Gilman, Green Day and Olivia Rodrigo: The rise, fall and rise again of pop-punk

Is pop-punk making a comeback?
Is pop-punk making a comeback?

It’s been 20 years since the release of Good Charlotte’s The Young and the Hopeless. Is it an all-time classic that deserves a deep-dive retrospective? No, it’s a perfectly decent skate-punk album that’s a little overwrought in places. A forgotten curio? It sold pretty well at the time.

Instead, what the anniversary represents is arguably the high-water mark of a genre of music that is, 20 years later, making its return to the mainstream. This is the tale of the rise and fall of pop-punk music, and why it may just be ready to rise again.

The origins of the style of music that would come to be known as pop-punk can, of course, be traced back to bands like The Ramones, The Clash, The Undertones and The Buzzcocks. However, the genre as we know it today sprang from one address: 924 Gilman Street, Berkeley, California.

It was there that a punk rock club was conceived by Maximumrocknroll founder Tim Yohannon, opening its doors on New Years’ Eve 1986. In order to avoid being shut down by the police it was as straight edge as straight edge gets: no drinking, no fighting, no drugs.

Other rules, enforced by the volunteers who ran the club, included no racism, no sexism, no homophobia and, as though it were as bad as the others, no major label bands.

Many punk clubs of the time were dominated by speed metal and aggressive hardcore sounds, which in many cases unfortunately attracted a skinhead element. Indeed, by 1988 the punks of Gilman Street had to physically repel an invasion of far-right elements who had presumably misunderstood the deeply coded message in the Dead Kennedy’s song ‘Nazi Punks F*** Off’.

The club, the story of which was told in the documentary ‘Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk’, hosted Riot Grrrl acts as well as ‘homocore’ groups – that being the self-appointed title of the gay punk underground.

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Gilman Street would also play host to the first show by Operation Ivy, members of whom would later form Rancid, and the club became a recruiting ground for the local independent punk label run by Larry Livermore, Lookout Records.

The label lasted until 2012 and, it may be surprising to learn, its success wasn’t based on sales of records by Crimpshrine, Sewer Trout and Isocracy.

While releases by Operation Ivy brought strong sales – at least in terms of an underground punk scene – the real breakthrough came when Lookout signed up a young Gilman Street band named Green Day.

Initially rejected for a stage slot due to their music being ‘too pop’ – “we were pretty pop,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong shrugs in ‘Turn It Around – that combination of the melodic sensibilities of The Beatles and The Kinks with the power of punk’s first wave proved to be a winner.

Their debut LP 39/Smooth sold 3,000 copies – a perfectly healthy return for an indie punk label – but it was its follow-up that really took pop-punk mainstream. Having recruited Tim Armstrong’s former drummer Tré Cool and built a loyal following thanks to a relentless touring schedule, Green Day released Kerplunk on December 17, 1991 to sales of 10,000 on its first day.

Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day performs at V Festival in 1998 (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Sales of that level were bound to be noticed and the band were soon approached my major labels – putting them firmly at odds with the Gilman Street ethos. When they signed for Repreise, Yohannon felt the group had sold out and immediately banned them from the club, while Armstrong had urged them to release one more record on Lookout.

For his part, singer and main songwriter Billie Joe pointed out he was a high school dropout from a single parent household who didn’t have the financial security of some of those crying ‘sellout’.

Green Day’s first album on Reprise (a subsidiary of Warner Bros), Dookie, would eventually sell 15 million copies. Lookout, meanwhile, made an estimated $10m on subsequent sales of 39/Smooth and Kerplunk!.

While major label distribution definitely helped, the success of Dookie was also in part due to capturing the zeitgeist. Released the same year as Kevin Smith’s movie Clerks the pair act as documents to the rise of what was dismissively termed ‘slacker’ culture.

“I declare I don’t care no more,” sneers Armstrong on the album’s opening track. “I’m burning up and out and growing bored, in my smoked out boring room”. Elsewhere ‘Longview’ served as a three-minute long ode to the joys of masturbation, ‘Sassafras Roots’ to marijuana and ‘Having A Blast’ is an in-hindsight-uncomfortable fantasy of shooting up your school.

