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— by Corey Moss

HOLLYWOOD — The making of American Idiot, Green Day's most artistically satisfying album, started with a tragedy.

  Photos: Green Day
A year and a half ago, the influential punk trio (without whom there would be no Blink-182, no New Found Glory, no Good Charlotte, etc.) had written and recorded some 20 songs for the follow-up to 2000's Warning. Singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool were in the middle of mixing the tracks when the Berkeley, California, buddies arrived at the studio one morning to find that the master tapes had been stolen.

"I don't like to think about that," Dirnt confesses, sitting with his bandmates in their rehearsal space earlier this summer. "We got them all on CD, but it's not the same."

Feeling violated and not exactly motivated to re-record the album, Green Day decided to abandon the tracks and start over, funneling their frustrations into new material. Along with the old songs, the band also tossed out the rulebook, setting out to do things as differently as possible.

  "And he's all, 'Oh this is funny, it kinda sounds like a rock opera.'" — Billie Joe Armstrong
"One day we were just sort of messing around at the studio ... and we said [to Dirnt], 'Write a 30-second song, it doesn't matter what it's about,' " recalls Armstrong, dressed like he's heading to the prom with his white dress shirt, black tie and burgundy jacket. "So he wrote this 30-second piece and we were all laughing about it when we came back into the studio, and I said, 'I want to do one!' So I ended up putting in another 30-second song, and then Tre ended up putting in another 30-second song. And he's all, 'Oh this is funny, it kinda sounds like a rock opera.' "

The comment triggered a collective light bulb in their heads.

"We were like, 'This is what we should be doing, this is how we're really getting our rocks off right now. Let's just be ambitious as hell and go for it,' " Armstrong says. "And from there it started getting more serious."

  Photos: Green Day live at Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, CA 09.16.2004
There's no dictionary definition of rock opera, so the meaning is open to interpretation. Musicals with electric guitars, like "Rent," "Jesus Christ Superstar" or "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," are often touted as such, but Green Day are not exactly Broadway-bound. For rock music fans, the term is more associated with the Who's Tommy, a 1969 double album in which the songs run together — some bundled into acts — to tell the story of a deaf and blind boy.

The group found that using that model for American Idiot and punking it up "was just naturally bringing forth the energy we were looking to capture. ... We felt like we could go anywhere with it," Dirnt says, looking to Armstrong and the quiet Cool for approval. "I was spending so much time in the studio. It was really, really nice for all of us just to really follow through on songs. A lot of the time a song will be abandoned on the guitar, [because] you're all, 'Ah, that's not going to be cool.' Well, maybe just follow through and see where you get, and at the end of it, if it still sucks, maybe you learned something. ... The biggest impedance of success is fear of failure."

  "Well, maybe just follow through and see where you get ..." — Mike Dirnt
While recording, the band listened to a lot of the Who and Bob Dylan, as well as less predictable records, like the soundtracks to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "West Side Story" and even "Grease." "There was a lot of different sources of inspiration and, like, none of them at the same time, because we really wanted to try to do our own thing," Armstrong says.

Although less obvious, American Idiot was also inspired by two of the singer's favorite acts, the Clash and David Bowie. "They really put everything into those records as a piece of art," he explains. "I think that's something that's missing in a lot of rock records nowadays. A lot of these guys are afraid to put themselves out there, to be ambitious. This record is about making mistakes and fixing them. We definitely threw ourselves out there and said, 'Whatever is on your mind, just throw it out there, be bold.' "

Green Day were starting the new songs around the time the United States began invading Iraq. For Armstrong, who was frustrated with his government's actions, the war became a dominant theme.

"I am anti-war, so a lot of [the album] has to do with that, and there's different sides of it too. Like, there's one line that sort of messes with liberals a little too, where it says, 'Hear the drum pounding out of time/ Another protester has crossed the line/ To find the money's on the other side,' " Armstrong recites. "That song ['Holiday'] is about this mishmash of people with all these strong opinions who really can't agree, and leaving [decisions] to the person who's sort of standing in the middle confused and overwhelmed."


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 "American Idiot"
American Idiot
(Warner Bros.)




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