When Billie Joe Armstrong wrote Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) in 1993, he had no idea what to do with it. The song had originated from a Berkely house party (a “weird dudes with ponytails and an acoustic guitar kind of moment” as the singer described it to Rolling Stone) and it certainly didn’t fit with the music his band was making. Green Day were still working on their third album Dookie at that time – a ticking timebomb that would unexpectedly blow both them and punk rock in general all over the mainstream. Nor did it fit on follow-up Insomniac, which was a harder and darker reaction to that newfound success and everything that went along with it.
By the time they got round to fifth album Nimrod (opens in new tab) in 1997, however, the feeling was different. They were ready to try something new; to take a few risks and reach way beyond their comfort zone. "I thought people were probably gonna fucking hate it, you know?” Armstrong admitted recently, but they included the song nevertheless. It was far from the only departure on display but it was the most striking, as well as the one that best represented Green Day’s transitional state of mind.
Nimrod might not have been their most successful or iconic outing (step forward Dookie and American Idiot), but it was arguably their most pivotal. This was the moment when they fully realised the switch from 3-chord idiots lobbing out throwaway pop-punk gems about masturbation and smoking weed to a band with loftier ambitions and few limitations. Their popularity might later dip a little through Warning and the early years of the 21st Century but Nimrod gave them the base they needed to go on and try anything – rock operas and Broadway musicals included.
In order to understand how Green Day arrived at this crossroad, it helps to look back on the decade or so preceding it. When Billie Joe and bassist Mike Dirnt started playing together under the name Sweet Children in the late 80s, punk was a calling rather than a career plan.
Debut album 39/Smooth took $700 and two days to record. Second full-length Kerplunk built the momentum and saw the band courted by major labels, but even with the big money backing of Reprise, no one could have predicted the sheer scale of Dookie’s success. Falling into a Nirvana-shaped hole in a new alternative-hungry mainstream, they became the official Next Big Thing, whether they’d planned to or not. “Someone said to me before a show the other night, ‘15,000 people at this arena – this is everything you ever dreamed of’,” Mike related to Rolling Stone at the end of 1994. “I turned to him and said, ‘Correction. It’s everything I never dreamed of.’”
The band finished the Dookie touring cycle exhausted and burned out. They also found themselves banned from their spiritual home at Berkeley punk club 924 Gilman Street (some graffiti scrawled on the toilet wall at the time read ‘Billie Joe must die’) and labelled ‘sell-outs’ by many of their early fans, friends and peers.
“When fuckin’ Dookie came out, we had no control over who liked it,” drummer Tre Cool told Kerrang! a few years after the fact. We had a bunch of super-livin’ marines going, ‘Yeah, cool, you’re my favourite fuckin’ band, bro’. We were playing too many Coliseum-style big shows.”
1995’s Insomniac kicked back against all of this, with a leaner edge and more than a lick of paranoia, but they were still playing the same big, impersonal shows. Reaching breaking point, they ditched the end of the Insomniac tour, taking time off to spend with newly expanding families and work towards the new album. When it was time to lay the tracks down the band decamped to Los Angeles, staying at infamous rock star hangout the Sunset Marquis Hotel. They might have been moving away from their punk roots in some respects but there was still plenty of chaos, with Mike running naked through hotel corridors and Tre hurling a TV from the windows.
The work was serious though and they set about it with a goal of transformation in mind and The Clash’s own transitional masterpiece London Calling serving as inspiration. “When I look back now, on both Nimrod and Warning, we were pushing ourselves in a different direction,” Billie Joe told the NME recently. “Without those records there wouldn’t have been an American Idiot or a 21st Century Breakdown. It’s about trying to push things in a new direction all the time.”
When the album emerged on October 14 1997, it took a lot of people by surprise. Opener Nice Guys Finish Last kicked things off with a familiar Green Day bounce and there were several other standard pop-punk blasts spread across the 18 tracks of the standard issue album (some international versions came with bonus tracks). That still left plenty of room for experimentation though. Hitchin’ A Ride follows a brief stab of violin into a heavy psychobilly groove as Billie Joe sings jauntily about relapse – a subject he was becoming all too familiar with. Redundant and Worry Rock channelled the pop-rock of Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello, while King For A Day was a splendidly frenetic ska-punk ode to cross-dressing that would develop into a whole rabbit-infested routine at their shows.
Platypus (I Hate You) and particularly Take Back were some of the hardest songs they’d written and then at the other end of the scale was Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).
Billie Joe had written the song as an acoustic ballad about a girlfriend who moved to Ecuador. Producer Rob Cavallo added the sweeping strings and the song took on a life of its own. It appeared on the final episode of Seinfeld, which apparently means something if you’re American, and became one of those cultural touchstones that transcends popular music, never mind something as codified as punk rock.
“I was definitely not thinking about weddings and graduations when I wrote it,” the singer told Rolling Stone. He also recalled playing the song live for the first time, telling Krissy Teegerstrom’s Beyond + Back podcast: “I shotgunned two beers and then I went out and did it, and it worked. And people were really into it and singing along. It was like a breakthrough. As soon as you hit that breakthrough, instantly in your mind you start going ‘I can do this. What if I try playing it a little more country music? Or what if I tried using loops and stuff like that?’ Automatically it gives you confidence.”
Nimrod was not as successful as Dookie - very few albums in the '90s were, to be fair - but it sold more than Insomniac, and Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) was a huge worldwide hit. More importantly, it laid the creative groundwork for Green Day to explore new avenues moving forward, providing the platform for every other gloriously OTT, or emotional and understated, moment to come.
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