Unsung Against the Mold: Green Day’s Insomniac and Warning Turn 25 and 20

Looking back-to-back at two key classics from the pop-punk lifers

Insomniac x Warning (Collage: Ron Hart)

Dookie doesn’t necessarily get enough credit as one of those perfect albums, like Thriller, that captured a vision, worldview, and not a wasted second of tune in its breadth.

It was so perfect that you couldn’t possibly predict it from its just-fine predecessor Kerplunk, the same way no one really knew Nevermind was coming after Bleach. The videos were perfect — “Basket Case” took Suicidal Tendencies’ straitjacket-fitted “Institutionalized” to disaffected Middle America with Beatles-grade hooks. Its title was perfect. Shit. That’s what the kids feel like. Green Day distilled punk into its most universal form. Feel bad and hum along. Make jokes about it. It really did three chords right, and it was easier to sing than Nirvana. If the 1990s missed the bisexual subtext of “Coming Clean” and “Basket Case,” well, maybe the alt MTV kids’ favorite album couldn’t be completely digested and understood in one shit after all. And countless other pop-punk hopefuls proved that not everybody could do it, though the covertly tricky musicianship of, say, the iconic “Longview” bassline could have told you that. 


VIDEO: Green Day “Brain Stew/Jaded”

Having sold more than 10 million copies of it, Green Day have been trying to figure out how to follow it up ever since — which is not to say that they haven’t made great albums trying. One of them turns 25 this month and another 20. Just a year after Dookie, the world had Insomniac in its hands as well, and it politely demurred; there was no “When I Come Around” or “She,” nothing to be mistaken for sentimentality and its best-known track was fucking gross: The grungy, made-for-Beavis and Butthead five chords of “Brain Stew.” Even the teens who had trouble nailing the sudden pogoing chorus shift of “Longview” could play that riff. Yet Insomniac is very nearly Dookie’s equal as a collection of songs and just as catchy; it more than earns the In Utero comparisons, and the band turned it around even faster. It’s of course darker. Green Day would never be as light as Dookie again, despite plenty of silliness forced and natural that followed. (This year’s Father of All Motherfuckers sadly falls under “forced”).

So maybe the first single “Geek Stink Breath” wasn’t anyone’s karaoke choice like “Basket Case,” but that doesn’t mean it could leave your head. “Stuck With Me” and the every-word-beautiful “Walking Contradiction” (“I beg to differ on the contrary / I agree with every word that you say”) and “86” were marvels of compact melody. Insomniac as a whole is one of the best guitar-bass-drums-only albums ever made where nearly every filled space is a power chord. Blocky and aggressive, confrontational and sardonic as they’ve ever be again, the band tore through tantrums like “Brat” and “Bab’s Uvula Who” without ever straying from a full melody line on penalty of death, and they even managed tonal shifts like the Who homage in the epic intro to “Panic Song” to the black-burnt grunge of “Brain Stew” without really straying from the palette.

Green Day ’95 (Art: Ron Hart)

They found black comedy in meth, popped scabs, little shits waiting for their inheritance, and other consequences of pure nihilism that a quarter of Dookie’s buyers are still humming about.  The world’s biggest punk band ever had both leaned into the sophomore jinx and avoided it. With aggressive rock out of fashion as ever, Insomniac is probably remembered even less fondly now; the band themselves only included one song on their most recent repackaged best-of. But it’s their second-best collection of songs.

Green Day 2000 (Art: Ron Hart)

Their third-best turns 20 this month, and it sold much less than Insomniac. Warning was one of the least impactful records by a major rock band in the year 2000, and even inside of Green Day’s own career arc it occupies the unenviable space between Seinfeld-eulogizing “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and Dookie’s true commercial successor, American Idiot, which is far too leaden and labored to be compared anything that came before it in any other respect. So what was Warning? A completely normal great album by an act with expectations far greater than that on them. Sell ten million records and a smattering of cleanly produced power-pop with influences ranging from Elvis Costello (“Church on Sunday”), Pogues-style Irish folk-punk (“Minority”), and Brechtian cabaret (“Misery”) is not enough. But it’s the band’s last great record and it’s only deepened with time.


VIDEO: Green Day “Minority”

“Warning,” “Castaway” and “Waiting” are big-tent hooks as simple and bright as anything on Dookie if a bit sanded-down and scrubbed. The token minor rock-outs “Blood, Sex and Booze” and “Fashion Victim” are songfully sound even if their piss-takes on BDSM and supermodels felt too easy 20 years ago. But “Minority” is a far more effective political performance than anything the band beat the world over the head with on American Idiot or the grotesque 21st Century Breakdown, a group of white guys pledging solidarity with those more oppressed than them and chanting “down with the moral majority.” If anything this band has done in the last 20 years resonates in 2020 it’s that.

Billie Joe Armstrong’s tuneful sneer always had too much joy in his bubblegum constructions to settle for the dead-end realities he catalogued so effervescently. Warning captures his band in the process of trying to figure out where to take it, how to effectively combine the thrills of being new with the wisdom of getting old, and it will never overtake the Broadway-rewarded American Idiot in the public imagination. But it will always exist as a sign that Green Day could pull off subtle. Relatively.



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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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