At first sight of the cover, it’s evident Bullet in a Bible is a new kind of Green Day album. A silhouette of lead singer and guitarist Billy Joe Armstrong poses before an arena audience that seems to extend into infinity. On the back cover, an image of a larger-than-life Armstrong, dwarfing the festival stage behind him, pointing to the sky like Pete Townshend. Superimposed at his side, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool hover above a crowd of thousands as if messiahs over water.
Recorded at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes, England, in June 2005, the Bullet in a Bible CD/DVD captures Green Day at an astounding height in their career. Playing for 130,000 people over two days, Green Day have performed what must be the largest punk rock gig in history. It’s incredible to think how far they’ve come from their roots as silly street punks with three chords and a Clash record. Their last studio effort, 2004’s American Idiot, was a grab for greatness, a punk rock opera with lofty aspirations and richer rewards—a Grammy for Best Rock Album and sales over nine million. Bullet commemorates this success while creating a moment all its own.
The band’s 16-year run has had its ups and downs, but the ups always stuck and the downs never fell too far. Dookie, Green Day’s third record, needs no introduction. Anyone with a passing interest in punk rock of the last 15 years has heard, and likely enjoyed this 1994 release. Thanks in part to a record deal with Reprise, the album catapulted Green Day beyond their San Francisco Bay Area origins and into international notoriety. The next peak came in 1997 with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, a ballad immortalized (at least in the U.S.) by its prominent appearance in the final episode of Seinfeld.
In 2004, American Idiot became Green Day’s most celebrated work yet. It was not only more musically ambitious and complex than anything they had done, but also more intelligent. “Hear the dogs howling out of key / To a hymn called ‘Faith and Misery’ (Hey!) / And bleed, the company lost the war today”, sings Armstrong in “Holiday”. Political and social reactions to a post-9/11 America fueled the record, but did not overpower it—listening is as fun as it is challenging. Cool recalls in the Bullet in a Bible video how the band’s approach to American Idiot had a “Let’s take on the planet” vibe. Armstrong and Dirnt reflect on the motivations behind it—a desire to try something new, reach a new height of expression, and as Dirnt says, “step out of Dookie‘s shadow”.
In their first decade, Green Day’s greatest accomplishment was to bring punk music to a new audience. Over halfway into their second, Bullet in a Bible proves that Green Day will be forever remembered for their own identity. These are the same three guys as always—the same tats, the same stylishly punk rock rags, the same Clash haircuts, the same irreverent attitudes. During the Milton Keynes concerts, Armstrong runs the gamut from pretending to pleasure himself to delivering a political rant. Green Day are still punk rockers. But they are also pop idols, to which the adoring fans portrayed on Bullet can attest.
Because it’s a document of a concert from their most recent tour, Bullet is heavy on American Idiot tracks—seven in all, mostly culled from the first half of the record. It also functions as a live best-of, featuring some of the finest songs from the band’s back catalog. From Dookie we hear “Longview” and “Basket Case”; from Insomniac, “Brainstew” (but it’s missing its alter-ego, “Jaded”); from Nimrod, “Hitchin’ a Ride”, “King for a Day”, and “Good Riddance”; and from 2000’s Warning, “Minority”.
Rob Cavallo has co-produced almost every Green Day release since Dookie, and does an excellent job of adding spit and punch to these live recordings. The audio excels in the car stereo and on the home theater. The songs themselves are just what you’d expect—big, powerful, and in most cases extended or enhanced. Tacked onto the end of “King for a Day,” for example, are renditions of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and the Monty Python ditty “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Green Day’s older songs have worn surprisingly well, and “Basket Case” requires no gimmicks to register as one of the set’s highlights. From start to finish, the band’s performance is tight and effective yet never showy—stripped down to their basic building blocks, these are all simple punk rock songs. Dirnt and Cool’s cohesion as a rhythm section and Armstrong’s sense of melody and delivery are what propel the songs to the next level. Four backup musicians flesh them out further with keyboard, horns, percussion, and additional guitar.
As far as the overall Bullet in a Bible experience goes, the two-hour DVD is more satisfying than the CD. Beyond weaving worthwhile extras between each of the songs, it’s simply more suited to the material. Director Samuel Bayer treats the performances to endless edits, cuts, and effects, and it’s clear he’s aiming for the MTV crowd. Green Day’s sound is just as young and enthusiastic, so Bayer’s approach can’t be faulted. On the CD, with crowd noise strong in the mix, the event sounds almost overblown, occasionally threatening to collapse on itself. Armstrong’s stage banter and incessant shouting of “EEENNGLLAAANND” (about 15 times across 14 tracks) sometimes gets in the way of the songs. But the visual element of the DVD completes the package quite nicely, and it’s clear that the show needs to be seen—at least once—to be appreciated. Giant screens flank the stage; the Green Day logo hangs on banners on both sides; and, at numerous times throughout the show, fireworks shoot from the front and rear of the stage—including an impressive post-encore finale of almost two minutes of colorful blasts. During one tour diary interlude, Armstrong acknowledges that he is not playing an intimate show for a few of his fans; rather, he is putting on an event, creating a spectacle. A true entertainer, he’s adopted the role of ringmaster very nicely. Dirnt and Cool remain more withdrawn, yet Dirnt is confident and Cool aloof enough to excel in the focus of 130,000 eyes.
Bullet in a Bible‘s biggest surprises are how well Billie Joe Armstrong plays to the crowd and how great the songs sound on such a grand scope. Despite their backstage jitters, Green Day play arena punk rock like they were born for it. Garnering such incredible admiration across the pond leaves no doubt about Green Day’s success: The same group that led the mid-‘90s pop-punk explosion with songs about masturbating and an album named after feces is today one of the most important rock bands in the world.