I found an old shirt in my closet the other day. It was my high school uniform shirt, yellowed with age and crumpled in a box. I spent a lot time in shirts like this as a teenager, and it feels odd to look at it now, a relic from a strange, insular world now long gone. One of the traditions of the final day of school is to sign the shirts of other people, leaving little messages on the fabric. As I recall, some people barely had enough space on their shirt to fit all these messages. I was not one of these people. I was never particularly popular, and no one was clamouring for the real estate. I was just a quiet guy that no one really knew anything about. One of the few messages on my shirt reads ‘Hi Luke, u didn’t say much but ur great’. Well, at least they got my name right, I suppose. One of the things that stand out about the few messages that I did get however, is a recurring reference to a particular band. One message reads ‘Have a Green Day!’, written by some guy who I never spoke to. Another message reads ‘Billie Joe is a hillbilly, get a cooler idol’, left by one of the guys who always seemed to be into much cooler music than I was. Yet another oddly specific message informs me that ‘Green Day have little talent but sound cool’. Seems a little contradictory to me, but whatever. From these messages, it seems that one thing was known about me – that I really liked Green Day. Despite being quiet and shy, that fact had still managed to become known.
Thinking back, I suppose I did have a habit of playing their music frequently in the common room. Oh, and I did dye my hair blue that one time, after I saw that Billie Joe had once done the same, although the end result looked like I’d had an accident with blue toilet cleaner. I also shamelessly aped his fashion sense, usually failing to pull it off. With all that in mind, I suppose it makes sense that I was known for my slight obsession with them. But, what strikes me now is how strongly I identified with them, and how they gave me an image that I felt I could embrace during those unsure teenage years. It comforted me, I suppose. Only now as I look at an old, yellowing shirt do I realise just how much their music helped me through that time. I suppose I could also mention the symbolism of reminiscing over an aged high school shirt when I myself am growing older, but I think I’ll leave that alone.
Let’s start again. This post was meant to be about something else entirely, and I’ve gotten a little side-tracked. I also should really clean out my closet. Anyway, what I originally planned to talk about was Insomniac, Green Day’s 1995 follow-up to Dookie. It’s an album that doesn’t seem to get much attention, even from the band themselves, who only tended to include the songs Geek Stink Breath and Brain Stew/Jaded on their setlists. I’ve written on here before about my love of the album Dookie. Whilst it is true that I still love the album, I feel that I should probably make a confession – it isn’t my favourite Green Day record, nor was it the first album of theirs that I listened to for any length of time. Nope, that album would be Insomniac.
It’s easy to dismiss Insomniac as the edgier, lamer and less-successful version of Dookie. It isn’t as accessible. It’s harsher, darker and more abrasive. It didn’t sell as well. In some ways, it follows the tradition of the ‘after the success’ album, much like Nirvana’s In Utero. But, although Insomniac may not break any new ground, it is a ferocious, visceral album that blasts relentlessly forward, speeding through its songs in just under 33 minutes. I always found this album to be recklessly joyful in its approach, which is slightly odd, considering the darkness of the lyrics. The opening song Armatage Shanks is an example of this, Billie Joe’s painfully detailed and perversely proud self-assessment being something I have always found uncomfortably easy to relate to. Overall, the album retains all the melodies and hooks that Green Day are so adept at, and displays some of Mike Dirnt’s best playing, his bass parts being a highlight of the album, especially in songs like Stuck With Me and Stuart and the Avenue. The album simply doesn’t let up, and I always find myself going back to it.
I was going to go further into detail, but I think I’ll save that for another post. I’ve also been listening to Smash a lot lately, so I might write something about that, too. It’s another one of those albums that I often return to. It’s funny how particular albums can become tied to memory, and provide access to certain points in time. We all have our soundtracks, and they do say that the best memories are set to music. At least I think they say that, anyway.
An article I wrote for a magazine project. I should rewrite this actually – I feel like I can do much better, and writing about my all-time favourite band is always fun.
I was thirteen years old, and without taste. In music, that is. My preferences were mostly the leftovers of my parent’s music collection, dusty LP’s sitting beside a record player that hardly ever saw use, except as a convenient spot to place a plant. I knew music existed, but I didn’t quite understand it. When people would ask me what bands I was into, I would be forced into an awkward silence, before reciting some names that I saw amongst the record collection at home. These were not popular choices. It just all seemed strange to me; I would hear kids talking about Nirvana, and would nod along with conversations without fully understanding what they were. As far as I could gather, they enjoyed teen spirit. Were they just really into team sports? One afternoon after school, an excited friend played me Nevermind. I secretly thought it sounded like the noise a bunch of malfunctioning power tools would make – abrasive and depressing. I mean, I was thirteen, so I was confused and depressed enough already. If that’s what music was, I would keep a healthy distance from it, and resign myself to the fact that it would forever be a world that I could never be a part of. But, everything changed when I heard the opening drum rolls of Green Day’s Dookie.
I knew straight away. This was the band for me. Brimming with energy, with tight and punchy songs topped off by a snarky self-effacing sense of humour, the Californian trio’s third album resonated with me in a way that no music had before. I borrowed a copy of the album from a friend, and listened to it non-stop. The lyrics spoke of boredom and apathy. About confusion and disconnection, of anxiety and alienation. This was music that I could understand, that blasted out of my speakers and reminded me with a snotty voice that perhaps I did have a place after all. A few other things also became clear. I was now into punk rock, and I needed a guitar.
Evidently, I was not alone in this reaction. The album was huge. Having formed in 1986 by Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt, and originally known as Sweet Children, the band had been honing their skills through relentless touring and recording. After a name change to Green Day, an oblique reference to the band member’s affection for marijuana, original drummer Al Sobrante left to pursue a college degree, and was replaced by Tre Cool in 1991. They put out a number of EP’s and LP’s on Lookout! Records, the major releases being the compilation 1039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and 1992’s Kerplunk, which brought them to the attention of major labels. After singing to Reprise Records, and teaming up with producer Rob Cavallo, Dookie was the result. It was a sensation, eventually selling over 20 million copies and spawning the hits Long View, Basket Case, and When I Come Around. It blew punk rock onto mainstream radio, and along with bands such as The Offspring and Rancid, had a heavy influence on the path of alternative music during the 1990’s. The album was undoubtedly difficult to follow, and whilst the following albums Insomniac (1995) Nimrod (1997) and Warning (2000) were solid musically, commercially they did not match their earlier success, and it was generally accepted that the band was declining, and facing irrelevance. This changed with the release of American Idiot in 2004. It is a rare band that can change the course of modern music – it is an even rarer band that can do it twice.
American Idiot was another huge success. It sold 15 million copies, spawned numerous hit singles, and hurled the unexpectedly matured band back into relevancy. The band once again altered the musical landscape, and American Idiot now features alongside Dookie as the bands best work. However, it was at this point that the connection I felt to the band started to wane, as they were no longer the three bratty young men I had first heard in my youth, and not the band that I had grown up with. Despite this, I still find myself returning to their music. It has formed the soundtrack to my life, and been with me during all the highs and lows that go along with it. For this reason, I will always have affection for those three goofballs from California, and hope that their journey isn’t quite over yet. Hopefully, I can go with them.