This year marks the 25th anniversary of punk’s recognition by the mainstream, and as such there’s been a lot of public reflection by rock critics and those who were there in its infancy about the “good old days” when punk stood for more than just a genre of music. There’s also been a lot of moaning about punk’s steady dilution since 1977, and a renewal of complaints almost as old as punk itself: that today’s punk is no longer relevant, that its bands have sold out, that it’s all style and no substance. The Pop Disaster Tour, a package tour featuring Blink 182, Green Day, and Saves the Day, and sponsored by MTV, Yoohoo, and a host of other commercial concerns, is exactly what these people are complaining about. It’s punk taken to its most accessible point, a point where it barely reflects its lineage at all, except in the three-chord song structures and the prevalence of audience members with hair dyed in primary colors (probably sponsored by Clairol in this go-round). It’s punk gone completely pop. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a whole lot of fun.
The crowd at the Detroit area stop of the Pop Disaster Tour was pretty much what you’d expect for a show featuring Total Request Live darlings: disturbingly young kids with their parents, junior high girls and boys whose moms dropped them off and met them outside after the show, teenagers in huge packs, notable mainly for an abundance of bare midriffs, and a smattering of older folks (you know, old, like 28), many of whom who left after Green Day played. Heck, a pre-teen even puked at the entrance to our section from all the excitement—rock and roll, baby.
My companion and I didn’t arrive in time to see Saves the Day, but judging by the number of people milling around the tour buses and the merchandise tables outside the venue when we got there, we weren’t alone. Green Day, as the well-known band further away from their last heavy rotation video, were next. Even though Green Day’s mainstream breakthrough album Dookie hit only about 8 years ago, and they’ve had quite a bit of success since then, that’s eons in youth culture time. So, in the minds of many of the kiddies present, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool were the old men of bubblegum punk. Luckily these kids knew enough to respect their elders and come in when Green Day took the stage, because they put on the show of the night.
Early on Billie Joe proclaimed that those present were in for a “non-stop fucking orgasm” for the duration of their set. While I wouldn’t go that far, it definitely was one of the most entertaining concert spectacles I’ve seen in awhile. Green Day raced through just about every song you’d recognize that was collected on last year’s greatest hits album International Superhits! (“Longview”, “Basket Case”, “Welcome to Paradise”, “Minority”—even a non-fan like me recognized a lot), following the standard punk pattern of barely stopping between songs. Billie Joe not only played but also served as a hyperactive conductor, waving his arms to stop and start various crowd responses, smirking as he got people to chant stupid things in unison, climbing up on platforms on all sides of the stage to elicit raucous cheers. Whether the faithful in the pit realized it or not, the whole thing was a comic masterpiece, the pièce de résistance of which was bringing out a couple of brass players in bee and chicken outfits for a cover of party anthem “Shout”.
And just to show that the punk ethos was not completely absent from the Pop Disaster Tour, at one point Green Day brought three audience members onstage to replace them on their instruments for a DIY cover of an Operation Ivy song (points to the band for namechecking a seminal Bay Area hardcore band and for encouraging audience participation by pointing out that “it’s only three chords”). Of course, the band’s current demographic being what it is, you got the guy who ripped his shirt off to show off his pecs and had to give shout outs to all his football teammates (to Billie Joe’s audible scorn), but you also had the kid whose first impulse was to hug Billie Joe in gratitude (and who got to keep his guitar as a reward). It was a sweet reminder of how much punk, even watered-down punk, can mean to a kid. Green Day ended their nearly 90 minute set with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, the teary prom-theme-like ballad anomaly in their back catalogue, and it’s a fair bet that many of those present took every word to heart.
The show could have ended there, and a not-insignificant number of those in attendance would have been happy, but Blink 182, the ostensible headliners, still had to play. Unfortunately, if Green Day were an orgasm, Blink 182 were a bit of an anticlimax. They may be almost as old as Green Day, and their records may be more melodically interesting, but Blink 182 just don’t have the same polish or charm live yet. On this night, they were just as juvenilely offensive as you’d expect from their albums and countless MTV appearances, but not nearly as much fun. Not to mention that little kids and dick jokes aren’t exactly the world’s greatest combination, judging from the horrified expressions on the faces of some of the parents present.
Blink 182’s amusing but uneven set alternated between MTV-friendly hits like “What’s My Age Again” and “First Date”, and junior high swear fests like “Family Reunion” and “Happy Holidays, You Bastard”. Whether it was due to the band’s occasionally lackluster performance or a significant portion of the crowd being up way past their bedtimes, the crowd seemed to get restless each time Blink 182 strayed from their hit singles. And the shaky vibes weren’t just from the music. Rumors have been swirling on the Internet that the band might be breaking up, and Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus’ patience did seem to be wearing a little thin with each other onstage—call me crazy, but somehow the constant jokes about fucking each other’s moms just didn’t seem wholly good-natured this time around. Give them credit for honesty, though. The band members seemed to acknowledge that they aren’t the world’s greatest live performers, with Mark Hoppus even telling the audience at one point about the “shitty” review they could expect to read the next day.
That’s not to say there weren’t fun points in Blink 182’s performance. Aside from writing absolutely perfect three-minute pop songs, the thing Blink 182 do best is take the piss out of themselves at every turn, and this night was no exception. Like Mark Hoppus telling the crowd to set the mood for self-proclaimed “sad” song “Adam’s Song”, and then cutting the legs out from under it by running in a circle around the stage and falling down between the chorus and the verse. Or Tom DeLonge describing their ideal girl—funny, dresses cool, into skateboarding and punk rock—who will never love them. But even the self-deprecating act wore thin after about 45 minutes, and by the time of the hilarious big finale, complete with explosions and airborne drum set, most of the audience was already headed for the exits and the merchandise tables to pick up Green Day gear. On this night, old school bubblegum punk beat new school bubblegum punk hands-down, and while most critics probably wouldn’t consider that much of a victory, it definitely had its moments.