Green Day's 'Kerplunk' Turns 25: Remembering An Album Meatier Than Its Toilet-Joke Title Suggests

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns
Green Day photographed in the early 90s.

In the early ‘90s, Kerplunk was to Green Day what Bleach was to Nirvana. Both were indie precursors to major-label breakthroughs, and both were retroactively discovered by a great many fans -- after Dookie made the former and Nevermind the latter bona fide phenomena. You couldn’t go wrong with either, but only one of these pre-fame LPs presents a fully formed band already ripe for radio.

That album was Kerplunk, released 25 years ago today (Jan. 17, 1992, although some copies had come out on the DL in Dec. 1991) on the California pop-punk bastion Lookout! Records. It was Green Day’s second full-length and first outing with drummer Tre Cool, who makes his presence known in a big way. Along with Mike Dirnt’s squishy, sprinting bass-lines, Tre’s hyperactive walloping gives power to what people have always loved about this East Bay trio: leader Billie Joe Armstrong’s two-minute blasts of sincerity.

As with Dookie -- which dropped in 1994 and presented Green Day as a candy-colored alternative to the day’s drab grunge acts -- Kerplunk is more earnest than its toilet-humor title suggests. Armstrong grew up loving the Replacements, and he shared that group’s tendency to sit arresting songs next to fairly asinine ones. On Kerplunk, Green Day follow the silly S&M-meets-C&W hoedown “Dominated Love Slave” with “One of My Lies,” a bracing song about questioning God, contemplating mortality, and realizing your own puny place in the universe.

“Do you think you're indestructible and no one can touch you?” Armstrong sings, already sneering like a snotty Cali burnout who’s watched a few too many British punk documentaries. He knocks himself and everyone around him off their high horses -- then lights up a joint and forgets the whole damn thing: “All I wanna do is get real high.”

In the next song, “80,” Armstrong uses the word “anxiety,” and not in the generic sense. As he later explained in relation to the Dookie single “Basket Case,” he’d suffered panic attacks throughout his life. In light of this, Kerplunk isn’t necessarily about garden-variety teen angst. On the scraping near-ballad “Christie Road,” a painfully bored Armstrong worries his “brains will explode.” The antsier “Android” finds the then-20-year-old wondering whether he’ll become a bum or maybe die young. There’s another reference to smoking dope -- ”my chemical emotions” -- and another shrugged acknowledgement he’s self-medicating in a bad way.

Elsewhere on Kerplunk Armstrong explores different types of romantic longing -- the starry-eyed “2,000 Light Years Away,” the stalker-ish “Private Ale” -- and retreats defensively into his own melon on “No One Knows.” On “Who Wrote Holden Caufield?” he suspects he might share some stuff in common with the kid in The Catcher In the Rye, but what’s he gonna do, read it? It’s easier to just rip through another masterpiece of adolescent disaffection, The Who’s “My Generation,” as he and an earlier incarnation of Green Day do on a bonus cut included with reissues of Kerplunk.

The remarkable thing is how vibrant the band makes it all feel. Armstrong had already mastered the Taco Bell method of songwriting necessary for any great punk bandleader: He uses the same ingredients over and over to make stuff that has distinct flavors. He spices things up nicely on “Welcome to Paradise,” the most accomplished song on Kerplunk. It tells of a young punker leaving home to live in a crummy warehouse squat with his buddies. Armstrong means “paradise” sincerely and facetiously, and that spiraling bass-and-guitar breakdown captures the narrator’s mix of fear and excitement. It’s pop-punk’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Green Day rightly re-recorded it for Dookie.

About that ‘94 big-league debut: It was no sell-out move. Relative to Nirvana’s Nevermind -- which involved some scrubbing up of the Bleach sound -- Dookie was just a tighter, brighter version of what Green Day had always done. To discover Kerplunk after Dookie was to confirm that, yes, these new voices of young American idiocy were genuine. They made it to heavy rotation by being their goofy, whiny, neurotic selves -- not by trying to be cool. For a little while, those two things just happened to overlap.