Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown Track By Track
Billie Joe Armstrong: Trying to figure out a way to start the record, [we thought of] doing something a-cappella. We were running a pirate radio station down in Southern California last summer. I sang the song and we literally just took it up to the radio station and I played the song and it kind of gave it this real nice scratchy sound. And there’s something about like old 78s [vinyl. I think there’s like a sense of like yearning about them or something, you know, just kind of like a pure honest way of recording back however long ago that was. “Song Of The Century” sort of introduces the record.
2. “21st Century Breakdown”
Billie Joe: “21st Century Breakdown” was written at two different times, in two different parts. Like there was that sort of ‘Irish drinking’ part of the song – that was written before, but it was just a riff that we were throwing around. Then we did a demo on 4-track for “21st Century Breakdown” and I thought it had a kind of British Invasion influence to it. I didn’t know if it was gonna make it or not – it was just kind of one of those songs you hold on to. And then going through like anything from “Peacemaker” to “21 Guns” I was thinking about the song “21st Century Breakdown” and I thought, well, it would be cool to be able to connect it to that sort of Irish drinking part. And then that could kind of introduce the whole record and how like the whole record is sort of about like a “21st Century Breakdown”. It kind of sums up the last 10 years, or something like that.
3. “Know Your Enemy”
Billie Joe: I don’t even think we gave much thought to what was going to be a single or anything like that. “Know Your Enemy” just seems to be one of the songs that’s a broad, bold stroke – sort of [an] anthem, you know. When it was all said and done it seemed like the obvious choice for the first single because it was you know, a call-to-arms in a lot of ways.
Tré Cool: Like a rock ‘n’ roll battle cry.
4. “¡Viva La Gloria!”
Billie Joe: “¡Viva La Gloria!” was written in different stages. The original name I was using for a while was “Amélie”. But the name Gloria, to me it just sounded maybe like the name version of Glory. And it’s the first time I’d ever sort of written from like from a woman’s point of view. You know, it’s a song kind of about me, but at the same time, if you add the name, like if you have the name and you create a character, I think it kind of gives some flesh and blood to the record. So Gloria is just sort of this person that’s kind of the torch bearer, or someone that’s trying to hold on to their beliefs, or punk rock, or whatever you want to call it. That’s what I think the song is trying to convey and it kinda adds that first character. I think Gloria is sort of the main character of the album. When we’re writing songs we do write from a standpoint of like playing live and playing in front of people and being onstage, and something that’s more like the theatrics of rock and the energy of it. So I think it’s got that intro which is like a really soft kind of ballad guitar part, but then kind of morphs into this other rock part and then comes back into the intro again with like a full sort of gushing feel.
5. “Before The Lobotomy”
Billie Joe: “Before The Lobotomy” is when the character Christian comes in for the first time. I think it’s just really trying to push the boundaries of how you arrange pop music or rock music or punk rock music and just really kind of going for it with no rules. And, you know, going until like, you know, like train, I mean the time signature on that, it’s like…
Tré: I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think (laugh) it’s not in 4/4. Also, the subject matter of “Before The Lobotomy” kind of dives into self-destruction and, you know, drug and alcohol abuse. It’s that self-destructive nature of Christian, which we see throughout the record.
6. “Christian’s Inferno”
Billie Joe: “Christian’s Inferno” is when you really get an idea of like who Christian is and what he represents and the demons that plague him. You know, it’s kind of the most diabolical song I ever written but there is something really kinda uplifting about it. The chorus is sort of an anthem. And interestingly, it’s like, yeah, we’re all like in hell.
7. “Last Night On Earth”
Billie Joe: It goes from “Christian’s Inferno” into “Last Night On Earth”. It goes from this one diabolical song to probably the most tender sort of love ballad I’ve ever written or that the Green Day has ever done. So you go from like a subway train into hell and then it explodes and you’re in the middle of like, outer space or something.
Mike: I concur. I think “Christian’s Inferno” definitely has a schizophrenic side to it. On one hand it’s about as dark a place as you can go to. And then the other side of it is this major chorus. It’s really uplifting and there’s a sense of unity in there too.
8. “East Jesus Nowhere”
Billie Joe: This song is just kind of a, a call-out against the hypocrisy of religion. I don’t think it’s necessarily a particular religion but just in general, there’s just a lot of hypocrisy that goes along with it. Whether you’re using it as a vendetta or you’re using it for monetary gain or whatever – people tend to abuse their faith in order to fulfill their God complex.
Tré: It also rocks balls. (laughs) “East Jesus Nowhere” is probably one of my favorite songs right now just ‘cos it’s just so hammering. It hits on a lot of levels for me…
Billie Joe: The song is about revenge, sort of having this vendetta. Part two is sort of about gun control. But it’s like really kind of sexually driven. It’s the first time we’re really bringing in musically like a Middle Eastern influence. I feel like music is so, so tied together, like old Irish folk hymns and Mexican folk songs and like Middle Eastern songs or whatever. [It has] some kind of gypsy flavour to it – it could it be played by a mariachi band or like an Italian funeral band or something like that.
Tré: I think calling a gun, a Peacemaker is, is pretty incredible because it really, it’s more like a death maker! But I guess you’re resting in peace if you get shot by one.
