Kerplunk captures the sound of Green Day before the breakthrough
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1991: The Year Punk Broke is one of the most inappropriately titled films of all time. Punk didn’t break, one way or the other, in 1991. One of its offshoots, alternative rock, did. And some of the best alt-rock groups of the era, from Sonic Youth to Dinosaur Jr. to Nirvana, are the focus of The Year Punk Broke. In true ’90s fashion, the title is semi-ironic; barring the Ramones, none of the bands featured in the film play punk, and some actually look, smell, and sound closer to the classic-rock acts that punk originally sought to supplant in the ’70s. In many ways, a better name for the film would have been 1991: The Year Punk Was Broken.
1992, on the other hand, was a year of punk renaissance. Rancid released its self-titled, five-song debut EP. Jawbreaker unleashed the epic, brooding Bivouac. NOFX finally came into its own with White Trash, Two Heebs, And A Bean. Bad Religion, Face To Face, Screeching Weasel, Samiam, Seaweed, Swingin’ Utters, Jawbox, Nation Of Ulysses, Social Distortion, and Neurosis were among the many punk-spawned bands that released classic albums in ’92—albums that helped solidify, redefine, and propagate a scene that many felt had all but fallen apart.
Into that rich soup Green Day went and dropped Kerplunk.
Kerplunk, Green Day’s second album, was released in January of 1992—not that hard-fast release dates mattered much for independent punk bands at the time. Nirvana’s unexpected mainstream breakthrough had barely happened, and major labels were predictably chasing after other grunge bands. There was no real sense in the punk scene that alt-rock’s coming storm would in any way affect bands like Green Day.
Then again, Green Day wasn’t a typical punk band, even in the scattered, polyglot scene of ’92. There were pop-punk bands, sure. But they tended to offset hooks with less accessible elements. Pegboy had heaviness and hardscrabble angst; Screeching Weasel had abrasiveness and breakneck speed. Green Day had none of these elements. The Bay Area trio’s 1990 debut, 39/Smooth, had already established teenage frontman Billie Joe Armstrong as a precociously gifted songwriter who worshipped Buzzcocks and The Replacements—in other words, someone utterly out of step with most of his peers.
But Armstrong’s distorted jangle and nasal melody didn’t just sound different—it felt different. Take, for instance, Kerplunk’s opener, “2000 Light Years Away.” Amping up the romantic head-rush and hormonal effervescence of 39/Smooth, the song is a vessel for Armstrong’s numbing boredom and loneliness: “I sit alone in my bedroom / Staring at the walls,” goes the first line, which presages the beginning of the similarly-themed “Longview” from Green Day’s 1994 breakout album, Dookie. Then again, Armstrong has never had a problem recycling lines or riffs, whether they’re his or someone else’s. “80,” another one of Kerplunk’s high points, sounds a lot like “Promises” by Generation X, Billy Idol’s late-’70s pop-punk band—another outfit that was roundly criticized for making underground palatable to the masses.
Mostly, though, Kerplunk carves out its own niche in the Green Day canon, not to mention ’90s pop-punk. For a band that presented itself as being immature—probably because it was—there’s a lot of maturity to the album. “One For The Razorbacks” reflects on another well-worn Armstrong theme, going insane, but it does so without navel-gazing; in fact it’s all about trying to cheer up a heartbroken friend. And on “One Of My Lies,” Armstrong delivers one of his most introspective lines: “When I was younger I thought the world circled around me / But in time I realized I was wrong.” That kind of wistful, adolescent philosophizing couldn’t be further from punk’s snarling nihilism, yet it wasn’t entirely sugar-coated, either. Maybe just lightly glazed.
For all its freshness, Kerplunk did provide Green Day with its most blatant bit of self-cannibalism. Sounding like something a punk-rock Monkees might have come up with, “Welcome To Paradise” uses bubbly riffs and melancholy harmonies to lighten an angst-ridden tale of being a runaway, or simply moving out of mom’s house for college. The fact that street punks and preppies alike could potentially relate is probably why “Welcome To Paradise” was chosen to be re-recorded, almost note-for-note, for Dookie.
Dookie was the point where American punk truly broke. After its massive success, major labels switched from grunge and alt-rock acts to punk bands, signing every band it could find that wore skate shoes or had orange hair. The funny thing was, Green Day didn’t really look like stereotypical punks until after Dookie. When Kerplunk came out, Armstrong and crew had long hair and wore baggy clothes. As part of their mainstream makeover, they cut their hair, spiked it up, and began sneering for the camera. The music grew leaner and simpler, playing into the idea that punk was tough—even though Green Day itself had just done its level best to completely debunk that perception.
In recent years, Green Day has done plenty to break its own snotty, juvie-punk image: making a sprawling concept album, creating a Broadway musical based on that album, and letting Armstrong become a mentor—under Christina Aguilera—on The Voice. The irony is almost funny: Armstrong can certainly carry a tune, but he’s never been known for the kind of virtuosity that Aguilera possesses. That said, he’ll probably be a great fit for The Voice, a show that routinely features singers that belt it out with more amateur spunk than technical chops.
And Green Day isn’t slowing down on the concept side, even if it doesn’t always fully deliver on its ambition: Its upcoming ¡Uno! is the first installment of a planned trilogy. Twenty years after Kerplunk, Green Day is both radically different and unmistakably recognizable—a band that, to quote itself, is 2000 light years away from where it started, a scrappy bunch of kids playing pop songs to punks. Punk as a whole has broken through, been broken down, and been rebooted many times since the early ’90s, but Green Day—thanks to the tuneful, timeless template Kerplunk helped establish—just keeps on dawning.