In 1994, Green Day’s major-label debut, “Dookie,” had been a worldwide smash, selling more than 16 million copies. But six years later, the band was in a slump. Each subsequent album had sold less and less, with 2000’s “Warning” inching up to a mere one million copies in the U.S. The greatest hits set “International Superhits” and the odds-and-sods “Shenanigans” collection, released in 2001 and 2002, respectively, kept the group in a holding pattern. 2002 also saw the group playing second banana to Blink-182 on that summer’s Pop Disaster Tour, with Blink closing the show. The band seemed headed on an irreversible downward spiral.
Instead, it pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in rock history. “American Idiot,” released in September 2004, exploded out of the gate, debuted at No. 1 in the U.S. charts (the band’s first album to top the charts), then went on to sell more than 6 million copies (14 million worldwide), as well as winning a Grammy for Best Rock Album; the song “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” also won a Grammy for Record Of The Year. Green Day was back — and bigger than ever.
Signing to a major label had led to accusations of “selling out” before “Dookie” had even been released, and the stigma had lingered over the next few years. But “American Idiot” helped Green Day reinvent itself, making the group finally comfortable with its status as a major-league rock band. The release of greatest hits collections often signifies that a band’s most creative period is at an end. But in Green Day’s case, it served as a chance to make a fresh start and redefine what being in a band means. As a result, the past decade has been a remarkably productive one for a band most people had written off as the new century began. And, by allowing themselves to blow off steam in various side projects (not to mention making a leap to the Broadway stage), Green Day’s members have been able to create the most ambitious work of their careers.
“American Idiot” was born from the ashes of another album the group was working on after “Shenanigans,” provisionally titled “Cigarettes And Valentines.” The official story was that the album’s master tapes were stolen, forcing the group to start recording again from scratch. But the band’s later statements about what happened were more ambiguous. Billie Joe Armstrong, the group’s guitarist and lead singer, told Q magazine the tapes were merely “mislaid,” while Mike Dirnt, Green Day’s bassist, told Billboard the masters were accidentally deleted from a computer drive, and that “We still have some burned CDs, but those are not good enough to release.”
It seems more likely (though still unconfirmed by the band) that they’d simply got tired of working on the songs — and with each other. A much-needed reassessment was in order, with the band members finally addressing the personal issues that had built up between them over the years, chiefly Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool feeling like they were increasingly sidelined by their charismatic frontman. “We’re not, like, staff,” the two told Armstrong. “You’re the president, but we’re the cabinet, and you’ve gotta consult us.”
The band also decided it wasn’t going to work on an album until it was good and ready. “They just kinda looked at each other and said, ‘F**k it, we’ve got to do the album we want, and we’ve got to do it on our time,’” explained John Lucasey, owner of Oakland’s Studio 880, where Green Day had begun working since the recording of “Warning.” “‘We’re not in Hollywood, and people aren’t gonna prod us anymore.’ So all of a sudden, they just started having fun.”
As a first step, the band threw off the mantle of being “Green Day” and became The Network. Officially, The Network consisted of five mysterious individuals who wore masks and had names like Van Gough, Captain Underpants and The Snoo. But when the band’s album, “Money Money 2020,” was released in September 2003, rumors immediately began circulating that the group was really Green Day in disguise. The record was released by Oakland-based label Adeline Records, for one thing, co-owned by Billie Joe Armstrong and his wife, and Armstrong’s distinctive vocals were easily identifiable on the record. The Network and Green Day also indulged in mock feuds on their respective Web sites, though the “feuding” groups would also play a few shows together.
The Network’s music was robotic, new-wave synth pop, and each version of its album came with bonus material. The Adeline CD was packaged with a DVD of music videos, and while the subsequent release on Reprise (Green Day’s label) in 2004 had no DVD, there were two further tracks. 2004 also saw the release of The Network’s live DVD “Disease Is Punishment,” filmed Nov. 22, 2003, at The Key Club in Los Angeles.
It was then that the seed was planted that would lead to “American Idiot.” While waiting at the studio for Armstrong and Cool to show up one day, Dirnt amused himself by writing the short song “Nobody Likes You.” On hearing it, Cool and Armstrong were suitably impressed and quickly wrote short songs themselves, which were joined into the medley “Homecoming.” The group realized it was a creative breakthrough. “It was scary,” Armstrong recalled. “You can’t go, ‘Now I want to make a regular record.’ You have to keep going ... it was really exciting and scary at the same time.”
Over the subsequent months, the band worked on 35 songs, then distilled them down to the 13-song narrative of “American Idiot,” making it a full-fledged concept album/rock opera. Though open to varying interpretations, the essential plot is a coming-of-age story about a young man who flees his suburban life for the city, eventually returning home in disillusionment. The album also featured some political commentary (a direction that had been hinted at on “Warning”), beginning with the title track, which attacked the American ignorance (“I know how Americans are often viewed by the rest of the world,” Armstrong told Kerrang! “We’re seen as being dumb and arrogant, which is a pretty lousy combination”).
