American Idiot: Revisiting the album that made Green Day stars

A portrait of Green Day

This article originally appeared in issue 128 of Total Guitar Magazine

It’s Dublin, but it feels like Iceland. Somewhere out in the Atlantic, a hurricane is spinning itself out and sending a bucket-load of bad weather Ireland’s way: it’s wet, windy, and it feels like November, not August. On our way from the airport, Total Guitar’s taxi driver is a 50-ish woman who’s fascinated by the fact that we’ve come to Dublin in this weather just to meet a band, do an interview, get some shots, and fly back the next day. “Green Day?” she says, grimacing. “Never heard of them. Now I feel old. What kind of music is it?”

Punk, says TG.

“There’s still punk, is there?” she says, with genuine surprise. “I thought that ended with the Boomtown Rats…”

Green Day are in Dublin to play a 1000-capacity gig at the Ambassador: a warm-up gig before their headline shows at Reading/Leeds and a chance to see how the songs from their new album, American Idiot, go down live. It’s do-or-die time for Green Day. The brand of punk-pop that they brought into the mainstream with Dookie in 1994 – more than 15 years after Bob Geldof’s attempts at murdering punk once and for all with the Boomtown Rats – has become run-of-the-mill. The US provides a never-ending stream of feel good Californian punk-poppers, while in the UK the marketing guys have realised that the limp balladry of Boyzone and Westlife doesn’t cut it with today’s kids. The result? Busted and McFly: ‘real’ scissor-kicking guitar bands that provide inoffensive-but-cheeky three minute pop thrills and – what a coincidence! – Smash Hits-friendly boy band good looks. Ch-ching!

So what’s a band of 30-something punk rock veterans to do? In Green Day’s case, they decided to make the album of their career, an album that shouldn’t work but absofuckinglutely does: a punk rock concept album complete with storyline, characters and nine-minute songs. If it sounds self-indulgent, wait until you hear it: the reality is an hour’s worth of kick-ass punk songs that – taken together – hit you on a deeper level too. The nine-minute songs are actually made up of five separate songs segueing into one another. The choruses are huge. The ideas are cool. And the guitar playing is the best of Billie Joe’s career: from punk rock licks and short blazing leads to epic Mick Ronson-style glam rock and doomy Sabbath-like riffs, it’s a masterclass in tasty-but-tasteful playing. In short, it’s the punk album of the year so far, no contest.

When people heard that Green Day were doing a concept album-cum-rock-opera, eyebrows were raised. Were people around the band freaked out? “A little bit,” says Billie Joe. “People were like, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ It’s like – Green Day, punk rock opera, concept record, nine minute songs – those words don’t really go well in the same sentence. So there was definitely some fear, but for me it was like, ‘People will just have to listen and then they’ll get it: it’s still Green Day.’”

Growing up in a punk band has always been a huge problem: how do you progress without selling out? How do you ‘mature’ without getting boring? There aren’t many role models, either: the Sex Pistols burnt out after one album, and the Clash left straight punk rock behind with London Calling. Of the new breed, the Offspring came back with an album that was kinda like all their others (but not as good), Blink 182 dropped the knob gags and made an album that was cool but much less fun than their others.

Green Day, thank god, haven’t lost their sense of fun. Billie Joe sits before us with a hangover from Hades after hitting the sauce with his band mates on their first night in town, while drummer Tre Cool wanders around cracking jokes whilst dressed like an extra from Bugsy Malone. (When he hears that Irish airline Aer Lingus have lost photographer McMurtrie’s tripods and light stands en route he frowns: “Aer Lingus? Is that like cunnilingus? Do they have an Aer Llatio too?” He puts on a cheesey advertising voice: “The cock-sucking-est airline!”)

“I hate the word ‘grown-up’ or ‘mature’,” says Billie Joe. “You’ve just got to follow the path of your band’s journey, y’know? You’ve just got to go there and evolve, really. I always pride myself as a punk, but beyond that I’ve got to grow as a musician and an individual. And the thing is, isn’t that what punk is about – being an individual and doing your own thing?

“It always starts with punk rock for us, but then it’s a question of how do you progress: how do you move on from that without copying the way other bands progressed? We were just having fun in the studio and that’s how it came about. I wrote the song American Idiot – I’d written a bunch of other songs too, but American Idiot was way better than the others, so it was like, ‘This is where we should start from’.

