The Who album Billie Joe Armstrong compared to Beethoven
(Credits: Far Out / YouTube Still)
Alongside the co-founding bassist and backing vocalist Mike Dirnt, Billie Joe Armstrong formed the high-school band Blood Rage. After several name changes, the pair settled on Green Day, and since 1990, they have performed as a core trio with Tré Cool at the drumkit. Drawing inspiration from classic punk-era bands like Ramones and The Clash, Green Day soon made their mark on a global scale, especially after their major-label debut album, Dookie.
As a pioneering pop-punk act, Green Day took its most apparent cues from classic punk and its indie disciples of the 1980s, such as The Replacements and Hüsker Dü. However, if we venture farther back in time to the pre-punk years, Green Day’s unlikely yet most passionately adored luminary is the eminent British Invasion act The Who.
With punk’s explosive attitude, prog-rock’s complexity and the singer-songwriter era’s lyrical command, The Who was something of a phenomenon during its most impactful years. After sparring with contemporary pop-rock acts like The Beatles and The Kinks in the mid-1960s, The Who’s principal songwriter and guitarist, Pete Townshend, established the band’s prestigious identity with his first rock opera, Tommy.
Preceding such works as 1971’s Who’s Next, an album featuring songs from the abandoned Lifehouse rock opera, and 1973’s Quadrophenia, Tommy marked the beginning of The Who’s most influential period. Among its keen disciples is Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.
“I look at Tommy by The Who and think it should be played like someone interpreting Beethoven,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “That’s what rock n’ roll has always meant to me. It’s the modern classics of the 20th century and now the 21st.”
Armstrong’s fascination with The Who and Townshend’s unique approach to songwriting inspired the Green Day song ‘Warning’. “After ‘Time of Your Life’ [in 1997], I started getting into playing more acoustic guitar, and I really wanted to have more for ‘Warning’,” he told the same publication on another occasion.
“There was also a lot of kind of bad pop punk that was starting to happen, and I wanted to go against that genre,” Armstrong continued. “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.”
Initially, Armstrong had no intention of making a rock opera album, simply yearning to channel Townshend’s songwriting style in ‘A Quick One (While He’s Away)’. However, like Townshend, Armstrong caught a conceptual bug and soon fleshed out a narrative surrounding ‘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 explained. “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.”
Listen to ‘Pinball Wizard’, the lead single from Tommy, below. You can also read Far Out’s recent interview with Pete Townshend about his new Life House book here.