Many punk-influenced bands achieve commercial prominence by tweaking their sounds.
Radio-savvy knob-twiddlers have helped everyone from Sugar Ray to Nirvana add a multi-platinum sheen to their breakthrough recordings. Why, then, are Green Day associated on Google with the term “sell-out” nearly twice as many times as Nirvana (22,300 to 12,600)?
Nirvana, the band that brought punk-rock to the masses and became a pedestal at which rock critics could worship, gussied itself up so much for Nevermind after Bleach that Kurt Cobain called in the notorious noisemaker Steve Albini to bring back the band’s rough edges in time for In Utero. Green Day, reviled by punk poseurs everywhere for actually wanting fans, never changed its sound a whit.
If anything, Green Day shifted its lyrical tone—to something more, not less, controversial.
All the band’s trademarks are there on the recently remastered debut, 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours: simple, Buzzcocks-infused guitar, straightforward drumming (with John Kiffmeyer earning Pete Best honors) and annoyingly catchy melodies.
This reissued disc is faithful to its original release, which compiled 1989 vinyl release 39/Smooth, the Slappy, and 1,000 Hours EPs, and a cover of fellow Berkeley, California punks Operation Ivy. As a plus for only the most die-hard Green Day adherents, you can access an amateurish Minnesota radio performance, old photos and fan camcorder footage in your CD-ROM drive. The sound is notably cleaner, allowing the disc almost to stand alongside the band’s later work; although the increased fidelity also exposes a songwriter struggling to find his voice.
As for the rest of the disc, you know what you’ll find. Songs about weed: the eponymous “Green Day”, which opens with the unmistakable sound of water bongs being hit (though if this were a Seattle band, one could be forgiven for thinking a Venti Decaf Latte was being sipped). Songs of adolescent alienation: “16”, “409 in Your Coffeemaker”, “I Want to Be Alone”. Variations of the words “sane” and “insane” (and the inevitable rhyme with “brain”) recur on multiple tracks.
What you might not expect is Billie Joe Armstrong’s bubblegum side. “If I could only hold you / It’s the only thing I want to do” goes a fairly representative couplet. Detractors’ “sell-out” pipe dream gets clogged by the fact that Green Day changed from relatively clean, mainstream lyrics to abrasive, sardonic and cuss-word-laden outings for Dookie—not the other way around. To the leather-costumed, Television-worshipping Brooklyn punk teenagers recently detailed in a New York Times feature: Sorry, Green Day is just as “authentic” as you (whatever that even means).
Armstrong’s sentimentalism didn’t really resurface until 1997’s Nimrod, when it took a more adult form for songs like “Redundant”. On 1,039/Smooth, Armstrong often shows a trite teenager-in-love side that comes nowhere near the ‘90s zeitgeist-defining “Basketcase” of his later years. Songs like “At the Library”, “Don’t Leave Me”, and “Why Do You Want Him” (which features Pete Townshend-esque guitar heroics!) might belong just as well on MxPx B-sides or among blink-182’s less jokey efforts (“First Date”, “Going to College”). The bubblegum lyrics hamper the album, making it clear why it took Green Day another run-through—1992’s Kerplunk—before hitting the big time with Dookie.
Oddly enough, the most arresting song here was written by the departed drummer, Kiffmeyer. “I Was There” is an ode to nostalgia that captures those feelings exactly as they are experienced through a junior-high or high-school kid’s limited knowledge of them. “Looking back upon my life / And the places I have been / Pictures, faces, girls I’ve loved / I try to remember when,” Armstrong begins. Mike Dirnt’s bassline is particularly memorable in the song’s anthemic hook. “I look into the past / and I want to make it last / I was there,” Armstrong sings.
When many of us were young, Green Day was there. They weren’t particularly sophisticated or fashionably dressed, but they were a solid pop band that influenced scores of lesser outfits. The group went on to indulge in a Ray Davies-like fascination with songcraft that should put its punker-than-thou critics to shame.
The grunge-rockers sang about heroin addiction, the evils of fame, and kids shooting up their schools. Armstrong sang about getting bored. Was he just paranoid, or was he stoned?
He was stoned, of course. If you’re college-age or above or never liked Green Day the first time around, this album is not for you. But youthful listeners might find in this fun, flawed memento enough punk history to seek out the Clash, the Ramones, and the Buzzcocks and get stoned immaculate.