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‘21st Century Breakdown’: How Green Day Created Yet Another Epochal Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘21st Century Breakdown’: How Green Day Created Yet Another Epochal Album

Combining the anger of punk with pop nous and thrilling ambition, ‘21st Century Breakdown’ found Green Day leading the field yet again.

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Green Day first tasted mega stardom when their celebrated third album, Dookie, sold over 20 million copies in the mid-90s. However, the Californian trio then achieved the seemingly unachievable feat of setting the following decade alight with another multi-million-selling smash courtesy of 2004’s American Idiot. Having scaled astronomical heights on two separate occasions, they couldn’t possibly do it again with their next album, 21st Century Breakdown, could they?

Listen to ‘21st Century Breakdown’ here.

The backstory: “We’ve got to stay in good shape”

“We’re like a boxer who’s fought his way up and is now the champion,” Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said ahead of the release of 21st Century Breakdown. “We’ve got to stay in good shape or else we’re going to get our asses kicked!”

Despite such pugilistic talk, Green Day also knew they needed to take some time out to retrain before they took on rock’s strongest contenders once again. With this in mind, the band temporarily laid low after their tour in support of American Idiot came to a close in 2005.

The group did briefly reappear to collaborate with U2 on a high-profile cover of The Skids’ The Saints Are Coming, in support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, in 2006, but aside from that, Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool took vacations and worked on side projects for the next 12 months. The first that fans heard of new Green Day material was a social-media post in which the band revealed they were working on a pool of “something like 45 songs” in October 2007. However, they were keen to stress that the time out had helped them to recharge their batteries.

“It meant we could get some swagger back”, Dirnt told Kerrang! magazine. “And we took that swagger and all that fucking energy back to the studio.”

The album’s themes: “I don’t know if it’s a ‘concept’ album, but the songs are connected”

However, while Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone, “Ground zero for me is still punk rock,” the material he’d prepared for 21st Century Breakdown – like those that had appeared on its predecessor – again had grander designs. The themes Green Day’s new songs touched upon included politics, religion, prosperity, poverty, love and self-destruction.

Indeed – like American Idiot21st Century Breakdown eventually morphed into a full-blown rock opera, with its 18 songs divided into three acts: Heroes And Cons, Charlatans And Saints and Horseshoes And Handgrenades. Within this framework, Armstrong’s narrative loosely chronicled the lives of a young couple, Christian and Gloria, whose existence is shaped by life in the US following the presidency of George W Bush. However, while Armstrong may have conjured the record’s protagonists from his imagination, he was the first to admit they were at least semi-autobiographical.

“I look at Christian and Gloria, and it’s me,” he told Rolling Stone. “Gloria is one side: this person trying to hold on to this sense of belief, still trying to do good. Whereas Christian is deep into his demons and victimising himself over that.”

Mike Dirnt compared the relationship between the 21st Century Breakdown songs to those shared on a classic Bruce Springsteen record, saying in a statement that they “speak to each other in the way that the songs on Born To Run speak to each other.

“I don’t know if you’d call it a ‘concept album’,” he continued, “but there’s a thread that connects everything.”

The recording: “It was a long process taking more than a year”

Bearing in mind the ambition behind the song, and the sheer wealth of material Green Day had at their disposal, it’s not surprising that the group took their time to realise their vision. Recruiting Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins producer Butch Vig to oversee the sessions, the band remained in the studio recording 21st Century Breakdown for most of 2008.

“Working with Green Day was a long process,” Vig confirmed in an interview with Music & Musicians. “From pre-production to rehearsals to mixing and mastering took more than a year. We rehearsed in some funky little studio in Newport Beach [in California], where the band was hanging for the summer, just jamming to work on arrangements. We recorded at Ocean Way [Studios] in Hollywood – one of the best-sounding spaces I’ve ever worked in. We saved the sonic part for going into a big room, but for writing and pre-production, I don’t need to be in a state-of-the-art studio – it’s more about getting the ideas formed.”

With the group having gathered such an enviable stockpile of material, ideas were never going to be a problem, but they also wanted to execute the songs to their fullest potential. In hindsight, they were right to take their time over the recording, for, with its cinematic arrangements and bells’n’whistles production, 21st Century Breakdown arguably even outdid American Idiot in terms of its epic scope.

Songs such as The Static Age, Murder City and the stinging, anti-authoritarian protest song Know Your Enemy may have revealed that punk was still Green Day’s “ground zero”, but for the most part the album captured the group stretching out like never before. Indeed, 21st Century Breakdown showcased Armstrong and company making good on everything from the dark, mariachi-infused vibes of Peacemaker through to arena-friendly scarf-waving anthems such as the All The Young Dudes-esque 21 Guns, and even Who-esque mini-operas in the shape of American Eulogy and the album’s grandstanding title track.

The release and legacy: “A compound bomb of classic-rock ecstasy, no-mercy punk assault and pop-song wiles”

Green Day had given the record everything they’d got, and when they finally signed off on 21st Century Breakdown they freely admitted that they’d come close to suffering their own collapse, with Armstrong revealing, “This is the album that could have killed us. We had set the bar so high with American Idiot.”

Yet the blood, sweat and tears were surely worth it. When 21st Century Breakdown finally hit the shelves, on 15 May 2009, it received ringing endorsements such as Kerrang!’s five-star rave, which helped send the album to No.1 in both the US and the UK. After winning the 2010 Grammy for Best Rock Album, it went on to move almost 20 million copies worldwide, overtaking American Idiot’s sales figures in the process. To their immense credit, Green Day had successfully upped the ante for themselves all over again.

“The album is a compound bomb of classic-rock ecstasy, no-mercy punk assault and pop-song wiles,” Rolling Stone’s David Fricke wrote in the review which best reflected what Green Day had achieved with 21st Century Breakdown. Calling it “the most personal, emotionally convulsive record Armstrong has ever written”, he summed the album up neatly when he concluded, “It’s like The Clash’s London Calling, The Who’s Quadrophenia and Husker Du’s Zen Arcade all compressed into 18 songs.”

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