REVIEW: GREEN DAY, Birmingham LG Arena, 28 October 2009
GREEN DAY are a band who will forever hold a unique and special place in my heart, because, without GREEN DAY, I would never have gotten into Punk Rock fifteen years ago, and my life today would simply not be the same.
That does not mean, however, that I am a fan of theirs unquestioningly. Whilst the extraordinary 'Dookie' and 'Insomniac' albums opened my ears up to a whole new kind of music, their hit-and-miss follow-up album, 'Nimrod', and the utterly appalling 'Warning', took the Berkley trio off my playlists for quite some time.
It wasn’t until the astounding 'American Idiot' album in 2004, that my love for the band was rekindled. As such, I have only seen GREEN DAY live twice before: once – the first time – in September 1997, at the London Astoria (just before 'Nimrod' came out and my passion began to wane); and then again – the second time – at the Milton Keynes Bowl in June 2005, for one of the two epic concerts that would ultimately become the basis of their 'Bullet in a Bible' live DVD.
The Astoria show, I felt, could never be topped. I was young, it was my first proper “big” gig (by that I mean: gig by a band that I loved, in a “proper” London venue), and the set was full of all kinds of fantastic old favourites from 'Dookie' and 'Insomniac', as well as 'Kerplunk' and '1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours'. I was quite literally seeing my heroes, at the height of their powers, and it left me breathless and amazed for weeks and months afterwards.
The Milton Keynes gig, however, was just plain weird: a Punk band, playing to over 130,000 people in a huge field in Milton Keynes? Playing, no less, the same venue that once hosted legendary rock band Queen?
What the FUCK?
The weirdness wasn’t helped by the fact that my own presence there was pretty odd in itself. I’d been given a set of four tickets as a birthday present from my dad (he was only meant to get me two, but a Ticketmaster snafu landed us with four). Unfortunately, the three friends who were meant to come with me all bailed out at the last minute, and so there I was, all by myself, with three wasted tickets burning a hole in my pocket, in this bloody great field in the middle of nowhere, in the boiling hot sun, with absolutely nothing to do all day but stand and listen to about four or five support bands, all of varying quality, as I waited for GREEN DAY to finally get on stage. In all honesty, it was boring. Stupidly, I hadn’t even brought a book with me, and as I don’t drink, I couldn’t even get wasted in order to kill the time. The sun was too hot to stand anywhere near the stage for that long (the band, it turned out, weren’t due on until late evening, despite the tickets detailing a mid-afternoon start-time; hence the stupid five-or-so hour wait!), and so I was forced to stand right at the back of the field, under the welcome shade of some trees, until the band began to play. This kept me cool and saved me from sun-stroke, but when GREEN DAY finally came on stage, it also made me feel incredibly detached from the concert. The place was so big that there was actually a time-delay on what I was hearing, and I’d see Tre Cool hit his drumsticks about three seconds before I actually heard the drum-beat… I was forced to watch the whole thing up on the big screens that surrounded the venue, because, even with my glasses on, it was impossible to make any sense out of the tiny specks I could see on the stage.
Despite all that though, the actual gig at Milton Keynes – as anyone who has seen 'Bullet in a Bible' can attest – was actually pretty good. I enjoyed it much better on DVD than I did standing at the back of that ridiculous field, but on the night there was no denying the power, energy, and showmanship of the band; even if there was no way on earth one could truly call these guys a “Punk” band anymore. The show at Milton Keynes was pure stadium rock all the way, and the crowd of families, teenagers and their parents, middle aged rockers, and even one or two grandparents all enjoying the outdoor summer spectacle together, were undeniably mainstream.
It was a really odd experience: this secret and wonderful band who had got me through my teenage years whilst all my peers were listening to shitty dance music, were now firmly part of the establishment. They had number one hits, number one albums, and their gigs were no longer sweaty, spitty, gritty Punk Rock shows at the London Astoria or Brixton Academy, but family-friendly “events” in the heart of Milton Keynes.
I loved the 'American Idiot' album, and I loved the live show that the band put on – the new extended line-up (second guitarist, keyboardist, and horn-player) allowing Billie Joe much more freedom to be an entertaining singer and front-man, without having to worry too much about playing the guitar and carrying up his former one third of the music too – but somehow it all felt a bit too big. It was alienating; corporate; detached…
All of which is my roundabout way of saying that, when my wife and I booked tickets to see the '21st Century Breakdown' tour at the former NEC Arena in Birmingham, I didn’t really know what to expect.