“Then one day Mike was gonna be at the studio himself so we said, ‘Hey, write a 30-second song’. [Green Day were one of 101 bands to contribute a 30 second song to the Fat Wreck Chords compilation Short Music For Short People in 1999.] So he did, and he played all the instruments on it. It was this sorta vaudeville thing and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I wanna do one…

“So I did one and connected it to Mike’s and Tre did one and connected it mine and then we just kept connecting these songs together and this arc started happening where it was getting more and more serious. At first it was just a funny story about being alone in the studio or something, but that song ended up becoming Homecoming, that last nine minute thing on the album. We just wanted to make something that was monumental in our career.”

Does he feel like he has? “Yeah. Right now I feel…” he rubs his hungover head, “…pretty bad. But I think so. It’s kinda too early for me to tell – these things take about a year for me to figure out. We’re so inside of it, we need to step back for a bit and take a look at it.”

The cover of the album features a heart-shaped grenade. “It symbolises rage and love,” he says, “which is a theme that keeps coming up throughout the album. It’s about which path you take – does the heart explode or do you hold on to it?”

He looks at the ground, shiftily. Is it hard to talk about this kind of thing? “It’s…” he struggles to explain: “It’s more that you don’t wanna come across as some kind of an ass.”

The album’s ‘storyline’ goes something like this: there’s this guy (the ‘Jesus of Suburbia’) who’s your archtypal disaffected youth – pissed off with dead-end jobs, small town attitudes, puppet presidents, you name it – so he leaves town, goes to the big city, meets some geezer he calls ‘St Jimmy’ (who might be a drug dealer), meets a woman, falls in and out of love, realises he’s become a bit like this St Jimmy guy, so comes home again.

The impressive thing isn’t the plot, but the vision of America that bursts from every song. It’s not about an American Idiot, it’s about a guy trying his damnedest not to be an idiot, trying not to accept the future handed to him by the establishment (“I’m not a part of a redneck agenda”), but getting seduced by drugs (“Give me a long kiss goodnight/And everything will be alright”) and turning into part of the problem. It’s like Trainspotting, Fight Club, Taxi Driver and, uh, Oliver Twist set to a scorching soundtrack. It’s obvious references are The Who’s concept albums, but also the glam rock of Spiders From Mars-era Bowie (“Yeah, I loved Mick Ronson,” says Bille Joe. “I love Ziggy Stardust – it’s one of my favourite records”).

And like those records, it’s a proper album, not a couple of singles and a bunch of filler. The two nine-minute songs force you to listen to music in a different way: you can’t skip easily from one song to the next, you have to listen all the way through. In the age of the iPod, it’s an album that demands your attention for an hour.

“That’s where I come from,” says Billie Joe. “I’m not in the business of writing singles – I like making albums. And I think there’s a lack of ambition that a lot of rock bands have – they feel like they have to play by the rules all the time, whether it’s Hoobastank or whoever. I’m not slagging anybody off, but… In the hip-hop world, whether it’s Outkast or Eminem, they make these albums that have these skits in them, and they’re these wild, conceptual records. That’s something that I wanna do – it’s like bringing the album back. It’s all one piece.”

Did writing the nine-minute songs free them up from the whole verse-chorus-middle-eight songs structure? “Yeah. To sit down and write song after song after song, I think I’d have ended up chewing my arm off or something. I was like, ‘Man, I have gotta do something different’. So we did.”

It was also a golden opportunity to kick out the jams, guitar-wise. “This is the most guitar playing I’ve ever done on a record,” he nods. “But I just did whatever the song was calling for. I think I avoided playing a lot of solos and stuff in the past and this time I really wanted to push the solo, or the guitar stuff – whatever the song was calling for.

While Warning felt like it was written on an acoustic, …Idiot was tailor-made for electric guitars and banks of Marshalls. “Yeah, this is a very electric, live record,” he says. “We wanted to write something that you could play live. Like a 14 year old kid playing air guitar in front of the mirror, doing Pete Townshend windmills – I love that shit, and that’s how I wanted the record to come across on a rock level.”

Even his hardware has changed slightly. “Yeah, I’ve still got the Fernandes but I’ve been playing a lot of Les Paul Juniors. They sound great. I’ve been using them for a while now, but I found one that I really love, a ’56 tobacco-burst, and it’s my favourite guitar right now. I always thought they looked cool – like Johnny Thunders or something like that – but I don’t really like the double-cutaway ones. They don’t sound as good as the single cutaway. But I just love those P-90 dog-ear pickups that’re just like so loud you can really hear the wood of the guitar.”

