Why Green Day Didn’t Want to Be Rich

It’s nearly two years since Californian punk rockers Green Day were inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame, where they enjoy the company of acts like NWA, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, U2 and the Beatles to name a few. The American idiots are now one of the biggest-selling artists of all time, have their own Broadway musical based on their album American Idiot and are credited with being responsible for the second commercial coming of punk music in the 1990’s. Though the band never found it easy to cope with the amount of commercial success they received. Why? Ethics.

Founding figures of economics like Adam Smith were philosophers and incorporated philosophical thought into their work in economics. Today the field of economics is considered a much colder and analytical discipline than it was once. Though philosophy and the study of ethics can still have an important role to play in economics today because ethics can have a huge impact on individual and firm decision making. It’s why so many big businesses might give their profits to charity instead of saving or investing them because it reflects well on the business ethically. Ethics were certainly a driving force in the decisions of Green Day early on in their career, turning down most bands’ wildest dream, a six-figure major label recording contract because commercialism didn’t agree with the ethics of punk music.

Punk music may seem like a dangerous, aggressive “anything goes” kind of community but it has a quite strict set of ethical codes. The key ethical code, of course, being that true punk bands can’t sign onto major record labels because it’s a violation of punks “anti-commercialism” ethics. Bands who sign with major record labels like Sony and Warner Bros have to make certain compromises with the music they make because record labels value the monetary quality of the music more than the artistic quality of it, and as a result they want a nice pretty product that people will buy, and unfortunately for them punk rockers don’t really care too much for the finer details.

You see punk rock is a genre of music which developed in the mid to late 70’s as a backlash to the polished and professional sound of corporate bands like the Beatles and Eagles. The idea behind punk rock is that it isn’t perfect or polished, it’s a simple style music that sends a message and encourages kids all over the world to pick up their shitty old guitars and make music even if it is only the same four chords over and over. This kind of mentality is exactly what lead to bands like Green Day refusing to sign record contracts that would have made them richer than any musician from their scene.

Green Day were a part of the underground punk scene in Rodeo in California called Gilman Street. There the band signed to the independent label Look Out records who produced albums on shoestring budgets for bands in the underground punk scene. Green Day’s first album with the label was produced for under $700 but it gave the band a massive underground following and attracted huge interest from major record labels. One record label was so keen to sign the band they even took them to Disney Land and after their all-expenses paid trip, Green Day simply refused to sign the contract. Another label rep even tattooed their album logo on his ass and they still didn’t sign.

In 1992 Green Day released their second album Kerplunk still on an independent label and even though the distribution network was only people selling Green Day’s albums out of their vans the band still managed to sell 70,000 copies. The band’s shows were getting more and more out of hand with increasing crowds showing up resulting in their small shows getting shut down. It became apparent that the band had outgrown the punk community they had grown up in and they decided to sign with a major record label Reprise. The band were initially kicked out of the Gilman street community and labelled as sell outs. Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong even remembers sneaking back into the Gilman street club and seeing “Billie Joe must die” written on one of the bathroom mirrors because of their signing to Reprise. Billie Joe even wrote a song about the experience, Good Riddance (Time of you Life), which is often mistaken for a breakup song with a romantic partner but it’s actually about leaving the punk community he grew up in.

The band would go on to release the 1994 album Dookie and sell millions of records, be recognised as one of the best-selling artists in music history and make the punk look of dyed hair and converse shoes a commercial brand again in the suburbs of the world in the late 90’s and early 00’s. So, maybe according to punk ethics Green Day aren’t technically punk but there is something very punk about pissing off the entire punk community by becoming one of the greatest bands ever.

by Daragh O’Leary


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