The new album, though just as powerful, was much darker than 'American Idiot', and though all the disaffected teens still seem to be buying it, it certainly hasn’t got the airplay or mainstream success that 'American Idiot' did, despite being arguably a better album. After becoming a fan of the new CD, I knew I wanted to see the band live again, but I hoped that the experience would be more akin to my first GREEN DAY live show I had seen, than the bloated corporate-rock caricature of the band that I had witnessed in 2005.
Happily, I was not disappointed.
In 2009, GREEN DAY appear to have perfectly married their world-beating rock band status with their unshakeable Punk Rock roots, somehow managing to make an arena rock show feel like an intimate Gilman Street Punk gig. As well as playing blistering versions of songs both old and new (from newbies 'American Eulogy' and 'Know Your Enemy' right back to things like 'Christie Road' and 'Geek, Stink, Breath'), the band did their best to involve the audience as much as possible. I’m not just talking about Billie Joe’s incessant Freddie Mercury style, “I say waaaaah-oh!” call and response bits, or his repeated pandering screams of, “Birmingham!” and “England!”, but about his pulling up some girl from the front row who was dressed as a banana, and letting her do a running crowd dive just for the shits and giggles; about bringing up two children from the balcony section and “casting out their demons” during the middle eight of 'East Jesus Nowhere'. I’m talking about making the audience pick up and crowd-surf a random guy from the back of the arena – just because – and bring him down to the stage for another crowd-dive; about having a fake wrestling match with another girl from the crowd who was wearing a luchador mask, then letting her sing along with the chorus of 'Know Your Enemy'; and about getting a volunteer from the crowd to sing solo lead vocals on an amazing version of 'Longview', which clearly made this – very talented – young guy’s year.
In short, it felt like a party, with the band even chucking comedy cover versions into the set whenever the mood took them. 'Highway to Hell' (AC/DC), 'Master of Puppets' (Metallica), 'Teenage Kicks' (The Undertones), 'I’ll Be There' (Jackson 5), 'Living After Midnight' (Judas Priest), and even Lulu’s 'Shout' got an airing, whilst the crowd-pleasing homage to local legends, Black Sabbath, in the form of 'Iron Man' and 'Paranoid', was, judging from the ecstatic cheers from the crowd, just what the – Brummie – doctors ordered. Hell, this gig was such a fucking madcap celebration of music that halfway through the saxophone solo in 'King for a Day', Jason Freese erupted into the iconic Benny Hill theme music, and the band – wearing a variety of different costumes – began chasing each other around the stage at high speed!
Of course, amongst all the fun and frolics there was some serious stuff too. The hard hitting lyrics from 'American Idiot' and '21st Century Breakdown' were accompanied by eerie graphics on the giant monitors behind them, with 'Holiday' in particular featuring chilling images of war and state-terror, along with a news-style rolling ticker display that gave off a number of reasons why the U.S. should not be fighting illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Forget everything you see on the fucking internet, forget everything you see on television,” yelled Billie Joe at one point. “We have fucking music!” And it was hard to disagree; mainly because such a statement is, at bottom, utterly meaningless…but we all knew what he was getting at, even if he didn’t manage to articulate it coherently. Here were 16,000 plus people all singing songs against war, poverty, media manipulation, greedy bankers, and corrupt regimes, and somehow these simple three minute pop songs could tell us more about the world than a thousand hours spent online.
As well as all the cover-versions, and the stellar set-list of new songs from the last two albums – 'Song of the Century', '21st Century Breakdown', 'Know Your Enemy', 'East Jesus Nowhere', 'Holiday', 'The Static Age', 'Give Me Novocaine', 'Are We the Waiting', 'St. Jimmy', 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams', '21 Guns', 'American Eulogy', 'American Idiot', and 'Wake Me Up When September Ends' – the band acknowledged their pre-'American Idiot' history too, with some rousing renditions of their Punk Rock classics: 'Brain Stew', 'Jaded', 'Hitchin’ A Ride', 'When I Come Around', 'Geek Stink Breath', 'Basket Case', 'She', 'King For A Day', 'Longview', 'Minority', 'Macy’s Day Parade', 'Christie Road' and 'Good Riddance'.
