Green Day strives to sustain its punk-rock zeal
How can Green Day top itself, after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, winning five Grammy Awards and watching its acclaimed 2004 album, “American Idiot,” be transformed into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2010?
Why, with a brand new movie that will open in 135 cities this summer, of course.
The release of “Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk” will coincide with the Oakland trio’s summer tour, which includes a Sept. 13 show at Mattress Firm Amphitheatre (formerly Sleep Train Amphitheatre) in Chula Vista. It will be preceded by the band’s sold-out Saturday show at Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena).
Narrated by punk-rock godfather Iggy Pop, the film explores the East Bay punk scene that brought Green Day’s members together as teenagers in 1986.
For singer/guitarist Billy Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool, it is perhaps less an opportunity to re-trace their own history than to pay homage to the musicians who inspired and nurtured them.
“ ‘Turn it Around’ gave us the opportunity to tell the story of the East Bay punk rock scene, a scene that’s a sacred thing to me, Mike and Tré, and to a lot of others who were there at the founding and who helped to shape the genre,” Armstrong said in a recent statement.
“We’re proud to bring the history of this movement to the world and hope the film inspires people to create their own music and to build an artistic community.”
The focal point of that scene was 924 Gilman Street, a hardcore punk club and music collective in Berkeley, where Green Day got its start. In just a few years, Green Day surpassed the popularity of such fellow Gilman-fueled acts as Operation Ivy and Rancid.
In 2015, Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool (real name: Frank Edwin Wright III) played a benefit show at 924 Gilman Street. It marked their first performance there since 1993.
Green Day, with Against Me!
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Valley View Casino Center, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., Midway District
Tickets: Sold out
Phone: (888) 929-7849
Green Day, with Catfish & The Bottlemen
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 13
Where: Mattress Firm Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Tickets: $30-$89.50 (plus service charges)
Phone: (800) 745-3000
The 22-year gap was fueled by Green Day having signed with Warner Brothers Records in 1993. The same year saw the Berkeley club ban major label acts, purely on principle, as being the antithesis of punk’s proudly independent, do-it-yourself ethos.
Green Day’s third album and first for Warner Brothers, “Dookie,” was released in 1994, the same year the band gave a memorably mud-splattered performance at the 25th anniversary Woodstock festival in upstate New York. “Dookie” went on to win a Grammy and sell 10 million copies, buoyed by the MTV-embraced video for the song “Longview.”
The album also contained such fan favorites as “Basket Case” and “Welcome to Paradise.” Produced by Rob Cavallo, whose other credits range from Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton to Linkin Park and Paramore, “Dookie” transformed Green Day into international stars who filled arenas around the world. (In its pre-Dookie days, Green Day performed in 1993 at the all-ages San Diego music venue SOMA.)
Credit for the 14-track “Dookie’s” success goes to the album’s snappy, radio-friendly songs, whose broad pop-punk appeal stemmed from its blend of catchy melodies and alternately rebellious and introspective lyrics about teen angst. It’s less clear how much of a factor the faux English accent Armstrong favored for his singing may have been.
One song recorded for “Dookie,” but left off - the contemplative ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” - later became a major hit when it appeared on the band’s “Nimrod” album in 1997. Widely embraced, “Good Riddance” became the official Professional Golf Association theme song in 1998 and was prominently featured the same year in the second-to-last episode of the “Seinfeld” TV series.
But with all that success came controversy, and lots of it.
As “Dookie” became an international hit, Green Day’s detractors attacked the band as fame-seeking commercial sell-outs. Others credited the group for bringing the spirit of punk to a mass audience of young fans too young to have heard the Sex Pistols or The Clash back in the 1970s.
Armstrong rejected the criticism - and the pop-punk label - outright.
“We are a punk-rock band,” he declared emphatically in a 1997 Union-Tribune interview. “We’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years, and it doesn’t matter that people have accepted our music as mainstream, Punk-rock is about not adhering to a set of rules and doing anything you want. And we never fit in with other mainstream bands. We will never be fashionable or cool enough. We will never be on the VH1 Fashion Awards.
“When you change a lot or get into self-parody, that’s when you lose the connection with your audience and become completely self-absorbed.”
How does Armstrong feel today?
“When it comes down to it, we’re a rock band,” he told Rolling Stone in a March 27 interview, adding: “I don’t really give a f--- about the mainstream. The mainstream doesn’t offer me anything. Why would I offer it anything?”
Yet, with worldwide record sales of over 85 million and years of sold-out arena and amphitheater shows, Green Day has become part of the mainstream whether Armstrong and his band mates like it or not.
Or, as bassist Dirnt candidly charted the band’s ascent in that same March 27 Rolling Stone interview: “I almost see it in three sections: van, bus, jet.”
Armstrong, now 45, and his band mates have made millions over the years. But that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to speak out. They did just that in November at the 2016 American Music Awards, where Armstrong chanted “No Trump, no K.K.K., no fascist U.S.A.!” during Green Day’s performance of “Bang Bang.”
“Bang Bang,” which takes aim at mass shootings and social media, is from Green Day’s most recent album, 2016’s “Revolution Radio.” Its title track strongly suggests that Armstrong - despite his fame and wealth - has not become complacent.
Witness “Revolution Radio’s” seething, Rage Against The Machine-like opening verse: Scream, with your hands up in the sky / Like you want to testify / For the life that’s been deleted / Sing, like a rebel’s lullaby / Under the stars and stripes / For the lost souls that were cheated / We will be seen but not be heard.
On “Forever Now,” the album’s ambitious summation, Armstrong pays homage to Chuck Berry’s pioneering “Johnny B. Goode,” singing: I never learned to read or write so well / But I can play the guitar until it hurts like hell. Later, the song takes a darker tone, as Armstrong intones: If this is what you call the good life / I want a better way to die.
A dozen songs strong, “Revolution Radio” lacks the musical cohesion and sustained fury of “American Idiot,” which remains Green Day’s strongest album to date.
But after 31 years, Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool remain a formidable force, all the more so because they have been embraced by the same mainstream Armstrong says he disdains. It’s a paradox that could continue to sustain this band for some time to come.
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.