Brothers Benji and Joel Madden, founders of the pop-punk band Good Charlotte, took a bad situation and turned it into success. Their songs, which frequently detail their unhappy childhood and dysfunctional family, have earned them millions of listeners. Despite their crazy tattoos and funky hair, however, they're nice kids underneath it all.
The twins were born on March 11, 1979, in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Waldorf, Maryland. Their alcoholic father struggled to hold various jobs, including work as a butcher and housepainter. Money was always tight, but things fell apart on Christmas Eve in 1995 when their father left his family for the last time, leaving their devoutly Christian mother to raise them, their older brother Josh, and their younger sister Sarah, on her own.
Their mother worked as a hairstylist and a receptionist, but was soon diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder for which she was often hospitalized. To support the family, the boys took whatever jobs they could find, working as restaurant busboys and shampoo assistants at a local salon. On top of normal teenage concerns, they worried about things "like the electricity getting cut off or the car breaking down or the phone getting cut off," Joel told Rolling Stone. Eventually the family, unable to pay their bills, was evicted from their home and forced to move in with relatives.
Inspired by the Beastie Boys
In early 1996, inspired by a Beastie Boys concert, the twins decided to start their own band. "It changed both of us totally," Joel recalled in a Washington Times telephone interview. "We both knew that playing music was what we wanted to do with our lives." He continued the story for the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record : "Even though we never played an instrument before, we knew that we had to start making music after seeing the Beastie Boys. It was a 180-degree turn for us. We played sports, especially baseball, all of our lives. Our father wanted us to play, and it was a way for us to be accepted by the kids at our school. But that all changed after seeing the Beasties. It was the first show we went to and were just blown away. We couldn't believe people could do what they did onstage. It was so powerful. We had to form a band."
Benji taught himself to play guitar and Joel took up singing. They wrote music together, often composing songs about their home life. After two friends high school joined them on bass and drums joined them, they named their band Good Charlotte, after a children's book. They began to learn about the music business, cutting demos, writing their own public relations materials, and sending packages to record companies. "I wrote this letter saying, 'We're Good Charlotte and if you sign us now it will be a lot cheaper than if you wait!'" Benji recalled on the group's website. "Our ignorance was kind of a blessing. We couldn't be discouraged by knowing too much about how the business really works."
Although they initially wanted to quit school and devote all their time to the band, the twins finished high school in deference to their mother's wishes. After graduating, they took the band to Annapolis, Maryland, hoping to join the city's growing club scene; there, Billy Martin joined the band on rhythm guitar. Jimi Haha, the leader of the Annapolis band Jimmie's Chicken Shack, told Rolling Stone, "We were always endeared by them [sic], because they prayed every day. We would throw coasters at them while they were onstage, just to harden them. They were unashamed of being cheeseballs."
The band won a local contest and their song "Can't Go On" was included on a record sampler of area talent. In 1999 they got a break opening for the ska-punk band Save Ferris in Philadelphia. Afterward, their song "Little Things," which describes the tough times the twins had in high school, was picked up by some local radio stations, and before long major record labels took notice. In May of 2000, after Epic Records signed the band, they were offered a slew of east coast tour dates. This presented a dilemma for the band, which they recounted on their website: "We had no money, no transportation, and no way to do the gigs. Our mom was living in a shed on a neighbor's property, and the only thing she really owned was a mini-van. She said, 'you guys take the mini-van to play the shows and I'll catch rides or walk to work.' That just shows you how she's been there for us the whole time."
Success at Last
The band's first album, Good Charlotte, was released in September of 2000 with the band members listed only by their first names. They toured with punk band MxPx and on the 2001 Warped tour, followed by tours of Australia and New Zealand, and an appearance in Not Another Teen Movie. They built an avid fan base and soon caught the attention of MTV, who signed them to host All Things Rock. "They have great credibility with our audience…." said Amy Doyle, MTV's vice president of music and talent programming, in the Bergen County Record. "And there's no ego there, which is nice. They're not all about themselves. They're knowledgeable about other music."
For the Record . . .
Members include Benji Madden (born on March 11, 1979, in Waldorf, MD), guitar, songwriter; Joel Madden (born on March 11, 1979, in Waldorf, MD), vocals, songwriter; Billy Martin (born on June 15, 1981), guitar; Paul Thomas (born on October 5, 1981), bass; Chris Wilson (born on May 5, 1981), drums.
Group formed in Waldorf, MD, 1997; moved to Annapolis, MD; signed with Epic Records; released Good Charlotte, 2000; released Young and the Hopeless, 2002.
Awards: MTV Video Music Awards, Viewer's Choice Award, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211. Website— Good Charlotte Official Website: http://www.goodcharlotte.com.
Young and the Hopeless was released in September of 2002, with Chris Wilson joining the group on the drums. The group also released a video of the title song, which the twins directed. This time around, the band members included their surnames, although the Madden twins chose to use their mother's maiden name instead of their father's last name. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a commentary on celebrities who complain about their luxurious lives, was their breakthrough hit; "The Anthem" was featured on the Sports Madden MFL 2003 video game. The album went multi-platinum.
Their songs—including "Emotionless" and "The Story of My Old Man," which illustrate Joel and Benji's feelings about their father—reflect the sensitivity their life experiences have given them. "Even though we might blush when we sing and we might get embarrassed because the songs are so personal," Joel told Rolling Stone, "I think it's worth it." He continued in the Washington Times, "Everything we say is straight from our hearts. We can't write a fake song. Everything we write is either self-confessional or based on a true story. Everyone is going to know everything about my life three albums into this." Confirming their success, in 2003 their single "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" was nominated for MTV Video Music Awards for Best Group Video and Best Rock Video, and the band won the MTV Viewer's Choice Award.
While the band's wild tattoos and crazy hair give them a tough, punk image, their behavior was far from rowdy. Benji quit drinking, fearful of following in his father's footsteps, and the twins bought their mother a house with their first big royalty checks. Moreover, they all openly admit their strong Christian faith, giving thanks to God in their liner notes. "Our spirituality is just part of [our] lives," Joel explained for the Washington Times. "We are who we are, and if it makes us more punk or less punk, we don't care."
Good Charlotte, Epic, 2000.
(Contributor) Not Another Teen Movie (soundtrack), Maverick, 2001.
Young and the Hopeless, Epic, 2002.
(Contributor) American Wedding (soundtrack), Universal, 2003.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA), October 19, 2002, p. A59.
New York Times, May 3, 2003, p. B14.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), December 22, 2000, p. 21; April 28, 2003, pF07.
Rolling Stone, May 1, 2003, p. 26.
Washington Times, February 15, 2001, p. 2; May 3, 2003, p. D04.
Good Charlotte Official Website, http://www.goodcharlotte.com (September 26, 2003).
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