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The game-changing legacy of Rites of Spring

Rites of Spring are one of the most influential punk bands of all time. Post-hardcore legends, who laid the foundations for the melodic power that Fugazi would later become known for, they’ve impacted music in many ways, and continue to inspire budding musicians, 26 years after they called it a day.

The band were formed in Washington, D.C., in late 1983, and although they were short-lived, we still hear their influence ubiquitous today, in the sounds of Jawbreaker to My Chemical Romance and even, dare I say it, Machine Gun Kelly. Many key facets of emo as you know it, came from Rites of Spring, even if unintentionally.

Alongside Beefeater and the equally as influential Embrace, Rites of Spring were one of the main acts of the incredibly consequential Revolution Summer of 1985, which took place within the local hardcore scene. This new contingent of punks, inspired by the champions who were Minor Threat, rejected the violence and sexism of the main punk scene, and wanted to create a better environment. Afterwards, the hardcore punks embraced vegetarianism and animal rights and made the scene a welcoming place, that rejected skinheads, violence, and other nefarious elements. Punk was reinventing itself.

“There was a situation where the shows were becoming increasingly, moronically violent,” Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Dischord Records told an interviewer, “And a lot of people were like: ‘fuck it, I’ll drop out, I don’t want to be a part of this any more.'”

Rites of Spring’s music was even more frantic than that of hardcore pioneers Minor Threat, but what they did with the handbook is the most significant. Compositionally, they did what they wanted and made hardcore more harmonious, and lyrically, their songs focused on personal matters. It’s somewhat akin to what Buzzcocks did with the original punk formula back in the 1970s. They recreated it in their own image and didn’t give two hoots if people hated it or not. 

The introspection is what has caused them to be viewed as the first emo band, even though the band rejects this claim and the label. 

Understandably, as the most prominent former member of the band, frontman Guy Picciotto has been asked about the emo tag on numerous occasions. In a 2003 interview, he said: “I’ve never recognized ’emo’ as a genre of music. I always thought it was the most retarded term ever. I know there is this generic commonplace that every band that gets labelled with that term hates it. They feel scandalizsd by it. But honestly, I just thought that all the bands I played in were punk rock bands. The reason I think it’s so stupid is that – what, like the Bad Brains weren’t emotional? What – they were robots or something? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

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You can understand why Picciotto dismisses the marker, but you cannot deny that even if they don’t regard themselves as emos, their work had a significant hand in inspiring the advent of a wave of later bands who are regarded as emo, such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Weezer, Cap’n Jazz, The Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World and many, many more. 

There was a genuine intellectual edge to Rites of Spring, which helped to repurpose hardcore for this new generation and the future. Famously, on the track ‘Remainder’, Picciotto sings: “We are all trapped in visions of the mind.” It was this sentiment that people got behind, as they were sick of the machismo attitude that many bands in the scene had espoused. It was time to think about things, rather than going in head first, and the message was heard loud and clear by Generation X, who were ready for a change. 

Remarkably for a band so influential, they only performed 19 shows, with 16 in D.C. and three outside their immediate vicinity. What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that they released one album, Rites of Spring, in 1985. A 12-track guidebook for the music of the future, the tracks remain as refreshing as they were back then, and there’s no surprise that 

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana even listed the record as one of his favourites of all time. Nirvana are perhaps the biggest act to have taken the Rites of Spring message and ran with it, fusing hardcore spirit with melody, and changing the world in the process. 

The band split in 1986, but they had made their mark, and they weren’t going to be forgotten any time soon. Picciotto formed the even more significant Fugazi in 1986 alongside former Minor Threat mastermind Ian MacKaye, with drummer Brendan Canty joining in 1987. Guitarist Edward Janney played in a host of other local bands and became a respected producer, whilst bassist Mike Fellows formed Mighty Flashlight. 

Even though they seemed to come and go in a flash, Rites of Spring are an essential band, and it’s a testament to the pioneering nature of their small body of work that we hear their impact across music today.

Listen to Rites of Spring below. 

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