Green Day celebrate 39/Smooth anniversary with never-before-seen video from 1990
Watch Green Day (with original drummer John Kiffmeyer) perform Paper Lanterns in 1990 at a “backyard in Oakland”.
From punk clubs to the world’s biggest stadiums, we present the music that made Green Day superstars.
It's been over three decades since Green Day released their debut album 39/Smooth and began a journey that would change the face of punk forever. Dropping a further 12 LPs since, they mightn’t quite be the genre’s most prolific players but their ability to change the conversation and propel forward their own narrative with each new record is unrivalled.
A rollercoaster of towering peaks and, er, even higher ones, trying to boil that journey down to just 20 songs feels utterly futile. For every pick that’s made our list, there are at least two others demanding attention. Hell, there are several albums here that we’ve not touched on, and not one of them belongs on the scrapheap. Rather than cracking up, it’s best to appreciate these problems as symptomatic of just how brilliant the Oakland trio’s catalogue truly is…
Along with the far more iconic Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), Macy’s Day Parade reflected Green Day’s evolving contemplative side in the latter half of that 10-year transition between Dookie and American Idiot. A layered, unapologetically lyrical deconstruction of consumerism and the damaging effect of the pursuit of material satisfaction, it’s still an earworm wriggling away to rouse us from the numbness of everyday triviality – and as a statement of intent from punk heavyweights growing into their misfit skin.
It’s difficult to remember, sometimes, just how pivotal Green Day’s seventh LP was in their stepping up to globe-straddling status. After years of more sedate, often introspective songwriting – and fans wondering if they’d ever truly expand on the mega-success of Dookie – they re-emerged with a political-punk masterpiece, full of furious attitude and world-beating bombast. Its lead single was the tip of the spear: a full-blooded post-9/11 callout of then-president George W. Bush and the millions of blindly jingoistic countrymen backing him up. Remarkably, it rings even truer today.
Caught, somewhat, in the 20 million-selling shadow of Dookie, 1995 follow-up Insomniac should never ever be overlooked. This standout cut showcases Billie Joe Armstrong’s talent for building a sense of world-weary pessimism (‘Take it from my dignity / Waste it until it’s dead /Throw me back into the gutter / ’Cause it’s alright…’) into otherwise enlivening underdog anthems. Somewhat fittingly, the name Stuck With Me wasn’t even intended for this song (originally called Alright), but ended up attached after a typo on the artwork, with its original bearer emerging years later as Do Da Da on 2002’s Shenanigans. Regardless, it’s stuck with us, every bit as powerful, for a quarter-century since.
After the high-concept but ultimately underwhelming execution of 2012’s album trilogy ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!, 2016 follow-up Revolution Radio roundly exceeded expectations. This near seven-minute epic is a true standout. Billie Joe has cited the line ‘My name is Billie and I’m freaking out…’ as the most straightforwardly honest he’s ever committed to a song, continuing the theme of anxiety (taking in microscale concerns of his own psyche and his macroscale ones over global politics) that’s run throughout his career. For long-term fans, it was a heady reassurance that Green Day are still capable of wrangling such sensitive ideas in truly spectacular ways.
Another underrated epic, American Eulogy felt like a singular riposte to claims from certain corners that the band’s eighth album was a bloated indulgence. Arriving 17 songs into the 18-track behemoth that was 21st Century Breakdown, it was confirmation that the Green Day weren’t running out of steam – on that record or any time soon – and could wrong-foot fans at will. Split into two acts (A. Mass Hysteria and B. Modern World), it manages to give the listener a second wind while conveying the chaos of the world that Gloria and Christian – characters at the centre of the record’s socially conscious concept – inhabit. ‘Sing us a song of the century! / It sings like American Eulogy!’
‘I SAID AAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYOOOOOOOOOOO!’ Need we say more? Over the last two decades, Minority has become an essential staple of Green Day’s live sets. That bouncy percussive foundation on which the song is built feels like a custom-built platform, over which like-minded outsiders can scream back their outcast anthem. Interestingly, this was also Green Day’s first real rumination on politics – a theme which would only be amplified be the events of the years that followed. ‘A free for all, fuck ’em all!’ indeed.
