As catchy as they are nonstop from song #1 (39/Smooth‘s “At the Library,” still the best song ever written by a 17-year-old) through song #68 (Nimrod‘s “Prosthetic Head”), Green Day’s first five albums were not easy listens (i.e., stuff you could hum to washing dishes, as a friend of mine used to do daily in 1970 to my fave-o American rock album ever, Cosmo’s Factory). The first two are fueled by the punk rock Gilman Street aesthetic (and a whole lotta speed, i.e., the drug); the middle two have a waaaaaay-over-the-top wall-of-guitars sound used to good effect. And 1997’s Nimrod probably would sound all over the place to anyone not versed in what came before (that is, the first 50 songs).
Or to put it another way, Green Day’s “cutest” album (1992’s Kerplunk), most “rock” album (1990’s 39/Smooth), crankiest album (1995’s Insomniac), most eclectic album (1997’s Nimrod), and most muddled album though it sold a zillion copies anyway (1994’s Dookie) are all just slightly, um, idiosyncratic.
Their new album, Warning, is a whole nother kettle of fish. While being almost as adorable as hardcore-fan-fave Kerplunk (just like the street buzz had promised), it also resonates through my cerebrum and on my stereo not unlike . . . well, what I’ve always dug about Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller (who’re pretty much the same artist, ’57 vs. ’66) is how their feel is kinda lightweight and unassuming—they made “minor” records—yet their listening pleasure becomes immense over the years and decades. After a dozen-plus hearings, I definitely will testify that this new Green Day has got that vibe. Boy, does it sound different from all their previous work (tho the lighter parts of Nimrod definitely foreshadow it)—it has exactly 0% to do with even Gilman Street pop-punk, except for one solitary track, “Deadbeat,” that’s their old ’90-’92 type of tune.
The album’s darn spooky good (and I notice Rolling Stone had some postpunk postmodern son-of-R.E.M. poetry major review it, jeez, where do these mooks come from?), 36 minutes (with the CD program skipping the one lame cut) that may wind up one of my all-time five favorite non-heavy-metal non-punk-rock American rock-band albums (counting Holly and the Crickets as a “band,” and Beach Boys, Creedence, Bobby Fuller Four, the ’71 Flamin Groovies I’ve always sworn by, and . . . um, I don’t know if I recall anything that good in the brief 29 years since).
With their power-trio attack equal parts Ramones (ramalama) and Grand Funk (chugga chugga, let’s rock), Green Day have always sounded like a “rock” band (with buzzier haircuts) in the best sense anyway, as straight- forward as Chuck Holly or Jerry Lee Berry or, hell, Mark Farner and, yep, Johnny Ramone. For all you boneheads who confused Green Day with the Buzzcocks (not even close) instead of Eater (three big chords, a lot closer) or Grand Funk (way closer, if you threw in Buddy Holly and Keith Moon as replacements for Mark and Don), here’s a geography lesson: Contra Costa County’s west-end refinery section does not equal London, U.K. And speaking of recent Cali punk—how about those wacky, genuinely funny videos like “Nice Guys Finish Last,” “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy),” and even the ones by nefarious Calis-come-lately Blink-182? Isn’t that exactly what the ’77 Ramones or Dickies or Weirdos would’ve blown up with nationwide, given the chance? Making people laugh (and rocking at the same time)?
Unfortunately, none of those older bands ever got a chance to make a great sixth album. (Hey ho let’s go: The Ramones’ fifth album, End of the Century, was some of the worst crap they ever did; Green Day’s fifth, Nimrod, was hands-down some of their best stuff.) Green Day did get a chance, though, and what do you know? Five songs on Warning (out of 12) are flat-out perfect. “Warning” opens the album with a loping, rocking groove riff that’s a hella rewrite (unintended or not) of the Kinks’ classic “Picture Book.” “Real simple riff,” you say, yep, but why has NO OTHER BAND stumbled across it in 30 years? I’m not saying Billie Joe’s as great a songwriter as Ray Davies, mind you . . . just working somewhere in the same Brill Building.
“Church on Sunday,” three tunes in, blows up Buddy Holly in Technicolor. Hooks fly around like 21st-century rocket ships, and an exploding guitar bridge makes me wanna go back to 1966 and join the Who Fan Club all over again. Heard from a different angle, this song might be the best Elvis Costello hard-pop tune ever (tho his dork glasses were no match for Buddy’s).
Jumping forward almost to the end, “Minority” is the catchiest, cutest single Green Day has ever issued. Not many millionaires can write a good antiauthority song, but this is one. Damnedest thing is, it’s like a playground marching chant, with more ’66 mod-rock power riffs punching up the background. Three times a day, the melody and words pop into my head without my even knowing they’re there, I find myself smiling, and only then do I realize: “Oh jeez, it’s that damn Green Day song playing in my skull again!”
