Once upon a time, Green Day was the little punk band that could, a heart-on-sleeve manifestation of the fiercely indie Berkeley music scene hovering around 924 Gilman St. back in the ‘80s (along with contemporaries Rancid and Pansy Division) and indefatigable champions of the “loud fast rules” associated with punk’s decades-old orthodoxy. Twenty years, eight studio releases and tens of millions of records sold later, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool are the last men standing in the rock ‘n’ roll army, a compellingly three-dimensional band capable of unleashing a magnum opus such as their brand-new 21st Century Breakdown on the masses. It’s an 18-song, hour-plus, honest-to-god rock opera that blows out an epic, Zen Arcade-like bildungsroman with economic, A Quick One precision while flaunting an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the entirety of rock history from the Beatles and Kinks to the Pretty Things and Clash. In short: Green Day is probably rock’s best example of how a little vision, a lot of talent and a dash of dumb luck can easily translate to rock-god status in our ongoing artistic recession. Fresh off the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live and smack in the middle of a week’s worth of appearances at various venues around New York City, here are the five most overrated and underrated Green Day tracks, as chosen by MAGNET’s Corey duBrowa.
:: The Five Most Overrated Green Day Songs
1. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” (1997)
This acoustic ballad—originally the b-side for Insomniac track “Brain Stew” but given a string-sweetened arrangement by the time it landed on Nimrod—was conceived by Armstrong as a breakup song, a tune about, he says, a “girl who was moving to Ecuador … which I wrote as kind of a bon voyage. I thought that calling the song ‘Time Of Your Life’ was just a little too level-headed for me, so I had to come up with something different.” But its sepia-toned, MTV award-winning video and nostalgic point of view have made it the band’s “Stairway To Heaven,” a maudlin, played-every-day-on-alternative-radio, prom/wedding song that’s out of keeping with pretty much everything else in the Green Day canon. It also served as the soundtrack to the next-to-last Seinfeld episode, which hardly qualifies as a sin but certainly assigns the song the unmistakable whiff of “overrated.”
2. “American Idiot” (2004)
When this track first came out, those of us who loathed every square inch of Dubya and all he stood for took Green Day’s pass at protest rock to heart as our rallying cry, a repudiation of an administration we hadn’t voted for, an agenda we couldn’t relate to, a philosophy as out of step with the hopes/dreams of most liberal Americans as fascism. But then this dude named Obama came along in 2008, and now the song feels … a little quaint. Dated. Heavy-handed. In fact, hearing “American Idiot” today either makes me reflexively think of Weird Al’s parody “Canadian Idiot” or pine for Britt Daniel’s similarly minded Spoon track “Don’t Make Me A Target,” which skewered Bush and his cronies in a much more clever, sustainable way.
3. “Walking Contradiction” (1995)
After the megazillion sales and worldwide success of 1994’s Dookie, you could almost hear Green Day stepping back from the third-wave pop/punk mania the band had created. Insomniac is the sound of a group trying too hard to top itself, and “Walking Contradiction” (the album’s fourth and final single) is Green Day in rage-by-numbers mode: a little tired, kinda frazzled, copping the same chords/moves that made the trio so successful just one year previous but sounding stale in the process.
4. Kerplunk! (1992)
Green Day was that ‘90s rarity: a band whose journey from the minors to the majors didn’t cost it any energy or rawness in the transition. (Unlike, let’s say, Nirvana, whose sub-metallic sludge on Bleach became a sonically enhanced roar on Nevermind little more than a year later.) That said, the band’s so-called dress rehearsal for the major labels, 1992’s Kerplunk! (Green Day’s final indie album), is betrayed by a thin, tinny mix, reducing its power considerably. (It’s not accidental that two of the LP’s songs, “2,000 Light Years Away” and “Welcome To Paradise,” were re-recorded by producer Rob Cavallo as soon as the band signed to Reprise.) In particular, it’s powerhouse drummer Cool who’s given short shrift on this album; fill after amazingly athletic fill sounds like it’s being played from within a wet cardboard box, rendering terrific compositions such as “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” and “No One Knows” somewhat stillborn compared to earlier EPs such as 1990’s Slappy or 1989’s 1,000 Hours.
