Green Day: The Kids Are Alright

Old-school punk is back and Green Day is shoving it to the top of the charts

Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
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With his hands in his pockets and a scowl on his face, Billie Joe, the 22-year-old guitarist and lead singer of Green Day, stands aloof outside the student union at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan. Despite his off putting look – pug face, nose ring, tattoos – a small group of smiling girls in their midteens gathers around the slightly built singer.

"Have you ever met Eddie Vedder?" one asks.

"I just wanted to tell you," says another, pausing, breathless, "that your lyrics really speak to me."

"Can I give you a hug?" says a third with a squeal. Billie Joe shrugs his shoulders and then sheepishly obliges. The others catch on; soon each braves a squeeze. An hour later, Billie Joe is onstage, spitting out the words to "Chump," a fast, catchy number from Green Day's platinum-selling album, Dookie, that begins, "I don't know you, but I think I hate you."

"I definitely don't try to write songs that someone's definitely going to relate to," Billie Joe says later.

Old-style punk rock is back. But as Green Day – Billie Joe, bassist Mike Dirnt, 22, and drummer Tre Cool, 21 are proving, punk just isn't what it used to be.

Photos: Green Day Through the Years

Sure, Green Day have their underground credentials intact. Fixtures on the East Bay indie circuit of Berkeley, Calif., since 1989, all three members have been playing in bands since puberty. By the time Green Day signed with Reprise (a division of Warner Bros.) in April 1993, they had already released two albums, 39/Smooth and Kerplunk!, on Berkeley's Lookout label and had toured the U.S. and Europe. They even still answer to their punk noms de guerre (Billie Joe's real last name is Armstrong; Dirnt's is Pritchard; Cool's is classified).

And onstage, with towering Marshall amps and no guitar effects, Green Day's taut, propulsive music ably revives the fierceness of the band's stylistic fore-bears, mostly British groups like the Who, the Clash and the Sex Pistols (Dirnt even bears a passing resemblance to Sid Vicious). Billie Joe keeps his low-slung guitar cocked almost vertically while he jackhammers ringing power chords from it with his clenched fist; the mugging Dirnt flits around the stage like a cricket on fire.

But offstage these guys are teddy bears. They're self-assured, quick-witted and ineffably polite; they refuse to bad-mouth women; and they rarely smoke cigarettes or drink (though marijuana, the inspiration for the song from which the band took its name, seems ever present). Young, unjaded and unpretentious, they're punk's new breed.

"Rock star means, like, a rich asshole," says Dirnt. "That's a 1980s thing. No matter what anyone says, I'm too deeply rooted to just turn asshole overnight."

Green Day's supporters praise the band for following its own muse. "The whole gist of original punk was to annoy, outrage and shock people," observes Lookout founder Lawrence Livermore. "That's not the main thing of Green Day. They sing simple, cool love songs with a lot of energy. I think of them more in terms of the early Beatles."

The nurturing all-ages hardcore scene that spawned Green Day can account for some of the band's solid emotional grounding. "It wasn't macho, it wasn't muscular, it wasn't spikes and leather," says Billie Joe. 'The main thing was that it was really silly. The first time I ever saw him play, Tre Cool was wearing a tutu and an old-woman swimming cap." Not surprisingly, though, the early Green Day were shunned by Maximumrocknroll, the influential Berkeley punk lifestyle fanzine, and Gilman Street, the happening local club, for being too mainstream.

"What a bunch of crap," says Rob Cavallo, Dookie's co-producer. "These guys are the real thing. They've got a great work ethic, they know how to have fun, they love their music, and they go out and do it."

Friends since age 10, Billie Joe and Dirnt grew up in working-class Rodeo, Calif. They formed their first real band, Sweet Children, at 14. The youngest child of a waitress mother and a truck-driver father, Billie Joe dropped out of high school during his senior year. Discovered by Livermore, a 46-year-old scenester who once fronted a band called the Lookouts (Tre Cool was their drummer), Green Day recorded their first EP, 1,000 Hours, when Billie Joe was 17.

The band's secret weapon is Billie Joe's airtight songs, three-minute shots like "Welcome to Paradise," "Having a Blast" and "Basket Case" that quickly get inside the head of an addled teen. Delivered in a halting Joe Strummer-like baritone ("I'm an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent," Billie Joe jokes) and framed by lean guitar parts and melodic bass lines, Green Day's songs are the polar opposite of the fuzz-toned Seattle sound.

Since having their video image plastered all over MTV via "Longview," a classic ode to masturbation, Green Day have been pinned as hopelessly retrograde by detractors. But time spent with the genuine articles leads one to suspect the criticisms are more about class snobbery than influences. "We all grew up with no records," says Tre Cool, who came of age in remote Mendocino County, Calif., without phones or electricity. "So none of us got into all the bands that were popular at the time. We just sort of heard what we heard from our friends."

By joining this summer's Lollapalooza tour in New York and playing Woodstock '94, Green Day have begrudgingly accepted their status as the most popular living incarnation of twentysomething ennui. But as Billie Joe puts it, "The only thing I know about Generation X is that I really liked their first record a lot."

This story is from the September 22, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 691: September 22, 1994