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Not Quite Hella Mega: How 'Warning:' Quietly Set The Table For Green Day's Blockbuster Era

Tuesday, 05 November 2019 Written by Huw Baines

When the Hella Mega tour rolls into stadiums next summer, Green Day will be right at home. From its name on down the trek—which will find the pop-punk veterans joined by emo survivors Fall Out Boy and alt-rock provocateurs Weezer—is poised to embrace spectacle at each turn, wringing every available drop of goofy grandeur from the headliners’ latter day sense of pomp and circumstance.

But lurking just around the corner from the confetti blasts and audience participation is an anniversary that shines a light on a time in Green Day’s history when concept albums, pyro and crowd-pleasing weren’t on the agenda. Next autumn, their divisive sixth LP, ‘Warning:’, turns 20. At no point could this group of songs have been slapped with the title ‘Father of All Motherfuckers’.

First, let’s luxuriate in some numbers to set the scene. Each Green Day album released between 1991 and 1997 has achieved Platinum status (at least) in the US. ‘Dookie’ has gone Diamond after passing 10 million sales. Two decades on, ‘Warning:’ is stuck on Gold. Honestly, look at this loser. And its outlier status has only been rammed home by the fact that the band almost immediately ditched its stylistic bent in favour of the black shirt/red tie amateur dramatics of ‘American Idiot’, an album that itself has just marked a major birthday by turning 15. That has gone Platinum six times over, if you’re asking.

The reasons for ‘Warning:’ being cut adrift are almost entirely contextual. After the snotty clapback to success that was ‘Insomniac’, 1995’s rapidfire follow up to ‘Dookie’, and the manner in which 1997’s sprawling ‘Nimrod’ found fresh levels of maturity within their existing sound, it served as a culmination of sorts to a difficult period of creative soul-searching.

Green Day, they wanted us to understand, was a band populated by grown ups who liked British Invasion pop, not a potential empty gesture from some punk kids who’d used three chords to unlock the Federal Reserve. They might have spent the summer completing another Warped Tour trek, but as autumn approached they sought for ‘Warning:’ to be taken seriously, because they took themselves seriously.

“I think our antics sort of get in the way of what people think,” Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone at the time of its release. “But I think this one, for me personally, was a lot more articulate than the last one. The last couple of records I feel were sort of reacting to a time period, but this time I think we’re making an action, and I think we’re making bolder statements than we ever have before.”

Those statements, though, were presented in a manner that was more Roger McGuinn than 924 Gilman. The title track, an outrageous lift of the Kinks’ Picture Book, is an ideal scene-setter. Its loping acoustic stride leads into the peppy Blood, Sex and Booze and Church on Sunday. Both land somewhere between the Sonics’ garage-rock yowl and straight up Rickenbacker jangle—close enough to the middle of the road for some diehards to reach for rock’s emptiest, most dispiriting phrase: sellout. ‘Warning:’ was relatively well reviewed, but met with a lukewarm response on the street.

The reality, though, is that these are entirely passable Green Day songs. With a little more dirt under their fingernails, they could have been issued at any point in the preceding decade (perhaps as b-sides if we’re talking ‘94-’97). See if you can find MTV’s 2000 Live Without Warning special online—Church on Sunday is the second cab off the rank and sounds like something culled from ‘Kerplunk’ in a live setting.

What ‘Warning:’ did was quietly double down on some of the theatricality and open-hearted emoting that would allow Green Day to transition into their Bush-baiting blockbuster era. While their sound would soon shift gears again—the title track from ‘American Idiot’ replaced the Kinks as wounded party with Dillinger Four—many of the core materials were already in place four years earlier, and in some cases existed as far back as ‘Nimrod’. They were essentially hiding in plain sight.

In the title track and the furiously overblown march of Minority, there are embryonic versions of the banner-sized slogans that lit up ‘American Idiot’. “One light, one mind, flashing in the dark,” Billie Joe sings. “Blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts. ‘For crying out loud,’ she screamed unto me. A free-for-all, fuck 'em all.” Jesus of Suburbia, much?

For further foreshadowing, drink in the maudlin closer Macy’s Day Parade, which takes an American cultural standard and tips it on its head. “The night of the living dead is on its way, with a credit report for duty call, it's a lifetime guarantee,” Billie Joe earnestly drawls. “Stuffed in a coffin ‘10% more free’.”

If these exercises in low-key rabble rousing feel a little awkward and unsure of themselves, particularly the broadly execrable Minority, they do ensure that ‘Warning:’ isn’t entirely cut adrift in the broader narrative. With hindsight they also suggest that ‘American Idiot’ wasn’t as much of an about face as it initially appeared. 

That record’s politics were inescapably of their time in a post-9/11, mid-Iraq War America—Green Day’s noisy awakening as a political band was almost entirely reactionary, but Green Day are a reactionary band. The skyscraping ‘American Idiot’ was a completely on brand response to the muted reception that awaited ‘Warning:’. It’s the nihilism of ‘Insomniac’ vs. the runaway success of ‘Dookie’ all over again.

But its form, thematic cogency and soapbox grandstanding would stick around through ‘21st Century Breakdown’ and beyond as the band embraced a ‘size matters’ approach. That reality has essentially divided their discography into pre-and-post ‘American Idiot’, which is the distinction that causes ‘Warning:’ to stick out. It doesn’t really fit in either camp—it’s the forgotten pitcher who throws the eighth inning and allows the closer to clinch the pennant.

Fifteen years along the line, ‘American Idiot’ reigns as one of the crucial late period reinventions in modern American rock, and also as the defining factor in Green Day being able to stage spectacles with the scale and gleeful lack of subtlety that will characterise Hella Mega. The ‘Warning:’-era trio were on a different wavelength, but they’d probably find a few things to get on board with among the fire and festivities. It’s their show too.

Green Day Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed June 24 2020 - GLASGOW Bellahouston Park
Fri June 26 2020 - LONDON Stadium Olympic Park
Sat June 27 2020 - HUDDERSFIELD John Smiths Stadium
Mon June 29 2020 - DUBLIN RDS Arena

Click here to compare & buy Green Day Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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