Billie Joe Armstrong was born on February 17, 1972, the youngest of six children to Andy and Ollie Armstrong from Rodeo, California. The family was strictly working class – Andy was a truck driver while Ollie worked as a part-time waitress at Rod's Hickory Pit. A musical atmosphere surrounded Billie from birth – his father was a jazz drummer, and his mother, whom Andy Armstrong met at a gig, shared his love of music and dancing. Billie Joe and his siblings were always encouraged to learn to play instruments – especially the drums.
When Billie was five years old, his mother took him to Fiatarone's, a local music shop, to sign him and his sisters up for piano lessons. The owner thought that he had potential and brought him into the studio to hear his voice, and she was astounded. "We did ‘He's Got the Whole World in His Hands', and he could just move and change keys and sing right on pitch" remembers Marie Louise Fiatarone . Billie was then brought in to record "Look for Love", a 7"" vinyl that pressed 800 copies and earned the budding star a 500-word article in the local newspaper. After he made the album, Andy put his youngest son's potential to good use and took him on a mini-tour of Northern California, where elderly women fawned over this cute boy with a great voice. At seven years old, his parents bought him his first guitar to celebrate his success.
Unfortunately, when Billie was ten his father Andy was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Four months later, in September 1982, Andy passed away. To support her six children, Ollie began working full-time at her waitressing job, therefore keeping her away from the family for much of the time. Billie comforted himself with records of bands his brother passed down to him, particularly The Beatles, and focused on learning to play the guitar, which he had an uncanny talent for. For Christmas one year, Ollie bought him the guitar that changed it all – "Blue" – from his guitar teacher, and since then it has appeared on almost every Green Day record and tour.
Michael Ryan Pritchard was born on May 4, 1972 in Oakland, California. His mother put him up for adoption soon after his birth because of her powerful addiction to heroin. When Michael was six weeks old, Cheryl Nasser and Patrick Pritchard took him in as a foster child, and they would eventually become his legal adoptive parents. His parents divorced when he was seven, after which time Mike briefly stayed with his father but eventually moved to Rodeo, California to be with his mother and sister Mycla.
Billie Joe and Mike met at 10 years old while attending Carquienez Middle School, and they formed an instant bond. "I think they just allowed each other to be themselves," says Billie's sister Anna Armstrong-Humann ("Nobody Likes You", 2006). Soon after, Billie began teaching Mike how to play guitar, and he picked it up very quickly. The duo began jamming, which turned into song-writing sessions that they took very seriously which "made them a tight unit even before they had any rhythm section." By the time the boys were in tenth grade, they had added friend Sean Hughes on drums. By eleventh grade, the whole band had transferred to Pinole Valley High School. They also had a permanent name – Sweet Children – after trying such oddities as Condom and Desecrated Youth.
Billie Joe and Mike dove into the punk scene, smoking weed, and honing their craft. Eventually, they met up with other punk rock kids in their area, and with them they finally felt as though they fit in somewhere, and that somewhere was 924 Gilman Street, the launching point of Green Day's explosive career.
When Billie Joe and Mike first attempted to book shows at Gilman, they consistently failed to even get the lowest slot on the bill. Their demo tapes were dismissed as not being punk enough. In 1987, their luck changed when they drunkenly asked John Kiffmeyer (nicknamed "Al Sobrante") to join their band as a drummer. The fame that Sobrante had garnered as the drummer for locally-famous punk band Isocracy marked a turning point in Sweet Children's budding career. In 1987, they booked their first gig at Gilman, which was preceded by a warm-up show at Rod's Hickory Pit, the restaurant where Billie Joe's mother worked. This show got their name out there successfully – and left many in attendance impressed by the quality of punk that the young trio put out there.
As the band became more popular, they began to attract attention from prominent figures in the bay area music scene. They met Larry Livermore, founder of Lookout Records, at a house party where they had performed, and he was instantly captivated. He says, "the band travelled] 200 miles to play a gig in a freezing mountain cabin for about five bored teenagers, and still managed to pull it off as though they were the Beatles at Shea Stadium" (source, 2009) . Soon after meeting him, the band was signed to the label and began to release EP's. Right before their first release, 1000 Hours in 1989, Sweet Children made the spontaneous decision to change their name to Green Day, inspired by a song Billie wrote for the album. During the Christmas holiday in 1989, the band recorded their first full-length album 39/Smooth, followed by a second EP titled "Slappy" which was released in summer 1990. All three releases were combined and released as a compilation album 1039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours.
The album made quite a buzz in the Gilman scene, and in June of 1990 Green Day embarked on their first tour of the US, leaving on the day that Mike graduated high school. Many of the shows were played to small audiences, some just at someones house, but the band experienced success in many areas while in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They managed to book several shows due to the area's budding indie music scene, and Billie Joe met his future wife Adrienne Nesser at one of these shows. Upon going home and being once again engulfed by boredom and loneliness, he wrote the song "2,000 Light Years Away" about her.
After their first tour, Kiffmeyer delivered the crippling news that he would be going away for college. Billie and Mike were distressed about the future of their band until Billie jammed with the Lookouts former drummer Tre Cool. Tre joined Billie and Mike for a show in November of 1990, and the relationship blossomed from there. Although Tre was a handful, he was a brilliant drummer and a dependable choice for a band that wanted stability. In the spring of 1991, the new trio recorded their second full-length for Lookout Records, Kerplunk. This album began to demonstrate the pop-punk melodic quality that Green Day has come to be known for, and it caught on with listeners across the country.
On the Kerplunk tours, the band began filling venues that they previously couldn't even book. They even began to make some money, enough to buy new equipment and a converted bookmobile for touring. The band even went overseas and toured Europe with this album. Their label was flabbergasted with the success – Kerplunk was selling out across the board, and cities that previously had fifty kids watching the boys play would have three hundred when they came back around.
This amount of success inevitably attracted attention from major labels looking for a new trend. The trio's early days with John Kiffmeyer taught them how to properly manage themselves, and they used these skills to their advantage in dealings with scouts. The most important thing to the band was having control over their music and image, and after talking with several labels they finally found their match with Rob Cavallo and Reprise Records. Green Day signed with Reprise, a division of Warner Brothers, in the summer of 1993. On September 23rd of that year, they played their last show at Gilman Street. This would mark the last time the band was welcome there for nearly a decade.
Want an even more detailed history of Green Day? We recommend reading the book "Nobody Likes You" by Marc Spitz.