I’ll tell you exactly what song the single reminds me of: “Plastic Man” by the Kinks (#31 U.K., 1969). Just the vibe and feel, the half-goofy/half-serious authority rant where it’s hard to tell which is which (G or S), the writer’s intentions not at all clear or transparent. Tho the Green Day tune is obviously sincere, there’s deliberately stupid stuff in the lyric too: “one nation under dog,” that kinda shit. A fuck-off lyric coupled with jolly happy humming music—if Neil Young’s ever written anything half as clever, hey Neil, send me a postcard, huh?
And the very best thing about “Minority”: the blatting harmonica that pops up several times. Now THERE is the great lost rock cliché: We’re definitely not talking the likes of Blues Traveler here. Well-known songs using harmonica usually break down to (1) r&b/blues harp (99%) or (2) folk-rock harmonica (the other 1%), i.e., the “happy harp” type à la Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” (#1 U.S., early 1962) and “Love Me Do”/”Thank You Girl” Beatles (i.e., before they’d heard Dylan). Anyway, the harp blatting in “Minority” is just a crack-up. Works musically, too.
(John Cougar interlude: I bet the reason harp is the only Rolling Stones component not to show up big-time on American Fool and Uh-Huh is cuz he was personally harp-phobic as a mental backlash against his doofus youth, i.e., those old ’60s high school photos of him wearing a Dylan harp and acoustic Gibson, to impress the “sensitive” girls, I believe—the ones ready for something slightly heavier than Donovan. Logically, there should be harp all over those two albums, to go with the maracas and tambourines and handclaps, but there’s almost none. Freud would probably see Cougar’s later accordion phase as “symbolic harp compensation.”)
Back three tracks on Warning, “Hold On” is the companion marching-chant of the set, again with more jaunty Bruce Channel/John Lennon harmonica squawking. Reference point? Kinda like that dippy Proclaimers hit. But good.
Closing the album, “Macy’s Day Parade” is genuinely pretty, like “It’s Only Love” on side two of the Beatles’ best American set . . . Nimrod‘s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” (which, in truth, was just a little too jerky-rhythm “folkie”) was barely a practice run. If pull-the-pretty-song for a single holds true again, this one is very possibly a hit.
The other seven songs? Well, Green Day bails us out with “Misery” halfway through, a skip-it-it-sucks oddity (sorta like the Doors playing “Alabama Song” meets “Unknown Soldier” sideways . . . nah, even worse); otherwise I’d be juggling “perfect album” and “best record of the year” sound bites like Alfred E. Neuman stuck on a college lecture circuit looking for a way out. But the rest is off the hook compared not just to today’s uno-dimensional “rock bands” (code around here for: “start runnin’ or I start shootin’ “), but to the other five Green Day albums and 20 million plus in worldwide sales that came before. Even those usually annoying Cheap Trick “I Want You to Want Me” rhythms (on “Jackass” and “Blood, Sex and Booze”) work to neat, punchy effect.
Important footnote: Shelving the old Green Day wall of guitars (Dookie and Insomniac) in favor of the youngest (and best) Pete Townshend mod-clanky buzz opens up the band’s sound dramatically; it’s airy and spacious, lots of room for the vocals. The whole thing breathes with neat ambiences.
The other nifty new wrinkle is the rockin’ with light guitars (acoustic and/or electric) thing. Everybody in the world says they’ve heard Rubber Soul; but no band has ever got it RIGHT. Kick me hard for heresy, but that effortless state of grace (that the four Fabs had from “I’m a Loser” through the last note of Rubber Soul) echoes all over the place here. All the taut 1966 Who/Creation/Byrds moves, razor-sharp guitars bouncing off exploding drum parts (“Fashion Victim,” “Waiting,” and “Castaway” on Warning), you figure there’s been a few bands for sure who’ve gotten that down. But Rubber Soul, nada. (Except, as nitpickers will point out, side two of the second Raspberries album, which is too lightweight on the instruments to be anything except an approximate homage. And unless you count what might be the greatest Beatles song since 1965: Hanson’s summer 2000 hit “If Only,” which would have been the best track on Rubber Soul, closing either side.)
Translated to real life, the simple story is that Green Day spent over six straight months, 1999-2000, in an Oakland practice room, learning and rehearsing the usual ton of new material. So they had the songs memorized thrice over like the rest of us could hum Cyndi’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” if you threw a $10 bill on the table. And hey, I noticed in a short somewhere (maybe in Rolling Stone) a Billie Joe quote pegging the sound on Warning to Springsteen’s two-LP River set. Since that’s the only electric Springsteen I ever thought was worth the time to listen to (and its follow-up ditto in the folkie damage-art category), I might be Green Day’s ground-zero fan base . . .