Green Day haven’t always been the stars we know them to be today. Before American Idiot, there was Dookie, the trio’s major label debut; before Dookie, there was Kerplunk, their second full-length effort, and the collection of songs that showed them the first glimpse of success and got them on the radar of the major labels. But getting the band to record the album wasn’t easy, as Larry Livermore, the founder of the Bay Area DIY staple Lookout Records, recalls in his (excellent) book How To Ru(i)n A Record Label:
I’d been bugging Billie, Mike, and Tre about coming up with something new since the spring of 1991, when I all but ordered them into the studio to record some demos. It turned out they had only enough material for half an album, and while the songs were good, they were less than fully formed. Summer rolled by with no sign of further progress. I didn’t understand what the holdup was. The way I saw it, Green Day were so talented that they could crank out an album anytime they wanted to. Luckily, I didn’t get a chance to hound them about it — they were not a band that responded well to that kind of pressure — because they spent most of the year on the road. Then in the fall of 1991, almost without warning, I was handed a finished 12-song tape. “It’s called Kerplunk,” they told me.
Buzz around Green Day was spreading rapidly around the local community, and slowly across the country as they embarked on tours playing basements and dive bars across the continental U.S.. To compensate for the band’s growing popularity, Lookout doubled their typical vinyl numbers, pressing an initial run of 10,000 copies of Kerplunk for release the same week that Nirvana would overtake Michael Jackson to hit Number 1 on the charts with Nevermind. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the 10,000 copies weren’t enough, as Lookout “sold every one of them the day it came out,” writes Livermore.
The numbers would continue to grow in exponential numbers, and 25 years later, Kerplunk has moved more than 4 million copies worldwide, and Green Day remains one of the biggest rock bands in the world, as their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame proves. To celebrate 25 years of Kerplunk, I interviewed Livermore about the making of the album, Green Day’s growth since then, and whether they’re still the same three kids he met in the early 90’s.
Do you consider yourself an instrumental figure in the rise of Green Day? You should.
Instrumental? You mean like a tool? I don’t know, I don’t want to overplay my role; after all, I didn’t write or play the songs, or give the guys their inbuilt [sic] charisma. My only contribution, really, was to give them a chance to get their music heard at a time when no one else was likely to be paying attention. If anything, I think that makes me more of a catalyst than an instrument.
Can you tell me a little about the musical and social atmosphere that birthed Kerplunk?
By the time Green Day got started on Kerplunk, they had already been playing as a band for three years, and the scene they were part of, centered around Berkeley’s Gilman Street, and Lookout Records, which was more or less the Gilman house label, was already fairly well established, though still quite small. Green Day were considered rising “stars” within that scene, but to put that in context, it meant that a couple hundred people might turn out for their shows, as opposed to 50 or 100 for some of our other bands. But they still were greatly overshadowed by our biggest band, Operation Ivy, who, even though they’d already been broken up for a couple of years, were still selling at least twice as many records as Green Day.
25 years ago, when Lookout released Kerplunk, what was your expectation for the record’s initial success?
I thought it would do well. But again, you need to put “well” into context. For us at that time, it meant selling in the neighborhood of 3,000 to 5,000 records. There was quite a buzz developing — still mostly within the underground, though — around Green Day, but at the same time, there was also a question of this being their first recording with a new lineup, as their original drummer was replaced by Tre Cool the year before. Both as a result of that lineup change and given the band had a couple more years experience playing and touring, the new record sounded significantly different from their first album. So there was some question about how people would react to that, too. As it turned out, though, Kerplunk sold out its first pressing of 10,000 copies the same day it was released. At the time it was by far our biggest launch ever. By far.
Does Kerplunk hold up 25 years later?
I think so. More than a few people have cited it as their favorite Green Day album. For me, personally, though, it’s a tossup between 39/Smooth and American Idiot.
You wrote in your book about the immediate impression that Green Day’s live show had on you — can you describe what made it so special after seeing so many bands come through Gilman Street?
