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Three Songs No Flash

The Punk Band Who Beat The Mainstream: Green Day Live In Manchester
John Robb , June 17th, 2010 10:25

Nobody appreciates righteousness like John Robb. After seeing Green Day live at Manchester's Old Trafford stadium, he explains why they're still so thrilling - and the ultimate small town band

In a blur of powerful anthemic songs, a stunning LED backdrop, hardcore rushes, massive ballads, serious commentary and daft stunts, Green Day arrive at the sold out 30,000 plus capacity Old Trafford cricket ground on a balmy Mancunian evening. It's a show of strength that seems to be beyond the mainstream media sense of belief.

Their stunning show, almost two hours long, is 21st century rock & roll perfection. Somehow they have managed to scratch the fabric of their constituent sound and make it work in a variety of styles that would be way beyond most bands. Forging on from their roots in the San Francisco punk rock scene, they have the adventure of The Clash and The Beatles - two constituent influences - but have very much moved in their own no-barriers direction without the associated genre fear that hampers so many bands.

Their song writing talent and ability to communicate with a huge section of the public has made them one of the biggest bands in the world today, and they are using the space they have been given very well.

There are moments in this spellbinding show that are simply beyond belief.

Green Day have taken the emotional highs and lows of a rock & roll concert and turned them into something else. Somehow they manage to combine slapstick humour, goofy pranks, fierce pop punk, heartbreaking ballads, blinding introspection and stadium bombast - sometimes all in just one song. They are at ease with massive anthems like 'American Idiot' that stuck it to the right wing pro-war media jocks and was still a huge hit; they can deal out a massive ballad, hardcore thrash or, on the Marilyn Manson tinged 'East Jesus Nowhere', a rumbling stadium glam workout. That they can also thread these into some some sort of narrative is their true genius. Their current album, which forms the backbone of their set, is a triumph in modern American storytelling.

The band can play tough. The rhythm section is superb, and Billie Joe Armstrong is one of the best songwriters operating in modern rock & roll. Despite his mass success, he still has the knack to communicate with the small town neurosis and paranoia that is at the heart of his huge constituency. Armstrong is a twitching presence with a low boredom threshold, disgusted at the world. His songs are stuffed full of punk rock polemic but they also switch from style to style with a hyperactive ease. A Green Day song may start off punk rock but could switch anywhere within thirty seconds - it shouldn't work, but it does.

All this is underlined with an incredible light show on LED screens that is easily the best I have ever seen. Stark, dark and comic book brilliant, it subtly underlines the proto power of the songs and helps to fill the stadium with a sound and vision that takes you on a trip into the dark heart of America.

Somehow Green Day manage to entertain and blow your mind...

They are more than ably supported by Joan Jett, who has been given some spotlight with the upcoming Runaways film. She still looks effortlessly sassy, sexy and cool. At 51, she's been touring her greatest hits set for years but still plays the songs with such a power and passion that they could have been written yesterday. Her supreme voice, sounding like it's been tarmacked by rock & roll, cuts through the huge PA, and her band's glam rock & roll stomps makes her, oddly, the last survivor of that very British strain of glam-rock that was the true sound of the early 70s. The youthful Jett would hang out in the glam clubs in LA, soaking up the British glamtastic rock & roll that was far different from the American glam that was to follow.

Instead of the clumsy appropriation of glam from the likes of Kiss, British glam was stompingly dark yet good-time music with tribal beats and big choruses. No one does this music any more apart from Jett, who adds a rock & roll vim and fire to the mix and has created a music that perfectly suits her no bullshit persona - a persona that has seen her lauded as one of the key mentors of the riot Grrrl scene. Joan Jett wanted to play rock & roll on her own terms and succeeded. Her cover of the Arrows 'I Love Rock & Roll' is still a totemic moment and one of THE great rock & roll anthems: when she does that guttural scream thing in the middle, it still affects your groin in a strange and beautiful way.

