The early 90s saw the explosion of grunge onto the world music scene. Seemingly everyone who had any connection to the grunge scene or to its spiritual birthplace, Seattle, was signed by a major record label. Music got harder and slower. The polished synth sounds and overly-intricate guitar solos of the 1980s were replaced heavily distorted and simply constructed guitar parts while pristine vocals were replaced by guttural roars of often incomprehensible lyrics that were no more enlightening when read off the page. The most prominent symbol of this transformation was when Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous of the number one spot in the US. Yet this musical revolution came to a stop seemingly overnight, when in 1994 the leading figure in grunge, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide.
This tragic event seemed to represent the end of an era and the end of grunge as a musical force, though it was 1993 which saw the emergence of grunge’s replacement before anyone was even aware the party was over. In many ways it was similar. The guitars were still loud and the vocals were angry, but it was much faster and less introverted. 1993 was the year when punk rock, one of the cornerstones of grunge, finally re-emerged into the mainstream. Only this time it was a lot more radio-friendly and the genre eventually became known as pop-punk. Then the same thing happened as in Seattle, anyone connected to the Southern California punk scene was approached by a major record label and a lot of them signed, though some of the key bands of the time did not, most notably NOFX. The key record that ushered in this transformation was by The Offspring, whose politically-charged album, Smash, sold over 14 million copies despite being signed to an independent label, Epitaph Records (owned by punk rock legends Bad Religion). This was the best selling independent label album of all time. They went on to sign for a major record label and had a series of major hits, including most famously Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).
This success paved the way for Green Day to make a splash. Having forged a successful underground career themselves, selling tens of thousands of copies of their own album, Kerplunk. They then moved from the much smaller independent label, the now-defunct Lookout Records, to Reprise Records and released a record that would propel them to superstardom.
Upon its release Dookie was hailed as a classic, an antidote to the misery and sluggishness of the increasingly introspective and macabre music scene. Fast replaced slow, bright colours replaced the darkness, toilet humour replaced the seemingly unrelenting bleakness, as speed replaced heroin as drug of choice. Even the artwork seemed like a rebellion against. It was bright and chaotic with a crowd of cartoon characters getting in a muddle whilst animals threw faeces at them, and it was all done with good humour.
Yet many of the themes remained the same. “I declare, I don’t care no more” are the album’s opening lyrics, whilst the debut single’s chorus was a mantra of “no motivation”. It was these themes, along with the excellent song writing, that captured the imagination of the younger generation and resulted in what was almost a rebellion against what had come before; as grunge had overthrown the pomposity and vacuous-nature of glam-style stadium rock, so to was it being overthrown.
Yet for Green Day this album also represented a seismic shift in their songwriting. This was their third album, though their first on a major label. The first two records had a lot in common with each other, with the difference being mostly obvious in the development of lyrical themes and of a more mature songwriter. Yet one track on the second record was something far different than what went before. Welcome to Paradise was a more complex song, with an extended breakdown in the middle and demonstrated that the band were capable of far more. In many ways it was this song that laid out the blueprint for Dookie and was even re-recorded to go on the album, on which it fits seamlessly.
Lyrically, the shift was even more prominent. Whereas their previous records had been a lot about love or wistful philosophical reflections, on Dookie everything got a lot more angst-ridden. If their pre-Dookie works were about enjoying being young and dealing with everything that comes with it, Dookie is the come-down. One day you wake up to find you are no longer a child and life becomes more boring and complex. Songs about being stoned too often and the negative consequences therefore (Burnout), sit next to songs about having nothing to do (Longview) and the isolation of growing up and gaining independence (Welcome to Paradise) .
Even the songs which are works of fiction tell of a certain state of mind. Having a Blast tells of anger resulting in the protagonist becoming a suicide bomber to end a failed love affair, whilst Pulling Teeth reflects the Steven King horror story Misery, where an author is kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by an obsessed fan.
There still songs about love, but they too are drained of youthful hope and optimism. Chump tells of the hate for a rival for someone’s affection. In The End is about an on-again-off-again relationship with a shallow individual which sits nicely as a companion piece to When I Come Around, and Sassafras Roots is stripped of all optimism. Instead of a declaration of love from one person to another, it asks if they can simply “waste time” together.
Dookie contains the most distinctive pop punk bassline which runs right through the heart of their breakthrough single, Longview (the first of five to be released). Famously, the bassline was written whilst the bassist, Mike Dirnt, was tripping off LSD. In fact he was so out of it that he couldn’t even remember playing it the next day and other people told him about it. I mention this not so much because it is great (which it is), but because it overshadows all the other basswork on the album. Mike Dirnt is highly under-rated as a bassist and throughout the band’s lifetime has come up with some very interesting basslines and fills, which often go unnoticed under the distorted guitars and strong song writing. Aside from Longview, his work on Welcome to Paradise, Sassafras Roots, and Emenius Sleepus are worth mentioning, though it is consistently strong throughout the album.
The production is obviously much better and there are more guitar tracks and overdubs to give it volume, but aside from a couple of points (Welcome to Paradise middle, Chump to Longview segue way) it doesn’t really deviate from the three-piece band structure.
As a sign of intent and a change in the musical winds, there was no better indicator at the time that Dookie. Grunge had died a very public death and now it was time for something new. Few moments capture this better than the band’s headline-grabbing performance at Woodstock Festival in 1994 which saw them taunting and eventually getting into a hectic mud fight with a mud-covered, soaked-out crowd and resulted in Mike getting his two front teeth knocked out by a bouncer tackling him to the ground after mistaking him for a stage invader. It was messy, it was puerile and what’s more, it was fun. It was on that muddy staged, in front of a crowd of brown mess that Green Day exploded onto the scene, loaded with Dookie.