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12 October 2022

Two decades ago, my dad gave me a CD – and a teenage obsession was born

Nimrod is not the definitive Green Day album, but to me it was wild.

By Pippa Bailey

By the time I turned 13 I was as desperate to cover up the lilac walls of my bedroom as I had been to paint them the shade in the first place. My chosen wallpaper was the pages of Kerrang! – photographs of boys with drumsticks and eyeliner were Blu-Tacked over every last inch. The most sought-after position in this gallery of emos was at the end of my bed, and it was reserved for Green Day. Every night as I slept, Mike, Tré, and Billie Joe – the ultimate object of my hormonal affections, all skinny white tie and tousled black barnet – stood over me. Several of my classmates had tickets to the band’s show at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 2005 (immortalised in the live album Bullet in a Bible), and they scrawled Biro countdowns to the day on their hands while I looked on in envy.

My very first Green Day album, Nimrod, turns 25 this month. It is still my favourite. My father gave it to me aged 12, and later – too late – my mother flicked through the lyric booklet and scowled (I imagine now that “Platypus (I Hate You)” was the primary offender – I’ll leave you to google the lyrics as I doubt my editor will allow me to reproduce them here).

Nimrod is a midlife crisis of an album. “I was a young boy that had big plans/Now I’m just another shitty old man,” Billie Joe Armstrong sings on “The Grouch” (though he was only 25 when it came out in 1997). It falls in the middle of Green Day’s two best-known records, Dookie (1994) and American Idiot (2004). It wasn’t the “difficult” second album, but it was still a sort of “what next?” record.

The band had left the independent label on which they found underground success with their first two records, they’d made money, and they were, inevitably, accused of selling out. No one wants to see punk grow up. (“We sell out every show we play,” Tré once shrugged. “Besides, everything is for sale in this world.”) In the summer of 1996, they cancelled a European tour partway through, citing exhaustion, and retreated home, where wives and children now awaited them. It was in this period of withdrawal that Nimrod was written, and that emerged the confident, ambitious style that would take them from boys in a garage to the MK Bowl.

In his book about the band, Ben Myers recounts Armstrong telling the crowd a story from stage one night: “A guy walks up to me and asks, ‘What’s punk?’” he said. “So I kick over a garbage can and say, ‘That’s punk!’ So he kicks over the garbage can and says, ‘That’s punk?’, and I say, ‘No, that’s trendy.’” Nimrod is what came out of the upended punk garbage can. It is an energetic, sprawling album; at once chaotic – a whopping 18 songs – and controlled – over in just 50 minutes. It swings from punk to ska to surf-rock. It is not an album designed to sound and feel cohesive. And it is not, as a result, universally loved.

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“Nice Guys Finish Last”, its opener, is a big, three-chord track that would have fit on any of the previous albums. The staccato, splattering “Hitchin’ a Ride” and “The Grouch” are comfortingly familiar, too (aside from the former’s Middle Eastern-inspired violin opening). The lightning-speed “Platypus”, with its eyebrow-raising lyrics, is pure, scrappy punk; “Take Back” is similarly paced hardcore; “All the Time” is softer, catchier and distinctly Seventies. “Last Ride In” is a rolling, boppy instrumental interlude, and “King for a Day” is a ska-adjacent crowd-pleaser; listen to the audience I so envied scream along to it on the live album Bullet in a Bible.

And then, of course, there’s Green Day’s equivalent of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – the one hit that everyone, no matter who you are, knows: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”. An acoustic song with string accompaniment, it was the greatest divergence from the band’s signature sound on the album. In Year 9 my fellow biology students and I – ever earnest – sang it to an outgoing teacher, Mr Pius, not understanding how spiteful the lyrics are, like a Shakespeare sonnet read in innocence at a wedding.

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I now realise that my father could have chosen a better album to introduce me to Green Day than Nimrod: it sounds like Green Day, but it’s not vintage Green Day. Nimrod is broad and form-breaking and experimental (though not so experimental as to be career-ending; my Billie was too smart for that). But I only came to appreciate what it meant once I’d added their earlier records to my CD rack.

Nimrod was the group’s decisive response to the arguments that raged in the Nineties about whether they were a punk band or a pop band, Californian or wannabe Brit, underground or sell-out: we don’t care. And for a teenager who cared rather too much about everything, it was wild.

[See also: I’m moving house again – and moving away from my old, hurt self too]

This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?