There are times in life when you have to overcome a major setback to find your way back to success. Such was the case for Green Day who enjoyed one of the biggest successes of their career after having to scrap a proposed album after the tapes disappeared. To understand what came next, it’s best to look at the dynamics of what was going on in the band at the time.
After the commercial disappointment of their 2000 album Warningthe group issued a Greatest hits reunion in 2001, and tensions had grown to near breaking point in the band. As Mike Dirnt told Rolling stones“Breaking up was an option. We argued a lot and we were miserable. We needed a change in direction.”
Part of the conflict was due to a lack of communication, with Billie Joe Armstrong often takes the creative lead and doesn’t necessarily involve his bandmates. But realizing there was a problem, Armstrong turned to Dirnt and the drummer Three cool with the idea of adding a mandated weekly interview period to their schedules. Dirnt recalls, “We bared our souls to each other. Cool added, “It was a big thing to admit that we loved each other. We held nothing back. Before Bill would write a song, hang around and then say, ‘Fuck it’. The imaginary Mike and Tre in his head would say, ‘This song stinks. Don’t waste your time on it.’ He stopped that and became completely fearless around me and Mike.”
It created a deeper trust and when the bands for the planned album Cigarettes and Valentines disappeared, it was easier for the band members to decide that it wasn’t their best work and a new idea was needed.
During this period, the band challenged themselves to write “30 second songs”, an idea that produced some interesting pieces. “It started to get more serious when we were trying to outdo each other,” Armstrong said. “We kept connecting these little pieces in half a minute until we had something.” Out of that came the musical suiteHomecoming“and also the beginning of the epic”Jesus of Suburbia,” the latter of which gave the band the idea to pursue their own version of a rock opera.
Encouraged by producer Rob Cavallo and inspired by some of the political events taking place in the world at the time and the media’s attitude towards reporting said events, the material began to flow.
Green Day, “Jesus of Suburbia”
“We were in the studio and saw the reporters embedded with the troops, and it was the worst version of reality TV,” says Armstrong. “Change the channel and it’s Nick [Lachey] and Jessica [Simpson]. Switch and that’s it Fear factor. Change and people are getting surgery to look like Brad Pitt. We’re surrounded by all that shit, and the characters Jesus of Suburbia and St. So is Jimmy. It’s a sign of the times.”
Eventually, fans caught wind of what the band was planning, and Armstrong recalls, “I looked at the bulletin board and some kids thought we were crazy. It’s like, ‘Fuck it, take the bulletin down.'” We decided we were going to be the biggest band in the world or fall flat on our faces.”
The band didn’t just listen to classic rock operas and concept albums like WHO‘s Tommy and David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Marsbut also took ideas from Broadway musicals, some of their classic rock influences and also allowed some of the best rock and hip-hop acts of the time to factor into their sound and approach.
Green Day originally wrote and tested music at Studio 880 in the Oakland area. Then Armstrong took a trip to New York City for a few weeks and found the inspiration for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams“and”Are we the ones waiting” during his time there, returned with a clearer story for the disc. After the demos were finished, the band moved to Los Angeles, first setting up shop at Ocean Way Recording before finishing the disc during a stint at Capitol Studios. And on by the time all was said and done, Green Day found themselves working through their most ambitious album to date.
Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
On Sept. 21, 2004, the band would release American idiotwhich immediately shot to No. 1 boosted by the sparkling title numberwhich had already commanded listeners’ ears on the radio and dominated video channels on television.
Speaking to Kerrang, Armstrong would reveal that he was partly inspired by hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd‘The way I like it’ in his car. “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ That’s exactly what I’m against.” In addition to calling out the media’s reality TV-like coverage of war, the song also served as a rallying cry for individuality and breaking free from what the media bestows views on.
The track shot straight to No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart and No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart, and it became pretty clear that Green Day hit on something that really connected with listeners.
Green Day, “American Idiot”
Keeping the momentum going, in November 2004 the band served up “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, which would go on to become one of the biggest hits of their career. As I said, the idea came to Armstrong during a trip to New York, where he rented a loft and spent time jamming with singer/songwriters Ryan Adams and Jesse Malin.
Armstrong wrote the track about “feeling alone” in the city and finding the power in it. The singer stated that he felt the track fit well with the overall story of people “getting away and getting the hell out, all while fighting their own inner demons.” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, their best placement ever, and also topped the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts. It also resulted in a Grammy at the 2006 ceremony for Record of the Year.
The third single, “Vacation,” arrived in March 2005 full of attitude and bite. During concerts, Armstrong said, “This song is a big ‘fuck you’ for the US government. This song is not anti-American. It’s anti-war.”
Inspired by the works of Bob Dylan, Armstrong tried to write something with a harsher message than “American Idiot.” “I pray to dream and separate myself from the hollow lies / This is the dawn of the rest of our lives / On vacation,” Armstrong triumphantly belted out in the track, later calling “the president’s gasman.” The song would hit No. 1 on both Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Radio and also crossed over to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Green Day, “Vacation”
After the snarl of “Holiday,” Green Day opted for a more melancholic follow-up. “Wake me up when September ends” was a deeply personal track written by Armstrong reflecting on the death of his father, who died when the singer was still a pre-teen. The vocalist would later reveal on VH1’s Storytellers that the track was the most autobiographical song he had ever written and often proved difficult to perform live.
Director Samuel Bayer took the lyrics from the song and gave it a different spin in an epic anti-war clip that featured movie stars Evan Rachel Wood and Jamie Bell as young lovers torn apart by war.
Bayer told MTV“I pitched my concept to Billie Joe because I know the song is personal to him and he loved that it’s all about youth and dreams and bonds being broken. We wanted to make a mini-movie about a boy and a girl . who fall in love and have the rest of their lives ahead of them, but the boy joins the army and leaves her behind to go to war. It’s my interpretation of Billie Joe’s very personal song.”
Bayer, who created some of the greatest videos in music history, later pronounced, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve worked with so much rock music over the years and I’ve shot so many videos, but ‘September’ is without a doubt the best I’ve ever done.” On top of the great acclaim for the video, the song reached No. 2 Alternative and No. 12 on Mainstream Rock Radio, while also crossing over to hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Green Day, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”
Closing out the singles from the album was “Jesus of Suburbia”, the epic five-part piece that started the core of American idiot history. Armstrong stated that Billboard, “After you wrote a song like that, it was like, ‘I can’t go back now.’ You can’t just suddenly say, ‘I want to write a normal record.'” The song is named after the titular anti-hero, a lower-middle-class American teenager raised on a diet of “soda and Ritalin.”
Other characters in the overall story included St. Jimmy, a punk rock freedom fighter, and Whatsername, the female mother revolution figure. All three of these characters would later become important when Armstrong and the band translated their rock opera into a full theatrical production. Although not a big radio hit, due in part to the length of the track, “Jesus of Suburbia” remains a classic in the eyes of Green Day fans due to its ambitious nature.
When all was said and done, Green Day’s American idiot debuted at No. 1, went six times platinum, received the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005, led to the band’s return to top draw status on the road, revived their career, and yes, as I said, the group spun off the idea for a popular stage production.
And there has been talk of a film adaptation American idiot as well. Bassist Mike Dirnt revealed that the album “would restore my faith in rock and roll,” while Armstrong concluded, “At this point in our career, it’s all about the music. There’s no bullshit, no reality shit, no nostalgia trip. It’s what that makes the last ten years more worthwhile. Plus the fact that we all dress pretty sharp.”