Green Day are back this Friday (October 7) with twelfth album ‘Revolution Radio’, their first in four years. As we prepare to hear all the new music and undoubtedly protest-fuelled lyrics, take a look back at some of their finest lyrical moments to date…
1. ‘Welcome To Paradise’
In 1989, a 17-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong moved out of his mother’s house and into an abandoned building in West Oakland, California. Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool (alongside an array of equally crusty punk kids) lived there with him. Armstrong’s experience colours this pop-punk classic, which first appeared on Green Day’s 1992 second album ‘Kerplunk’ but came to prominence as part of ‘Dookie’’s tracklist. “This sudden fear has left me trembling/ ‘Cause now it seems like I am out here on my own/ And I’m feeling so alone,” he sings, distilling that leaving-home feeling all teenagers get. By the end though, he’s bawling “Welcome to paradise” as if he loves it, urchins, gunshots, cracked streets and all.
2. ‘Basket Case’
For some, this remains Green Day’s most important song. Certainly, it was their breakthrough, charting at Number Seven in the UK in November 1994. Lyrically, Armstrong is explaining the anxiety attacks that eventually led to a diagnosis with a panic disorder. “The only way I could know what the hell was going on was to write a song about it,” he told VH1 in 2002. Lines like “I think I’m cracking up” need no explanation, but the song’s reference to visiting a male prostitute stems from the frontman’s desire to “challenge myself and whoever the listener might be”.
3. ‘Geek Stink Breath’
By ‘Insomniac’’s 1995 release, Billie Joe Armstrong had become a father, but his lyrics remained encrusted with the snot and sweat of a hedonistic pre-responsibility punk. Or, as Entertainment Weekly called him, “a self-loathing goofball whose sense of self-worth is continually reduced to rubble.” While fans still love ‘Brain Stew’/’Jaded’, this fast and loose three-chord punk song about being fucked up on drugs endures. “I’m blowing off steam with methamphetamine” goes Armstrong, referencing both his own drug problems and those of his friends. With rotten teeth, shit-covered hands and scab-ridden faces, it paints an explicit, personal and troubling picture.
4. ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’
Given that it supposedly signalled a dramatic change of direction for Green Day, the fact that Billie Joe Armstrong had been sitting on this song since 1990 is surprising. Why did it take them until 1997 to turn it into a tearjerker replete with strings? Whatever the reason, this million-selling single pushed the band a few rungs upwards. ‘Nimrod’’s only successful crossover single was written about the singer’s doomed relationship with a girl who joined the Peace Corps. He’d referenced the same subject on ‘Dookie’’s ‘She’ and would do so again on ‘Whatsername’ (‘American Idiot’) and ‘Amanda’ (¡Tré!). The redundant tone of the line “For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while” makes it all sound very sad indeed.
The continuity, concept and hairs-on-end emotion on display here would become cornerstones of a lyrical approach that would fire Green Day’s rise. Fun fact: producer Rob Cavallo sent the band to play table football while he recorded the strings without them knowing.
5. ‘Hitchin’ A Ride’
There’s a simple rolling, rhythm to this song that makes it sound a bit like a marching band doing punk. The wailing guitar freakout that cracks and snaps until the song’s close after Armstrong suddenly screams “Shit!” is markedly madder. And no wonder – the lyrics froth with the tension and struggle of his battle to stay sober. “Cold turkey’s getting stale,” he drawls before his tongue swells up and he demands a lift to happy hour. “It’s about finding that balance between being responsible and being a lunatic,” said the then-25-year-old to Billboard at the time. ‘Nimrod’ (released October 1997) was wracked with similar existential drama.
Arguably the signal for the politicisation of Green Day’s lyrics. It begins, “This is a public service announcement” and implores the listener to “live without warning”. Shut up, Armstrong warns, and you’ll become “a victim of authority”. The lyrics were afforded centre stage by an acoustic guitar riff seemingly swiped from The Kinks’ ‘Picture Book’. While it’s hardly Dylan going electric, the title-track of this sixth album – the only one they released on a major label not to go multi-platinum – controversially signalled the increasing malleability of Green Day’s pop-punk sound. NME, incidentally, didn’t approve, writer Andy Capper called ‘Warning’ “the sound of a band losing its way”.
From the same album, ‘Minority’ took inspiration from Armstrong’s fear that Al Gore would lose the 2000 Presidential Election and someone “really Conservative” would get in (enter George W. Bush). This song sees Green Day calling out “authority” and “the moral majority” and pledging “allegiance to the underworld“. “Marching out of time/ To my own beat now/ The only way I know” Armstrong goads, over a Dirnt bassline that scurries like a spider. For the singer, this was deeper than a load of punks saying ‘fuck the system’. “We’ve always tried to keep an ear to the ground and keep our eyes open to what’s going on,” he said at the time. “That’s one reason why I was really taking my time writing songs to really [make an impact]. Instead of just writing an overly knee-jerk reaction.”
8. ‘American Idiot’
Think of Green Day these days and you think of ‘American Idiot’, not just a song, but an album, a musical and a book. None of the massiveness this album sparked would have been possible without these lyrics, which take aim at the American media, specifically news coverage of the Iraq war. The kohl-eyed frontman took particular umbrage at shots of journalists alongside US soldiers in tanks. This anger was channelled into giving a voice to a side of America that felt no connection with the country or what it was doing whatsoever. “Don’t wanna be an American idiot/ Don’t want a nation under the new mania/ And can you hear the sound of hysteria?/ The subliminal mind fuck America” As an introduction to the song and the circus this record would become, those lines are some of the most important Armstrong has ever written.
9. ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’
This tearjerking, chugging bundle of bleakness is the product of Armstrong’s solo writing sessions in New York, with evenings spent jamming with musicians including Ryan Adams and Jesse Malin. Armstrong felt lonely and tried to channel that through lines like “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me” and “My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating”. In context of the ‘American Idiot’ rock opera, the words tell the story of protagonist Jesus Of Suburbia’s comedown after a trip into the city on the infinitely more upbeat ‘Holiday’.
10. ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’
Billie Joe Armstrong wrote this song about his father, who died of cancer when the singer was 10 years old. In February 2005, the singer told VH1 he’d never attempted to tackle the subject before, adding “It’s hard to sing, but definitely therapeutic, because it deals with the passing of someone that you love.” The melody – over which Armstrong delivers lines like “Here comes the rain again/ Falling from the stars/ Drenched in my pain again” – meant it became a radio staple, selling almost two million copies.
11. ‘21st Century Breakdown’
This proggy punk song is all about its time, i.e. post-Bush America and the beginning of Obama’s presidency – during which time the first African-American president was inheriting “the biggest pile of shit this country has ever seen since the depression”, according to Armstrong. When Bush left office, it ended a period that had come to define the band, as a result of their protest against it – ‘American Idiot’.
Instead of protest, ‘21st Century Breakdown is a mix of hopeful, fragile optimism and crushing, world-beating pessimism. “My generation is zero,” sings Armstrong. “I never made it as a working class hero“. That’s a little homage to John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’: “I mostly just liked the line,” Armstrong said at the time. “There’s a different crisis every week; natural disasters, corporate bailouts, people losing their homes, unemployment. It’s desperate times right now for a lot of people. That’s what that line represents to me.”