“No One Knows”:
5. “Welcome To Paradise” (1994)
So I just spent the entire previous entry bemoaning the fact that this song was under-recorded on Kerplunk!; that’s true enough. But placing a sonically buffed-up version of it on the very next album, surrounded by evergreen superhits such as “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around” and “Longview,” just demonstrates that they’d already covered this turf and needed to keep on keeping on. The new environs didn’t really improve the quality of it much; adding a rarity like “On The Wagon” (given its angsty ruminations on drinking) to Dookie might have made more sense artistically, although it’s highly unlikely the band would agree given its success with the release of “Paradise” as a single. Which nevertheless makes it an obvious candidate for “overrated.”
:: The Five Most Underrated Green Day Songs
1. “Warning” (2000)
The title track to an album largely unloved by most Green Day fans (at the time of its release, it represented a commercial low point for the band, only going gold) gleefully rips off the Kinks’ “Picture Book” bass line and points the way toward a future in which the group’s sound would be less characteristic of its punk past but would evolve as rapidly as Armstrong’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting. Fueled by acoustic guitars, up-front melodies and a propulsive beat more reminiscent of the British Invasion than the summer of ’77, “Warning” served notice that Green Day refused to be boxed in, leaving the Blink-182s and Sum 41s of the world choking on its dust.
2. Foxboro Hot Tubs’ Stop Drop And Roll!!! (2008)
What to make of a band whose idea of a vacation is to create an alter ego and record an entirely separate album while working on the follow-up to its biggest record to date? Green Day’s busman’s holiday finds the trio operating in underground garage-rock mode under the nom de plume Foxboro Hot Tubs, and this dashed-off release sounds as fresh and immediate as anything in its catalog, zig-zagging between Nuggets-era influences (such as the Farfisa organ liberally sprinkled over the entire affair) and rewrites of more instantly recognizable ‘60s tracks such as “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” (“Sally”), “You Really Got Me” (“Alligator”) and “Heart Full Of Soul” (“Dark Side Of Night”). Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool play the role of petty thieves with exceedingly good taste, and sly humor and loose-elbowed fun abound on Stop Drop And Roll!!!, something largely missing from the group’s more serious-minded concept fare of the past five years.
“Dark Side Of Night”:
3. “Jesus Of Suburbia” (2004)
Some will look at this choice and sniff, “How the hell can you call that underrated?” “Jesus Of Suburbia” definitely registers as one of Green Day’s finest recorded moments and has come to serve as an anchor of its live sets. But how in the world can you call it “overrated” when the five-movement, nine-plus-minute song bobs and weaves its way through standard-issue pop-punk (“Jesus Of Suburbia”), a piano-laced interlude (“City Of The Damned”), the slobbering, thundering middle section (“I Don’t Care”), acoustic mid-tempo connective tissue (“Dearly Beloved”) and an outsized, anthemic curtain call (the spectacularly good “Tales Of Another Broken Home”), all in service of a tale of bored rebellion as nuanced as Pete Townshend’s “Quadrophenia” and as powerful as any of Paul Westerberg’s snot-nosed teenage character studies? “Jesus Of Suburbia” is, in many ways, the logical synthesis of Armstrong’s aspirations as a songwriter: his masterpiece and an illustration of the power of Green Day as a band capable of not only interpreting Armstrong’s material faithfully but actually improving upon it.
4. “F.O.D.” (1994)
“You’re just mad ‘cause you’re in the rain. Well, fuck you! I hope it rains so much that you all get stuck.” Who, having seen it, can possibly forget the indelible images of Green Day at Woodstock in 1994, ducking drunken, pogoing punters and giant hunks of mud being whipped at them from the rain-sodden crowd as they ripped through this song as though their very lives depended on it? Emblematic of the band’s early up-yours attitude, “F.O.D.” is two-odd minutes of molten fury shaped into a lightning bolt, the better to whip at an audience as anarchic as the one in upstate New York that ugly summer day.
5. “Why Do You Want Him?” (1990)
Ever lost a father to cancer? I have. Ever written a song about the aftermath of such a traumatic event? Didn’t think so. Ever do so as your first song ever (in Armstrong’s case, at age 14, written from the vantage point of the enmity and anger he had for his father’s replacement in the family portrait), right out of the gate? That’s the kind of artist Armstrong was and is; he may have since revisited this emotional territory (“Wake Me Up When September Ends”), but the fact that Green Day’s ground zero was rooted in something this meaningful and tuneful should surprise no one who’s only come to discover the band through the mini-operas and narratives of its latter-day career.
Read MAGNET’s newly posted 1993 story about San Francisco “popcore,” featuring Green Day, Jawbreaker and J-Church.