Johnny Rotten is not known for being the most diplomatic of rock stars and there’s one band in particular that the snarling frontman can’t stand in the slightest; pop punks Green Day. Considering the different time spans, continents and everything else that separates the two acts, the Billie Joe Armstrong-fronted band does appear a strange group to persistently target across numerous decades. But then again, when has Rotten ever acted rationally?
When The Sex Pistols made their comeback and embarked on their highly lucrative Filthy Lucre Tour in 1996, a string of shows which took them around the world playing obscenely large venues that even the band themselves would have been taken aback by. Despite the truly un-punk notion of a cash grab reunion tour, Rotten still made it his duty to ruffle feathers and take aim at the new kids on the block and Green Day found themselves in the unfortunate position of being on the receiving end of his seemingly faux vitriol.
“We still hate each other with a vengeance,” Johnny Rotten romantically said at the press conference announcing the tour. “But we’ve found a common cause, and that’s your money. These are the people that wrote the songs, and now we’d like to be paid for it. Over the years every fucker has lived off us, and we haven’t seen penny one.” This set the tone for the reunion. Even though Rotten didn’t attempt to pretend that money wasn’t the sole motivation behind getting the old band back together, he couldn’t resist from trying to establish The Sex Pistols as the only true punk band going.
Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong would naively make a flippant remark in an interview after he was asked about the reunion of Sex Pistols, one in which he reworked the very words of Rotten and said: “I am the anti-Christ/Please buy our merchandise”. Considering that Rotten had been open about the financial motivation behind their touring plans, you’d think he’d see the funny side but, instead, he decided to try to form a bizarre public rivalry with their young contemporaries.
The truth is, in 1996, there was no bigger punk voice than Green Day. Following the wild success of albums such as Dookie and Insomniac, the band were riding high. However, in typical fashion, Rotten still believed that The Sex Pistols were still the real voice of the youth. Whilst on the reunion promotional tour, Rotten was asked by an MTV journalist what his band could give a 16-year-old punk fan that Green Day couldn’t and he eloquently replied: “A big willie”. For context, Rotten was 40 years of age at the time of the comment.
He then expanded on his crude joke by claiming: “No, you’ve seen imitators, that’s what you’ve seen”, spat Lydon. “And you settled for that, and you think that that’s what it’s all about, Alfie. Well it ain’t. It’s a little bit more. It’s called content, which is something none of those wanky third-rate outfits have.
“There ain’t no trashy little love songs in this outfit”, he went on. “Every single lyric is a killing nail in the coffin of what you call the establishment. Like what you work for – MTV? Bye bye. I think I’ve said my piece. Now fuck off!”
“I heard that Johnny Rotten was running around telling people that we’d ripped him off”, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said to SPIN the following year before adding the ultimate putdown. “It’s funny, because if it wasn’t for the Sex Pistols there may not have been Green Day, but if it wasn’t for Green Day, the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have done their big reunion tour. To each his own.”
Following the success of Green Day’s politically charged album American Idiot, a record which reaffirmed their position as one of the world’s biggest bands, Lydon decided to have another swipe in their direction. During an appearance on his Sex Pistols bandmate Steve Jones’ radio show, he let loose: “It’s hokey little silly sods like Green Day that come in and think by sucking up to that system that you’re somehow, ‘beating the system’. You’re not. You’ve become part of it.”
He continued: “We made it easy for em to come in and nick our things off us – which is alright, it’s nice, but they’re silly, rich fat kids,” Lydon fumed. Then three years later, he had a needless pop at their expense when talking about his favourite records and said that The Raincoats’ 1979 debut album was “a million miles away from the blancmange that is Green Day, where you have a Johnny Rotten first verse, a Billy Idol chorus and a Sham 69 second verse. Preposterous!”
If there was anybody left who thought that this could all be an act by Rotten, hoping that his words of hatred weren’t sincere, then his comments to the LA Times in 2011 prove that he means every single word. “Many of the punk bands are cop-outs and imitators and have made it easy for the likes of Green Peace – Green Day, who I hate,” he said.
“I really I can’t stand them”, he continued. “To me, they’re like coat hangers, and haven’t earned the right, they haven’t earned the wings, to be wearing the mantle of punk. They haven’t had to go through the violence, and the hate, and the animosity that us chaps way back when had to put up with. We had to fight for every single footstep. I don’t think I’ve done anything good if it ends up with Green Day on Broadway.”
Rotten’s most recent comments about Billie Joe Armstrong and the band came in 2018 when he was in conversation with the New York Times about the state of punk and, seemingly unavailable to name a more relevant punk band, he slammed Green Day once more: “It is embarrassing, really. How many bands are out there like Green Day now? I look at them, and I just have to laugh. They’re coathangers, you know? A turgid version of something that doesn’t actually belong to them.”
Perhaps something more embarrassing than the number of bands supposedly like Green Day today is using a band who released their debut album in 1990 as an example of the current state of music almost 30 years later. Inadvertently, Rotten’s comments about Green Day in 2018 could, in turn, be interpreted as being a complement if he believes that decades on from their arrival that they are still the zeitgeist.