Rewind: Green Day – American Idiot

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The 90’s and 2000’s were a bit of a war zone for alternative music: the metal genre was changing massively with the rise of nu-metal bands and the introduction of scream vocals into popular metal, championed by bands like Slipknot and Korn. The punk revivalist movement had kicked off as the need to revolutionise came to the masses. In the wake of post-Nirvana bands Green Day came second only to Pearl Jam in terms of the scope of their influence. At their core they were a revivalist group, who brought the fast-paced guitar of 70’s pop-punk to a new generation, and they would go on to become one of the most successful punk rock bands of the era.

The 4-piece from California first experienced commercial success in 1994 with the release of their third studio album Dookie (also their first album whilst signed to a major record label). Charting in seven countries worldwide and peaking at number two in the US Billboard 200, the success of this album gained them a place at Woodstock ’94 – as of 2013, the album was the band’s best selling record with more than 20 million sales worldwide. Their next album, Insomniac, was not as successful but still managed to reach 2 million sales in the US alone. Afterwards though, the success dwindled for Green Day as they began to change their style from thrash punk to a more folk/surf rock-inspired sound. Nimrod (1997) and Warning (2000) received mixed critical reception, with the general consensus being that the band were losing relevance – it seemed that they were growing up far too much for their fans, who coveted Green Day’s unique style of quick-tempoed punk rock.

The century rolled over and for a few years Green Day went quiet on the songwriting front. After a short hiatus the band convened in California in 2003 and began writing tracks for an album due to be entitled Cigarettes and Valentines. 20 tracks were written and the album was nearing completion when the master copies were stolen from the recording studio. Instead of attempting to re-record the album Green Day decided to start afresh, later saying that the record would not have been “maximum Green Day” and that it wouldn’t have represented what they wanted from their seventh album.

So they went back to the drawing board and, one year later, released American Idiot in September of 2004. Marking a glorious return to their old style, the album was fast, hard, gritty, angry: everything dedicated Green Day fans wanted from the band and something that would revive the punk genre in years to come, influencing the development of bands like Simple Plan. Upon it’s release the album peaked at number one in the Billboard 200 chart. Five singles were released, all of which featured in the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart – ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams‘ came in at number one on both the Modern Rock and Mainstream charts.

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The album was not only a commercial success but a critical one as well. Reviewers praised the band’s return to up-tempo punk rock and the overall style of the album – frontman Billy Joe Armstrong abandoned the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge format in favour of a looser more flexible method of songwriting. As a result the tracks flow into one another, complementing each other musically as well as lyrically. This alternate direction in songwriting greatly compliments the albums style as a rock opera following the life of Jesus of Suburbia, a fictional character with anti-heroic traits created by Armstrong. Jesus of Suburbia hates his town and his friends so he leaves for the city where he meets St. Jimmy, a punk rock freedom fighter, and Whatsername, a “Mother Revolution” figure inspired by the Bikini Kill song ‘Rebel Girl’. The latter two characters personify the theme of ‘rage vs. love’, a conflict which rages within Jesus of Suburbia and as a central theme of the album. St. Jimmy eventually commits metaphorical suicide and Whatsername becomes estranged (hence her name) leading the listener to the realisation that Jesus of Suburbia is St. Jimmy and Whatsername, and that ultimately a part of him dies with them.

Above: official music video for the album’s main single ‘American Idiot’.

The release of American Idiot would lead into a five year wait before their next album, 21st Century Breakdown, the longest span between albums in Green Day’s career. 21st Century Breakdown was greatly influenced by it’s former and displays the same angsty, slightly politicised pace and rage which punk rock fans have come to expect from Green Day. The years after Warning were, without a doubt, some of the greatest years for the punk rock genre – all thanks to the masters.

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MA English student at the University of Southampton and alternative music correspondent for The Edge.

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