring musicians for Green Day's expanded live band).
Green Day released their next LP 21st Century Breakdown in 2009, which was followed by three releases in 2012- Uno, Dos, and Tre- a triple LP release with each title coming out with in weeks of each other. The band continue to be regarded as one of the most well liked "punk" bands with pop audiences, even if they are about as punk as Celine Dion at this point.