I was at the supermarket the other day when I noticed that the approximately 20-year-old cashier, a sort of neo-urban Puerto Rican girl, was spacing out into the distance, singing along audibly and quite enthusiastically to
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, Green Day’s now 5 year old song, blasting on the store radio. I’ve been an unabashed fan for years, but at that moment it really hit me: Billie Joe Armstrong is a true songsmith and this song was an absolute smash hit: catchy, hook-laden and irresistible. While not nearly the best song the band has ever done, or even the best song on the American Idiot album, it was a great choice for a second single and subsequently won them a Grammy for Record of the Year.
Over the years, Green Day has done what countless other bands have failed to do. Love them or loathe them, they have retained their own unique personality and image, bringing a popish punk sound to the mainstream, but doing so in a way that no one really noticed the fact that normally, this is music they would never listen to. In other words, Green Day knows how to wrap a package. A successful song is not just one huge, mind-blowing hook, it is often a series of little hooks that make it happen, and this song has a lot of them. A few weeks ago, Jesse gave us his take on Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” single. What I noticed right away is that as an engineer and producer, he looks at songs quite differently than I do as a songwriter. So, from a songwriter’s perspective (read: simple-minded), let’s take a closer look at some of the elements that make “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” work.
-The opening guitar chords are simple and melodic – they also have heavy amounts of tremolo (as we understand it, specifically created using fades in Pro Tools) and this melody repeats throughout the song, adding a sort of rhythmic quality that helps propel the song along further. It may sound trivial to most effects junkies out there, but very few pop songs like this can get away with such heavy tremolo, but Green Day found a way to make it saccharine enough for the masses to digest.
-There is a short guitar hook around 0:25 that is repeated at the end of vocal phrases on the verse. This hook is used a couple of times later in the song , like at 1:15 where Billie Joe actually sings the same melody that the guitar was playing at 0:25. Very simple, very clever. This melody is SO catchy that when I hear people humming this song, this is usually the melody they are humming. Otherwise, the rhythm acoustic (and later crunchy electric) guitar are simply melodic accompaniment with very little flare (think more supportive of the main melody).
-Armstrong is often a genius with vocal hooks. Besides a great chorus melody (staring at “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me”), the verse has a good deal of repetition that almost makes IT seem like a chorus (making the chorus almost a refrain). The “I walk” lyrical repetition throughout the verse is crucial; he dances around a good bit but always returns to a lyric featuring “I walk”. Further, he also throws in an “I walk” in the chorus (…”till then I walk alone”). This kind of calculated repetition is the kind thing that gets songs stuck in people’s head’s like crazy glue.
-In a song that features a lot of traditional Green Day elements, the bass and drums actually sit in the pocket for this song. Although both Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt are great musicians with a penchant for flair, here we see a good deal of restraint from both parties. Even absent are some of the Mike Dirnt’s signature backup vocal melodies (all overdubs SOUND as if they are Billie Joe). Even if some of the backup vocals are from Dirnt, it is pulled so far back in the mix, you lose his usually recognizable vocal tone. And no doubt, all this was done for a reason: this is a pop song and this is Billie Joe’s place to have the spotlight. With Dirnt and Cool temporarily holding back, the song has tons of space and the huge vocal melodies of Armstrong can really shine through.
But the song is not all fluff, at around 2:40, the band really kicks into high gear (temporarily), and then resumes that fury at around 3:45 (this time with Billie Joe dropping a phaser or an open wah of some sort on the guitar and things really get noisy). This is an important part of the song for a few reasons. For a brief few bars, the band drops out of the pop mold and rocks out fairly aggressively, but using the same initial verse melody to retain continuity. Without this brief noise reprieve, the hook-laden nature of the rest of the tune might not stand up because it is so incredibly poppy.
-Not everyone listens to lyrics, but people often want lucid themes/ideas when they are humming or singing songs aloud. The “I walk alone” motif used by Armstrong is a big one: who doesn’t feel as if sometimes they walk alone and that their shadow is their only company? This is why grandmothers from Michigan, teenagers in Brooklyn, housewives in Texas and day traders in Manhattan can all listen to this tune so easily. Armstrong has made a career of singing about alienation, but as opposed to a Kurt Cobain model of turning that into rage or depression, Billie Joe wraps it in a pop hook and usually with some cracking chords behind him. While not the most complex song lyrically or thematically, it does have a bigger meaning in the context of American Idiot (the musical based on the album drops in September) and is quite an impressive concept record for a pop/punk band. Whether purposefully or just plain luck, Armstrong struck gold on a number of levels with this song. Even the pace of the song (around 84 BPM) fits in nicely with an actual walk (back to lyrics that are in the actual song). In addition, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” was already a common American phrase used to refer to Sunset Boulevard in LA. While not quite a cliche, the phrase is common enough to have been heard before, so it certainly wasn’t a bad idea to pen a song with that name. In fact, the phrase was used previously as a song title (in the 1954 film version of Moulin Rogue) and is also a lyric from the Elvis Costello song “Brilliant Mistake” from King of America.
-The song’s production seems to follow the blueprint for the rest of the album (it should be noted here that the album to date has sold over 12 million copies worldwide). The song is given the usual pop treatment: almost everything is heavily compressed and the vocals are very far up front in the mix. The delay and reverb on the vocals are certainly there adding character, but they seem nice and tasteful and what one might call “safe”. Guitars (especially on the heavy chorus) sound razor sharp and seem to be the most prominent instruments in the mix (outside of the vocals). While the bass and drums don’t sound dull, they certainly sit in the mix unobtrusively, presumably so that guitars and vocals have more room.
-Just how catchy is this song? Let me try explaining it this way: my father is a conservative Christian who has lived his whole life in the South. He is a school administrator in his late 50′s, who doesn’t watch MTV, rarely listens to the radio and owns hardly any music. I often ask my Dad what he thinks of the music that I write and his answer is usually something like: “Why don’t you write a song like Green Day? Something like that ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ song, people love that stuff”. Simply put, the song has universal appeal that is difficult to miss.
Personally, I’ve never felt as though Green Day has ever sold out or not been “punk” enough for me; it appears as if the band has always done what they wanted. Following the incredible success of their major label debut Dookie, the band released an aggressive punkish rant of an album (Insomniac) that clocked in at just over 30 minutes. Most of the songs were around two minutes in length and sometimes even shorter (but the band made sure to leave ro
om for a couple of catchy numbers like “Brain Stew” and “Geek Stink Breath”). Releasing singles is about putting your band’s best foot forward and it makes good sense to put out your most shamefully catchy song as a single and Green Day have always known that. The band survived the tiny backlash from myopic purist fans for releasing the simple and primarily acoustic-based “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” back in 1997 and it gained them legions more fans and millions more dollars. To me, that is not only “punk rock”, it’s smart as hell.
(The original was removed from YouTube, so we’ve posted a live version of the song)