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How Green Day propelled punk rock into the mainstream

From grassroots to mainstream victory, Green Day have defied conventions and exceeded expectations over the course of their career, facing their fair share of critique leading up to their breakthrough album Dookie in a tale of success and social alienation.

It began in the late 1980’s, when a young Billie Joe Armstrong was dissatisfied with suburban life. There wasn’t much in the way of a music scene in his small Californian hometown; during documentary Green Day: The Early Years, Billie Joe explained “in Rodeo, there’s just nothing. I wanted to play music in bands, but there was no outlet for it." He drew inspiration from punk bands like Operation Ivy and Bad Religion, notably admiring the rebellion and style of The Ramones. In the same vicinity, Mike Dirnt was subjected to the same lack of music, telling Rip Magazine “if you wanted to hear music in our town, you had to play it.” Following his own advice, he learned to play bass by strumming along to some of his favourite artists, Husker Du and The Replacements. Tré Cool, oblivious to the existence of his would-be bandmates, lived in a remote town called Willits over a hundred miles from them. As luck would have it, his closest neighbour was Larry Livermore – co-founder of independent label Lookout Records – who allowed Tré to take advantage of his vinyl collection and practice playing drums. Together with another local, the pair started a band called The Lookouts.

A few years later, Billie Joe and Mike were playing in a band called Sweet Children. They eventually collided with Tré at a local gig, bonding over their shared disdain for small town living. Tré played with an intensity and charisma that left them wondering which planet he was from, and they set their sights on recruiting him for the band. After a name change to Green Day, they got to work on their first album together which was recorded at San Francisco’s Art of Ears studio. Kerplunk, released via Lookout Records, became the label’s biggest selling release. The record had an instantly catchy sound with songs such as Christie Road and the earlier version of Welcome to Paradise.


Adjacent to the thriving grunge scene, punk rock was beginning to regain popularity. Perfect timing for Green Day, who stormed onto the scene with high octane energy. After playing to anyone and everyone they could (which sometimes meant a crowd of ten) the band realised they were starting to gain a following and made their exit from suburbia to the East Bay area, renowned for its vibrant music landscape. Central to the scene was venue 924 Gilman, a hub of counterculture founded on values of respect, inclusivity and fierce independence. It was, and remains, situated in Berkeley, the birthplace of the free speech movement which is intrinsic to punk rock. Gilman was a mainstay for the members of Green Day, who would regularly attend shows, with Billie Joe praising the chaos and comradery where he felt at home. Finally, the band had found a place where they could belong, but their days were numbered.


Kerplunk had been more successful than anyone expected, shifting more than 10,000 copies on the day of its release. It soon became clear that Lookout, an independent label with limited resources, was unable to distribute the volume of records being sold. When an opportunity came along to sign with a major record label, who could offer greater capacity for distribution, the band found themselves at an intersection. They had outgrown their current label and wanted to live up to their potential – would they take a leap of faith, or remain loyal to the independent scene that had afforded them the community they’d been craving?


They ended up choosing the former and signed a deal with Reprise Records, a move that would see their street cred revoked. They were even banned from playing at Gilman, which had a no major label policy. You’d think they’d committed some heinous crime when all they really did was open the door when opportunity knocked. Gatekeepers from the scene saw it as a betrayal, a rejection of punk spirit. Then again, by definition, conforming to someone else’s standards isn’t very punk. Rather, it’s a state of mind and freedom through self-expression. Green Day were good at what they did, had the ambition and talent to back it up, and deserved a chance to reach new heights. Commenting on the events in Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, Mike said “the idea of selling out would be not following the thing that I love doing, and giving up on it because somebody else had imposed a sanction by telling me I shouldn't do it.”


Green Day started working with producer Rob Cavallo at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley to create their next record. The result was something that wasn’t overly refined but noticeably more polished than their previous two albums. Dookie had a melodic musicality to it, proving you don’t need more than three chords to make a good record. Lead single Longview took off, reaching Number 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay charts. The accompanying music video, shot at the warehouse in Oakland that the band once called home, was nominated in several categories at MTV's Music Video Awards.


Despite their reservations about jumping ship to a major label, the risk paid off as Dookie was a massive success: it received rave reviews from critics and fans alike, scoring peak chart positions in the US and internationally, four Grammy nominations and a feature on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 1994 list. 30 years later, Dookie is still regarded as a definitive album in the punk rock genre.


To push the album, Green Day toured extensively, visiting countries they'd never been to before. They were invited to play at 1994’s Woodstock festival, a televised event described as two days of peace and music, but there wasn’t anything peaceful about Green Day’s short lived set and the anarchy that ensued. When a mud fight broke out, Billie Joe responded by antagonising the crowd, who then demanded the band’s departure from the stage. It didn’t exactly end well but served to promote the new album with sales soaring… any publicity is good publicity.

Green Day got what they had originally wanted – to play music, and as a byproduct, global recognition.


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