Billie Joe has previously said that Letterbomb is his personal favourite track on American Idiot, and the band chose it for performance on the limited setlist at their 2012 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. If that’s not enough to get you cranking up its incendiary – but surprisingly thoughtful – four minutes, you can add that opening cameo from Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna to the list: ‘Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / They’re all out without you / Having fun…’
It’s crazy to think that Billie Joe was only 17 when he penned this highlight from their 1990 debut. Recorded with original drummer John Kiffmeyer (Tré Cool would claim the sticks after the trio’s first U.S. tour following 39/Smooth’s release), it could be viewed simply as a curious relic from an earlier era. Economic and energised but tuggingly heartfelt, however, it hallmarked so much of what would make Green Day stand apart in the three decades that followed.
‘I’m having trouble trying to sleep / I’m counting sheep but running out / As time ticks by / And still I try / No rest for crosstops in my mind…’ Is that descending guitar riff Green Day’s most instantly recognisable? We’d wager so. The simple standout from 1995’s Insomniac goes hand-in-hand with its hyperactive sibling Jaded so much so that the two were bundled together into a single clip. Stacked side by side, they showcase all the reasons of what ensured this band owned the mid-’90s.
There are probably people out there who’ve never even heard the name Green Day, but who know every word of Good Riddance. Transcending their safety-pinned roots altogether with a ballad that’s as irresistible as it is iconic, this might just be the song that grants the trio true musical immortality. The knockabout story goes that Billie Joe’s cracked tooth in the music video was earned in a scuffle involving Tré, a security guard and a hotel TV the night before filming. That only makes more remarkable the stirring melody and universally affecting message, which is sure to became the ubiquitous soundtrack to so many of this generation’s pivotal moments: from graduations to funerals. Originally penned in 1993, it emerged not from a place of sentimentality, but loaded with the resentment of Billie Joe’s ex-girlfriend Amanda having upped sticks for Ecuador.
‘I was a young boy that had big plans / Now I’m just another shitty old man…’ The opening line establishes the pervading sentiment on this sorely underrated cut from the Nimrod era. Marrying the unfussy musicality of the band’s early years to the big-budget polish and creeping self-doubt that followed their breakthrough, it pulsates with all the tightly wound self-analysis of Dookie while projecting a (dialled-up) anxiousness about growing up and getting old, to which many of their original fanbase could sorely relate. Setting analysis aside, it’s also the sort of simple, spring-loaded banger guaranteed to get any fan pogoing like a lunatic – if only the lads would get around to playing it live…
A tale rich in angst and alienation, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye feels like it should provide rich inspiration for a band like Green Day. (Indeed, there are strong echoes through the American Idiot concept.) Though name-checking the novel’s rebellious protagonist, however, this ageless Kerplunk! cut comes at it from a whole different angle, twistedly essaying the young Billie Joe’s developing appreciation for big ideas and the power of words. Too many fans overlook the pre-major label days, not understanding the excellence of songs like this which spring-boarded the Bay Area boys to the big time.
An ode to getting sober then giving up; a darker interpretation could see Hitchin’ A Ride as about nihilism more than hedonism, but with a structure this catchy you’ll quickly appreciate how delightful it can be to get hooked. Building from jaunty temptation (‘Cold turkey’s getting stale…’) through woozy playfulness to a place of sheer head-spinning turmoil, it condenses the off-the-wagon chaos of one wild night into under three minutes of unforgettable music. Boasting that violin intro and bags more sleazy swagger than we’d seen before, it also signposted stylistic evolutions coming just around the bend.
There is a school of thought that Longview remains Green Day’s most important song. Having signed to major label Reprise, they were seen as sellouts by a once loyal Bay Area following, but the rhythm section oriented emphasis of the sound (bassist Mike Dirnt came up with his iconic contribution on an acid trip) and irreverent playfulness of the songwriting felt like proof the band themselves wouldn’t be forgetting where they’d come from. Named after the small town in Washington where it was premiered onstage, Longview was a cheeky benchmark for a band about to take over the world. On top of all that, it’s also the greatest song ever written about masturbation.
