Punk's Not Dead?
It’s difficult to explain what it was like to be young in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and maintaining an interest in the musical scene that went by the various names of alternative, college, modern rock, underground, and post-punk. It was that last label that caused the most trouble. For the members of a certain generation, let’s say those born between 1971 and 1981, punk was something of a fabled moment in history. It was the moment, actually, the one that changed everything about music for the decades to come and that would be ceaselessly referred to by journalists and critics with the kind of wistful nostalgia that others reserved for the Summer of Love. In fact, while the youth of the mid-1970s lamented being “born too late” to participate in the hippie/free love movement, a portion of the youth of the mid-1980s regretted being “born too late” to have been a part of the glorious rebellion of punk.
So unless you happen to have been a part of that small slice of time, it might not be possible to conceive of the impact that turning on MTV and seeing the “Longview” video for the first time would have made. It was all there, in washed out color and logged in at prime time. This unknown band called Green Day playing this tense, fast, sloppy song that was unlike even the wasted poetry of grunge. They were ugly, snarling kids with zits glaring in the harsh light of the video. The singer’s nasal whine was unmistakably a throwback to some of the old records the college station played when waxing nostalgic. They were unmistakably punk and it was bizarrely exciting.
Of course, punk music never really died out. It was all spelled out in the Exploited’s “Punk’s Not Dead” slogan. Whereas for some historians and critics, punk died the moment the Sex Pistols broke up, and for others it was killed with banality the day Combat Rock hit the shelves, punk music just submerged, going underground to the delight of its hardcore enthusiasts. Thanks to bands like the Dead Kennedys, punk maintained a small, isolated, but jealously guarded presence throughout the period when New Wave and modern rock came to prominence. Ironically, both the neo-hippie “born too late”-ers and their neo-punk cousins found a haven in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Bay Area became one of the US’s final punk strongholds.
It was this Bay Area scene that first inspired Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool to pick up instruments and play. Their early years in the punk scene have been captured elsewhere, most recently in a surprisingly engaging Behind the Music on VH-1, so I won’t bother trying to go through the whole thing here, but it’s important to note that, when it all began, Green Day were the real deal. They lived and partied like punks, lived by punk credos, and were a true D.I.Y. band, establishing their reputation like any good punk band by playing shows anywhere that would take them and traveling on their own money to peddle their independently produced records.
The songs collected on International Superhits! represent a time beyond all that. Opening up with two new tracks included on this album only, the hit-collecting only begins with “Longview”, the band’s breakout track from Dookie. Ignored by this album entirely are the songs from 1039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hour and Kerplunk, the band’s first and second albums. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, it was only after the release of Dookie that Green Day had anything more than cult success. For another, these are the songs that Reprise, the band’s record label, owns the rights to, their first two albums being on Lookout. But there’s also the fact that the existence of this collection in this format represents the political shift that Green Day have made over the years.
As soon as Green Day signed on the dotted line with Reprise, they’d betrayed the anti-corporate ethos of their punk origins. As many times as Billie Joe has tried to explain that it wasn’t about money but about trying to reach more listeners with their music, nothing was going to sway the opinions of their punk-traditionalist former friends. As Dookie went on to become a platinum-selling album, launching Green Day and re-launching punk onto the world stage, they were subsequently reviled by the denizens of the 938 Gillman scene that they’d called home for years. As soon as Green Day opened the doors of punk to the world, they were booted out of the club.
One listen to International Superhits! will show the hypocrisy of such a move by punk adherents, and the bitter irony experienced by Green Day. Just as Spin magazine declared 1994 the “Year Punk Broke” with a cover shot of Green Day, popularizing punk was destroying the scene. The bitter in-fighting that punks have traditionally waged with one another over what is and is not punk was rendered instantly obsolete. All could agree that platinum records, arena tours, and pink hair in the shopping malls was definitely not punk, and it was generally agreed that such blasphemies were Green Day’s fault (although it’s also reasonably argued that major-label interest in punk was spurred more by the success of Nirvana than anything else). With the overwhelming success of their music among the public, Green Day seemingly had betrayed themselves.
But in fact this isn’t true. A comparison between Dookie and their prior, independent album, Kerplunk, will quickly reveal that Green Day never watered down their music to suit corporate ideals. Rather, they benefited from better studios and more money invested in production, and that’s about it. If anything, they tried even harder to prove they were still punk with Insomniac, turning out an uncharacteristically dense and dark album. The reality is that even when Green Day were a young band creating indie records for punk die-hards, their music was filled with the same pop sensibility of melody and harmony that’s found in their major label work. In fact, many of the great bands of yesteryear were highly melodic in their own punk rock. The only real difference, despite what so many of their detractors claim, is the name of the label and the scope of their distribution. Apparently, success is just not punk.
