Billie Joe Armstrong is about to show several thousand European punks what freedom of speech really means. It's a frigid night in Hamburg, Germany, and you can practically smell the adrenaline wafting off the fans arriving at the Sporthalle arena. You can certainly smell the beer. Hundreds of discarded empties litter the pathway leading up to the entrance, where ticket holders are being asked to check all metal-studded belts and bracelets; a huge box overflows with enough of said items to stock a punk-rock shopping mall. Inside the sold-out venue, the last notes of the Ramones' ''Blitzkrieg Bop'' fade into the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Green Day's introductory music of choice. Before you can say ''Hey, ho, let's go,'' the band singer-guitarist Armstrong, 32, bassist Mike Dirnt, 32, and drummer Tré Cool, 31 tears into the snarling title track of its current album, American Idiot. ''Don't want to be an American idiot,'' bellows Armstrong. ''One nation controlled by the media.''
For most of the prior 24 hours, the media have been analyzing George W. Bush's inaugural address, delivered the day before tonight's concert. And though not a pundit per se, Armstrong isn't shy about offering up his own commentary on Dubya. ''This song is a big F--- YOU to George W. Bush,'' he yells as an introduction to ''Holiday,'' the soon-to-be third single from Idiot. The Hamburg crowd laps it up, roaring its endorsement and screaming along to politically charged lyrics like ''Zieg Heil to the President Gasman/Bombs away is your punishment'' with enough gusto to make you wonder if there is any such thing as a Bush-supporting Green Day fan.
''It's just important,'' Armstrong later says, ''to be really outspoken.''
Prior to the release of American Idiot last September, if you had told us that Green Day would hit it big with a ''rock opera,'' and that the album (their seventh) would debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, elicit near-universal critical kudos, and garner a whopping seven Grammy nominations (including Album of the Year and Record of the Year) well, we would've told you that overzealous headbanging had finally done irreparable damage to your brain, dude. But Idiot, which has sold 2.2 million copies to date, has proved to be a juggernaut comeback from a band most people wrote off years ago. And its momentum just seems to keep growing.
Don't let the album's political agenda put you off Idiot's appeal is actually mostly nonpartisan, and even dyed-in-the-wool right-wingers are happily rocking out to it. ''From a musical standpoint, it's just incredible,'' says Nick Rizzuto, cofounder of ConservativePunk.com, a 2,400-member online forum for, well, conservative punks. ''I can't stop playing it. The politics don't bug me that much.'' What most fans Democrats, Republicans, and anarchists alike seem to be connecting with is the irresistible passion, intensity, and hookiness of the music, all of which had been in woefully short supply on the band's last two albums. And Idiot's brash sound has done more than just connect with the public. It's also struck a decisive blow for rock music make that loud, butt-kickin' rock music, the kind that shakes your nerves and rattles your brain, which of late has lagged behind hip-hop and R&B on the charts.