Billie Joe’s ode to his then-long distance Minnesotan girlfriend Adrienne Nesser felt like proof, all the way back in 1994, that this was a band destined to transcend the VFW halls and dive bars of the Bay Area for the world’s stadia sooner rather than later. Although some have seen its slump-shouldered sound as the band’s disheartened acknowledgement that such relationships rarely work out, the punching defiance of that titular chorus line feels like a promise to make things count when the opportunity arises. Marrying Adrienne a few months after the record dropped, Billie Joe proved himself a man of his word. A quarter-century together and two kids later, those lyrics feel all the more powerful today.
‘I’m the son of rage and love / The Jesus Of Suburbia.’ American Idiot’s towering, five-part centrepiece is, musically and narratively, a song that stratospherically raised the bar in terms of mainstream punk. Introducing our eponymous anti-hero – a disillusioned middle class teen raised, like so many of his generation, on ‘soda pop and Ritalin’ who decides to reject his small-town existence and head for the big city – it is pivotal to the album’s concept. Stridently shapeshifting and subverting the doo-wop and stadium rock sounds of classic Americana, it felt at once like a potent coming of age chronicle and daringly OTT attempt at a post-9/11 Bohemian Rhapsody. Crucially, it succeeded!
‘I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out…’ Longview might’ve been Dookie’s lead single, but album opener Burnout is the real intro to those 40 minutes of punk paradise for the millions of fans who’ve spun the record since. 127 frenzied seconds encapsulating the angst, demotivation and idle distraction of adolescence, it arrives pock-marked by Tré Cool’s irresistible drum fills and run ragged by its own unstoppable momentum. For our money, it’s the most simply relatable song in their whole catalogue.
‘Do you have the time to listen to me whine / About nothing and everything all at once?’ Perhaps the most forehead-slappingly obvious inclusion on this list, Basket Case has long since entered the punk pantheon as an all-time classic but it’s nonetheless worth stopping to remind ourselves just how much it means to fans today. Nominated for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal in the 1995 GRAMMY Awards, and accompanied by that unforgettable video featuring the boys playing patients at Santa Clara’s actual Agnews mental institution, immortality feels guaranteed. Strip all that away, though, and it’s still a cracked masterpiece destined to writhe forever at the back of our minds.
There’s a thinking that by the time Warner dropped the fifth and final single off Dookie in May 1995, the levels of Green Day in the public consciousness had reached saturation point, resulting in it being the only one not to reach the Top 40. Although alternative wisdom dictates that the real reason for that ‘failure’ is so many people had already picked up the LP at that point, single sales were always going to be impacted, and there is a small shame in She failing to get any part of its dues. Its more than made up for itself in the meantime, of course, with the timeless tale of a lover struggling to live up to relationship expectations that don’t truly meet their own – backed by one of their most measured, fine-tuned instrumental compositions – having become a firm favourite for legions of fans.
Jesus Of Suburbia might’ve been American Idiot’s protagonist, and Whatsername his almost-saviour, but St. Jimmy represented the punk fire burning within. The swaggering outlaw who accelerates proceedings once JOS has upped sticks and left his small town for the big city, the man with an ‘angel face and a taste for suicidal’ is so pivotal to the story’s arc that Billie Joe even took on the role and played him on Broadway for a stint. After the more contemplative tone of Are We The Waiting?, this razor-sharp three-minute introduction blindsides us with its 100mph riffage and dizzying snapshot of a lifeforce burning bright and fast. More than that, it’s a song to make the heart beat faster, a distillation of all the reasons Green Day have always felt so unapologetically alive.
Watch Green Day (with original drummer John Kiffmeyer) perform Paper Lanterns in 1990 at a “backyard in Oakland”.
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Hear Green Day’s demo cover of Alison by Elvis Costello, taken from their upcoming Nimrod anniversary release.