Green Day’s Dookie succeeded by being unapologetically fucked up

Green Day’s Dookie succeeded by being unapologetically fucked up

And uncompromisingly honest

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

For a record that’s sold 10 million copies, it’s hard to imagine that, at one time, Green Day’s Dookie was subversive. The band’s early, underground years as a Bay Area punk band have been well documented, and given that in Dookie’s wake the band’s independent offerings (the collection of its first album and early singles, 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, and its sophomore LP, Kerplunk) would be certified gold and platinum, it’s almost even harder to imagine the group had ever been classified as obscure. A mere two years after Dookie’s 1994 release, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo jokingly pointed to that fact on “El Scorcho” when he sings that a love interest had never heard of Green Day, and it’s a joke that lands purely because even by 1996 it seemed improbable that the snotty pop-punk trio was ever unknown. But, for as much as a world without Green Day seems improbable, had it not been for a helpful lead-in from Seattle’s Nirvana, it certainly could have been.

When Nirvana’s Nevermind began to permeate mainstream consciousness in 1992, the band was viewed as a group of outsiders pulling a coup. Kurt Cobain and company had a punk pedigree, but the band’s approach was skewed, accidentally creating a new genre, one that would become known as grunge. Both Nirvana and grunge would go on to dethrone hair metal’s reign as America’s populist rock sound, but the Seattle sound quickly became as clichéd as the style it was usurping. As Cobain became a tortured icon­—with his shoulder-length hair often obscuring his face, and his lyrics obtuse—it quickly became a race for major labels to find the next introspective artist to launch into the mainstream. Still, it wasn’t until Dookie that Nirvana had a true successor.

Though both Green Day and Nirvana shared similar mindsets and backgrounds, it was the latter that truly epitomized pop-punk and took a swing at the new status quo—one that was overly serious and increasingly maudlin. Where Nirvana appeared dark and brooding, Green Day’s image was that of pleasant immaturity. Its first two studio albums sent ripples through the punk scene, enough to alert the major-label sharks that were lurking in the water. When the band was finally nabbed, it refused to lose its love of toilet humor, but also embraced the anxieties and personal trauma that were hinted at in earlier work, yet never fully embraced until the band was placed on rock’s biggest stage.

When Dookie hit stores on that first day of February 1994, it was unknowingly serving as Nevermind’s follow-up. Not because of stylistic overlap, but due to Green Day’s status as a virtually unknown band jumping the ranks and setting up a seismic shock that would bring about punk rock’s heyday with the culture-at-large. From the get-go, Dookie is unapologetic about projecting the neurotic, flawed nature of its creators. After a sharp snare roll from Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong declares that he “don’t care no more.” Grammatical issues aside, the song served as a pointed call-to-action instead of anything apathetic. The lack of care was not a shrugged dismissal from protagonist to audience, but a rallying cry about accepting and owning alienation, turning put-downs into points of pride.

The song that sparked the sea change from grunge’s muddled meanings to these concise bursts of self-actualization was the album’s first single, “Longview.” Musically, it was a marked departure for the band, as Mike Dirnt’s wandering bass line and Cool’s misdirecting, lounge-inspired tom shuffles set the stage for Armstrong to come in through the side door. It was a winking way to introduce Green Day’s down-stroked attack and snot-filled melodies, but it proved effective. The video for “Longview” dove deeper into the band’s psyche. Where grunge was becoming increasingly dark and moody with its image, Green Day was straightforward with its grit. This trio was mangy; with Armstrong’s pimple-ridden face serving as a frank look at the side of punk that didn’t bite the cleaned-up image of The Clash or the uniformed brotherhood of the Ramones. Green Day had no use for metaphors or symbolism, instead cutting straight to the heart of each matter it attacked. If Armstrong wanted to sing about masturbation, he’d come right out and say it, and he’d do so right before the song’s closing chorus.

Dookie’s singles continued to project this notion that inner turmoil was not something that should be kept hidden or clouded in shame. “Basket Case” further blurs the line between these frustrations—both sexual and mental—as Armstrong places psychiatrists and prostitutes on equal footing, while making one of the most public claims of drug-induced (or perhaps drug-enlightened) paranoia to have shot to the top of the modern rock charts. Armstrong’s anxieties and angst were wrapped tightly together, and with each new single he’d pull firmly on another string, hoping to untangle the knots only to realize how interlocked they were. Yet, for all the bold claims made via singles it would be the deep cut “Coming Clean” that saw Armstrong put himself on fullest display as he tackled his bi-sexuality. Though innately personal, his worries that close friends or family members would ostracize him allowed listeners to place themselves in Armstrong’s shoes, owning their desires while still feeling uneasy.

It was the consistent acknowledgements of such deep-seated difficulties that allowed Dookie to find love beyond the scene Green Day was once such an integral part of. Soon, the world would become ingratiated in the world of punk, as just two months later The Offspring would release Smash, an album that eventually sold 20 million copies worldwide and gave budding label Epitaph Records enough capital to begin forging a legacy. As Green Day moved from the dank hall of Berkeley’s Gilman Street collective to massive clubs and amphitheaters, it was climbing onto the shoulders of those that came before, pulling the scene up with it, even if some hardcore fans would choose to decry them.

Yet, no matter how big the band got, Green Day refused to lose that innately personal connection it had imbued with its audience. At live shows it became common practice—and still is—for the band to invite fans up on stage to play guitar or sing with the band, and it was this public acknowledgement of a bond that brought the band’s playful nature to the masses when it played a mud-coated set at Woodstock ’94.

Taking the stage after an onslaught of rain, the trio was quick to egg on the filthy audience, and soon giant globs of the festival’s ground coated both the stage and the band. Green Day invited the crowd onto the stage, where band and audience became an undistinguishable mass, allowing for one of the biggest moments of Green Day’s career to become a unified celebration with its audience, the ones who felt that connection to Dookie’s themes of alienation and struggle. In the midst of the chaos, an over-eager bouncer tackled Dirnt to the ground, chipping his tooth in the process. That kind of integration proved even though Green Day was on its way to superstardom, these guys were dead-set on doing it without compromise, and were attempting to take all their friends along with them.

More Permanent Records