“Punk has always been about doing things your own way. What it represents for me is ultimate freedom and a sense of individuality.” – Billie Joe Armstrong
Billie Joe Armstrong is best known as a member of the American rock band Green Day, a group that he had founded in 1986 along with his friend and fellow band member Mike Dirnt. Although Green Day was essentially billed as a somewhat traditional rock band, the label has more commonly developed into that of pop-punk group, a branding which Armstrong has strongly rebuked: “I’ve always hated the phrase ‘pop-punk’. I think it’s a contradiction in terms. Either you’re punk, or you’re not,” he said. But that is not to say he had anything against punk music either. Most of the highlights of his career had been through his punk personality and musical expression that he loved producing – mostly because he felt like he could relate to it much more. Armstrong came from a scene, at a point in time when no two bands were similar. In fact, the more original they were, the better off their chances of rising to fame was – at least when it came to all things punk. Keeping that in mind, of course, ‘pop-punk’ appears as an oxymoron in itself – with ‘pop’ being everything that was commercially mainstream, whereas ‘punk’ withheld all things offbeat.
Armstrong’s relationship with punk had been rather complex, especially with the changing times and how he had evolved as a person over the years. Introduced to punk rock as a kid of 10 years of age, Armstrong had a lot of influence from the genre which later worked its way into his career as well. In an interview, he remembered how, as a young musician, there came a point in his life, where he felt “like, I don’t care if I become popular or famous. This is the kind of music that I love. This is the style I love, and this is what I want to play” – an outlook that was essentially what being punk was all about. And, this is where it all began…
Armstrong said that his conversion to punk was sudden and that it took place around the time Green Day became a band. There he was, barely a young-adult, sitting in front of his television, watching The Primitives’ perform their punk gem ‘Clash’ on MTV in a video face-off. The shock set in when he saw that this band he had been rooting for, lost the face-off to an insignificant competitor. In that moment, Armstrong made the resolution to pursue what he wanted to do musically and not settle for what was expected of him; in other words, this was the moment when Armstrong’s inner punk revealed itself. But his career was a constant struggle of switching between producing and releasing albums, working with other musicians, having a huge fanbase, family, and so much more. It was obvious, that in certain instances, compromises had to be made.
In 1990, Armstrong joined a punk rock band called the Pinhead Gunpowder with whom he worked for more than a decade. He also played in several live performances along with another punk group called Rancid. He was even approached by Rancid’s lead singer, Tim Armstrong with the proposal to join the band. However, Armstrong was involved with Green Day at that point of time. He saw it fit to continue performing with them and therefore decided against leaving the band. Billie Joe Armstrong went on to produce some of the most memorable tracks with Green Day including ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’, and so on. In the end, though, his thoughts on what he considered to be the true essence of punk music resonated with a lot of people, which also acted as words of encouragement with anybody starting out or joining in the punk scene:
“There are always young bands playing in their garages. A lot of punk rock is not going to be in the mainstream. It’s below the radar. The beauty of it is that you’re not supposed to always know. It’s subterranean.”