They had an undeniable and unmistakable charisma, and even as teenagers, were experienced and gifted musicians who played with such assurance and confidence that you’d think they’d been at it all their lives. Which actually wasn’t far from true: Billie Joe had been performing since around the age of 5, and Mike and Tre got their start around ages 11 or 12.
Does the record capture the vitality of the live show that had such an impression on you?
I don’t think any record ever does that. The live show and the recording are two different art forms, really, and records that try too hard to replicate a live show (or the reverse) usually end up failing in both departments. Green Day’s live show, then as now, was far more freewheeling and anarchic than their rather tightly disciplined recordings, and I think they got that balance just about right. Listening to the records is likely to make someone want to experience the live show, but it’s no substitute for it.
25 years later, are they the same three guys you knew in the early ’90s?
Is anybody, really? They are middle-aged family guys in their 40s now; back then they were teenagers dealing with all the drama and transformation that comes with being a teenager piled on top of the first stirrings of rock and roll stardom. I’d say their fundamental character as human beings is essentially the same even if almost all their personal circumstances have changed dramatically, but they were a joy to work with and very easy to get along with back then, and though it’s been many years since I’ve worked with them, it’s still a joy to be around them.
Have you heard Revolution Radio? If so, what are your thoughts on the record, and the band’s recent anti-Trump protest at the VMAs?
I have heard bits and pieces of it, and I actually heard the whole album while riding around in a car with some girls in Japan, but the girls were talking the whole time, so I wasn’t able to really focus on it. It sounded like Green Day. As for the TV protest, I found it interesting because they were never, at least not in their early years, noted for taking political stands (this began to change in the late ’90s, when they began getting involved with local Bay Area issues, and even more in the 2000s, when I think American Idiot definitely marked a step into the larger political arena). And it’s also noteworthy how, despite the way rock and punk rock music is seen (or at least marketed) as being rebellious and anti-authoritarian, Green Day, who in the past were often attacked as being a “kid band” or “lightweight” or “not really punk,” were one of the very few bands to make such a forthright and overt statement.
Is there any unreleased Green Day material from the Kerplunk era that might see the light of day in honor of the anniversary?
Not that I know of. They recorded an earlier version of half the songs on Kerplunk, about six months before the actual recording, but at that point abandoned the project because they (and we as their record label) realized that it wasn’t really ready to be an album yet. I’m sure those recordings are out there somewhere, but they’re basically just less-tight versions of the songs that ended up on the album. I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to them.
Are you listening to any current bands that had the same immediate impact as those early Green Day shows?
Not really, but that’s probably more my fault than that of the bands who are playing today.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of the form of punk rock that you and Lookout helped to popularize? Are there any bands you wish you could have signed?
Well, it’s kind of old people’s music now, isn’t it? Well, middle-aged people’s, anyway. You know how they say, “History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes”? People who fail to get this always expect today’s revolution (whether musical, political, or cultural) to come dressed in the same trappings as it was when they were young, but it never really works that way. Many people my age, who came of age in the 1960s, can only conceive of radical music as being played by long-haired acid rockers, and much the same is true of subsequent generations: For example, 1970s-era punk veterans scorned Green Day and other Lookout/East Bay as not being “real” punks because of their lack of studs, spikes, and nihilistic attitudes. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Lookout sound was something fresh and invigorating, a more upbeat and, dare I say, constructive take on the confrontational energy of ’70s punk. But now? Much as I love it, to some extent, it’s become nostalgia. Kids of today will have to develop their own form of rebellion, and though it may look and sound very different from the punk rock of the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, or the hippie music of the ’60s, or the rock and roll of the ’50s, or the jazz and swing of the ’20, ’30s, and ’40s, the animating spirit remains fundamentally the same: The desire to be and discover more, to ultimately transcend and re-invent ourselves. Isn’t that what culture is always supposed to be about anyway?
Revisit Kerplunk on Spotify below and pick up Livermore’s book How To Ru(i)n A Record label here.