Punk revivalists with style, substance and hooks galore, Green Day have gone through two distinct identities. They were bratty, mischievous twentysomethings when they hit MTV in 1994, and with a green-haired, snaggle-toothed Billie Joe Armstrong ripping up the furniture, dancing with a monkey, and singing about the joys of masturbation, the raucous trio's major-label debut, Dookie, went triple-platinum. But Green Day became elder statesmen during the 2000s with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown—a pair of epic, politically charged rock and roll operas that chronicled the confused reality of life in the first decade of the new millennium.
Friends since age 10, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt grew up in Rodeo, California. They formed their first real band, Sweet Children, at 14. When they were 17, the pair first recorded as Green Day, signing with the punk label Lookout and releasing the 1989 EP 1,000 Hours with drummer John Kiffmeyer. The next year, the group recorded its first full-length album, 39/Smooth, in a day. Two more EPs followed, with Kiffmeyer leaving to focus on his studies and Tre Cool, with whom Armstrong had played in a band called the Lookouts, taking over on drums for 1992's Kerplunk. With a solid fanbase built on the nurturing, all-ages hardcore scene in Berkeley, the group signed with Reprise in April 1993. Its 1994 release, Dookie, proclaimed the next generation of punk, hitting Number Four on the album chart, buoyed by the band's effervescent presence on MTV and at Lollapalooza and Woodstock 1004. The album won a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance and sold 10 million copies worldwide.
The 1995 follow-up Insomniac sold nearly 3 million copies and charted at Number Two, but failed to repeat the success of the band's major-label debut. Nimrod (Number 10, 1997) sold a million copies but won fresh exposure for the group, largely on the strength of the ballad "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." In 2000, Green Day released Warning (Number Four), a more introspective, even folk-influenced record that showed the group stretching artistically. Despite producing the radio hit "Minority," the album was a commercial letdown, selling fewer than a million copies. Two compilations followed: A best-of, International Superhits! (Number 40, 2001), and the B-sides round-up Shenanigans (Number 27, 2002).
It would be four years before Green Day returned with American Idiot, a fully-realized rock opera and great leap forward in the band's musical capabilities and cultural importance. Released four years into the administration of George W. Bush—the titular idiot—and two months before the 2004 ballot in which he won re-election, the album depicts an American dream thwarted. "Jesus of Suburbia," a nine-minute, five-part suite, is the centerpiece, moving seamlessly from thrash to balladry to delicate harmonies and country shuffles while maintaining a narrative. "Holiday," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and "Wake Me Up When September Ends" each reached the charts as hit singles while still fitting with the album's rich narrative. The band had learned to fuse its pop sensibilities with a propensity for album-length storytelling in a way that none of its contemporaries had.
Remarkably, the band returned five years later with an even more ambitious conceptual project, 21st Century Breakdown. Full of religious overtones, the 18-track epic tells the story of two young punk lovers, Christian and Gloria, adrift in the broken post-Bush era. Divided into three sections—"Heroes and Cons," "Charlatans and Saints," and "Horseshoes and Hand Grenades"—the mostly short, sharp songs attack Christian hypocrisy on "East Jesus Nowhere," government on "21 Guns," and parents, teachers, and everyone else our heroes have ever looked up to on "21st Century Breakdown": "We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the bastards of 1969."
The beauty of 21st Century Breakdown—and Green Day's reinvention over a decade into its career—is their ambition and desire to push boundaries when few of their peers have done the same. It's one of the most remarkable transformations in rock and roll history.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this story.