Are Green Day Kicking Ass for the Working Class?

When a band like Green Day venture into the shark-infested waters of cover songs, there is good reason to expect a symphony or groans. For the past ten-plus years, they have been the poster boys for corporate rock. Since their breakout, they have mostly conjured up images of suburban teenage angst; the perfect soundtrack for smoking cigarettes behind the gym after school and prattling on about how mom and dad don’t understand, but not a band of much substance. To the deeply committed punk rock community (where I cut my teeth), they are the ultimate heresy: “sell outs.”

In a way, the three boys from Berkeley are still trying to shake that label with their latest foray: a cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” on Amnesty International’s Darfur benefit album. If you’re both a Green Day hater and a cover-song purist (not to mention a Lennon fan), you will already be rolling your eyes. You would also be missing the point.

Even the most jaded of music fans has to admit there is something to be said for the shift in the band’s material over the past few years. The world was rightfully surprised when American Idiot was released, not only that they released a record that was not only of substance, but that seemed to actually make a statement. In the political desert that was the 2004 elections, American Idiot’s release was a welcome oasis; one of the biggest bands in the world was actually taking sides!

Like it or not, Green Day has the attention of millions of listeners. What they say matters to a very large swath of understandably alienated youth. Anthony Roman, frontman for the politically charged Brooklyn based Radio 4 pointed out “a lot of people make fun of Green Day, but they’re the band that’s getting through to twelve and fourteen year old kids. They’re the band that’s getting to people when they’re at an impressionable age and letting them know what’s wrong with this country.” This is what made American Idiot important, what makes their version of “Working Class Hero” important too.

In a way, it is also strangely appropriate. This song was written not too long after Lennon had shed his “former Beatle” image and was coming into his own as a solo artist. In the radical years of the late sixties/early seventies, Lennon had identified himself as a revolutionary. “Working Class Hero” was a highlight of this era in his work. It is a calculating yet angry story of lower class alienation. And there is no doubt that it reached an audience who took his call to arms very seriously.

To be honest, Green Day’s version doesn’t quite measure up. Lennon’s original was right on the mark when he highlighted his powerful lyrics with nothing more than a lone acoustic guitar. Green Day’s attempt to “punk it up” with overdriven guitars and thumping drums, not to mention Billy Joe Armstong’s trademark nasal delivery, in the end just muddles the message.

But that does not pull away from what the revival of this song means in this troubled moment in time. “We wanted to do ‘Working Class Hero’ because its themes of alienation, class and social status really resonated with us” is Armstrong’s claim. And it would be naïve to think they’re the only ones. How much of Green Day’s ever-swelling fan base is made up of kids staring down a life of bagging groceries for a living? How many of them will resonate with what Lennon’s lyrics say: “as soon as you’re born they make you feel small,” or “they hurt you at home and they hit you at school?”

More importantly, how many of them will hear the issue of class talked about for perhaps the first time in their lives? In a country that is perpetually mis-labeled as middle class, the blackout on the growing ranks of the working poor is not an accident. We hear about a prosperous economy, rags to riches stories and the exploits of the rich and famous. We don’t hear about the millions without health care, the growing amount of McJobs and the biggest wealth gap in the industrialized world. For a young Green Day fan, angry and alienated at the world, this song may actually be something to identify with.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. danielle said on May 23rd, 2007 at 8:00am #

    Green Day…
    theres really nothing more you can say
    their one of the best bands agree or disagree
    really doesnt matter their lyrics can tell you that
    they make you think of whats going on with the world
    and government but yett we still have little pussies talking
    about how the band is “a sell out” to the punk community!!
    just get over it. Everyone knows they still listen to Green Day.

  2. sheldon g said on May 23rd, 2007 at 10:07am #

    green day is alright i never heard working class hero i think angry, young and poor kids would identify well with leftover cracks ‘baby punchers’ or even propagandhi’s ‘And we thought the nation state were a bad idea’ or even the whole “Less Talk/More Rock’ album so buy your teen a punk C/D

  3. sir jorge said on May 23rd, 2007 at 10:38am #

    I’m not sure if the line about “alienated youth” still covers the state of todays youth.

    Back a generation or two, yes that would be fitting, but todays youth are not as alienated nor shaped in the words of Greenday.

  4. Sarah said on May 23rd, 2007 at 11:44am #

    Don’t make this into an argument about Green Day. Go read some more articles already.

  5. Delfina said on May 23rd, 2007 at 8:35pm #

    Thanks for writing this great piece. I agree, but I have to quibble with the notion that prior to 2004 Green Day was a band without substance. There may not have been much political content in their lyrics (though they did have a few political songs, like Minority) and, yes, they were — with some justifiable reason — excoriated by the punk community they were nurtured by for jumping ship and signing to a major, but their outlook has always been highly political in my view, in that their commitment to steadfastly telling the truth and refusing to tolerate or espouse bullshit, especially within mainstream entertainment, is a political act.

    If they sang about suburban teenage angst, that’s because that was their truth — not to sound overly dramatic. And hearing the truth is liberating when you are constantly bombarded with spin and lies, from the mainstream culture, not just about politics but even about your own personal life.

    I’m 43 years old and I’ve been a huge fan of Green Day for 13 years now, and it’s not because I’m a disaffected teenager, since I’mnot one of course. It’s because their music is rich and speaks to many different people on many levels.

  6. BoomBoom said on May 23rd, 2007 at 9:00pm #

    I’m not sure that I understand Sarah’s comment. Noone is making ‘an argument about Greenday’ and the people responding obviously did read an article. An article about Greenday. Which they are commenting on. As shall I.

    Regarding cover songs, Greenday had already delved into that abyss with “Tired of Waiting”. I never did understand why they recorded and released that. Their contribution to the Amnesty International album was, as stated in the article, not as good as the original by John Lennon. The simple fact that Greenday was asked to contribute is evidence that they are now taken seriously as artists. As they well should be.

    Now, since I do love a good argument, I will offer something to argue: I personally consider ‘American Idiot’ to be the best album since Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’.

  7. Binh said on July 5th, 2007 at 7:53pm #

    I just saw the video they did with this. In it, there are DARFUR REFUGEES talking about what they went through. What the hell were they thinking? Darfur victims have nothing, zero, zip, zilch, nada to do with the lyrics of the song which is about the experience of growing up working class in the US/UK. This video convinced me that they are, sadly, American idiots.

  8. BJ'sEntourage said on February 8th, 2009 at 10:39pm #

    at Binh:

    are you truly retarded? You do know that they were asked to contribute that cover for a SAVE DARFUR charity album? Obviously you didn’t do your damn fucking research. The video was to bring light to the suffering of the citizens of Darfur. It was part of a campaign by Amnesty International to “SAVE DARFUR”. ALL of the songs on that album were covers of songs by The Beatles. So, NO SHIT were there Darfur refugees and a Beatles song in the video!