A Pocketful of Pretty Green
Green Day was formed in 1987 in California by backing vocalist Mike Dirnt and lead vocalist and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong. Born on 17 February 1972, Armstrong recorded his first song at the age of five and started playing with Dirnt when they were 14.
Together with drummer Tré Cool (who replaced John Kiffmeyer in 1990), and occasional guitarist Jason White, the band has sold over 75 million records, making them one of the biggest selling music artists in history. Here are Guitars Exchange’s pick of Green Day’s 10 Best Songs.
10. Welcome to Paradise - Kerplunk (1991)
Welcome to Paradise, initially appeared on Kerplunk but was then reworked for the breakthrough album Dookie. The lyric was inspired by ‘the slum’ where the band’s founders used to live: "It's about West Oakland, living in a warehouse with a lot of people, a bunch of artists, musicians, punks, bums, junkies, thugs, gang members and stuff that just lived in that area. It's no place you want to walk around at night, but it's a neat warehouse where you can play basketball,” said Armstrong.
In the early days the band members used to frequently swap roles, as in this case where Armstrong created the drum beat and Cool wrote the guitar parts. Cool says that the song’s message is: “Everything sucks but we’re having fun anyway’.
9. Brain Stew - Insomniac (1995)
Dookie was shortly followed by Insomniac, which was not as big, but had as one of its gems Brain Stew. The track opens with some very simple guitar chords that increasingly build to a storming crescendo. Brain Stew was reportedly named after their friend James Washburn. "He used to have a big Mohawk; now he's a total ratchethead [a California term for someone who is obsessed with cars]," Armstrong said in a 1995 interview. "He'll say something like 'Oh, man, that guy fuckin' slipped a gear,' when someone snaps. He's a big lyrical influence on me." escapado una marcha'. Es una gran influencia lírica para mí".
8. She - Dookie (1994)
She tells the tale of one of Armstrong’s loves from the University of California who he met at a night club. “She gave me an education that I think was very timely for me. I was just a dumb kid, high school dropout. She was telling me about the way women have been objectified for so many years, and I was just listening," he said about his introduction to feminism.
The song didn’t have the same impact as the previous single releases from Dookie but it nonetheless became a top fan choice at Green Day’s live gigs. It is also one of Armstrong’s favourite songs: "I will play 'She' for the rest of my life…" he said, "it has aged well.”
7. When I Come Around - Dookie (1994)
Life on the road brought a number of stresses to Armstrong’s life among which was the strain it put on his relationship with his girlfriend at the time, Minnesotan Adrienne Nesser. The couple met at a Green Day gig in 1990 when she asked him where she could find a copy of one of their albums. From that rather inauspicious chat up line their relationship grew into a long term relationship, and marriage. Soon they had two children, Joseph Marciano (now 25) and Jakob Danger (now 22).
Reportedly when Green Day played this song at Woodstock '94, a fan threw some mud onstage and Armstrong put it in his mouth. This led to a mud fight and a stage invasion in which Dirnt was quite badly injured as a member of the security staff tried to eject fans from the stage. In the associated video, however, those enjoying the mud look like they are sharing a unique moment: “No time to search the world around, ‘Cause you know where I’ll be found, When I come around, When I come around.”
6. Longview - Dookie (1994)
Green Day are essentially a power trio like Nirvana, and like that legendary grunge band their first really huge hit dealt with the theme of boredom. Its catchy bass intro (reportedly ‘discovered’ on an LSD trip), and ‘oh well, whatever, nevermind’ style lyric helped give the band its first number 1. The title comes from the name of a small town in Washington and is an ode to pleasuring oneself. “Bite my lip and close my eyes, I’m slipping away to Paradise, Some say ‘quit or I’ll go blind’ But it’s just a myth,” Armstrong sings.
5. American Idiot - American Idiot (2004)
Released at the time George W. Bush was calling for a post‑9/11 ‘war on terrorism’, this song perhaps seems even more appropriate for these times. Ten years had passed since the release of Dookie and while some were wondering if Green Day would ever reach the same heights again, the band produced American Idiot, and found themselves back at the top. In 2009 Armstrong offered an additional inspiration for the song, after listening to some lyrics by Lynyrd Skynyrd: "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... [When I got to the studio] I looked at the guys like, Do you mind that I'm saying this? And they were like, ‘No, we agree with you’. And it started the ball rolling."
4. Boulevard of Broken Dreams - American Idiot (2004)
This gem is perhaps Green Day’s biggest selling song and provokes hysteria when played live. At one Reading festival gig, for example, Armstrong provides a masterclass on how to work a crowd into a frenzy as he shreds his custom-built signature Fender Telecaster. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was the second single release from American Idiot and is about loneliness and the loss of the American Dream.
The song title refers to a painting by Gottfried Helnwein depicting Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Elvis in an American diner, although it was also used on a picture of Dean walking in a large black raincoat down a rain soaked street. "There's an old James Dean photo where he's walking in New York and underneath it says 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams.' It's a great photo of him, so that's where I sort of nicked the title from," Armstrong said.
3. Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) - Nimrod (1997)
Written in a moment of frustration when Armstrong’s then girlfriend left him and moved to Ecuador, this ballad highlights another facet of Green Day’s sound. Originally written in 1990 the band held the song back as its violins and acoustic guitars didn’t fit their punk image at the time. Many fans saw it as a sell-out when they first heard it because they could not relate it to the ‘Green Day sound’. However it became a hit and unsurprisingly has been used at countless farewell events, and on TV shows, and is a staple at their live concerts. Just imagine the moment though when it was first played live: “The first time we ever played that song was during an encore in New Jersey - I had to pound a beer backstage to get up the courage. I knew we were gonna take a tomato to the face," said Armstrong.
2. Jesus of Suburbia - American Idiot (2004)
Jesus of Suburbia is another image-busting song from Green Day. The storyline concerns a disenchanted teenager who has been raised comfortably but who rebels against the small-town mentality of his family and friends and strikes out for the city. ‘I’m the son of rage and love, the Jesus Of Suburbia,’ Armstrong sings.
This nine minute ‘rock opera’, structured in five parts, was another shock to many of the band’s die-hard fans. It has frequently been compared to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which was at first rejected as ‘not being Queen’ by their record company, only for the band to explain ‘no, this actually defines Queen.’ As is well known, Jesus of Suburbia, like Bohemian Rhapsody, became another massive fan favourite.
1. Basket Case - Dookie (1994)
Here however, the number 1 spot goes to Basket Case, as it simply has everything: a catchy melody, a great beat and an anthemic chorus. It also has wonderful guitar hooks: on a live version at Olympiahalle in Munich Armstrong, for example, can be seen playing them on his famous Fernandes Stratocaster copy, known as Blue.
What makes this song really stand out, however, is that it helped break the taboo about talking about health problems. Armstrong suffered with paranoia, chronic anxiety and panic attacks and, in the song at least, deals with it in ways that are clearly self-destructive. A shrink tells him sex will make him feel better, for example, so he goes to a prostitute… only to have someone else to listen to his problems. "The only way I knew how to deal with it was to write a song about it," the lead singer explained.
The accompanying video was filmed at a California mental institution and was played on rotation by MTV, which helped the song spend five full weeks at the top of the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.