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Music

Watch Green Day play 'Basket Case' on 'Letterman' in 1994

There was a major sea change that was about to happen to rock music in 1994. As symbolic as it was coincidental, the release of Green Day’s first major-label album Dookie happened to come just two months before the death of Kurt Cobain. Grunge was officially entering its wilderness period, with a new brand of fast, melodic, and poppy punk filling in the gaps for impressionable teenagers across America.

By the summer of 1994, Green Day were already massive. Dookie had peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, the band were playing both Lollapalooza and Woodstock ’94, and punk rock was beginning to infiltrate the mainstream. The group that started their first tour in a converted bookmobile was now able to headline major concerts around the world. They also managed to nab a spot on the coolest late-night show on TV, Late Show with David Letterman.

Letterman had recently jumped ship from NBC after being passed over for the hosting job of The Tonight Show in favour of Jay Leno. Handing his previous programme over to Conan O’Brien, Letterman decided to compete with Leno directly over at CBS, bringing with him his signature deadpan reactions, gonzo stunts, and eye for talent. Musical guests were always top tier at Letterman, and Green Day were no exception when they walked into the studio in the summer of 1994.

For their appearance, Green Day elected to play ‘Basket Case’. The song was familiar to the millions of listeners who bought Dookie, but only as an album cut: the track wouldn’t be released as a single until a month after the band’s performance on Letterman. It was already killing in Green Day’s live sets, and now a performance of the track on live television was sure to give ‘Basket Case’ its first taste of mainstream recognition.

The band themselves are tight after having just recently returned from a European tour. Especially impressive are Mike Dirnt‘s backing harmonies: the secret weapon to Green Day’s sound. Purists might bemoan the pop hooks that Green Day judiciously deployed in their songs, but the truth was that Dirnt’s ability to harmonise perfectly with Billie Joe Armstrong gave them more mainstream appeal than almost any other ragtag punk band that they might have been competing against.

This performance of ‘Basket Case’ didn’t propel Green Day into the mainstream – it was one of a number of performances that year that added to the massive wave of mainstream recognition that would come their way. It was so intense that it almost broke the band, with 1995’s Insomniac being purposefully darker and less poppy as a reaction to the easy-to-swallow pop-punk of Dookie. The zeitgeist just happened to line up with Green Day in 1994, and they took advantage of it until they couldn’t take it anymore.

Check out the performance of ‘Basket Case’ down below.