Record Time: Green Day's 'American Idiot' was one of the greatest surprises in modern music history
Record Time is a recurring feature written by Flip Rushmore's Alex Smith. Comment with your favorite memories of American Idiot at the bottom of the story, and check out Flip Rushmore's latest release on Spotify.
Ten years is typically plenty of time for an artist's pop-culture moment to come and go. The Beatles put out albums for seven years before breaking up. Nirvana only made it two and a half years from Nevermind to Kurt Cobain's death. We got one album, total, from Lauryn Hill.
Those fortunate enough to make a longer run usually coast by on less-than-essential work by the time they finish their first decade in the spotlight. Only truly special artists are able to bridge the gap and use new ideas to command the attention of two different generations. Any artist that makes two albums at least a decade apart that are both...
...is part of a very short list. You’ve got names like Bob Dylan (1965's Highway 61 Revisited to 1975's Blood on the Tracks), Kanye West (2003’s College Dropout and 2013’s Yeezus), and the Rolling Stones (1966's Aftermath to 1976's Some Girls). There are a handful of others out there, fringe or otherwise, but it’s an exclusive club. And there are zero American rock bands. Well... one, actually.
Nooooooooobody thought it would be Green Day. Nobody. Dookie was a happy mistake in 1994. It was well-written and well-performed, coming on the back of several years of relentless DIY touring. But it sure as hell wasn’t supposed to sell 10 million copies. Green Day rode their major-label debut to icon status, then added to their collection with a pair of solid albums to close the decade (non-Dookie radio standouts included “Brain Stew” in 1996 and “Good Riddance” in 1997). The band petered out with 2000’s Warning:, which featured an interesting stylistic shift but got Napster'd and sold the fewest copies of any of their Reprise releases to that point (for what it’s worth, I’ve always had a major soft spot for Warning:). When the retrospective International Superhits! hit stores in 2001, Green Day was left for dead as an artist that had anything important left to say.
And that was probably a fair assessment! The band was in the middle of recording what was likely a major mistake of an album. Cigarettes & Valentines was on schedule for a 2002 release when someone stole the master tapes. In the midst of that confusion, longtime producer Rob Cavallo called the band and basically said C&V was trash. (Note to detectives: Rob Cavallo definitely stole the tapes.) On top of that, the famous trio—Billie Joe Armstrong on vocals and guitar, Mike Dirnt on bass, and Tre Cool on drums—had grown tired of each other and considered breaking up.
But instead of calling it quits, they had a few heart-to-hearts (cue the film montage) and embraced a more democratic model. They also discussed making a rock opera and began experimenting with song structures. One approach included presenting 30-second demos to each other. They started stitching together those micro ideas and developed an entire suite ("Homecoming"). Then they did it again (“Jesus of Suburbia”). Armstrong came up with the title track—and first single—”American Idiot,” and suddenly they were on the verge of history.
As a middle-school kid, this album was a turning point in my taste in music. At the time, I was really into hip-hop. That's what was on the radio. Guitars… not so much. But I liked to play on my dad’s old drum kit in the basement. And American Idiot was a perfect excuse to make a lot of noise. From the breakneck opening track to the famous fills on “Jesus of Suburbia” to the booming snare in “Wake Me Up When September Ends” to the slick intro on “Whatsername,” I burned plenty of calories trying—and mostly failing—to keep up with Tre Cool.
I also remember leafing through the lyric book from the CD case, trying to figure out what Armstrong was singing about. I remember listening with my brother on road trips. I remember downloading “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” as the first song on my iPod (I think; it was either that or Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue”).
There were plenty of kids like me. Green Day had successfully generated an entirely new generation of fans. Fourteen million people bought the record, making it “the world’s last truly blockbusting album, a title it’ll likely hold forever,” according to Kerrang.
“The difference between Dookie and American Idiot is pretty simple,” Cool told the British magazine. “The first time, the success was an accident; the second time it was on purpose.”
Ten years after dominating the rock charts, they were back even bigger than before. For the first time, they had singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Four of them! Including “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which reached No. 2 in the United States. They were the biggest band on Earth, having taken a risk on a new politically-charged image—this was when they started wearing black all the time—and a (loose) concept album with two songs running more than nine minutes apiece.
Green Day had reached the mountaintop 10 years after its first conquest. Its record outsold all challengers. Its critical response outshone all contemporaries. It was one of the biggest surprises in the history of modern music, which makes the band’s inclusion on that short list of generation-hopping legends—Dylan, Kanye, the Stones, etc.—a truly remarkable accomplishment.
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