Pop-Punk Legends Drop A Stealth Hit On Rock Radio

Al Shipley | March 31, 2008 11:00 am

Since many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock, welcome to “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al Shipley (a.k.a. Idolator commenter GovernmentNames) examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of Billboard‘s rock charts. This time around he discovers a trio of modern rock heroes releasing a hit single under everyone’s noses, finally hears a certain blog-buzz band thanks to their rock radio crossover, and tries to figure out what makes one brand of strident political mersh-punk different from another.

Over the last few weeks, Billboard‘s Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart has seen a new entry by one of modern rock’s biggest mainstays, but it took me a while to figure that out, since said superstars are operating incognito.

“Mother Mary,” which dips to No. 29 this week after peaking at No. 16, is the first radio hit credited to the Foxboro Hot Tubs. But the trio behind the song is better known as Green Day, who quietly debuted several tracks online under the alias in December, and have since racked up some impressive radio spins without the benefit of name recognition.

This isn’t the first time Green Day has pulled such a stunt; in 2003, the group self-released an album as the Network, and for a few months kept up an elaborate ruse about having nothing to do with the mysterious new wave band whose singer sounded so much like Billie Joe Armstrong. But it’s interesting that after reinventing themselves rather dramatically, and successfully, with 2004’s guyliner-streaked rock opera American Idiot, Green Day still feel the need to moonlight under a different name to try out something a little different. And this time, they’re a little less shy about capitalizing on that side project; unlike the Network, who never charted, the Foxboro Hot Tubs will release their album on Warner Bros. and the band is putting up less of a front about who they may or may not really be. Based on the peppy retro-jangle of “Mother Mary,” I’m guessing that full-length, due out in April, will be more enjoyable than whatever ambitious slog the next “real” Green Day album turns out to be.

One of the reasons I take an active interest in what’s going in the commercial rock market is that while I often don’t approve of the trends and biases it’s governed by, I can pretty easily identify and analyze them. And though I still listen to plenty of new underground rock, I pretty much gave up on trying to understand the machinations of the indie zeitgeist a long time ago; I’m generally pretty happy to remain blissfully unaware of whatever “blog band” is currently making the rounds. That is, unless they actually make enough of an impact to chart with a radio single, which is currently the case with both Vampire Weekend and MGMT.

The latter’s “Time To Pretend” is pleasant and expensive-sounding enough that I can understand why it’s crossing over. But it’s kind of amazing to hear the former’s “A-Punk” with the knowledge that this is the band that’s inspired the most fevered rock-crit debates of 2008 thus far. On a blind taste test, I wouldn’t give these guys two minutes, but at least that’s all that “A-Punk” asks for; at 17 seconds longer than Blur’s “Song 2” and four seconds longer than the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Lump,” it’s one of the shorter songs to have made an impact on alt-rock radio. Unlike those songs, it doesn’t use that brief window to drill its hook into your head; I can’t remember how it goes a day after listening to it, nor do I have any desire to remind myself. If these guys have a shelf life on radio beyond their hipster buzz, I assume it won’t be with this song.

For most of the past few months, the Modern Rock chart has featured two political punk bands with the word “Against” in their name that I’ve never brought up in this space, partly because I have trouble remembering which is which. But I recently decided on this handy mnemonic: Against Me!’s frontman is the one with the really annoying voice and Rise Against’s frontman is the one with the really annoying hair. Currently, the former is at No. 27 and rising with “Stop,” while the latter’s “The Good Left Undone” has just now finally slid out of the Top 10 in its 38th week on the chart. I may not like them, but I can appreciate that these bands are keeping a more strident and aggressive strain of punk on the radio in the era of MySpace emo. And they’re getting a little backup from veterans Pennywise, whose “The Western World,” down at No. 28, is already the highest charting Modern Rock hit of the band’s two-decade career. Green Day may be taking a break from both political comment and straight-up punk rock, but the airwaves are not currently lacking for either.