The first time I ever saw Green Day (then called Sweet Children), somewhere around September or October of 1988, I thought to myself, "These guys could be the next Beatles."
Of course I'm dating myself by saying that; even in 1988 the Beatles were awfully old news, and most teenage punk rock bands (Billie Joe and Mike were 16 at the time) wouldn't have taken kindly to being compared in any way to the music their parents or grandparents had listened to.
But the fact that early Green Day not only had a more than passing resemblance to the early Fab Four, but also wouldn't at all have minded hearing that comparison made, was one of the things that set them apart from (and head and shoulders above) their contemporaries. Even though their subject matter on the early albums seldom ventured far afield from perennial favorites like girls and teenage boredom, you knew within minutes of meeting them that this was a band that wasn't half-assing it. Their songs might have been light-hearted, even a little silly at times, but they were dead serious about them in the ways that mattered: craftsmanship, artistry, respect for themselves and their audiences. And while every other teenager in America at one time or another harbors dreams of being some kind of pop star, you knew that it wasn't some sort of phase or rite of passage for these guys. They were down for life. Billie described the feeling of those early days in a 2001 interview:
There's a side of you that feels you're kind of dying or something, and you're scared of that, but then there's the question of what's going to happen with this music, this work we're gonna do? Is it only going to be cool right now to the punk rock scene, or uncool to the punk rock scene at the time, depending who you talk to? Or is it just going to be forgotten, and another group of guys is going to come along and take our place? You really start to think about your potential as a musician and an artist and as a human being, for that matter. You don't want it to be all for nothing, and I think that's one thing that was different with us than with other bands, that we lived for our music a lot more than other bands did. Other bands seemed more set on things like going to school and playing music on the side, or having a job and playing music on the side, where we wanted to fully live and breathe our music...Fair enough, but most bands give at least lip service to an idea like that; most bands don't, on the other hand, ascend from humble origins to become the biggest band in the world, something which Green Day have now undeniably accomplished. As one of their Gilman Street compatriots put it, "Man, no premonition could have seen this."
And if there were any doubts that Green Day were now the biggest and most important band on the planet - I've been saying it for years, but there were those who stubbornly insisted on holding contrary views - the release of their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown, will have swept them away. Very few bands manage to maintain much of an edge past their second or third record; eight albums (not counting compilations and B-side collections) and 21 years into their career, and Green Day are still getting stronger, more creative, and, well, more vital.
This is an epoch-defining record, the kind you could be forgiven for thinking they didn't make anymore. Despite my early prognostications about Green Day, by the turn of the century I'd pretty much given up on the idea that there'd ever be another Beatles or band of similar importance. It wasn't just that pretenders to the throne - U2? Oasis?? - were so laughably inadequate, it was, more importantly, that there was no longer a monolithic culture centered around guitar rock. For kids growing up in my era, it was impossible to escape the influence of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.; children of the 90s and 00s could and often did locate their experience in hip hop or dance pop and dismiss rock and roll as something exclusively for the oldsters.
I don't think that Green Day are going to single-handedly restore guitar rock to the position of pre-eminence it once enjoyed, but at the very least, they've ensured that neither is it going to fade away into the irrelevance gleefully predicted by some commentators. Whatever else you might think of it, 21st Century Breakdown is not just a collection of catchy tunes with some stunningly artistic interludes; it's a very important document of our times and our culture, one to which people will still be referring to tens and hundreds of years from now. It's not just going to provide the soundtrack for the summer and autumn of 2009, it's going to color how people perceive and remember this time in history. And I'm not just talking about weedy teenagers or nostalgic 20-somethings; I wouldn't be at all surprised at some point to hear President Obama bust out with a quote or reference from this album.
I say all this while freely admitting that I'm not normally a classic rock kind of guy while this album is unmistakably classic rock in the conventional as well as the literal sense. People are falling all over themselves to point out the influences and in some cases accuse Green Day of outright theft of riffs and sounds from the 60s, 70s and 80s, but as is usually the case with genius, nobody can point to what or where exactly the band has supposedly been stealing from. "It sounds like, you know, that song by Queen, or Pink Floyd, or the Beatles, you know which one I mean," but are never able to get much more precise than that. Personally, I heard one bit that put me in mind of Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" and another where I was almost certain Billie Joe was going to bust out with "All The Young Dudes," but for the most part it's impossible to point out just where you've heard that song before, because however familiar it may sound, you haven't.
That's part of what being a classical - as opposed to a classic - rock band is about. This is music for the ages. People who bemoan the distance Green Day have traveled from their East Bay pop punk roots are missing the point: all the songs about girls are still out there, and will be as thrilling and enjoyable to listen to as they always were, but this is a band who have grown up without growing old, who positively inspire me with their ability to transcend all the depressing and corrupting influences of pop culture in general and the music business in particular to produce far and away the best work of their career.