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Green Day: Many Happy Returns To...'American Idiot'

Friday, 26 September 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

When Californian punks Green Day released 'American Idiot' in 2004, their popularity was on the wane. The biggest success in their catalogue to date had been ‘Dookie’, released a decade earlier and a triumph in snotty-nosed, ‘new punks on the block’ angst. It sold over 10 million copies.

Following ‘Dookie’, though, would be something of a rocky road. Taut, anxious and bratty, ‘Insomniac’ was a great album but a hard sell, ‘Nimrod’ a transitional piece that was thrilling but a little ungainly. The dip into mediocrity duly arrived with 2000’s ‘Warning’, a disappointing commercial flop.

So, how did the trio stop the rot? Well, the story of ‘American Idiot’ begins with the master tapes for ‘Cigarettes And Valentines’, intended to be the band’s seventh album, being stolen. Faced with the loss of their work, Green Day started over. "There was definitely a conversation at one point," producer Rob Cavallo told Spin in 2004. "Where I looked at the guys and said: 'Tell me the God's honest truth — did you really kill yourselves to make [the lost record]?' And they said: 'No.'"

‘American Idiot’ would prove to be an album of time and place, shaped by its surroundings and by a band seeking some answers after over a decade at the sharp end of alternative music. A 30-something funk collided with a political landscape ripe for further investigation, but that Green Day would be the band to do it came as a surprise. It immediately made sense once the first line of the title track bit.

By the time that the ‘Cigarettes And Valentines’ masters disappeared, Billie Joe Armstrong already had embryonic versions of American Idiot and Holiday in hand. They were direct, confrontational and, as Tre Cool later noted, “maximum Green Day”.  

‘American Idiot’ was a protest against what America was becoming under the noses of the populace, where people were being told what to do and what to believe. It was a warning about what was subconsciously happening to the masses almost unchecked.

The next move elevated ‘American Idiot’ beyond a statement and into the realms of theatre, taking Green Day way, way out of their comfort zone. As with all great oaks, initially there was just an acorn. In this case, it was a 30 second Mike Dirnt song composed when he was left alone at the band’s studio. Impressed, Armstrong and Cool composed their own sections.

“It started out as a joke,” Armstrong told Spin in 2004. “Mike was alone in the studio and called me and said: ‘What am I going to do here?’ I said: ‘Why don't you write a 30-second song?’ So he did, and it was really good. I connected another 30-second song, then Tre did, and all of a sudden it started taking on the characteristics of a rock opera. You have to keep your sense of humor when you do something like this, because you don't want it to sound pretentious. I like [the Who's] 'Tommy', but it's so literal. I didn't want to write, [sings]: "Here I am, walking down the stairs, preparing some food."

With that seed planted, Jesus Of Suburbia and Homecoming would blossom over time. Nine minute epics comprised of multiple movements, they took the rock opera baton and carved out chunks of pop-punk brilliance under the banner of something far more bloated.

The album’s story, of a suburban kid enraptured by the alluring, dangerous St. Jimmy - a cross between “Darby Crash and John the Baptist” - and set to fall for a girl and into the gutter, soon took shape. It was emblematic not just of youthful anger, but, as anyone who’s read Please Kill Me will tell you, of some of punk rock’s most iconic characters.

To this day, Jesus Of Suburbia is an enduring piece, one that owes its longevity to the way its competing lines are stitched together without ever losing sight of an overall goal. It’s a magnificent achievement, one overflowing with vitality and melody.

In the third stage, after descriptions of life with Moms and Brads, we hear that: “Everyone is so full of shit, born and raised by hypocrites.” Its hooks and message are impossible to ignore. The fifth stage, subtitled Tales From Another Broken Home, sees our hero “leave behind this hurricane of fucking lies”. Cool told Jaded In Chicago: “The album is a sort of timeline of his life. Depending on where you’re at with your life, you probably fit somewhere on that timeline yourself.”

Holiday, Boulevard Of Broken Dreams and Homecoming are all monsters. Wake Me Up When September Ends – which deals with the death of Armstrong’s father when the singer was just 10 – is heart-wrenching . The closing track, Whatsername, is open-ended and muted, an admission that memories fade. Life is a juggernaut that ploughs on.

In 2009, the record was taken to a logical extreme when a stage musical version of it, with a book written by Armstrong, was staged in Berkeley and later on Broadway. The Green Day frontman even enjoyed a stint as St. Jimmy during its run.

Green Day went back to the rock opera well with ‘21st Century Breakdown’ in 2009, this time with Butch Vig taking over production duties from Cavallo. Like its predecessor it achieved critical acclaim, but their original statement will never be surpassed. All that’s left to say is, many happy returns to 'American Idiot'.

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