Joan Jett rules and it's now time for us to acknowledge this.

Green Day, too, have some history. They may still look like teen brats, but they've been around for over two decades.

It's been a long time since I was compering a gig at the legendary and just shut TJs venue in Newport. They were the first band on - some awkward, scruffy kids from San Francisco playing a speedball punk pop set to 20 fanatics at the bottom of some long-lost punk rock bill.

That night, they were plying their trade in that curious gap that existed just after Nirvana, who had reawakened interest in punk rock and inspired a generation of kids to search for a Nirvana of their own, having just missed out on their raw and visceral power.

Green Day emerged from the Gilman Street scene in San Francisco, the ultra idealistic punk rock venue that started in 1986 a year before the band were formed. They were virtually the house band in the venue, and part of the scene of bands who were shackling melody to the fierce power of hardcore.

Hardcore had rewritten the American underground, and had already spawned its own legends and hardcore crews. Ignored by the mainstream rock critics, hardcore has been the backbone of American rock for decades. Green Day were never hardcore, but were part of its idealistic take on punk rock and were very much part of the next shift - the Californian twist that added sweet melodies to the hardcore rush.

They signed to local label Lookout records and toured their way up the punk rock food chain. Their 1994 major label release of Dookie saw the band hit the mainstream powered by the international hit single 'Basket Case'. The twitching urgency of the song and their live performances was a perfect assimilation of nervy teenage neuroses, and the band have somehow managed to retain that youthful excitement with a rapidly developing musical template that is documented in tonight's show.

Sure, they still play their harder, punkier tunes; songs played with such feral energy that the dumb claims that they are not punk are swiftly thrown out the window. This had became very much part of the debate about Green Day... are they or are they not punk?

It's an odd debate. A couple of years ago, Mr. Butter Ad himself, John Lydon, was sneering at Green Day for not being punk - yet while they may be removed from the filth and the fury of The Sex Pistols, they've both straddled the great pop divide. Defining what is or isn't punk is a treacherous game, played only by fools and people not sure of how to define the indefinable. Punk is so many different things to different people that to force it into one specific sound, style or genre is quite foolish. The argument runs that Green Day's success and capability of writing super catchy songs rules them out of the punk lineage; but it would surely be the ultimate in selling out if Billie Joe Armstrong suddenly pretended that he could not wrote a catchy song that transcended boundaries, and deliberately kept his band underground to attempt to appeal to the ultra snobby purists who have filled the movement with their own petty rules.

The fact is, Green Day write great pop songs and deliver them with a ferocity that many punk bands seem incapable of. They are also the most influential guitar band of the last two decades, with a whole bizarre cross section of young groups picking up guitars in suburban garages to the sound of Green Day - far more, for example, than pet bands like The Strokes. They hardly fit into the accepted story of 'How Things Are' and hideous indie snobs run from them, scared of their capability to talk to a whole raft of people.

Old Trafford is a true triumph for a band that has it all. The scope in their song writing is breathtaking, the switching of genres and styles astonishing, and the way they manage it all within the parameters of the punk-rock code is perfect. It's the way that somehow they filter a whole gamut of pop culture and pop music through the sieve of punk-rock and make music that relates to the fractured 21st century that is stunning.

And they also do this with a great sense of humour and a willingness to engage with their audience that terrifies the snobs. It's not only supremely effective but decidedly natural. The set is also full of pranks and moments of supreme silliness that are hilarious and engaging. Billie Joe is like a perpetually hyperactive five-year-old with his mad, staring kohled-up-eyes and a supreme warmth which defies boring concepts of rock & roll cool and its studied posing. The fact that his band rock so hard that it doesn't really matter how goofy they become also helps.

They are the ultimate small town band, for all the small towns in the world ganging up on fake city cool and winning. They are a thrillingly powerful rock & roll band - a group who took punk rock to the mainstream and won, and whose live show is the best stadium show in the world in 2010.