How Green Day’s Dookie filled the gap in 1994
On December 31, 1993, Green Day was hanging out backstage when Nirvana played the Oakland Coliseum. The band members, thrilled to be there, were too nervous to chat much to the headliners. And they certainly had little idea that they were weeks away from exploding with Nirvana-like force themselves.
Green Day had more than a few things in common with Cobain and company. Like Nirvana, Green Day was also a trio that came from an unheralded small town (Rodeo, California), played an active part in the music scene of a hip college burg (Berkeley), and released acclaimed records on a local indie label (Lookout!), before their growing popularity led them to move up to the majors. And neither band expected their major label debut to do that much better than their indie releases (getting more distribution muscle was the main point).
But then things shifted. Green Day’s Dookie was released in February 1994. Two months later Kurt Cobain was dead, and Nirvana was over. “After Nirvana, there was a weird kind of vacuum really,” says UK musician/journalist John Robb. “And I don’t think anybody expected poppy-punk to fill that vacuum at all. It was a real shock.” But with Green Day, Robb continues, “The kids that had just missed Nirvana now had their own band.”
While Dookie slowly wended its way up the album charts, taking a year before it reached its peak of No. 2 (an apt number, considering the album’s title), the first video, “Longview,” stirred up excitement for the band straight out of the box. It’s still the quintessential Green Day song, tapping into a timeless vein of teenage apathy and frustration, the whiny (if low key) complaints of the verses exploding into the unabashed roar of the chorus.
The video, directed by Mark Kohr, was shot in the band house where Green Day was then living, the director pleased to find that the low ceilings of the rooms heightened the overall claustrophobia; the band members’ grimy appearance added to the seediness. “It became huge!” Kohr says of the video, which first detonated on MTV’s Buzz Bin. “Later, when I’d pass the house where it was filmed on the way to the chiropractor’s, I’d blow it a kiss. I’m serious. Every time. Because my career just — boom! — took off after that.” So did Green Day’s.
The songs on Dookie are bratty, but they’re also endearing in their self-deprecation, lead singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong masterfully straddling the line between sarcasm and sympathy. Not to mention the songs being laden with strong hooks that reel you in from the get go. Case in point: the invigorating “Basket Case,” which begins with the irresistible line “Do you have the time to listen to me whine?” and comes equipped with a video shot in a mental institution.
Dookie’s songs are odes of annoyance and irritation. The key words of “Burnout” are “bored,” “boring,” “apathy,” and “dead.” “Having a Blast” brings a literally explosive conclusion to a bad relationship. “She” rails against the restrictions of a conventional lifestyle. “Emenius Sleepus” (the only song on the album with lyrics by bassist Mike Dirnt; Armstrong wrote the rest) mourns how two once-close friends have grown apart. “Pulling Teeth” is a pithy chronicle of domestic violence (and in a switch, it’s the woman that’s the abuser). All set to a giddy, buzz saw beat that belies the downcast spirits. It’s what makes the record so appealing; they were serious themes, deconstructed by a band that didn’t take themselves seriously.
It all wraps up in delightfully puckish fashion with a one-two punch. First comes the brash kiss off wherein Armstrong tells Green Day’s audience to “F.O.D.” (work it out). Then comes the “hidden track,” once much beloved of CD aficionados and a nice (or scary, if you’d gone to bed) surprise to those who’d left their CD in the player after they thought the album was done. It’s here that drummer Tré Cool steps into the spotlight, delivering a short, jokey ditty about the joys of self-gratification (“All By Myself”). It’s another of Green Day’s strengths: leave your audience smiling, and leave them wanting more. And, at 20 million copies and counting, Dookie is still bringing them in.