It took just a glance backstage at MTV’s New Year’s Eve bash for Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to pinpoint the career stages of other acts on the bill.
There’s the hot young thing, on all the magazine covers. The band in a sophomore slump. The critical darling that can’t catch a break.
Then he locked eyes with a music veteran, riding a hit (he won’t say who). They exchanged knowing nods.
These are heady days for Green Day. They knew while recording that their album, “American Idiot,” was the best thing they’d ever done. Critics and peers agreed; it has six Grammy nominations, including best album. So did fans: the album has sold nearly 2.1 million copies in the United States and is approaching 5 million worldwide in four months.
Rarely does everything come together like that all at once. Green Day is a long way from the juvenile delinquents who wrote songs about masturbation and reveled in being pelted with mud at Woodstock ’94.
“When we made the record, we honestly felt as if there was no stone left unturned,” Armstrong said. “With everybody acknowledging it, that’s the fun part of everything. We appreciate it that much more now that we’re 15 years into our career.”
With songs like “When I Come Around” and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” Green Day has had hits before. But this disc is reminiscent of The Clash’s “London Calling” or John Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow,” where an artist with some degree of popularity suddenly and unexpectedly turns it up several notches creatively.
At a time the format seems to be dying, Green Day made an old-fashioned album that hangs together thematically, with recurring characters and moods. It’s a disturbing portrait of Bush-era suburbia, the generation of “soda pop and Ritalin.”
“Everything starts with punk rock with us, but at the same time we wanted to bring it to the next level as far as being musicians,” Armstrong said. “For this record we just wanted to be as ambitious as hell.”
Ambition was something of a dirty word in rock ’n’ roll a decade ago, when acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden embraced apathy and irony. The Northern California trio of Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool was no different.
“It was what was so great about that time, but it could also get you stuck at the same time,” Armstrong said. “You have to sort of break those rules.”
Band surprised itselfEven some of the good reviews for “American Idiot” were accompanied by some backhand insults along the lines of, “Who would have expected something like this from Green Day?”
Frankly, the band even surprised itself. But its members always saw themselves as something more than one- or two-hit wonders.
“From the start, we said let’s make a concerted effort to stay around for a long time,” Cool said. “Don’t make dated records, don’t try to strike while the iron is hot and all that. Do what’s right for the band long-term. Because we’re not going to get sick of doing this — and we knew that 10 years ago.”
Green Day started recording a couple of years ago in Oakland. After several months of work, the master copies of their songs were stolen and they had no back-ups. Instead of trying to re-create what they had done, Armstrong did more writing, and they soon realized they were onto something better.
The song “Jesus of Suburbia” was a turning point.
“We sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Now we’re onto something,”’ Armstrong said. “At the same time, there was no looking back. It was scary. You can’t go, ‘Now I want to make a regular record.’ You have to keep going. As soon as you make the big leap, you’re looking at a bigger mountain to climb. It was really exciting and scary at the same time.”
The song’s first line — “I’m the son of rage and love” — was particularly important to Armstrong. He had made a conscious decision to stop writing “negative” lyrics the past few years, and found that artificial barrier kept him from exploring worlds he knew well.
Green Day listened to albums from heroes like the Who for tips on thematic works, and even pulled out discs like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Grease” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Could they be growing up?Another word rockers tend to hold in contempt — maturity — also played a part. The three members are all in their 30s and are all dads, and the time had come to stop treating each others’ ideas like they did as self-conscious teenagers.
Dirnt said he was able to accept it when the others laughed at a particularly bad suggestion he had made in the studio — and eventually to laugh himself. Before, he’d sulk.
The punk-pop sound Green Day had perfected dominates the disc but, again, there was a time that a glockenspiel would have been regarded with a sneer. Not anymore.
“It sounds pretentious when you say we wanted to create a piece of art; people think Green Day created ‘Kid A,’ part two,” Dirnt said, alluding to the 2000 Radiohead album. “We wanted to have everything firing on all rock ’n’ roll cylinders and know where we were going with this. And we did want to create a piece of art.”
When Armstrong wrote the line “Maybe I’m the faggot America/ I’m not a part of a redneck agenda,” he went to Dirnt and Cool. I know this is a strong statement, he said. Are you willing to make the leap with me?
He also recognized the danger in writing about politics — songs can seem merely polemic or stand frozen in time. Armstrong doesn’t like the anger that dominates much of left-wing discussion these days.
“It’s important for it to come out naturally and try to remain vulnerable at the same time — to be a part of the problem and not just accuse others of being the problem,” he said. “The song ‘American Idiot’ is about trying to declare your individuality. It’s rallying.”
Green Day doesn’t even shy away from a phrase that might horrify any self-respecting punk: punk rock opera.
“I embrace it,” Armstrong said. “I think it’s cool. There is such a thing as a good rock opera.”
Added Dirnt: “There is now.”