If you’re looking to pin down the precise moment when Green Day are alleged to have committed the cardinal sin of selling out, you have a fair few to choose from. The most obvious point would have to be their signing to a major label, Reprise. This venture saw the release of their seminal 1994 album Dookie, but also their ban from performing at 924 Gilman Street, the grassroots punk venue where the band had made their name (whether they were kicked out for undermining the scene’s ethos of DIY self-sufficiency, or simply because they got so popular that the venue couldn’t safely cater for the increasing numbers of fans who were flocking to see them, depends very much on who you ask). Whether you take Dookie as the real ground zero, or the release of American Idiot ten years later (which committed another cardinal sin, being popular), one important point on Green Day’s trajectory toward commercial success was the release of their 1997 single “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” from the band’s fifth album, Nimrod.
“Good Riddance,” with its twinkling acoustic guitar, reflective lyrics, and soaring string section, didn’t take long to transcend the band and achieve popularity beyond punk—even beyond rock music—that made the dizzy heights of old hits like “Basket Case” look positively diminutive. The song made appearances throughout pop culture. It was used in an uncharacteristically mushy montage in the prologue to the finale of Seinfeld; the England football team entered their match against France to the song in the 1998 World Cup; in 2020, Rolling Stone declared it one of the best graduation songs of the past 25 years, a recognition of its common usage at life events such as weddings, proms, and funerals—however dubiously.
But despite, or perhaps because of this monumental airtime, the punk faithful were not impressed. “Good Riddance,” and Nimrod along with it, was the final nail in the coffin, and Green Day’s sell-out label was firmly fastened without mercy or hope of redemption. Which is a little silly, because if the naysayers had bothered to give the whole album a listen, they’d have discovered that the sweet, sentimental “Good Riddance” was sharing space with songs about erectile dysfunction, crossdressing and relapsing into alcoholism. It would be one hell of a funeral that dared to play any of those.
It’s important to bring up Green Day’s precarious position in the punk rock pantheon in the late nineties, because Nimrod feels like the record that was written as a reaction to it—and the message Green Day sent was that they were finally going to stop trying to impress people.
After all, the band had spent their first three albums following the rules. While their debut Kerplunk received praise and attention from major labels, Dookie saw them ostracized from their home scene. Its follow-up, Insomniac, had a darker, bleaker sound which alienated the mainstream but did little to endear them back to their original fans, either. Coming off the back of this kind of reception—and having spent their whole career catering to listeners of one of the most restrictive genres in musical history—it’s no surprise that the urge to experiment was beginning to bubble up. As bassist Mike Dirnt put it in 2001, “we’ve got to keep it interesting for ourselves, too … if you stop growing, you die.”
“Good Riddance” was certainly the softest song on the record (and of Green Day’s decade-long career at the time). But Nimrod contains a real mash of genres and styles, with the folk leanings of “Good Riddance” being just one drop in the ocean. It’s painfully ironic that Nimrod is so often slated as being the point when Green Day abandoned punk purity once and for all (again), because it’s actually home to some of the band’s heaviest material.
There’s “Take Back,” for example, a blur of distortion and slurred fury whose chorus showcases Billie Joe Armstrong’s not-half-bad attempt at guttural vocals. It’s scarcely a minute long and is more reminiscent of titanic thrashers like Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” or Discharge’s “Protest and Survive” than anything that might comfortably have sat on Dookie. “Platypus (I Hate You)” is a fun, fast, and very angry track echoing both the sound and the vicious immaturity of skate-punk acts like NOFX or Screeching Weasel.
Nimrod explores yet more diverse punk flavors with “King For A Day,” a delightful ska-inflected tune whose riotous horn section plays out like a circus band who ran away to join Green Day. “The Grouch,” meanwhile, is bouncy and bass-heavy, boasting a similar sound to English punk rock acts like The Damned that first gave rise to the genre back in the seventies. In contrast, “Uptight” embodies the kind of punk that would come to seize the mainstream in the early noughties: a melodic blast of pop punk goodness culminating in a huge, earnest, shout-along chorus that could just as well appear in a song by Blink-182 or Sum 41.
And, given this variety, it’s all the more impressive that Green Day were still able to fill much of Nimrod’s track listing with songs—“Jinx,” “Reject,” and “Haushinka”—that committed to their old style completely; dirty, snotty, punk rock pearls that hammered away on their three chords and Armstrong’s begrudging sneer at the truth with the conviction and enthusiasm of a band who had straight-up invented the genre, not one who had spent the past few years being hounded and undermined by its adherents.
Let’s be clear: even back in the distant past of 1997, there was nothing groundbreaking about mixing multiple genres into one album. Armstrong himself drew influence for Nimrod from The Clash’s London Calling, which threw together ska, punk, new wave, pop, reggae, and anything and everything else that was floating around in the musical ether of late seventies Britain. The Clash, of course, were not the first to do it either; the very nature of music is such that trying to pinpoint the first multi-genre record is as impossible as it is pointless. But what Green Day do deserve credit for is releasing such an album against the backdrop of such dogmatic hostility to the very notion of a band evolving. At least metalheads—another conglomerate known to fiercely resist change from the music they love—allowed room for their artists to get progressively more skilled while playing the same kind of music. With punk, there’s often no technical skill to begin with. Sid Vicious couldn’t play the bass. That’s the whole point. So when, like Green Day, you’ve exhausted all your avenues, there’s nowhere to go but sideways.
Listening back 25 years on, Nimrod’s greatest irony is that it can be hard for a modern listener to figure out what all of the fuss was about. Yes, the album cavorts wildly and relentlessly from punk to pop to folk to hardcore and back again with little consideration for tradition and none at all for consistency. But the world today is different. The musical landscape, and what we expect (even what the punks expect) from artists has changed. We live in a post-Homesick, world, where Jeremy McKinnon can crack out his best Tom DeLonge impression one minute and growl Cookie-Monster-deathcore thunder over a double bass breakdown the next; where Corey Taylor openly dreams of doing collaborative live performances with Justin Bieber; in short, a world where certain fan’s constricting demands on genre have mercifully evaporated.
But this, I think, is why Nimrod’s appeal has lasted. It was—subtly, quietly, gently— ahead of its time. Pulling the heavier and softer constituencies of punk music together into one album was a trend that was in its latent stages in the late nineties, but it wasn’t really until the late noughties and the pop-punk-metalcore boom that such a style achieved anything close to dominance. Nowadays, when our Spotify playlists can launch us at the touch of a button from Cannibal Corpse to the Beach Boys, Nimrod’s genre-hopping is still compelling, not because of the genres themselves, but because it’s the sound of a band broken free from the shackles of obligation and simply doing what feels good. When Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool wrote Nimrod, they didn’t just make a punk album—they made a Green Day album. Something more intimate, less performative, less showy and more like the band is trying to offer something that they truly value to the listener. In a word, something authentic. And that’s something anyone should value, punk rocker or otherwise.
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