The rock opera sub-genre has dropped out of vogue in recent years, seemingly left to rot in the drizzling rain by the wayside of previous icons who no longer prop up the charts. Famously, The Who popularised the format in the 1960s, shortly before Lou Reed and Pink Floyd adopted it as a vehicle to create their own masterpieces. However, it soon fell out of fashion, and the heap of unsold records piled high. Then, as if a phoenix armed with a guitar slashed out of the ashes, Green Day feverishly resuscitated the rock opera back to life with their hit song American Idiot.
In hindsight, Green Day were an unlikely act to follow in the trailblazing footsteps of The Who. However, as their career has progressed, the similarities between the two groups have become visible – and not just because of their endless cash-grabbing appetite for anniversary tours. The two bands emerged as loud, brash, angry kids with a chip on their shoulder and a fierce point to prove. Simultaneously with both groups, as their careers advanced, they began to express their storytelling credentials in new-found ways, producing narrative-based records that propelled them to unprecedented heights.
Following Green Day’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, Armstrong paid his respects to his band’s spiritual forebearers, The Who. He even revealed that their album, Tommy, is what “rock ‘n’ roll has always meant to me” — and praise doesn’t get much loftier than that.
“I look at Tommy by the Who and think it should be played like someone interpreting Beethoven,” he told Rolling Stone. “That’s what rock n’ roll has always meant to me. It’s the modern classics of the 20th century and now the 21st.”
‘Warning’ is a Green Day track directly inspired by The Who, and they forced Armstrong to analyse his approach to songwriting. “After ‘Time of Your Life’, I started getting into playing more acoustic guitar, and I really wanted to have more for ‘Warning’,” he told the same publication.
He continued: “And there was also a lot of kind of bad pop punk that was starting to happen, and I wanted to go against that genre. This felt like the next step. I had been getting into listening to more of the Kinks and The Who, who found a lot of power in an acoustic song, and used the guitar almost like a drum. ‘Pinball Wizard‘ is so percussive.”
Armstrong had no intention to make a full rock-opera record and, instead, wanted to dip his toes into the water as Pete Townshend did with ‘A Quick One (While He’s Away)’. However, the singer caught the infectious bug just like Townshend did in the ’60s, and he dreamt up a whole dystopian landscape around the track ‘American Idiot’.
“I loved ‘A Quick One (While He’s Away)’ by The Who, and I decided I’d love to write a song that felt like a mini-opera,” he said about the origin of the song, adding: “After I wrote ‘American Idiot,’ I was like, ‘Who is this character?’ Then the ideas started firing at me: ‘I’m the son of rage and love/The Jesus of Suburbia/The Bible of none of the above.’ It felt like I was in uncharted territory, really for the first time. I’d taken my songwriting to another level.”
Both Townshend and Armstrong’s songwriting was elevated once they absorbed themselves into these worlds that they eloquently painted in their heads, a space that allowed them to explore themes that they’d previously left untouched. Tommy helped Armstrong realise that a rock ‘n’ roll album could figure itself into any shape it wanted to be, and that is a mindset he has successfully channelled throughout his resplendent career.