LOOKS LIKE I FOUND SOMETHING NEW: The Early Years
Before there was Green Day there was a band called Sweet Children. And before there was Sweet Children there were a couple of kids named Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Pritchard. I’m not going to go too deep into personal histories here, because there’s so much else to cover, and it’s the kind of thing that’s already been gone over in every Behind The Music-esque profile, and because it’s not really what OWOB is about. But here’s the basic outline: BJ and Mike were both born in 1972. Billie Joe was surrounded by music from birth, as his father was a jazz drummer (who made a living as a truck driver), and BJ’s first “album,” Look for Love, was recorded when he was five years old. Billie Joe’s father died when BJ was ten years old, the same year that he met Mike, who had been put up for adoption by his mother not long after birth due to her heroin addiction. Mike had moved to Rodeo, California, where Billie Joe lived, with his adoptive mother and sister.
Billie Joe and Mike started playing and writing music together very quickly after meeting, and by the time they were 15 they had added a drummer to their group and named themselves Sweet Children. With the development of the band, they dove into the local punk scene, which in the Bay Area meant 924 Gilman Street, an all-ages alternative music space and non-profit organization. Billie Joe in particular has always been vocal about how Gilman gave him a place and a community where he finally felt like he belonged, and the ethos of the club can definitely be seen to have influenced Green Day’s own:
Gilman, today, is one of the longest-running independent music venues in America, having outlived even CBGB’s, and I would hazard a guess that at least some of that success comes from its collective-inspired ethos. Founded in 1986 by Maximumrocknroll’s Tim Yohannan and Victor Hayden, Gilman has from the get-go been conceptualized as an all-ages space for bands to play without worrying about conventional music promotion, and for audience members to attend gigs without having to worry about their own safety. It was a reaction against the rising violence and right-wing tendencies in the 80s hardcore scene, and as such operated on principles less like those of a music venue and more like those of the coolest community center you could possibly think of. As Josh Levine, an early volunteer at the club remembers:
“There was something in the air, you could say, back then. A good feeling, or a sense of pulling together, and unity among people who just wanted to see bands that was free of sexism, homophobia, racism, and especially violence. Shows were not as safe then — there were shows I went to before Gilman where I got beat up…. Shows where I went to jail, just for being a punk rock kid out after curfew. And worse, shows where I saw people getting beat up by skinheads, or jocks, and there was not a damn thing I could do about it if I wanted to stay healthy. Those were the kind of things that motivated us to get involved.” (924 Gilman)
Since then, Gilman has become famous in alternative music circles, as a venue and as the launching place of the careers of not only Green Day, but also Rancid, Operation Ivy, and The Offspring.
At the time, however, Sweet Children didn’t manage to book a gig at Gilman until 1987, when they changed drummers to the locally-famous John Kiffmeyer (aka “Al Sobrante”). They quickly developed a reputation in the Gilman and Bay area scene, and met Larry Livermore, the founder of Lookout! Records, in 1988. He signed them, and they recorded their first EP, 1,000 Hours, after changing their name to Green Day in order to avoid confusion with the similarly-named local band Sweet Baby.
39/Smooth, Green Day’s debut album, was released in 1990, and the band went on their first US tour that same year. They left the day after Mike graduated from high school. After the tour, Kiffmeyer left Green Day to go to college. Tré Cool played his first show with Green Day in November 1990, and the band as it still exists was formed.
In 1991, Kerplunk was released, and quickly gained popularity. An easy story to tell about Green Day is that they arrived out of nowhere with Dookie, but their success had already been building beyond both the band and their label’s expectation with Kerplunk - which got national airplay and high sales (it became Lookout!’s highest selling release and has since become one of the best selling independent albums in history) - and the resulting national and international tours. Kerplunk also began the development of Green Day’s signature melodic punk sound, in songs like “Welcome to Paradise” and “Christie Road”. There is, on the whole, a massive jump in quality between 39/Smooth and it, and Kerplunk still stands as a solid, well-written album even in the face of the massive successes Green Day would go on to have with subsequent records.
The success of Kerplunk garnered the band attention from major music labels, and in 1993 they left Lookout! to sign with Reprise Records. In September of the same year they played their last show at Gilman Street in nearly a decade (they were “banned” after the release of Dookie - although they showed up at the club in 2001 and played anyway - but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
- Jacqui // @sandovers