10. “Last Of The American Girls”
Billie Joe: There’s a lot of lyrics in “Last Of The American Girls”. That song started out as being about my wife and then I kind of started getting into more of my own beliefs – anything from a little book of conspiracies to like playing vinyl records or something. It’s sort of like about an empowering, sort of subterranean kind of lifestyle, but at the same time there’s a new era coming in with the way we all need to live – like living in a disposable society or something like that but actually living off garbage and finding beauty in it in some way.
11. “Murder City”
Billie Joe: This was the last song written for the record. Me and Mike and Tre were in downtown Oakland and we went out to have drinks. It was right after these demonstrations happened. This kid was shot by a cop.
Mike: While handcuffed.
Billie Joe: While handcuffed. We were walking in, I’m wide awake after the riot. We weren’t there for the riot, but it was right after. So it was kind of like picturesque and you see these sort of blowing newspapers around and I remember it being particularly windy that night. And you kinda felt like there was a, I don’t know, like a ghost or something like that. But we were out, we were out just getting fucked up, we were getting hammered, so it was this kind of strange contradiction going on, you know. That song gets stuck in my head more than the other songs do.
12. “¿Viva La Gloria? [Little Girl]”
Billie Joe: That’s where the character of Gloria kind of comes back in. The piano opening has got that sort of saloon, kind of vibe to it. I think that’s where you start to really get into the depth of Gloria as a character and understand that she’s a human… super human! (laughs)
13. “Restless Heart Syndrome”
Mike Dirnt: That song’s about government regulated emotions. You know, [in America] we can’t get healthcare but under government regulated drugs we have more commercials on TV for new drugs all the time than just about anything else. You know, on one hand you’re constantly being told you got to be on pills, you gotta fix your emotional state of mind. And yet on the other hand you might be trying to kill off old nightmares, but you could end up actually killing your dreams instead.
14. “Horseshoes And Handgrenades”
Billie Joe: “Horseshoes And Handgrenades” is an older song that [producer] Butch Vig was really into. We all looked to him on bringing that song back and it ended up being a lot of people’s favorite song on the record. I kinda think about that song, it’s almost like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Maybe it’s related to like Christian in a lot of ways, and at the end of the song it says “G-L-O-R-I-A”. It’s just kinda one of those songs where it’s kinda fucking shit up. It’s kind of just being an nihilist, but in sort of a sexy way or something. It’s kind of [about] declaring your independence but getting completely fucked up at the same time.
15. “The Static Age”
Billie Joe: “The Static Age” is about taking in every sort of advertisement and things that you don’t need and just sort of defacing them, because a billboard that is trying to sell you something is sort of static. I think the static is like a theme throughout the whole record where it’s like you’re being, uh, bombarded with the noise you already have in your head, and then having like three different televisions on at the same time or something. And the different things that are advertised to you, just constant, this like floodgate of, of useless information. And I think what you’re really trying to do is find a deeper truth or deeper meaning or something. That song is trying to make sense of the static and trying to declare like what you think is bullshit and what’s real, you know.
16. “21 Guns”
Billie Joe: “21 Guns” is definitely one of the songs where you feel like you’re playing in front of a lot of people. It’s one of the things I wrote on piano and it ended up being just sort of this moment alone, you know. I think a lot of people think that song is about world peace or something. But I think also there’s like maybe sort of surrendering to the static to try to find some kind of inner peace or, you know, finding strength in silence. You know, surrendering doesn’t always have to mean that you’re giving up. But maybe it means you’re just trying to find a little humanity.
Mike: I think that’s a good description. I mean, that’s a really powerful moment, and I think it’s gonna be a really powerful moment live too. On the record it’s one of those moments where you kinda feel like you’ve purged a lot of emotion and you’re surrendering to your emotions. Pretty heavy content.
17. “American Eulogy: Mass Hysteria” / “Modern World”
Tré: “American Eulogy” is kind of actually two songs…
Billie Joe: Well, actually it’s three because it starts off with “Song Of The Century” coming back in.
Tré: Yes, it is a triple whammy. Triple threat.
Mike: So far, the few times that we’ve played “American Eulogy” live is one of the funnest moments. Coming just after “21 Guns”, it’s such a lift. It’s kind of like rocket fuel. Starting off with “Mass Hysteria”; that song is just kind of a, an outcry for, you know, T-M-I, Too Much Information, and living in fear of everything around you and everything that you’re being told you should be afraid of.
Tré: I think within that there’s an outcry that leads right into the next song, which is “Modern World”, about not wanting to live in the modern world.
Mike: That song definitely screams out that sometimes it’s nice to get back to a place where everything’s not at the click of a button. You know, find value in things that aren’t so flash in the pan or aren’t controlled by technology. The whole record is timeless, trying to find some deeper truth. I think we’ve gone, this record we’ve gone deeper and, uh, challenged ourselves as artists and as musicians and, or as, as, uh, punk rockers than I think we ever have.
18. “See The Light”
Billie Joe: It’s like we’ve double-guessed ourselves, triple-guessed, quadruple-guessed. I mean, we really put a lot of work in. And I think a lot of that is just trying to find like a deeper truth. When you go song to song to song to song, like we’ve just been talking about, I think “See The Light” kind of sums up the journey. It talks about streets and it talks about deserts and it talks about rivers and it talks about natural disasters and every crisis, from the Swine Flu to Hurricane Katrina and everything in between, which is a lot. So I think it’s just, just trying to find more meaning in life and more belief in yourself. Now go listen to it.
For more Green Day action, pick up a copy of BLUNT Magazine #81, on sale in all good newsagents throughout Australia and New Zealand until July 8, 2009.