Green Day: Rebel Yell
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2009
Green Day's new rock opus, 21st Century Breakdown, fulfills the ambitious promise of American Idiot, singing a lament for troubled times. Guitar World talks with Billie Joe Armstrong about the making of the group's latest rebellious musical effort.
“I’m not fucking arou-ou-ond!”
Billie Joe Armstrong’s strident, angry voice comes tearing out of the speakers with an urgency that makes you feel like the man himself is about to rip through the grille cloth and personally throttle all the corporate criminals, talk radio creeps, hypocritical politicians and other greed-drunk oppressors who have reduced the United States of America, and indeed the entire world, to its present, sorry state. The song is called “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” and it’s one of 18 glorious tracks from Green Day’s new album, 21st Century Breakdown.
The brilliant follow-up to 2005’s rock narrative tour-de-force American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown traces the fortunes of a young couple, Christian and Gloria, as they try to make a life for themselves in an America where opportunities have become thin for the working and middle classes and the poor. But Armstrong stops short of calling 21st Century Breakdown a rock opera.
“There isn’t a linear story throughout the whole record,” he demurs. “I would say that what’s linear about the record is the music. I think the characters Christian and Gloria reflect something about the songs—the symbolism of two people trying to live in this era. So it isn’t all political; there are love songs in there, too.”
Seated on a leather sofa inside Studio 880—the Oakland, California, recording/rehearsal complex where much of 21st Century Breakdown was created—Armstrong doesn’t seem like the brawling, anarchist guerrilla progeny of Johnny Rotten who sings “Horseshoes and Handgrenades.” Trim, compact and sporting a pair of blue suede shoes, Green Day’s leader seems almost to retreat inside his own frame as he discusses the band’s new album, as if he were wary of taking up too much space, or feeling perhaps even a little sheepish at having unleashed the sprawling masterpiece that is 21st Century Breakdown on a world that seems on the brink of socio-economic collapse.
But the album is just the tonic we need at this juncture: a bracing cocktail of rebel fury and the redemptive power of love, laced with just a tiny glint of hope for the future. For the past four years rock fans have been wondering if Green Day could top, or even equal, the quintuple-Platinum American Idiot. On 21st Century Breakdown they make that monumental task look easy.
“When you work that hard on a record and you see the rewards from it, you know that you made something you can be proud of,” Armstrong says of American Idiot. “And I think 21st Century Breakdown was us trying to rise on the shoulders of American Idiot and keep moving forward as songwriters. Going to new territory. But it takes a hell of a lot of patience to get to that.”
The creation of 21st Century Breakdown was a long process, beginning in January 2006 and ending in April 2009. Armstrong and his bandmates—bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool—worked on their own at first. Then they called in producer Butch Vig, the man behind Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and numerous other exemplary rock records.
Armstrong says, “The thing I liked about Butch is that he’s always followed his taste. He’s not the kind of person who goes for the money. It’s more like he was always recording for his peers. He has a lot of integrity, and I really respect him for that.”
Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool took a break midway through recording 21st Century Breakdown to kick out a quickie album of raucous, garage- and British Invasion–style rock and roll under the nom du disque the Foxboro Hot Tubs. The mid-Sixties sounds of the Kinks, the Who and Creation were also a huge influence on 21st Century Breakdown. But in Green Day’s widescreen rock opus, Armstrong tempers the infectious melodicism of these power pop forebears with the sweeping grandeur of Seventies classic rock and punk rock’s fuck-all belligerence. In short, he cherry picks all the best and brightest moments from rock history, harnessing their power to tell his tale of hardship and heartbreak here at the bleak dawn of a brand new century. Billie Joe manages to channel both Townshend and Lennon in the album's anthemc title track.