(Yes, we know it would’ve been better to post this on the actual 25th anniversary. But we missed it, and this is the weekend closest to it, so – here you go.)
Fifty years ago, there was a festival called Woodstock that almost instantly went down into legend as the peak of 60s counterculture – hippies, ‘alternative’ music, a massive sense of community – and became the sort of event that you never shut up about if you’d been lucky enough to be there. Twenty five years later, there was a cheap imitation and lame cash-in that still managed to make its mark, if largely for a few massive mud fights. Nine Inch Nails have (unfortunately) not released their Woodstock ’94 set yet, but Green Day have, and this is what we’re reviewing for today.
A brief bit of perspective: I’m young, and I only know Green Day as the eyeliner-clad, somewhat pretentious alternative rock mainstays they’ve become today. But back in 1994, it was a completely different story. All the songs that casuals know today didn’t exist yet (except for ‘Good Riddance’, but that was kicking about in a vault), and instead, they were a trio of gross, barely adult punks with two good independent LPs and a newly-released major label debut called Dookie.
We argue that Green Day’s reputation has suffered because of all the mediocre pop punk bands that they opened the door for. Say what you will about the Hot Topic-core bands of the early 2000s (we don’t want to risk shooting our mouths off too much, a lot of our friends really like them), but it’s undeniable that Dookie is influential – and, if you strip it back, brilliant. The most teenage record of all time is also the most relatable – with songs about masturbation, frustration, anxiety, sexuality, girls, drugs, and rock and roll, it’s basically a fifteen year old’s diary over three-chord riffs and excellent pop hooks.
As Dookie steadily built in popularity, Green Day’s tour rolled across the United States, peaking right around the time of Lollapalooza. Sharing a stage with older, more experienced bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys (Nirvana would’ve headlined if it wasn’t for a rather unfortunate incident in April), the newly famous Californian punks blew audiences away, earning a rabid teenage fanbase. MTV was playing them constantly, the singles were getting major airplay…everything was coming up Milhouse, and it all came to a peak at Woodstock.
From the band’s introduction (“What kind of a day do we want?!”), they make their way through a quick set in the only way they knew how – biting sarcasm. “How are you doing, you rich motherfuckers?” opens Billie Joe Armstrong, crunching on his guitar before flying right into ‘Welcome to Paradise’. (The vinyl has been mastered amazingly, a great improvement on the existing bootlegs of this show – even if I’m only listening to a YouTube rip, linked below.) The instrumental bridge features Mike Dirnt at his melodic best, and Tré Cool is pounding away at the back. Everything’s in full working order, and the crowd is loving it – even if the band don’t seem to be. “Don’t smoke the brown weed!” “Look at you fucking dirty motherfuckers.” They’re heckling and taking the piss, even about themselves – Armstrong introduces Kerplunk! highlight ‘One of My Lies’ by saying “This is off one of our records that no one has.”
After finishing that song, and going off into a stream of expletives, Armstrong gives off the message that both makes and (eventually) ends this performance. “Hey, throw mud at each other”, he commands, and the ecstatic audience obeys. Then follows ‘Chump’ into ‘Longview’, and they hit their stride with a string of big singles, songs that they play at basically every show and the entire audience knows by heart. But after an uptempo rendition of ‘When I Come Around’ – released on the official Woodstock 94 compilation back in the day – the problems start to set in. Armstrong’s guitar starts to get noticeably muddier in the middle of ‘Burnout’, as the weather (and moods) start to go sour. “I hope it rains so much you all get stuck!” they sneer at the crowd, before Armstrong jumps into ‘F.O.D.’ – a song which probably encapsulates the band’s feeling at this point. With mud getting thrown at them, equipment failures, and one particularly enthusiastic fan storming the stage to choke/hug Armstrong, it’s a shambolic performance but admirably held together. (In a 2001 interview with the excellent fansite greendayonline.net, Larry Livermore tells of a 1989 show where the 17-year old band members played the best show on a bill with Screeching Weasel and the Mr. T Experience while blackout drunk.)
The generic live drum finale gives way into ‘Paper Lanterns’, arguably the band’s best song of the early days and the highlight of this set. Letting loose with a scream, it quickly degenerates into absurdity, Armstrong putting down his guitar to throw some mud right back at the audience, one man against 35,000. This is the most disappointing feature of the vinyl, in that it doesn’t feature the video of this fight (and the delightful image of Armstrong baring his ass to the crowd). Instead, we just get Dirnt hammering away at the song’s rubbery bassline for minutes at a time, with occasional pieces of snarkery from Armstrong to keep the crowd on edge. “Everyone on this side, yell ‘Rock and roll!’. Everyone on this side, yell ‘Shut the fuck up!’.”
He summarises it well with one last pronouncement: “This isn’t love and peace, this is fucking anarchy!” The crowd has lost its mind, and it’s getting to the stage where it’s dangerous to have yourself up there as a target. The band quickly flee, Woodstock organisers try in vain to calm the crowd, and the vinyl captures it all (probably going for much longer than it should, to be honest). While Green Day would get, somehow, more famous, they would never get this messy.