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Green Day’s ‘Warning’ turns 20: the calm before the storm

What is the quintessential Green Day record? For many fans, that isn’t even a question worth asking, as the answer is like an unwritten rule: it’s undoubtedly 2004’s American Idiot. Everyone and their dad knows at least a couple of the songs – they are just that good. Older punk diehards might be more inclined to choose their third album, Dookie, with equally valid reasoning – after all, it was that record where Green Day properly arrived on the music scene

This is a question that could be debated for hours, but if you asked a bunch of fans, there would be one answer they might be unlikely to give. That answer is Warning. At the point of its release, it was perhaps regarded as the runt of the litter amongst Green Day’s albums. It was notably different from anything the band had put out at that point, incorporating elements of pop, folk and acoustic music into their punkier template to the confusion of some fans.

Indeed, although it performed well in the charts – reaching number 4 in both the UK and their native US – Warning became something of a commercial slump for the band, becoming the first album released not to achieve multi-platinum status since signing to a major label. It didn’t help that the album had been leaked on Napster three weeks before (which back then was considered a genuine threat to the music industry) and late 2000 wasn’t exactly a golden era for music of Green Day’s ilk either. Punk was out, and nu-metal was in – coincidentally enough, band of the moment Limp Bizkit released their best-known record Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water mere weeks after Warning. With this in the background, the band were, according to the owner of the studio where they recorded the album, “at a very big crossroads”. 

That studio was Studio 880, located in the band’s hometown of Oakland, California. Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool spent four months there working on their sixth record, taking more inspiration from Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home than, say, Husker Du or The Replacements (who Armstrong has cited as influences). They set out to work with Scott Litt, who is best known for producing for R.E.M, but they soon parted ways, unable to agree on a direction for the album. They then brought in long-time collaborator Rob Cavallo, while still retaining the desire to produce something a little different from what they had done in the past. 

Warning is an interesting record, to say the least. It perhaps wasn’t a nonsensical move from the Oakland trio, given the surprising success of the acoustic ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’ from their previous album Nimrod, which proved that they could blur the genre boundaries. They make a fair number of successes out of that sound, chiefly with the singles that still remain part of their live set, in the form of the defiant ‘Minority’ and the acerbic yet witty title track. Even some of the more left-turning deep cuts are successes, such as the chirpy ‘Hold On’ and ‘Jackass’, which show us what might have happened if Armstrong travelled forward a decade and stole the sketches of a song that Frank Turner was working on. 

Their biggest fans found a way to love it even if they had to sit with it for a while for it to truly grow on them

However, there is plenty of reason to understand why Warning isn’t considered Green Day’s best record. ‘Castaway’, for example, sounds oddly like the kind of scrappy song written by a green, naïve young band rather than a group who’d been making music for a decade.  Meanwhile, although ‘Misery’ is intended as an attempt at some kind of epic song, it comes off as meandering and in general, it’s just all a bit weird. If you’ve not heard the song, imagine something My Chemical Romance wrote and discarded in the sessions for The Black Parade. This isn’t the record you’d press into the hands of someone wanting to get into the band or even the genre. 

Green Day played their last show in the US in support of Warning in August 2001, not even a year after its release. This might have been seen as the move of a band realising they’ve not made the finest record of their career, but when asked in 2002 if the album was a low point, Armstrong said, “No, not at all.” What it did do, he said, was appeal to their “core fanbase” – their biggest fans found a way to love it even if they had to sit with it for a while for it to truly grow on them. At that point, that might have mattered more than critical acclaim, which Green Day didn’t have a lot of at the time, being more of a “fans’ band” as Armstrong himself referenced in an interview in 2000

It is true that Warning might not have the birthday celebration that Dookie had for its twenty-fifth birthday in February last year. However, it would be unfair for it to receive no kind of commemoration at all. Billie Joe has spoken about having “a sense of freedom” on this record and although the results were mixed, Green Day still made good music out of it. It is a daring album at the very least, and proof that they weren’t planning on playing it safe. It’s also safe to say that it is a lot better than Father Of All or the Uno/Dos/Tre trilogy. 

In retrospect, especially on songs like ‘Church On Sunday’, it’s possible to hear whispers of where the band would end up going next on American Idiot, although they themselves didn’t know at the time. The lyrics of ‘Minority’ and ‘Warning’ could almost be prophesied of the politically charged lyricism on that album: Armstrong’s fears of having “someone really conservative” in the White House at the upcoming 2000 presidential election would shortly be realised when George W. Bush was sworn in, months after Warning’s release. It’s as if the band subconsciously knew that for them, the best of their career was not in the past, but in the future. It just wasn’t going to sound like Warning. 

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