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Green Day – The Early Years

When Green Day took to the stage at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California on 28 May 1989 they would perform one of the most important shows of their career. Not that their musical abilities had advanced much since their previous show, nor had their songwriting abilities improved, yet this would be the first time that the group appeared onstage under their new name, while headliners Operation Ivy, legends on the local music scene, would make their swan song despite having recently released their first and only full-length record, Energy. Green Day themselves, having previously gained a minor following under the less-inspired moniker of Sweet Children, had issued their own EP, 1,000 Hours, just a few weeks earlier under the same independent label, Lookout! Records. Despite failing to make much of an impact, the four-track vinyl helped to establish the band’s sound and, even through the poor production and amateur playing, the seeds of what would eventually become Green Day were first sown.

Sappy was not the first song that frontman Billie Joe Armstrong had recorded, however, nor was it the first to be made available to the public. In 1977, at the age of just five-years-old, the Rodeo, California native was recruited by James and Marie-Louise Fiatarone, co-owners of a music store in nearby Pinole, to record a track that they had composed called Look for Love. Armstrong had been introduced to the couple by his mother, Ollie, who hoped that music would keep the young child occupied, and they had begun to give the child piano lessons. Already displaying the ability to sing in key, Armstrong impressed the Fiatarones and was invited to Fantasy Studios in Berkeley to record their new musical number, with Marie-Louise on keyboard and her son, Jim, on guitar. Eight-hundred copies of the the 7″ vinyl were pressed and released with a plain white sleeve, earning Armstrong some positive reviews from the local press.

Both James and Marie-Louise were pleased with the end result and the future star they had discovered, with the latter telling a newspaper, ‘I’ve had singers as young as three years old, but none with the charisma and love he has.’ Armstrong continued to display a talent for singing and performing as he entertained residents of veterans homes and community centres, but it would be some time later when he received a Fernandes Stratocaster guitar that his passion for music was fully realised. But in September 1982, when he was ten-years-old, the Armstrong household was almost torn apart following the death of his father, Andy and the subsequent withdrawal of their mother. Without a strong parental figure, the six children in the house began to turn on each other, often resulting in bullying, with Billie Joe being the youngest.

Despite the misery of his home life, he soon became friends with an equally troubled school friend called Michael Pritchard, a budding young musician who was three months younger than Armstrong. Born to a heroin-addicted mother, Pritchard was adopted at the age of just six weeks and relocated to Rodeo, but his foster parents split when he was seven and for a short time he moved between his stepparents, before eventually settling with his stepmother and her new partner. Much like Armstrong, Pritchard had dabbled a little with piano before moving onto guitar, although he finally settled on bass. ‘I’ve always been into melody,’ he later told Bass Player, ‘and the bass seemed like an easier way for me to get to those melodies.’ After leaving home, Pritchard moved in with Armstrong and his family and before long they began to discuss the idea of forming a band.

By the spring of 1987 the pair had become regulars at the Gilman, which had opened the previous year and it would be here that Armstrong and Pritchard, known to his friends as Mike Dirnt, would make the acquaintance of John Kiffmeyer. Three years older than his new friends, Kiffmeyer, known under his stage name Al Sobrante, had first performed as a drummer for local East Bay act Isocracy and, along with Armstrong and Dirnt, would help form their new group that they would christen Sweet Children. Making their live debut at the Rod’s Hickory Pit, the band soon became a regular fixture of the Gilman. As Armstrong later recalled in an interview with Spin; ‘It saved me from living in a refinery town all my life. Everything that I have now pretty much branched from that whole scene.’

From out of these shows they managed to attract the attention of Lookout! Records, a local independent label launched by Larry Livermore, frontman of Bay Area punk group the Lookout, and business partner David Hayes. Sweet Children signed with Livermore in late 1988 and commenced work on their first EP, 1,000 Hours, with producer Andy Ernst, while both Armstrong and Dirnt were still only eighteen. Deciding that their name lacked commercial appeal, the three-piece opted instead to call themselves Green Day, also the name of one of their songs that was in reference to a lazy, pot-fuelled afternoon. By the end of the year they had returned to the studio once again, this time to record a full length album, consisting of ten previously unreleased tracks, some of which had become staples of their live shows. 39/Smooth ran at just over a half hour and was released through Lookout! the following April, although no songs from the album were issued as standalone singles.

Their last two releases with Kiffmeyer would follow soon afterwards. Slappy, another EP that featured a cover of Operation Ivy, is notable for the inclusion of Why Do You Want Him?, the first song ever written by Armstrong when he was just fifteen, which documented his troubled relationship with his new father figure. Their third and final EP was released through Skene! Records on 7″ vinyl and included a cover of The Who’s classic hit My Generation. All four tracks were later included as bonus tracks on the band’s second album, 1992′s Kerplunk!. Following the record of the EP, Green Day soon parted ways with Kiffmeyer and recruited Tré Cool. Born Frank Edwin Wright III, Cool first gained attention as a drummer when he was hired by Livermore at the age of just twelve to join the Lookouts. During his time with the band he performed on two full length albums, 1987′s One Planet One People and its follow-up, 1989′s Spy Rock Road, but with Green Day he found something closer to what he had been searching for.

Green Day

Green Day

The exposure that their EPs and album had received around California soon gave the band the opportunity to perform outside of their comfort zone and so they embarked on a small tour around the United States, appearing in various clubs and venues where they tried to cement their reputation as an exciting young act. Despite a few setbacks, including one incident in New Orleans where they belongings and money was stolen from their van, overall the experience proved to be positive and gave the band their first real taste of success. Once again working alongside Ernst and with Kiffmeyer providing assistance, Green Day returned to Art of Ears Studio in San Francisco to start the recording of their sophomore album. In the short time since the release of 39/Smooth, the band had matured as both songwriters and musicians and with Kerplunk!, its follow-up, this was evident with the songs that they chose to record, including an early recording of future hit Welcome to Paradise.

Following the release of 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, a compilation of Green Day’s debut album and early EPs, Lookout! issued Kerplunk! in January 1992 to modest critical acclaim. Among the highlights were 2,000 Light Years Away, a live version of which would surface as a B-side two years later and Christie Road, as well as a comic country track called Dominated Love Slave, with Cool on vocals. This would be their last release through Lookout!, as the buzz around Kerplunk! would bring them to the attention of Rob Cavallo, an A&R rep for Reprise Records, subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Their official departure from the independent music scene came on 24 September 1993, when Green Day played their final performance at the Gilman, before signing to a major label. ‘I can never really go back there again,’ Armstrong told Spin in December 1995, ‘I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life, but things are different now.’


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