Punk, protest & Green Day
An interview with Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson on how American Idiot defined a generation of rebels
With four chords and seven words, Green Day’s incendiary American Idiot kicked in the door to the American political establishment upon its release with a gusto not seen in decades. Wildly ambitious in both its scope and delivery, it became an unlikely but necessary smash hit. Channelling the frustration of lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong at the then-state of the United States, the record, released in 2004, changed the course of Green Day’s career, moving them from a pop-punk band who wrote songs about girls and marijuana to a serious stadium situation, with nine minute opuses that detailed the unravelling of suburban life.
Perhaps the most prescient punk album of the newly-enshrined noughties, American Idiot has had a surprising longevity beyond its pointed critique of the Bush administration. If anything, the furious politics of the self-styled pop-punk opera seems to have more resonance in the age of Trump than ever before. It’s something not lost on Phil Jamieson, best known as the lead singer of Grinspoon and heir apparent to the coveted lead role of St. Jimmy in the musical adaptation of the generation-defining record, debuting at the Sydney Opera House in 2018.
Though mentioning that he’d “prefer to not give that guy any more airtime”, Jamieson is nevertheless aware of the parallels between the Idiot era and today. It may help explain why the musical, which takes the songs, rearranges them and blows them out for the big stage, has been such a hit overseas, picking up a Tony award and selling out theatre runs across the world. “It’s been done everywhere,” Jamieson says admiringly, over coffees in the Opera House board room. “I thought it was just performing the album when I first got the call, I didn’t realise there was a Broadway version! It’s been done in the West End, Italy, Japan, everywhere.”
Jamieson, whose own band won triple j Unearthed less than a year after the release of Green Day’s seminal major label debut, Dookie, is a huge fan of the Berkeley trio, which helps when he’s on stage singing their songs every night. It’s not his first time in St. Jimmy, the loveable anti-hero’s shoes, either, having just come off the back of an acclaimed run at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre earlier this year. Though Grinspoon never had the chance to tour with Green Day, Jamieson has kept a close eye on the band’s career. “I’ve loved them ever since Dookie. It was just the perfect record and ‘Longview’ has to be my favourite song on it. [I think] people assume that it’s easy to write a good three chord guitar pop song, but it’s actually one of the most difficult things you can do.”
“It’s the real deal. Fully reimagined. Dancers, choreography, arrangements, there’s an actual three-piece band on stage.”
The urgent, spiky sound Green Day pioneered has swung back into fashion, with festivals in Australia booking new bands that take notes straight from the group’s songbook. It doesn’t surprise Jamieson, whose two decades in the game means he’s seen it all. “Pop punk is definitely cyclical,” he says, “but as I’ve learned, so is everything!”
What’s less predictable is how popular the musical adaptation of the record has been. “When you think about 2004, when American Idiot came out, it was just at the cusp of the point where the way we listened to music changed,” says Jamieson. “The iPod and iTunes were really taking over, and we moved from albums to songs. Now we’ve moved to streaming and nobody has albums anymore, but I think that’s why musicals are having a renaissance. They compel you to sit, listen and engage with what’s going on in front of you.”
Those expecting to see a traditional band playing the record from start to finish are in for a treat. “Yeah, I thought it was that too,” laughs Jamieson, “but it’s the real deal. Fully reimagined. Dancers, choreography, arrangements, there’s an actual three-piece band on stage. You don’t see me dance, which is probably for the best, but it’s an incredible thing to watch.”
Green Day’s American Idiot is in the Concert Hall from January 11 to 14, 2018.
This piece originally appeared on Sydney Opera House | Backstage