Unlike, it could be argued, some of the bands which would follow them though Green Day could do depth too. ‘Welcome To Paradise’ told the sort of small-town tale Bruce Springsteen made famous, smash-hit ‘Basket Case’ deals with Armstrong’s anxiety and ‘Coming Clean’ concerns his bisexuality – even in the wake of Nirvana that was a pretty progressive thing to be singing about in 1994.

The success of Green Day and other Gilman Street bands like Rancid, The Offspring and AFI saw major label representatives in regular attendance at the club and others like it as they sought to cash in on the pop-punk phenomenon.

One beneficiary was Blink-182, who released their major label debut Dude Ranch on MCA in 1996. Though they weren’t first, they became the band most readily associated with the genre.

Detractors would label pop-punk (or skate-punk as it was also known) as crass and juvenile, and Blink probably didn’t help themselves with album titles like Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.

With virtuoso drummer Travis Barker on board for their second major label effort, Enema’s front cover featured a porn star in a nurse’s uniform and a far more polished sound than previous albums. ‘What’s My Age Again?’ reached the top 20 in the UK and became the band’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit in the U.S before 'All The Small Things' reached number two and number six on those respective charts. Its famous video mocked the likes of the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera, but author Matt Dielh noted “Blink-182 sounded and looked just as manufactured as the pop idols they were poking fun at”.

They may have sounded polished, and they may have been stubbornly infantile, but the trio had a way with a hook and could even, when they weren’t writing songs like ‘Dysentery Gary’, take a stab at depth on tracks like ‘Adam’s Song’ and ‘Stay Together For The Kids’.

Blink led what could be termed the ‘second wave’ of punk-pop, followed by the likes of Sum 41, Simple Plan and, yes, Good Charlotte. Whether the genre had much to do with punk anymore is something of a moot point – Dereck Whibley of Sum 41 insisted “we don’t even consider ourselves punk, we consider ourselves a rock band” – it was unquestionably the biggest movement in guitar music.

The Young And The Hopeless marked arguably the cresting of the wave. It sold more than 100,000 copies in the U.S in its first week and would sell two million within the year. Singles ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’, ‘Girls and Boys’ and ‘The Anthem’ all went top 10 in the UK and into the Billboard top 100. That same year Blink-182 and Green Day co-headlined the Pop Disaster Tour for a 45-date run around the U.S, supported by Jimmy Eat World whose album Bleed American had also achieved mainstream success.

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The balance began to shift evermore to the pop side of the pop-punk equation. Released that same year was Avril Lavigne’s Let Go, the third biggest-selling album of 2002. Powered by – frankly, brilliant – singles ‘Complicated’ and ‘Sk8er Boi’, the Canadian teenager certainly brought a punk look but it was a long way removed from Gilman Street.

In the UK, Busted were formed after Warner Music held an audition and made their debut on the front of Smash Hits without having even released a single, while one of their songwriters on second album A Present for Everyone would be invited to form McFly by the label.

Pop-punk had gone fully mainstream and, perhaps unsurprisingly, its progenitors began to move away from the sound. Green Day recorded the folk-tinged Warning in 2000, before returning to world domination with their dark, political concept album American Idiot four years later. Similarly, Blink-182 went in a darker direction on their self-titled 2003 effort, cuts like ‘Feeling This’, ‘I Miss You’ and ‘Always’ taking them a long way from songs about intercourse with dogs.

Blink-182 in their less serious days

At the same time emo was breaking into the mainstream, and while there were some musical similarities the look and the content was very different. Soon it was bands with straight hair and eyeliner like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco and Paramore who ruled the rock airwaves, with Good Charlotte also taking their sound in an emo direction.

Two decades later though, and it seems pop-punk may be on the rise again. Avril Lavigne released a commercially successful comeback album in 2022, while Green Day, Weezer and Fall Out Boy sold out stadiums across the world for the Hella Mega Tour.

A newer generation, too, are bringing back the old sound. Rapper Machine Gun Kelly released two pop-punk albums – with a mixed reception – while the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Nessa Barrett, and Willow Smith have at least dabbled. As New Found Glory once had it: pop-punk’s not dead.