It was, everyone agreed, a lovely idea: a free concert, in a beautiful location, sponsored by a popular alt. rock radio station, to welcome university students back to Boston for the start of a new college year... what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it turned out.
The first inkling that the evening of September 9, 1994 might not go to plan occurred when it became obvious that the event organisers had somewhat underestimated the popularity of the band playing their WFNX-branded show at the Hatch Shell, the striking outdoor theatre best known for hosting the Boston Pops Orchestra. To be fair, when they booked the band in question, perhaps around February 1994 when their major label debut album Dookie charted at number 141 on the Billboard 200, anticipating a crowd of around 5,000 may have seemed like a reasonable assessment. But between that date, and the Welcome Back Weekend... show on the Esplanade, Green Day had played one of the most memorable sets at the televised Woodstock 2 festival, and their popularity was soaring daily, with the album's second single, Basket Case, topping the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in August '94, and holding that number one position for five weeks. As a result, an estimated 65-70,000 people descended upon the site, and tensions were already inflamed between crushed concert goers and the clearly-overwhelmed Massachusetts State Troopers on crowd control duties long before Billie Joe Armstrong cranked out the opening riff of show opener Welcome To Paradise. So it probably didn't help matters when, observing scuffles breaking out in front of him, Armstrong changed the lyric "Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me" to "Sometimes I hate the fucking police."
"There were 69,500 people having a great time, and 500 people that had too much alcohol, got too rowdy, got too worked up, and just kept pushing towards the front of the stage," WFNX Program Director Kurt St. Thomas told a local news reporter covering the "unruly" gathering, which was about to become national news story.
That a hyped-up Armstrong was using swear words for punctuation alarmed city officials who tried to remind radio station employees and crew members that the Hatch Shell was a "family venue" and warned that they would shut down the show if the potty-mouthed punk couldn't clean up his act. Naturally, he did nothing of the sort. Instead, in response to being bombarded with flowers from a flower bed stage-front, he and bassist Mike Dirnt jumped off the stage and - in an echo of their infamous Woodstock appearance - began hurling mud and uprooted plants back into the audience, and spoke of "taking over this fucking city". In response, crowd members began lobbing glass Snapple bottles at the stage. Then the State Troopers moved in, crowd control barriers collapsed and audience members rushed the stage. Halfway through F.O.D. (sample lyric "I'm taking pride in telling you to fuck off and die") the cops had had enough, and pulled the power, to the outrage of the crowd. A WFNX DJ appealed for calm, saying, "Just remember, all the people on our staff, and all the police officers, are your neighbours. This is Boston!" but to no avail.
The Boston Herald reported what happened next, stating: "Requests for the crowd—estimated by State Police at 65,000—to disperse failed to move a hardcore group of about 5,000 people, who taunted police and began throwing bottles at officers and concert staff... more than 50 people were arrested."
"The cops were setting their dogs on the kids, the kids were throwing bottles at the cops, and I'm like, This is so cool!" one concert-goer later told the makers of WFNX documentary We Want The Airwaves Back. "I was like a pig in shit."
Back in his hotel room, watching solemn news reports with his wife Adrienne, Billie Joe Armstrong found the whole incident hilarious.
"It was just so funny to watch he later recalled. "Like, Holy shit!"
The mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, was much less amused.
“I think we should have had better information on what type of event we would have at the Hatch Shell,” he told local reporters. Green Day would not be invited back.