Apparently Green Day’s album American Idiot has been adapted into a stage musical, one of those events that makes me go “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” until I remember that I’m the only person I know who cares. But strange as a musical based on a punk rock album sounds, the only surprise is that it wasn’t done sooner.
American Idiot is a rock opera concept album, released in 2004 to reveal unexpected depths to Billie Joe Armstrong and the other punks previously known for their appealing but immature punk hits from the 90’s, like Basket Case and When I Come Around. This album demonstrates an incisive understanding of the youth mentality of the 2000s and particularly the impact of the Bush administration: It beautifully evokes the helpless feeling of being trapped in a meaningless, media-controlled suburban existence, not knowing how to fight back as a corrupt regime chips away at your civil rights. Along with their followup album, 21st Century Breakdown, it’s also one of the only significant rock operas released since those of The Who, which is exactly what I want to talk about.
“The Who influenced Green Day” is practically a truism, since The Who influenced all of rock in general and punk rock in particular, but a specific line of influence can be drawn between these two bands, as illuminated by their rock operas. Even in the heyday of concept albums during the late 60s and 70s, rock operas were never very common; the only other important one is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and psychedelic rock takes a divergent path from hard rock. So when Billie Joe Armstrong decided to record one of his own, he naturally looked to The Who for inspiration.
You’re about to point out that American Idiot has absolutely nothing in common with Tommy, which is true, but it bears a distinct resemblance to The Who’s lesser-known rock opera, Quadrophenia. This album, only remembered for Pete Townsend’s soulful Love Reign O’er Me, explores the mod subculture of late 60’s Britain. The similarities are many. Both narratives are implicit rather than overt; unlike Tommy, where you can follow the story just by listening, these albums require additional knowledge to fill out the story. Each album speaks directly to the struggles and frustrations of the youth of the time; in both albums, the teenaged protagonists rebelliously leave home (Jesus of Suburbia, Quadrophenia/Cut My Hair), find and lose love (Extraordinary Girl, I’ve Had Enough), and struggle with drug abuse (Novocaine, 5:15). Both protagonists are angered by the injustices in the world but feel that there’s nothing they can do (American Idiot, Helpless Dancer). Throughout both albums, rage and love battle as opposing paths for disaffected youth. Loneliness is another theme (Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Drowned). As their self-destructive attitudes come to a fore at the climax, each protagonist faces a choice between suicide and redemption, the latter path requiring him to mature but finally letting him discover his true self (Homecoming, The Rock/Love Reign O’er Me)*.
An intriguing confirmation is Green Day’s cover of A Quick One While He’s Away. Pete Townsend’s 10-minute “mini-opera” off the album A Quick One is a nascent rock opera, his first exploration into constructing a musical narrative; in concert, he introduced it with the casually joking tone of someone showing you something he’s secretly proud of but unsure that you will like.
Overshadowed (rightfully) by their more mature later works, Tommy and Who’s Next, it’s rarely been performed since 1970 and even more rarely covered. Yet that’s one of a small number of studio covers Green Day has recorded**. By releasing it as a bonus track on the iTunes deluxe edition of 21st Century Breakdown and performing it on the associated tour, his second rock opera, Billie Joe Armstrong proverbially tipped his cards, connecting himself directly to The Who’s rock opera tradition.
*On a more superficial note, they both feature characters named Jimmy.
**As callow youths, they also covered My Generation, but who hasn’t?