The title track’s propulsive beat made it the obvious choice for the album’s first single, which was released in August 2004. There was plenty of material to use for bonus tracks, something the band’s never stinted on (and the bonus tracks released in conjunction with “American Idiot” and the subsequent “21st Century Breakdown” albums would certainly fill up a few albums in themselves), and the outtakes “Too Much Too Soon,” “Shoplifter” and “Governator” appeared on different versions of the CD single (a 7-inch picture disc also was released).
The album release followed three weeks later, on CD and vinyl. There were single and double “enhanced” vinyl editions, and different CD editions, as well. One import edition had the bonus song “Favorite Son” (which also appeared on the 2004 “Rock Against Bush Vol. 2” compilation). Another came with a bonus DVD that had “making of” features on the “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday” videos. A Japanese edition came with a bonus CD that featured live tracks. The most elaborate CD edition came in a hardback book. With handwritten song lyrics and the text embellished by photos and artifacts, like bus tickets, the book functions as a sort of diary — a year in the life of the album’s protagonist, the self-proclaimed “Jesus of Suburbia.”
The haunting “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” was released as a single in November 2004; different editions featured live versions of “Letterbomb,” “American Idiot,” and “She’s a Rebel.” The next single, the bitter “Holiday,” followed in March 2005, with the various editions featuring live versions of “Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “Minority.” Both singles were also released as 7-inch picture discs.
The bonus tracks on different editions of the elegiac “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” released in June 2005, were live versions of “Give Me Novacaine,” and “Homecoming” from a “VH1 Storytellers” appearance. An iTunes exclusive track served up a live version of “September…,” and vinyl fans were again offered a 7-inch picture disc. The final single was the epic “Jesus of Suburbia,” released in October 2005. Different editions featured more live tracks from “VH1 Storytellers”: “Are We The Waiting,” and “St. Jimmy.” There was also a 10-inch vinyl single.
Though Green Day had released live tracks on singles and EPs, it’d never put out a full-length live album. That changed with the release of “Bullet In A Bible,” released in late 2005, drawn from the band’s performances at Milton Keynes National Bowl in England earlier in the year. “Bullet” came out on CD, vinyl and as a DVD.
Touring in support of “American Idiot” ended by 2006, but there wouldn’t be another Green Day album until 2009. Not that the group didn’t keep busy. In October 2006, Green Day and U2 released the benefit single “The Saints Are Coming,” with proceeds benefiting the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The single was first released as a download, with a CD coming out the following month, featuring a bonus live version of the song the two bands performed Sept. 25, 2006, before a New Orleans Saints football game. May 2007 saw the release of a track recorded for the benefit album “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur.” The album consisted of cover versions of John Lennon songs, with Green Day covering “Working Class Hero.” The band also made a brief animated appearance in “The Simpsons Movie,” released that summer, recording its own version of the show’s theme song.
And once again, before getting down to the serious business of completing their next studio album, Green Day took time out to have a bit of fun, again recording under a pseudonym: Foxboro Hot Tubs. Unlike their coy denials about being The Network, Green Day was open about Foxboro about their latest “alter-ego” band. Tracks initially were offered to fans as free downloads in late 2007, with the album “Stop Drop and Roll!!!” released in April 2008, on both CD and vinyl (the song “Mother Mary” was also released as a vinyl single). The music was not dissimilar to the bright, poppy punk of early Green Day, and soundbites (such as a clip from the film “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”) were dropped in throughout the album. The record proved to be a surprise hit, reaching No. 21 in the charts. Green Day also performed as Foxboro Hot Tubs for a handful of shows.
Meanwhile, work on the next studio album was finally coming to a close, with the band crafting another rock opera in “21st Century Breakdown,” released in May 2009. The five-year gap between “American Idiot” and the new album was the longest break between studio albums in the band’s career. Like “American Idiot,” “21st Century Breakdown” had a loose narrative, with the 18 songs broken up into three acts. Two recurring characters, Christian and Gloria, negotiate a world on the edge, surrounded by revolution, hypocrisy and information overload. “The record is like the way American culture is right now,” Armstrong explained, “where a different week is a different crisis, depending on where you’re getting your news from.”
The album’s first single, the battle cry “Know Your Enemy,” was released in April 2009 as a CD and 7-inch single, with “Hearts Collide” as a bonus track; the CD also featured “Lights Out.” And an increasing number of bonus tracks were being offered as download only releases, beginning with live versions of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “F.O.D.”