“In the studio we were using a lot of Hi-Watt and Fender combos and Marshalls – that was about it. Pedals? Yeah – there was a guy that brought over the Zinky [Amps] – stuff to create a boost. It’s the first time I ever used a Crybaby on a record, and I plugged into a Leslie to get that sound.”

Now that bandmate Mike Dirnt has his own Fender signature bass, has he ever considered joining Tom DeLonge and Noodles and getting a signature axe? He shakes his head: “It’s like, I love all guitars, I don’t wanna have just one thing that I have to endorse. Every single guitar has its purpose. Even the ones that sound like shit have something they do that’s cool.”

If he was to have one, what key elements would his signature guitar have? “It’d be simple. I’d want something cheap that kids could afford. One pickup, no switches, just one thing where you’d crank it and it’d just be loud.

“When I was learning, I just wanted to play songs by my favourite bands – Ain’t Talking About Love by Van Halen or something like that. But I started getting into songwriting when I was 14 or 15 because I was really adamant about wanting to play my own material. And that was pretty much when Green Day was happening and I was getting into punk.”

Was there a ‘hallelujah moment’ when he realised he could actually play? “Yeah – you sit there and you’re cranking on the guitar to try and get your hands to work and get your fingers to limber up, and then I’d get lost in it. I wasn’t thinking about it any more. I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is hard’, I was just sitting doing it. One day I was just like, ‘Hey – I actually know how to play this thing!’”

Billie Joe never bought a guitar magazine, but back then there would have been no point. Few punk or alternative artists made it into their pages. Guitar mags hung on Yngwie Malmsteen’s every note bend, but ignored players who were happier with cheaper thrills. It’s a split that still exists today in the TG letters page: shredders vs. punks.

“I was into metal when I was 13, 14. I was really into Metallica, Megadeth and then Van Halen when I was really young. I never was a huge Sabbath fan, but I think I got to appreciate them later. It’s two different philosophies. A lot of punk guys deny that they’re into music or that they wanna get better at it, while a metal guy might be too much of a wanker [NB: Americans use the word ‘wanker’ to mean ‘shredder’, ie, guitar wanker – Slang Ed.]. You’ve got to find that space in the middle when you’re not becoming a noddler but you’re playing some tasteful shit at the same time.”

Does he know any musical theory?

“Not much. I just go by my ears and stuff.”

Does he know, say, the Roman Numerals System?

He shakes his head: “Uh-uh.”

What about when people say stuff like, ‘It’s in a I-IV-V progression’?

“Oh, right, right, right – yeah, I know a little bit of that,” he says. “I know that a mode is a scale built off of an existing scale.”

Uh, yeah. We knew that too. Obviously.

Billie Joe staggers off. Half an hour later he’s getting his picture taken, nursing a pint of Guinness and feeling a bit livelier after “half a Zanax”. He’s amazed by our revelation that super-shredder and TG Guest Columnist Paul Gilbert is a fan (“Wow. What a trip”), dodging questions about Devo-like side-project The Network (“I cannot confirm or deny that I’m in The Network”) and offering us a shot of his Les Paul Junior. Later in the week, him and his band mates will rock Reading and Leeds. And after that?

“We’re doing four gigs in the States where we’re gonna play the album front to back,” he says. “We’re not gonna play any old material. We’ll do it at select gigs – we’re not going to do it all the time, because I still love playing the old stuff.”

It’s a brave move. “It’s a challenge,” he says. “And that’s what we need to do every single time we put out a record. Find a new challenge, new territory.”

This article originally appeared in issue 128 of Total Guitar Magazine

The story of how a spiteful ballad turned Green Day into megastars

How Green Day's Woodstock performance turned into a muddy riot

The A-Z of Green Day

Scott Rowley
Content Director, Music

Scott is the Content Director of Music at Future plc, responsible for the editorial strategy of online and print brands like Louder, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, Guitarist, Guitar World, Guitar Player, Total Guitar etc. He was Editor in Chief of Classic Rock magazine for 10 years and Editor of Total Guitar for 4 years and has contributed to The Big Issue, Esquire and more. Scott wrote chapters for two of legendary sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson's books (For The Love Of Vinyl, 2009, and Gathering Storm, 2015). He regularly appears on Classic Rock’s podcast, The 20 Million Club, and was the writer/researcher on 2017’s Mick Ronson documentary Beside Bowie