Green Day's road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
By Jim Harrington
POSTED: 04/15/2015 05:45:52 AM
UPDATED: 04/15/2015 08:41:10 AM PDT
Billie Joe Armstrong, singer of the US band "Green Day", performs on stage during a concert on May 30, 2010 in Hanover, central Germany. (STEFAN SIMONSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Photos: Green Day rides pop-punk sound to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Before it evolved into a rock 'n' roll juggernaut that's sold more than 75 million records, played sold-out arenas around the globe, launched a hit Broadway musical and is awaiting induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday, Green Day was, well, it wasn't even Green Day.
It was two Pinole Valley High School pals -- Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt -- fronting a band called Sweet Children, playing a Vallejo barbecue joint in 1986. Before long, the band was turning heads with shows at the iconic Berkeley all-ages communal rock venue, 924 Gilman Street. But even as the young musicians were harnessing their raw sound in the burgeoning Berkeley punk rock scene, people noticed something about the band that would soon set it apart.
These kids, primarily Armstrong, were writing some killer hooks.
"I believe I saw their first show at Gilman under the name Sweet Children," says Frank Portman, aka "Dr. Frank," the leader of another East Bay punk band, The Mr. T Experience. "I do remember thinking, 'OK, these guys have songs.' And that's pretty much 95 percent of it for me."
There is no shortage of reasons why Green Day was selected to enter the Rock Hall this weekend, impressively, in its first year of eligibility: The band helped usher in a new, multiplatinum version of punk music, it blends catchy tunes with big ideas on albums such as "American Idiot," and it has remained a compelling rock act through three decades.
But much of it comes down to this: Armstrong is one of rock's best songwriters in the past quarter century.
Portman wasn't the only one to recognize this back in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the band changed its name to Green Day (a pot reference), added drummer Tré Cool and started recording for the Berkeley independent music label Lookout! Records.
BAM (Bay Area Music) magazine editor Dennis Erokan recalls hanging out with the still-unknown band in its manager's Berkeley office to hear some of its early songs."Billy Joe was just kind of standing there, looking a little nervous, and I turned to him and I said, 'You're actually a songwriter,'" Erokan says. "He looked at me and he smiled. Then he looked down, like he was a little embarrassed. I just thought, 'Oh, my god, this is amazing. I'm actually talking to somebody who is going to write some great songs.'"
In 1992, Green Day released its second studio album on Lookout!, "Kerplunk," which included an early version of the hit "Welcome to Paradise." Thanks to strong word-of-mouth and extensive touring, the album sold a surprising 50,000 copies. The band's days as an underground punk act were numbered. Soon, Armstrong's talents as a creator of crazy-catchy, blazing punk anthems would be known around the world.
That happened when Green Day released "Dookie" in 1994, their major label debut. The album sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. -- and 20 million worldwide.
"Dookie" was a game changer. When it came out, rock was dominated by brooding grunge, which, as longtime Bay Area radio DJ Big Rick Stuart puts it, "had really kicked a lot of fun music off the radio."
Green Day brought back the fun, pushing jubilant pop-punk to the top of the charts and paving the way for the success of such acts as Sum 41, Blink-182, Good Charlotte and Bowling for Soup.
"Green Day definitely kicked down the door for that (pop-punk) sound," says Stuart, now a DJ at KFOX-FM 98.5, but who was working at KITS-FM 105.3 (Live 105) when "Dookie" came out. "I was just excited for this sound -- it was fun, it was lighthearted, it was a relief from really heavy music. I was happy to play (Green Day) on the radio."
Still, by the dawn of the new millennium, Green Day was at a crossroads. The band's three post-"Dookie" releases had shown declining sales -- 2000's "Warning" failed to go platinum -- and the musicians were struggling to expand on and redefine their signature pop-punk sound.
Their response was probably the last thing anyone would expect from a punk band -- a concept album.
"I kind of rolled my eyes, like, 'Oh, my god, you've got to be kidding me -- a rock opera?'" Stuart remembers of when he first heard of Green Day's plan. "It was amazing that they could pull it off."
They did more than that. The 2004 album "American Idiot," which marries some of some of the band's most addictive melodies to the story of an anti-hero's harrowing sojourn of discovery, sold 15 million copies worldwide, won the 2005 Grammy for best rock album and re-established Green Day as one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Critics compared it favorably to such classic albums as The Who's "Tommy" (a major influence on "American Idiot"), and Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
Band members, who declined to be interviewed for this article, have said "American Idiot" was inspired by famous rock operas as well as such Broadway musicals as "West Side Story." Which made Green Day's next move a natural -- turning "American Idiot" into a Broadway musical. The show debuted at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009 and went on to a lengthy, Tony Award-winning run on Broadway.
"American Idiot" and its concept-album follow-up "21st Century Breakdown" -- with their big ideas and blend of critical and commercial success -- probably made the East Bay band a lock for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside such classic Bay Area acts as Metallica, which was inducted in 2009.
"I believe they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," says Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. "They are a great band, they write great songs, they are great people."
To Erokan, "American Idiot" was a classic that was foretold when he heard Green Day's early, ear-catching tunes.
"I kept expecting there would be some manifestation of that songwriting that was going to blow people's mind," he says. "When I heard and saw ('American Idiot'), I thought, 'Yep, absolutely. This takes them to the next level.' And that next level is one at the absolute top."