- Billie Joe Armstrong
- Tré Cool
- Mike Dirnt
Green Day yanked punk rock out from the underground and into the mainstream.
However, the band proved that the music could still sound rebellious (and be politically minded) despite being accessible and popular.
In fact, Green Day viewed punk as a framework of values more than a specific sound—and a guiding force as they created ambitious, contemporary rock & roll infused with deep reverence for music's greats.
When Green Day played an intimate club show in Cleveland before their 2015 Rock Hall induction, the band had a surprise opening act: themselves. More specifically, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and early drummer John Kiffmeyer dusted off Sweet Children—Green Day's original incarnation, which played its first show in 1987 —to zip through a bunch of wiry pop-punk tunes. The set was lighthearted and nostalgic, but no joke: Although the trio hadn't performed together in a quarter century, it felt like barely any time had passed.
Then again, Green Day's energy and loyalty to their punk roots haven't flagged a bit during their decades together. Sure, the band (which added drummer Tré Cool in 1990 after Kiffmeyer decided to go to college) is now far too big to play famous Bay Area DIY venue 924 Gilman Street, the site of early shows. And sonically, the group has moved far beyond the homesick pop-punk of 1992's Kerplunk! and the snotty, boredom-inspired tunes on 1994's Dookie.
But Green Day continue to follow punk's convention-flouting ethos—as seen in their decision to release a politically charged punk rock concept album (2004's American Idiot) and release three albums within the span of a few months (2012's wildly diverse ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! triptych)—and have carved out a career on their own terms, without any ethical compromise.
Self-described "class clowns" Armstrong and Dirnt met in fifth grade, and became fast friends and musical foils. (In fact, the pair were barely teenagers when Sweet Children started playing live.) Their scrappy band eventually found a home not only at 924 Gilman Street, but also Lookout! Records, whose founder, Larry Livermore, signed the group and released early vinyl such as 1989's 1,000 Hours EP and 1990's 39/Smooth LP. A groundswell of underground popularity landed Green Day a deal with Reprise Records, and the trio recorded their major label debut, 1994's Dookie, in just three weeks.
The album was an immediate hit, and by May 1995, Dookie was eight times platinum, thanks to heavy MTV and radio rotation for jawing, relentless songs such as "Longview," "Basket Case" and "She." Memorable concerts—including a mud fight at Woodstock '94 and a free outdoor concert in Boston that was shut down after an estimated 65,000 people showed up—further cemented the band's rebellious reputation and notoriety.
It helped, of course, that Green Day was certainly as angst-filled as the popular grunge bands of the day. However, the band took an upbeat approach to their expressions of anxiety, fear and despair—tearing through songs at breakneck speed as if to trample any negative thoughts. That approach continued on 1995's relentless, jittery Insomniac and 1997's Nimrod, although the latter featured a more expansive sound and one of Green Day's first major crossovers, the acoustic-based "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
That a punk band would release such a stripped-down song might have surprised some, but it made perfect sense: Green Day's sound always had classic influences—for example, see the Beatles-esque harmonies on Dookie's "Having A Blast"—and the band members are huge music fans. In fact, Cool and Armstrong spent much of their Rock Hall induction acceptance speeches shouting out influences ranging from Ringo Starr to Cheap Trick.
And so starting with 2000's Warning—a fan-favorite record with obvious nods to the Kinks and the Clash—Green Day let loose, with monstrous results. American Idiot won the 2005 Grammy for Best Rock Album, on the strength of the careening, thrashing title track; the ominous rock chug "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams"; and Armstrong's plaintive, heartfelt remembrance of his father's death, "Wake Me Up When September Ends." The album was also turned into a successful Broadway and touring musical.
In 2009, Green Day released another rock opera, 21st Century Breakdown, which was fiercer politically and again viewed punk as a mere starting point. To support these albums, the band toured relentlessly, headlining festivals such as Reading, Leeds and Lollapalooza, and becoming a popular arena-sized act.
Several years later, Green Day topped even themselves by releasing three studio albums, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!, in the span of a few months. This trilogy felt like an homage to the band members' record collections, as the albums gleefully shuffled through glam, proto-rock & roll, punk, blues-rock and jangle-pop.
Green Day are still an ongoing concern, although the band takes their time between albums and tours these days. It's not a sign of creative weakness or drought, however—just a sign that the livewire musicians, who once struggled to get gigs, are finally at a point where they can subvert punk rock at their leisure.