“21st Century Breakdown” debuted at No. 1 in the U.S., and topped the charts in 15 other countries, as well, with worldwide sales of more 3.5 million (sales may have been hampered in part by Wal-Mart’s refusal to carry the album due to its “Parental Advisory” sticker and the band’s refusal to put out a censored edition). Digital downloads of the album offered a wealth of non-album tracks. From amazon.com: a live version of “Burnout.” From Rhapsody.com: live versions of “Know Your Enemy” and “Static Age.” The iTunes pre-order edition: “That’s All Right” (which Armstrong, an Elvis fan, knew from Presley’s 1954 cover), and Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” The iTunes deluxe edition: covers of The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” and “Another State of Mind” by Social Distortion.
And there were further bonus tracks on different editions of the CD. Target’s edition came with a bonus CD of live tracks recorded in Japan. A CD/DVD edition had live performances and videos of “Know Your Enemy,” “21 Guns,” and “21st Century Breakdown.” And there was again an edition packaged in a hardback book, with handwritten lyrics, though lacking the elements that made it akin to a diary as the similar edition of “American Idiot” had been. And along with a double-album vinyl set was a special vinyl edition with the album’s songs pressed on three 10-inch records, a 60-page booklet and a CD of the album.
There was more bonus material on most of the subsequent singles. “21 Guns,” released as a digital download in May 2009, while the CD/7-inch following in July had “Favorite Son” and an early version of “21 Guns” as bonus tracks. “East Jesus Nowhere” was released as a radio-only promo single in October 2009 and came without bonus tracks, while “21st Century Breakdown,” in December 2009, limited itself to one bonus track, a live version of “Last Of The American Girls” (nor was there a 7-inch release). “American Girls” was the final single from the album, released in March 2010, with a live version of “Know Your Enemy” and an early version of “21st Century Breakdown” as bonus tracks. And a nice collector’s item appeared in September 2009: a box set of 21 singles, issued in a limited edition of 3,800.
Green Day followed the album’s release with more extensive touring, resulting in a Japanese EP, “Last Night On Earth: Live In Tokyo,” released in November 2009. By then, Green Day had branched out in an entirely unexpected direction. While “American Idiot” naturally lent itself to a more theatrical interpretation — at one point a film based on the album was being discussed — the decision ultimately was made to adapt it for the stage. Director Michael Mayer had loved “American Idiot,” and invited Armstrong to a performance of his latest Broadway show, the musical “Spring Awakening.” Armstrong was impressed with the production and agreed to work on a musical with Mayer, ultimately writing the script with him.
While using the songs from “American Idiot,” the story, which follows three young men and their girlfriends through a turbulent period in their lives, also drew on songs from “21st Century Breakdown” and featured the previously unreleased “When It’s Time,” which Armstrong had written when he was 19. Out-of-town tryouts were held at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in fall 2009, before the transfer to the St. James Theatre in New York, with the show officially opening on April 20, 2010. Twenty years earlier, a young Green Day had been playing sweaty punk clubs; the trio could hardly have imagined that one day the music they made would end up on Broadway.
Reviews were somewhat mixed, with most criticism saying the storyline wasn’t developed enough. But the show received three Tony Award nominations, losing Best Musical to the show “Memphis,” but winning awards in the Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design categories (the show’s score wasn’t eligible for a nomination as less than half of it was written for the production). Over the course of the run, Armstrong has appeared in the show, playing the part of “St. Jimmy” for a week in the fall of 2010 and again in January and February of this year.
The show was naturally accompanied by an original cast album, as well as two singles. “21 Guns” was released in December 2009, featuring not only the show’s cast, but Green Day, as well. There were two EPs released, one featuring the original version of the song, and a live version, as bonus tracks, and a “21 Guns Live EP” featuring live versions of “21 Guns,” “Welcome To Paradise,” “Brain Stew/Jaded,” and “F.O.D.” The full album was released in April 2010 (on CD and vinyl), with Green Day playing on the recording, though they don’t appear in the show. The album also features Green Day’s own version of “When It’s Time,” which was released as a single in the U.K. in June 2010. Oddly, though another Green Day song, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life),” appears in the show, it’s not featured on the album. The record eventually added another Grammy to Green Day’s collection, when it won the “Best Musical Show Album” at this year’s Grammy Awards.
While it’s not known when Green Day’s next studio album will be released (though it’s safe to say it won’t come out for at least another year), another live release came out in March: the CD/DVD set “Awesome As F**k” or “Awesome As F**K,” as the ads have it, the CD drawn from different shows during Green Day’s last bout of touring, and the DVD presenting a show in Tokyo. A “regular” deluxe edition offers live versions of “Letterbomb” and “Christie Road” as download-only bonus tracks, with the iTunes deluxe edition adding a live version of “Paper Lanterns/2000 Light Years Away” as well.
And the track chosen as the album’s first (promo only) single was “Cigarettes and Valentines,” one of the songs Green Day had been working on before switching direction and deciding to go for broke in creating “American Idiot.” It was a bold step that’s paid off in a big way for the band. By being open to pursuing new musical directions, Green Day has managed to make the transition from snotty punk rockers to confident elder statesmen — with a loyal fan base that’s eager to hear what the band’s going to do next.
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