Something was stirring at the end of 1991. The rest of the world had just recently been introduced to “alternative nation”, thanks to recent releases by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. But the punk-influenced sounds of grunge had direct competition from a snottier, poppier scene across America – one that was less concerned with sludge and metal.
Punk, especially pop punk, had been proliferating across the country since the original wave of ’70s bands either burned out or settled into malaise. In California, bands like The Germs and Dead Kennedys were bringing a heightened intensity to basement bars and dingy clubs, while acts like Bad Religion and The Descendants were adding more melodic influences into their sound. A whole new generation raised on skateboarding, weed, and sun were keying into the excitement of punk, and a group of teenagers playing under the name Sweet Children were about to take it mainstream.
First came the name change: Green Day. Then came their nearly weekly shows at 924 Gillman Street, the straight edge all ages refuge that birthed influential acts like The Lookouts and Operation Ivy. Green Day even managed to swipe The Lookouts drummer, an excitable and unpredictable ball of energy who went by the name Tre Cool. By the time they stumbled into the Art of Ears studio in San Francisco to record their second full length on Lookout! Records, they had a (slightly) increased budget, a solid year of touring behind them, and a whole slate of new songs written by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong.
More so than the noticeable leap in the production quality, Armstrong’s evolving songwriting ability marked the true sign that Green Day wouldn’t stay underground for much longer. Now more comfortable slowing songs down, songs like ‘Christie Road’ and ‘2000 Light Years Away’ let Armstrong muse on frittering away his life that would later be expanded upon with tracks like ‘Longview’ and ‘Burnout’. The band also leant harder on the harmonies between Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt than ever before, giving them an extra layer of weaponised catchiness with which to work with.
The most surprising part of Kerplunk when you return to it, however, is how closely it resembles their follow up and eventual breakout record, Dookie. Mixing in straight shots of barely disguised pop songs (‘One of My Lies’), bass heavy leads (’80’), lightning fast drum fills (‘Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?’), and even a jokey one-off lead vocal turn from Cool (‘Dominated Love Slave’). All of these elements would be perfected on their next record, but the lack of access to the latest equipment and mainstream distribution doesn’t hinder the band’s power in the slightest.
The most tangible connection to Dookie comes from the one song that was included on both albums: ‘Welcome to Paradise’. The Kerplunk version is slightly slower, has Armstrong and Dirnt switched on which one takes the high harmony, and has less production gloss over it. The difference between Andy Ernst’s mix on Kerplunk and Jerry Finn’s mix on Dookie is what really brings it over the top: Ernst mixes like he’s recording a live band in a basement, while Finn mixes like he’s recoding a stadium rock band. Both are solid, but they create very different listening experiences.
That was the significant difference between the two albums. Kerplunk sounded like it was recorded by the coolest garage band in your neighbourhood. Dookie sounded like a bunch of troublemaking teenagers kidnapped Butch Vig and Andy Wallace to make their own version of Nevermind. Kurt Cobain might have come to detest how maximalist and mainstream their sound became, but Green Day never backed down from the polish and professionalism that more money and more connections brought them.
“We really wanted to make our records sound like us, but a bigger version of it,” Armstrong said in 2006. “We’d seen what had happened to so many other bands before. Throughout the Eighties, if a punk band signed to a major label, it always seemed like they compromised their sound, and we didn’t want to do that”.
That’s another part of the story that’s worth talking about: Kerplunk sold 50,000 copies by the end of 1992, making it by far the biggest release Lookout! Records had ever produced. Despite including a letter of loyalty to Lookout on their debut 39/Smooth, the band released they had hit a ceiling with the independent label. Upon their signing to Reprise Records, Green Day were excommunicated from their roots: barred from Gillman, shunned by hometown friends, and viciously insulted in fan zines proclaiming them as the worst thing a ’90s band could be – sell outs.
In all of those ways, Green Day would set the precedent that all major punk bands after them would follow. The scrappy upstart gigs, the strong local following, the promising underground record that outgrows its meager label, the jump to a major, and the backlash that inevitably follows. Even though it became a cliched story, nobody did it quite as successfully as the originators, and Kerplunk remains a fascinating look into a band that was about two seconds away from catapulting themselves into the mainstream.