Like the vast majority of people who’ve eventually purchased (or at least listened to) Green Day‘s Kerplunk! I was not there when the album was released on CD on 17 January 1992. Nor was I there a month earlier when it came out on vinyl. Instead, I came to the band two years later, when their major-label debut, Dookie, hit stores and airwaves. The lead single, “Longview”, won me over, and I bought the record. After that, it didn’t take long for me to seek out Green Day’s back catalog. Naturally, Kerplunk! serves as their second full-length sequence. The band’s label at the time, Lookout Records, repackaged most of their early material into a single CD—1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours—which is sort of their de facto first LP. That earlier collection has some highlights, but it’s clearly the work of a very young band still finding their way.
On the other hand, Kerplunk! feels like the real deal. The flashes of songwriting prowess displayed by vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong on the first record have blossomed into fully realized songs. Meanwhile, bassist Mike Dirnt does subtle but important melodic work, the kind that will define his style for decades. As for drummer Tré Cool (new to the group after the departure of original drummer John Kiffmeyer), he clicks with the other two immediately. Indeed, these 12 tracks stand shoulder to shoulder with anything else the band created in the future, so it’s worth digging deeper into the album on its 30th anniversary.
All those attributes are on display right from the opening track, “2,000 Light Years Away”, wherein Armstrong sings clearly and melodically about missing his girlfriend. His guitar chords are simple but catchy, and Dirnt echoes them without exactly doubling them. Cool keeps the beat steady but throws in exciting fills throughout, too, with pounding crash cymbals and tight snare rolls. The tune also includes brief, well-placed backing harmonies from Dirnt that sweeten the song whenever they pop up. In the traditional guitar solo spot (after the second verse), the trio throw in a bass solo instead. Even though this “solo” is really just Dirnt continuing to play the song’s main bassline, it’s a striking and intriguing choice. Armstrong runs through both the first verse and the chorus once more, and the piece wraps up in less than two-and-a-half minutes. Despite the group being a big part of the punk rock scene, “2,000 Light Years Away” is a bona fide pop-rock gem.
“80”, on the record’s back half, is the natural complement to “2,000 Light Years Away”. It’s also a love song about Adrienne Nesser, whom Armstrong would marry in 1994 (amidst Dookie‘s success). Lyrically, it conflates Armstrong’s anxiety with the rush of being in love. Lines like “My mental stability reaches its bitter end” and “Is there any cure for this disease someone called love? / Not as long as there are girls like you” demonstrate where Armstrong was at internally while writing the track.
Musically, it’s one of the more restrained pieces on the album. Dirnt’s bouncing bassline drives it to the point where the guitar sits out the entire first verse. The chorus hits some great peaks, and in a clever move, the backing harmonies come in only moments away from those peaks. This song also has a genuine bridge, with one of the record’s most arresting passages. Armstrong sings, “80, please keep taking me away,” and then repeats, “Awaaaay”, with Dirnt’s descending harmony vocals hitting a perfect melodic sweet spot.
Despite these love songs, Armstrong’s primary lyrical focus on Kerplunk! is his own psyche. “Christie Road” is all about being bored and struggling to do anything. “Give me something to do to kill some time / Take me to that place where I call home”, goes the refrain. Then, “Private Ale” again hits on boredom and fantasizes about an attractive girl he sees on the street. As for “One of My Lies”, it’s about the invincibility of youth and realizing that he’s actually vulnerable. Yet, the refrain includes a significant line —”All I wanna do is get real high”—that reinforces the fact that the band named themselves after a slang term for smoking marijuana.
Each of these inclusions is hooky and energetic, with choice harmonies and intense playing. Fascinatingly, the trio’s tempo ebbs and flows slightly throughout the record. It’s not a detriment, though, because it gives the album an organic, lived-in feel. It’s most audible on a track like “Christie Road”, which already has a deliberate, chugging rhythm and some intentional slowdowns. It’s also noticeable on the uptempo “One for the Razorbacks”, whose intro is a bit slower than the main song. It also features quick measures when Cool moves away from his kick-snare drumming pattern and onto his floor toms. Oh, and the speed drifts just a bit.
Green Day’s specialty here is sprightly pop-punk tracks, but they change it up just enough to keep their audience’s attention. For instance, “Dominated Love Slave”, which closes out what used to be Side One, is a cowpunk country parody. Cool sings and plays guitar, and the group puts on their most stereotypical hick accents for a wacky goof of a track about BDSM. Admittedly, it’s not nearly as funny 30 years later, but I still appreciate it for its commitment to the aesthetic.
“No One Knows” begins with a laid-back but intricate bass solo from Dirnt. Lyrically, it’s a downer that covers both regrets and apprehension about the future. Musically, Green Day embrace the song’s downbeat mood and stay slow and pensive without abandoning the distorted guitars. Of course, the LP closes with the highly catchy “Words I Might Have Ate”, featuring Armstrong and Dirnt on acoustic guitar and bass, respectively, while Cool offers a much lighter touch on the drums (possibly using brushes instead of sticks). However, they play with the same energy as when plugged in, giving the tune a winning folk-punk feel.
Lookout Records also added the band’s third EP, Sweet Children, as bonus tracks on the end of the Kerplunk! CD. These four selections comprise some of Green Day’s earliest material, and the EP features John Kiffmeyer on drums. The production is loud and raw, and the songs themselves are mildly catchy but missing the strong hooks that dominate the rest of Kerplunk! The band’s cover of The Who’s “My Generation” is worth a listen or two for curiosity’s sake, but overall, the Sweet Children EP is essentially filler material.
Over the subsequent years, Green Day would experiment with different styles, sounds, and tempos while generally staying close to their sing-along punk rock template. The seeds for most of that can be heard while listening to Kerplunk! “Words I Might Have Ate” presages their enduring acoustic ballad “Good Riddance”, for example, whereas the goofy “Dominated Love Slave” has echoes in Nimrod‘s rollicking transvestite anthem, “King for a Day”. Clearly, their main formula was already in place by now, as any one of these catchy, high-energy tracks could’ve fit easily on their major-label albums.
The production is the most significant difference between this (the last of the early Green Day releases) and everything that came afterward. Kerplunk!‘s production, done by Andy Ernst and Green Day themselves, is quite solid for an independent, relatively low-budget release of the early ’90s. In contrast, Reprise’s money and Rob Cavallo’s production significantly impacted the band once Dookie arrived.
The difference is evident in “Welcome to Paradise”, the one track that did make the transition to Dookie. It’s essentially the same on both albums in lyrics, tempo, and arrangement; however, Dookie‘s production gives the piece more punch and a noticeably thicker low end. Kerplunk!’s version is treble-heavy and puts the guitar out front, while on Dookie, Dirnt’s bass and Cool’s drum fills are right there, standing alongside the guitar.
Despite the apparent production differences, Kerplunk!‘s strong songs make it well worth revisiting. The original liner notes also include a fictional and ridiculous—but strangely prophetic—story called “My Adventure with Green Day”. The tale is attributed to Laurie L., a sheltered high school girl, but Lookout Records President Larry Livermore actually penned it. In it, Laurie L. wins a contest to spend a few days on tour with Green Day and enjoys a whirlwind, lavish experience involving limos, private planes, and fancy hotels.
Unfortunately, her time on tour is cut short when she is arrested for murdering her parents, which she did because they never would’ve allowed her to go on the tour. Casual murder aside, it’s not all that farfetched to imagine a scenario a few years later in which MTV might have had this exact sort of contest (complete with the limos and charter plane). It’s just another one of Kerplunk!‘s early indicators regarding where Green Day were headed.