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 had begun to give the child piano lessons in the hope that music would keep him occupied. 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 playing 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 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. ‘I yelled, screamed and pleaded with them not to do such a stupid thing,’ stated Livermore in his memoir. ‘People are often surprised to hear that the Green Day EP didn’t sell well at first. Part of the problem was that while Sweet Children had built up a little bit of a reputation, almost nobody had a clue who or what this Green Day was supposed to be.’
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. Armstrong had begun to show progression as a songwriter but at this point Green Day still lacked sophistication as performers and working under a strict recording schedule and low budget there would be little time for experimentation or a polished production, with Ernst once again overseeing the sessions that would take place in Art of Ears Studios, Hayward, San Francisco over the Christmas and New Year of 1989. By the time the recording came to an end the what would ultimately become their debut album would cost an approximate $700, barely a budget in comparison to major label releases but a small fortune for a local band with little money to call their own.
While hardly known as the hell-raisers many rock bands of the era had become notorious for, the three-piece would still like to indulge in all the vices that many teenagers would experiment with at such a young age. ‘We were total potheads, hence the name Green Day. We’ve always been drinkers,’ Armstrong would later tell Rolling Stone on the attitude and lifestyle of the group in those early days. ‘Our favorite bands were drinkers. Growing up around Gilman Street we drank behind the bushes until we were old enough to get into bars. I played onstage loaded a lot. I’d have anywhere from two to six beers and a couple of shots before I went onstage, then go and play the gig and drink for the rest of the evening on the bus.’
Released the following April through Lookout!, Green Day‘s first professional offering 39/Smooth ran at just over a half hour and was the result of just a few days in the studio, compromising of ten songs that the band had practised through their live performances on the local scene. ‘And while the album is flawed it proved to be a crucial building block for the young band,’ declared Diffuser in a retrospective decades later. ‘Today, the importance of the vital groundwork first established on 39/Smooth is generally appreciated and reviewers have been fairly kind to the album, despite its jagged edges.’ There was no promotion to accompany its release and the initial reaction to the record was indifference, with Armstrong and company having returned to the studio a week afterwards to cut their next effort, a second EP that would see the light of day that summer under the name Slappy.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this release would be 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.
It turned out to be a perfect fit
‘By September he was practising regularly with Green Day and in October the new line-up played its first show at a student co-op in North Berkeley,’ recalled Livermore on Cool’s introduction to the group. ‘Having played with Tré since the day he’d picked up his first drumstick I had no doubt he was good enough to be in Green Day. My only question was how his style and attitude – he was headstrong and rambunctious as he was gifted and powerful – would mesh with theirs. It turned out to be a perfect fit. Tré’s hyperactive antics barely fazed Mike and Billie – it might have helped that all three of them were the same age.’
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 their belongings and money were 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 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 the underrated pop gem Christie Road. This would be their last release through Lookout! as the buzz around Kerplunk! would bring them to the attention of various major labels. ‘We had a pretty large following. But nobody knew what that following was because it was all about these super-small fanzines, kids booking us into local veterans hall,’ said Armstrong on the experience. ‘The guy from Geffen looked at me: You sold out City Gardens?’ We were also selling out the Whisky a Go Go. Even the people at Warner Bros. were like, ‘Holy shit!”
While they had aroused the interest of Geffen, who had recently signed Nirvana, the one who would seduce the band onto his label was Rob Cavallo, an A&R rep for Reprise Records, a 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.’ Everything would change for the band in 1994 when their third album Dookie was released by Reprise to considerable critical acclaim, coupled with the hit accompanying hit singles Welcome to Paradise, Basket Case and When I Come Around. Green Day would be at the forefront of the punk rock revival of the mid-1990s that would also include the likes of Rancid and, in later years, such commercial success stories as Blink-182. But this punk revolution all began in a small club in Berkeley, California one evening in 1988 when a young local band took to the stage for the first time under their new name Green Day.