13 Years Ago: Green Day Release ‘American Idiot’
There are times in life where you have to overcome a major setback in order to find your way back to success. Such was the case for Green Day who enjoyed one of the biggest successes of their career after having to scrap a proposed album after the tapes went missing. To understand what came next, it’s best to look at the dynamics of what was going on in the band at the time.
After the commercial disappointment of their 2000 album Warning, the group put out a Greatest Hits collection in 2001 and tensions had grown to a near breaking point within the band. As Mike Dirnt told Rolling Stone, “Breaking up was an option. We were arguing a lot and we were miserable. We needed a shift in direction.” Part of the conflict was due to a lack of communication, with Billie Joe Armstrong often taking the creative lead and not necessarily involving his bandmates. But realizing there was an issue, Armstrong approached Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool with the idea to add a mandated weekly conversation period to their schedules. Dirnt recalls, “We bared our souls to one another. Cool added, “Admitting that we cared for each other was a big thing. We didn’t hold anything back. Before Bill would write a song, get stuck and then say, ‘F–k it.’ The imaginary Mike and Tre in his head would say, ‘This song sucks. Don’t waste your time on it.’ He stopped doing that and became totally fearless around me and Mike.”
That fostered a deeper trust and when the tapes for the planned album Cigarettes and Valentines went missing, it was easier for the band members to decide that it wasn’t their best work and a fresh idea was needed. During this period, the band challenged themselves to pen “30 second songs,” an idea that yielded some interesting pieces. “It started getting more serious as we tried to outdo one another,” said Armstrong. “We kept connecting these little half-minute bits until we had something.” Out of that came the musical suite “Homecoming” and also the beginnings of the epic “Jesus of Suburbia,” the latter of which gave the band the idea to pursue their own version of a rock opera. Encouraged by producer Rob Cavallo and inspired by some of the political events occurring in the world at the time and the media’s take on reporting said events, the material began to flow.
“We were in the studio and watching the journalists embedded with the troops, and it was the worst version of reality television,” Armstrong says. “Switch the channel, and it’s Nick [Lachey] and Jessica [Simpson]. Switch, and it’s Fear Factor. Switch, and people are having surgery to look like Brad Pitt. We’re surrounded by all of that bulls–t, and the characters Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy are, as well. It’s a sign of the times.”
Eventually fans caught wind of what the band was planning and Armstrong recalls, “I looked on the message board and some kids thought we were crazy. It’s like, ‘F–k it, take the message board down.’ We decided we were going to be the biggest band in the world or fall flat on our faces.” The band not only listened to classic rock operas and concept albums like The Who‘s Tommy and David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, but also pulled ideas from Broadway musicals, some of their classic rock influences and also allowed some of the top rock and hip-hop acts of the day factor into their sound and approach.
Green Day initially wrote and tested out music at Studio 880 in the Oakland area. Then Armstrong took a trip to New York City for a few weeks and found the inspiration for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Are We the Waiting” during his time there, returning with a clearer storyline for the disc. After demos were completed, the band relocated to Los Angeles, setting up shop at Ocean Way Recording first before completing the disc during a period at Capitol Studios. And by the time all was said and done, Green Day found themselves working through their most ambitious album to date.
On Sept. 21, 2004, the band would release American Idiot, which immediately shot to No. 1 bolstered by the scintillating title track, which had already commanded the ears of listeners at radio and dominated video channels on TV. Speaking with Kerrang, Armstrong would reveal that he was partly inspired by hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “That’s How I Like It” in his car. “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against.” In addition to calling out the media’s reality-TV like coverage of war, the song also served as a rallying cry for individuality and breaking free of what the media spoon-feeds views. The track shot straight to No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart and No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart, and it became pretty clear that Green Day hit on something that truly connected with listeners.
Keeping the momentum going, in November 2004, the band served up “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which would go on to become one of the biggest hits of their career. As stated, the idea came to Armstrong during a trip to New York where he rented a loft and spent time jamming with singer/songwriters Ryan Adams and Jesse Malin. Armstrong penned the track about “feeling alone” in the city and finding the power in that. The singer stated that he felt the track fit well within the overall story about people “going away and getting the hell out, all while fighting their own inner demons.” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, their best position ever, and also topped the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts. It also resulted in a Grammy at the 2006 ceremony for Record of the Year.
The third single, “Holiday,” arrived in March 2005 filled with attitude and bite. During concerts, Armstrong would state, “This song is a big ‘f–k you’ to the American government. This song is not anti-American. It’s anti-war.” Inspired by the works of Bob Dylan, Armstrong was attempting to write something with more of a harsh message than “American Idiot.” “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies / This is the dawning of the rest of our lives / On holiday,” triumphantly belted Armstrong in the track, later calling out the “president gasman.” The song would hit No. 1 at both Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Radio and also crossed over to peak at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
After the snarl of “Holiday,” Green Day opted for a more melancholy follow-up. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was a deeply personal track penned by Armstrong, reflecting on the death of his father, who passed when the singer was still a pre-teen. The vocalist would later reveal on VH1’s Storytellers that the track was the most autobiographical song he’d ever written and often proved hard to perform live.
Director Samuel Bayer took the lyrics from the song and gave it a different spin in an epic anti-war clip that featured film stars Evan Rachel Wood and Jamie Bell as young lovers torn apart by war. Bayer told MTV, “I presented my concept to Billie Joe, because I know the song is personal to him, and he loved that it’s all about youth and dreams and bonds that get broken. We wanted to make a mini-movie about a boy and a girl that fall in love and have the rest of their lives ahead of them, but the boy joins the Army and leaves her behind to go to war. It’s my interpretation of Billie Joe’s very personal song.” Bayer, who created some of the biggest videos in music history, later stated, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve worked with so many rock acts over the years, and I’ve shot so many videos, but ’September’ is hands down the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” On top of the great acclaim for the video, the song reached No. 2 Alternative and No. 12 at Mainstream Rock Radio, while also crossing over to hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Finishing out the singles from the album was “Jesus of Suburbia,” the epic five-part piece that started the core of the American Idiot story. Armstrong stated to Billboard, “After you write a song like that, it was like, ‘I can’t turn back now.’ You can’t all of a sudden say, ‘I want to write a normal record.'” The song is named after the titular anti-hero, a lower middle-class American teen raised on a diet of “soda pop and Ritalin.” Other characters within the overall story included St. Jimmy, a punk rock freedom fighter, and Whatsername, the female mother revolution figure. All three of these characters would later become key as Armstrong and the band translated their rock opera into a full on theatrical production. Though not a huge radio song, due in part to the length of the track, “Jesus of Suburbia” remains a classic in the eyes of Green Day fans due to its ambitious nature.
When all was said and done, Green Day’s American Idiot debuted at No. 1, went six times platinum, received the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005, led to the band’s return to top draw status on the road, revived their career and yes, as stated, the group spun off the idea into a popular stage production. And there have been talks about a film adaptation for American Idiot as well. Bassist Mike Dirnt revealed that the album “would restore my faith in rock and roll,” while Armstrong concluded, “For the time in our career, it’s all about the music. There’s no bulls–t, no reality s–t, no nostalgia trip. That’s what makes the last ten years more worth it. Plus the fact that we all dress pretty sharp.”
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