Of course, there were plenty of well-loved songs there that didn’t make the set ('Welcome to Paradise', anything from '1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours', etc…), but when a band have been playing together for over 21 years, it’s a) impossible to fit two decades worth of music into a single night’s set, and b) quite inspiring to realize that, twenty-one years later, this band is still writing vital and urgent music, and don’t have to rely on a lacklustre cannon of “golden oldies” to thrill their ever-growing fan-base.
All in all, their 33 song set saw them commanding the stage for over two-and-a-half hours; not since seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band put on an equally stunning show at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 2008 have I seen such a marathon set pulled off so effortlessly, and without any loss of energy or stamina. From start to finish the band were giving it their all; jumping around like lunatics, running all around the stage, and playing their motherfucking hearts out from the first note to the last.
Now, some might say that this is all good and well, but is it really Punk? I mean, I just compared them to fucking Bruce Springsteen; surely the death knell for any Punk band?
Well, besides the fact that I actually like Bruce Springsteen (and think that, arguably, his last three albums have been more politically relevant than many of the Punk albums I have heard in the last three years), I think the more important question to ask is this: wouldn’t we rather our stadiums be filled with bands like Green Day, giving people their money’s worth, treating their audience like human beings, and using their music to spread Punk Rock messages and radical politics…than having them filled with yawn-fest money-grabbers like Sting, Iron Maiden, REM, Status – fucking – Quo, or any other number of lame-ass professional rock bands who drag out their tired old acts year after year at venues like this and rake in the cash from an idiot public who don’t know any better, or have any better a choice?
I know for myself, that it was only through experiencing Green DAY on the non-Punk-endorsed MTV, that I discovered music by bands like DEAD KENNEDYS, SUBHUMANS, NOMEANSNO, PROPAGANDHI, NOFX, SCREECHING WEASEL, OPERATION IVY, MR. T EXPERIENCE, PANSY DIVISION, BAD RELIGION, and a million other underground artists who I didn’t even know existed until I heard the opening bass-line of 'Longview' one bored teenage afternoon and found myself hooked on this thing called Punk Rock.
I wonder how many similarly clueless teenagers there were at the LG Arena in Birmingham last night – to see the stadium rock band, GREEN DAY – now be dying to investigate any one of the exciting sounding bands name-checked in the cool montage of Punk Rock fliers and gig-posters that decorated the stage during the high-octane version of Jaded'? Bands like BLACK FLAG, RANCID, BAD BRAINS, alongside some of the other bands I’ve mentioned above; all having their music advertised, and the Punk way of life promoted, by a band who no longer have to help them out, but do.
And how many kids in the audience now want to check out the RAMONES, after hearing the awesome 'Rock and Roll Radio' intro that led the band onto the stage?
I’ve never been a fan of the whole Punk/not Punk, holier-than-thou, scene-police, sell-out side of the underground (big surprise eh, after my previous admission that I like Bruce Springsteen), so I won’t waste any more time on it here. GREEN DAY are what they are, and most of the Punk purists will already have their opinion on that, and it won’t be changed by this review. But if your mind is open to the idea that one of the greatest Punk bands of the nineties might just have slipped through the cracks and somehow become world famous mainstream successes, without losing any of their Punk rock integrity, then I highly recommend seeing their live show any time you have the chance. It is like being in a bizarro alternative universe, where our world and culture have become the world and culture of the masses; where a three-piece Punk band from Berkley can fill 16,000 seat arenas and have whole crowds sing along to songs about masturbation and the war on terror; where children are freely allowed by parents to go up on stage with the man who says “fuck” so unashamedly, so that they can take part in a song denouncing religious extremism and then dive with gleeful abandon into a crowd of waiting arms… It is a world that there seems no reason to dislike, and more important than any of that bullshit: it is a world where the music is fan-fucking-tastic.
At the LG arena, GREEN DAY triumphed, and if just one kid was turned on to exploring the Punk Rock underground because of it, then much more has been achieved here than could be achieved at any number of small scale Punk shows which that one kid might never have discovered without them. Clearly, GREEN DAY are not only no longer a Punk band, they’re no longer a band; they are a phenomenon. But what a phenomenon they are, and as a gateway drug for introducing the masses into what real Punk Rock is about, I really couldn’t think of any better ambassadors.
DaN McKee, October 2009