Beyond that, the corporate machine of music that helped bring Green Day to an international audience couldn’t have entirely orchestrated their success. “Longview” exploded as a single, and the follow-ups in “Welcome to Paradise” (which was also a track from Kerplunk), “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around” helped push Dookie beyond anyone’s expectations. There was simply a public readiness for punk, or at least punk-pop, an eagerness to regain the lost history of punk music. That Green Day was an adept band that crafted great songs that were both stylistically punk and yet easily accessible didn’t hurt either. But hardcore punks who would view the public as so readily manipulated suffer from the same tunnel vision of the corporations they despise.
When Green Day released “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” on their 1997 album, Nimrod, it was the final statement of the band to their old friends in the punk scene. Acknowledging now that they’d outgrown punk, especially those in the scene who blamed them for the scene’s popularization, Green Day placed their goodbye letter in the form of a simple, acoustic-guitar-with-strings song. As Mike Dirnt said of the move in the VH-1 special, “Putting that song on the album was probably the most punk thing we could have done at that point”. Ironically, it became Green Day’s most commercially successful song ever. It also seemed like it might have been the swan song for the band, as Billie Joe decided to take a break and put the band on hiatus.
Green Day’s return in 2000 saw a fresh perspective from the band. No longer concerned with scoring scene points, Billie Joe, Mike and Tré were free to explore their own avenues as musicians. In Warning, Green Day turned out what has been the most fully accomplished album of their career so far, even as they’ve abandoned some of the urge to rock hard. Warning was chock-full of pop melodies, acoustic guitars, and a more subtle yet crafted approach to their music that revealed the newfound maturity of the once eminently adolescent band. At the same time, songs like “Warning” and “Minority” revealed that Green Day had learned that messages of rebellion could easily be incorporated into their new musicality without having to rely on punk trappings and wondering whether or not it was “punk enough”.
So what’s the point of International Superhits!? If you’ve got all the albums and are already convinced of Green Day’s brilliance, you probably don’t need the two bonus tracks and the single from the Angus soundtrack all that badly. If you’re not a fan of punk, no matter how pop, or have decided that Green Day are just sell-out traitors to the scene, then you’ll probably scorn this greatest hits album even more than their past efforts. But if you’re in the middle of the road, unsure one way or the other, then this collection will easily convince you that Green Day is simply a great band.
There’s a surprising continuity to this record, given that the songs collected here were written over almost an entire decade and subtly change to become more and more musical as the disc progresses. “Maria” and “Poprocks and Coke”, the unreleased tracks, are like the rest of their fine early pop-punk, but when the immediately recognizable bass line of “Longview” kicks in, the journey through the band’s history really begins. By the time you hit “Macy’s Day Parade”, 19 tracks later, nothing seems forced, jarring, or out of place. Greatest hits albums always come off sounding like a mix tape of singles, but with International Superhits!, Green Day produce a highly listenable disc from start to finish. Given that the songs are presented here in chronological order of release, it’s a real testament to the staying power and ability of the band.
International Superhits! also offers a reflective moment for those of us in the post-punk generation. In the trials and tribulations of Green Day we can see an excellent example of how the whole punk scene really did lose itself way back in the late 1970s. Caught between a style and an ethos, punk’s re-submergence into the underground made it fiercely isolationist to the point of eating itself. To actually experience 1977, we truly were born too late. But the spirit of ‘77 lives on in punk’s legacy.
Bands like Green Day are truly the heirs of punk, not because they emerged from a real independent, D.I.Y. scene, but because they’ve maintained the style and attitude that make punk so appealing. Punk’s success is also its failure, however. On the one hand, punk has been able to grow and expand, reaching greater audiences and even those who were born after punk’s original historical moment had come and gone. But at the same time, punk has been co-opted as commercially viable, and in fact its success is predicated on the failure of its anti-corporate ethos. If anarchy is reduced to a symbol on a T-shirt at the mall, then isn’t punk really dead after all?
Yes and no. Punk always existed in a state of paradox. Even in 1977, punk was torn between ideology and commerciality. While Johnny Rotten screamed “Anarchy in the U.K”., Malcolm McLaren laughed all the way to the bank. Punk’s original implosion was more or less the result of this inability to maintain a balance between success and anti-establishment posturing. Green Day, for better or for worse, are then punk’s new, reconciled face, and as such, aren’t really punk at all. International Superhits! is being advertised on television in CD, DVD, and VHS form, all to the massive benefit of Reprise and Time Warner. But, at the same time, messages of rebelliousness against the system are reaching the headspace of millions of listeners. And perhaps the new Billie Joe, reconciled with himself and his past, can sing with a smile now: “I’m a victim of a Catch 22 / I have no belief / But I believe / I’m a walking contradiction / And I ain’t got no right”.