Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rock N Roll Birthday: Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day

Happy Birthday to Billy Joe from Green Day, who turns 38 today.

I’ll say it up front - Green Day are one of my favourite bands to come out of the 90s. Their first major label single, “Longview” (from 1994’s breakthrough, “Dookie”), caught my ear in a big way and, though they’ve come and gone and come back again into the mainstream, their popularity with others never mattered to me and I’ve been preaching about them ever since.

With “Longview,” I heard so much in the song that I liked that I knew it couldn’t be a fluke, and picked up “Dookie” right away; after that, I did what all kinds of music lovers do when inspired – I went back and sought out their first two indie releases – “1039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours” (’90) and “Kerplunk!” (‘91). The indie stuff was harder to find at the time, since the band was just taking off with the public; while the production on these isn’t the greatest, the energy and vibe of the band remains intact.

So what’s to love about Green Day? They’re fun, high-energy, and write damn catchy songs. Clearly, the band’s roots come from a place first inhabited by The Ramones; you want kick-ass, three-minute, three-chord blasts of energy? It’s all there and it’s all good. Despite the protests of others, I never felt like the band was ripping off The Ramones; rather, I think Green Day wears it’s influences proudly on its sleeve but, more importantly, that sound is so inherent in their lives, that it’s simply a part of their collective DNA.

Talk about a direct and personal influence: Billie Joe named his first son Joey in homage to Joey Ramone, while drummer Tré Cool named his daughter Ramona.

I owned a hand-me down acoustic guitar for years before I ever got around to trying to learn full songs; I used to noodle and play riffs, which is how a lot of people seem to start out. From the first time I heard him, I knew I always wanted to play like Eddie Van Halen, but figured that was a pipe dream, at best (still is – ha!); what Ed does seemed so otherworldly and magical, so I figured my best approach would be to start at the start - with the basics.

It's coincidence, more than anything, but around the time Green Day arrived, I finally committed to trying to get a handle on learning full songs; like The Ramones before them, they’re a great place to start. Musical snobs often put down the simplicity of three-chord songs, but there’s a reason they have been a part of rock’s consciousness for so long (“Louie, Louie,” anyone?) – the uncluttered nature of them is what makes them so energetic and memorable at the same time. I will say that hearing songs and thinking you know them is not the same as hearing songs and playing them – once you’re inside a song, you need to have your bearings so you know where you’re headed next. So, in the early to mid-90s, while learning a few Green Day songs a week, thanks to some online guitar tab, I realized that I was also learning the basics of song structure in a practical and meaningful way: intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/chorus out.

Since the dawn of recorded music, countless musicians have learned their instruments by playing along to records by the artists who inspired them. And while I taught myself guitar and song basics by ear (er, and tab), rather than by playing with the records themselves, I later came to realize it was probably because the songs were playing in my head and all I had to do was get my hands around a guitar to make them come alive.

So, happy birthday and thanks, Billie Joe, for the music lessons you didn’t even know you were giving…

Green Day - Dookie - Longview Green Day - Dookie - Longview

Green Day – Longview

Green Day – tribute to The Ramones at The Rock N Roll Hall Of Hame induction, 2002
(watch for a couple of The Ramones and Eddie Vedder – with mohawk – bopping along to the performance)