The vast majority discovered Green Day in 1994. However, they spent many years’ prior playing house parties, garages, and rental halls, including a Detroit basement party back in 1990.
With the mainstream success of Green Day, Bad Religion, The Offspring, Face to Face, and Rancid, many consider 1994 as “the year that punk broke.” Green Day would eventually sell over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the biggest punk bands of all time. However, in the late 80s and early 90s, they were just another band struggling to make it amongst thousands of other underground acts.
In many ways, the members of Green Day are a throwback to the mid-70s days of punk rock. However, they made the music lighter and more approachable by playing for simple entertainment value rather than speaking out about social issues.
In the mid-90s, critics went as far as to say that Green Day may have been the band that saved rock n’ roll from itself. In an era when college-oriented, angst-driven alternative cluttered the airwaves with its sorrowful tales of angst and social injustice, Green Day came across like a breath of fresh air.
Hit Parader commented that “Green Day’s short, sonic outpourings of pure, unadulterated rock energy, have given the entire rock biz a much-needed kick in the butt!”
Vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool recently announced an intimate US club tour beginning October 24, 2016, a sort of back-to-their-roots kind of outing.
The Back Story
Speaking of roots, what many do not know about Green Day is that in 1986, the 14-year-old Armstrong and Dirnt formed a band called Sweet Children. In 1988, they began working with former Isocracy drummer John Kiffmeyer (aka Al Sobrante). All three were an integral part of the 924 Gilman Street scene in Berkeley, California.
Sweet Children played a party set up by another local musician, Tre Cool from The Lookouts, with Lawrence “Larry” Livermore, the owner of a promising local indie label, Lookout! Records. The Lookouts were to play after Green Day. Livermore was so impressed with these high school kids he decided to put out their first EP on his label.
In 1989, Lookout! released their first EP, 1,000 Hours. The title track was a sweet pop-punk rocker, a mid-tempo beat coupled with an almost 60s guitar sound. It was more reminiscent of the Beatles than it was of punk rock.
Two weeks before the release; however, Sweet Children presented Livermore with a bigger problem than trying to sell a pop record to the punk crowd. The band announced that it had changed its name to Green Day (a slang term for using marijuana) to avoid confusion with another artist, Sweet Baby. Livermore had to redo the artwork on the covers, which was not a major problem; at the time, the covers consisted of simple photocopies.
Green Day’s debut full-length, 39 Smooth, arrived soon after. It was a content follow-up to the EP, filled with ten tracks consisting of mostly sappy, pop love songs about girl troubles. Although the songs’ sound and lyrical content didn’t fit the general musical definition of punk rock, the attitude was there.
Their Sound Evolves
Two more releases followed, the Slappy EP on Lookout! and the Sweet Children EP on Skene! Records.
What’s amazing about this early material is that Green Day’s sound was fully developed even at this early date. Any of these songs would be equally appropriate today, which is why some of them still turn up in their live shows.
The Skene! EP caught a different side of Green Day. These are some of the band’s earliest songs which they were still playing live at the time. They recorded the songs in two hours for a mere $55. Amazingly, this four-song EP did not suffer from the lack of money. If anything, the lower production values gave Green Day an authentic punk sound. The songs were fast and raw, although it did feature their more typical pop-melody style.
By then, Green Day had already completed its first national tour in 1990, which Kiffmeyer had set up himself, including two stops in Michigan, the Ferrysburg Skate Park in Grand Haven on July 11, and a basement show in Detroit the next day on July 12.
The Detroit Basement Gig
Speaking of the basement show; at the time, I was organizing shows at the Oakland Community College Auburn Hills Campus north of Detroit for bands like Plaid Retina, Filth, Corrupted Morals, Fifteen, Antischism, Neurosis, and Econochrist. However, Bad Religion drew a few hundred concertgoers in June 1990, resulting in the college requesting the remaining concerts be moved off campus.
While I moved M.D.C., The Offspring, and Oi Polloi to local area halls, no venue was available for Green Day. Instead, I threw a party in a friend’s basement with fewer than 20 people in attendance making it probably one of the most intimate stops on their tour. That’s right; Green Day played my basement party.
According to The Green Day Authority, Armstrong was quoted as saying, “The first time we played Detroit, I think it was 1990. I was like 18, and we played with the Generals, and Detroit scared the fucking shit outta’ me.”
By underground standards, Green Day was doing well, and when Kiffmeyer opted to leave to attend college, the band had no trouble finding a replacement. The Lookouts had recently disbanded, and Tre Cool was asked to join. In 1991, the band went back on the road, playing two more shows in Michigan at Sgt. Pepperoni’s in Kalamazoo and a house party in Grosse Isle.
In 1992, Green Day released its second album, Kerplunk! , which included the out-of-print Skene! EP as bonus tracks. The new material showed a strong punk influence. The strong melodies remained, but British punk riffs replaced the 60s pop sound. Plus, the energy level was higher, and there was a new edge to their material.
While the music was punk, the lyrics were not. Girl problems were still an issue. In high school what else could be more important to a sexually-driven teenager than the girl sitting next to him?
All of this was happening just as Green Day was about to break. Both of the group’s earlier albums had done astonishingly well. It didn’t take long for the major labels to notice this underground phenomenon.
The Big Time
Eventually signing with Reprise, Green Day released its major label debut, Dookie , selling over 10 million copies (which keep selling today). This and their famous mud-slinging appearance at Woodstock ’94 earned the group Rolling Stone’s Annual Music Award’s Best New Band for 1994. Green Day also took home a Grammy.
Green Day is the most popular punk band since Nirvana. While Nirvana was relentlessly serious (perhaps too serious, as it turned out), Green Day is playfully anti-social. The band’s sound is punk with tuneful hooks, although it has matured over time.
Green Day knows what it likes; fast, melodic punk rock. The band revitalized its genre but never tried to leave it. Instead of trying to create something new, the group salvaged a different, more modest objective: having fun.
Green Day also understands, unlike the English punk bands, that most of its audience is not that of the disgruntled urban working class but bored suburban high school kids. Their songs coined such slogans as, “I’m not growing up. I’m just burning out,” which isn’t so different from decade old songs by groups like the Ramones, Suicidal Tendencies, or the Adolescents.
Green Day just released their 12th studio album, Revolution Radio . To celebrate, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Grammy Award winner will hit the road for an intimate club tour in the US and Canada. Sure, these shows won’t be as intimate as the time they played my basement party, but for a band who easily sells out arenas the world over, this is about as intimate as one is going to get!
Here are photos from both the basement show in Detroit and the pizza parlor show in Kalamazoo. Enjoy.