[4 December 2009]
Sound Affects Editor
In 1994, alternative rock ruled rock music. At the time, some in the music press occasionally remarked that punk rock had finally “won” due to the mainstream breakthrough of alternative bands like Nirvana, but that ignored the fact that as a genre alt-rock had long ago become a distinct form from its progenitor. Sure, alt-rock retained punk’s do-it-yourself ethos and its disdain for the iconography and excesses of mainstream music, but anyone who was familiar with the sound of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (a sound that continued to breed and develop in places throughout the world such as Berkeley, California’s Gilman Street scene) sure wasn’t going to find it replicated by Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, or Nine Inch Nails. While some called 1991 “the year punk broke” (a term based on a widely misinterpreted reading of the title to a Sonic Youth concert video), the music press quickly had to shift the headlines a bit when in 1994 punk truly claimed a victory on the pop charts after over a decade of hiding underground. Green Day’s Dookie was primarily responsible for this turn of events, and it all started with the album’s first single, “Longview”.
Like many compositions on Dookie, “Longview” features a character that’s unsatisfied with his life. While Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong has at various points indicated an affinity for crafting characters to inhabit in his lyrics, the jaded slacker at the center of this song is undeniably a distorted version of Armstrong himself. Explaining the inspiration for the track during a 2002 interview with Guitar World, Armstrong said, “I guess it was just living in the suburbs in a sort of shit town where you can’t even pull in a good radio station. I was living in Rodeo, California, about 20 minutes outside of Oakland. There was nothing to do there, and it was a real boring place.” Armstrong stated that feelings of “loneliness and isolation” form the core of the tune. He commented, “I think everyone has felt those things, either right at this moment or at some point in the past.”
What sets the narrator of “Longview” apart from the other characters that populate Dookie is the utter disgust he harbors for his situation. Reflecting on the period that inspired the song, Armstrong told Rolling Stone, “I really didn’t care—for a time I was wallowing in my own misery and liking it. The lyrics wrote themselves.” However, the final product doesn’t contain any sense of contentment. In “Longview”, Armstrong is plainly sick of sitting around all day doing nothing but watching television, smoking pot, and playing with himself, but can’t be bothered to do anything about it, which in turn bugs him even more. It’s a cycle he can’t escape, and his self-loathing is palpable with every emphasized curse word and lyrics like “I’m sick of all the same old shit / In a house with unlocked doors / And I’m fucking lazy”. Even the baser pleasures have lost their appeal, as he explains in the classic line “When masturbation’s lost its fun / You’re fucking breaking.”
There are better sets of lyrics on Dookie (take “Burnout” or “Basket Case”, just to name two), but none are as well-matched to the band’s performance as those from “Longview”. Typically, punk bands tackle the topic of boredom in fast, scrappy songs in order to convey the subject’s stifling nature (see the father of all bored punk songs, “Boredom” by the Buzzcocks). “Longview” completely avoids that track. For one thing, it’s resolutely mid-tempo, which perfectly suits the feeling of sitting around someplace where every dull moment seems like an eternity. More strikingly, Green Day plays the song in a shuffle rhythm, that lazy, swinging groove typically used by folks ranging from elderly bluesmen to lame dive bar cover bands content to play America’s “A Horse with No Name” at the drop of a hat. What self-respecting rock band would use a shuffle rhythm in 1994, much less a punk band? The inspiration for its use seems to be Operation Ivy, the San Francisco Bay Area punk band that served as a major formative influence on Green Day, and whose shuffle-based “Knowledge” is a live set staple of the trio. Green Day sure has become smitten with shuffle rhythms, as most albums it has released since Dookie have produced a single utilizing the technique (examples include “Hitchin’ a Ride” from Nimrod, “Minority” from Warning, and “Holiday” from American Idiot).
The shuffling groove of “Longview” dwells in that most ’90s of rock song structures: quiet bass-driven verses followed by loud choruses full of distorted guitars. An obvious influence for that arrangement would be then-reigning alt-rock regents Nirvana, a group Armstrong has noted a strong affinity for (in fact, as Green Day found itself thrust into the maelstrom of mainstream notoriety, Armstrong frequently phoned Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s widow Courtney Love for advice on how to cope). With guitar completely absent during the verses, most of “Longview” serves as a showcase for Green Day’s rhythm section. As Tre Cool lays down a puttering drum beat, Mike Dirnt plucks out what has since become the most recognizable punk bass riff of all time, a loping four-bar figure he came up with while tripping on acid.
Green Day really sells “Longview” when the song bursts into its aggressive chorus. As Armstrong finally throws his guitar into the mix, he sings, “Bite my lip and close my eyes / Take me away to paradise / I’m so damn bored I’m going blind / And I smell like shit.” It’s worth noting that when performing these lines in the song’s music video, Armstrong’s expression in the close-up shots is positively hateful, all domineering brow and piercing eyes. The lines are amusing on the surface, but Armstrong ensures to instill them with an intense self-loathing that illustrates just how truly pathetic the character’s situation is. The song is probably its most conventionally punk when it switches to a two-chord bridge section. Here, Armstrong sings “I’ve got no motivation / Where is my motivation / No time for motivation / Smoking my inspiration” as the band moves back and forth between the D and the E chord. The choruses and bridge offer only momentary release in the arrangement. Inevitably, the song ends with the return of that leisurely main bass riff. In that context, the sound of Armstrong’s closing guitar licks ringing out as the song fades away evokes a numbing sense of existential defeat.
When “Longview” was issued to radio, stations eagerly jumped on the track, soon propelling it to number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in mid-1994. Meanwhile its music video—filmed in the band’s messy practice pad/apartment in Oakland, California, with the inclusion of a stunt couch for Armstrong to rip apart at the clip’s climax being the only change of décor for the promo—went into regular rotation on MTV. While there’s no doubt that Green Day’s arrival on the pop culture radar was perfectly timed to fill the teenage angst void left by the suicide of unwilling Generation X spokesman Kurt Cobain that April, in my opinion there’s one reason above all else that “Longview” became a breakthrough hit for the band: it’s full of dirty words. I can’t think of an earlier rock single that had to have so many words unsubtly censored for airplay (now it’s standard practice to spin heavily bowdlerized versions of “dirty” tracks on rock radio). A listener could easily tell what words went where in the song, and could fill in their own “fuckings” and “shits” in the necessary spaces with no need for prompting. Of course, the word “masturbation” was left in, and—like all the curse words that didn’t make it into the radio edit—singer Billie Joe Armstrong goes out of his way to place heavy emphasis on it when utters it in the third verse. Let me assure you: teenagers love stuff like that. I think I still have a handwritten copy of the song lyrics I made in high school somewhere in my closet.
If it were notable just for its filthiness, “Longview” would be nothing more than a mid-‘90s novelty like King Missile’s “Detachable Penis”. But despite its crude surface, “Longview” is unequivocally a great song with a killer bass riff and endlessly quotable lyrics. Its explicit nature may not have made “Longview” seem like an obvious single choice (particularly for a band courting commercial radio for the first time), but the song’s compelling quality cannot be denied. Despite (and for some, because of) its content, it’s one of those songs you want to listen again the instant it finishes. And that’s how Green Day made 1994 the year punk broke.
Still, the song’s impact on the public consciousness has had its shortcomings for the group. Armstrong told Guitar World in 2000, “A lot of people think I masturbate five times a day because of the words to ‘Longview’.”