By 1997, the shine of grunge was wearing off and a new crop of bands was taking music in a more emotionally honest direction. Whether or not their members realized it, they were building the foundation for what would come to be labeled as emo. 1997: The Year Emo Broke explores the albums that drove this burgeoning genre that year.
The eager crowd at Dallas venue The Door began to thin during the final stretch of The Get Up Kids’ set in September of 2000. Hundreds of devastated fans had no luck getting in, but many inside fared no better. Some left before their bodies succumbed to extreme dehydration while others were carried out by the dozens of EMTs who waited outside the oversold, under-cooled venue. The fervor for a band that was only booked to play mid-sized theaters was a bit surprising. Jimmy Eat World was better known, but didn’t incite the same kind of passion in fans yet. Along with Saves The Day, The Get Up Kids were one of the first. The hype surrounding them helped propel the rise of Vagrant Records, and the advent of highly marketable pop punk emo, something they later apologized for. For emo, the ability to appeal to a wide, youthful audience—and by extension a mass-market—was just around the corner.
Emo began as a largely teenage endeavor, and The Get Up Kids’ debut album, 1997s Four Minute Mile oozed with pubescent heartbreak and small-town ennui. Humdrum suburban life and the tragedies of high school dating fueled many early emo bands’ unrestrained emotion and wanderlust, especially The Get Up Kids. This 28-minute debut fully captured what it meant to be impatient teens eager to leave the comfort of home and see the world. Despite obvious flaws in production and some lack of maturity in songwriting, Four Minute Mile started The Get Up Kids’ ascent to the emo spotlight, where they bridged the gap between emo’s vanguard and its future. And while some bands chose to perpetually recreate their adolescent despair on record after record, The Get Up Kids instead evolved with age, a move that many claimed prevented them from fully taking their place in the spotlight.
The Get Up Kids formed in 1995 in Kansas City, Missouri. Everyone in the band was eager to tour, including their second drummer, 16-year-old Ryan Pope, who had to navigate around his school schedule to make the band work. After releasing a couple of seven-inches to some notice, Doghouse Records offered the band a deal and $4,000 to record their debut. With Pope still in high school, the band had to lay down their full album over a marathon weekend session in Chicago. As soon as Pope graduated, The Get Up Kids launched their first national tour with Braid.
Four Minute Mile‘s release instantly reaped The Get Up Kids the kind of attention that kept them on tour for the next year, including a European trek with Braid, where they overtook the senior band’s popularity with audiences. It’s not difficult to see why crowds flocked to embrace the young band. Their self-described “swinging dance numbers about crying” resonated with the young and lovelorn in a way that some of the more established bands of the genre couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t.
Though Four Minute Mile suffered from a flat mastering and shaky production at best, that didn’t stop people from zealously embracing the music. The unrefined sound gave the record an organic punk feel, and let fans have a glimpse of how The Get Up Kids delivered their music live. At times, the vocals can be heard bouncing off the studio walls, giving the album a confined sound, letting audiences connect with the lyrics in a more personal way.
On “Don’t Hate Me,” vocalist Matt Pryor earnestly pleads with words that could have come from just about any 16-year-old. “Oh Amy, don’t hate me / for running away from you… I’m sorry I can’t be everything to you / your place is at the heart of what I do / everything’s for you.” What on paper reads like a note passed between gym and chemistry class is elevated by the addictive cadence of Pryor’s despondent off-key wail. The Moog-style Bass Station synth on the track also foreshadowed the synth-enhanced sound the band would eventually master (with the help of Coalesce’s James Dewees) on their follow-up, 1999’s Something to Write Home About.
“Stay Gold, Ponyboy,” whose title references The Outsiders (and by extension, Robert Frost), spoke of youth and the urgency of loss. “I’ll cry ’til I can’t see the whites of my eyes / for two more years / we’ll be old enough to know better / young enough to pretend.” On “Last Place You Look,” the glistening guitars and breakdown bring a new dynamic to a sound that was still being developed. “We’ll be home in December / The leaves don’t fall from the trees / As long as you remember you are always with me,” Pryor achingly sings before the song picks back up into the driving punk rhythm.
Perhaps the most remarkable quality about this record is that, at only 28 minutes, it doesn’t play like 11 short punk songs slammed together. It’s a well-rounded album that takes the listener through various emotions and dynamics. Four Minute Mile ends with “Michelle With an L,” a six-minute anthem that gradually builds and closes the album on an epic note. A listen from start to finish is much more fulfilling than 28 minutes should be.
Along with bands like Lifetime and Hot Water Music, The Get Up Kids developed a sound that was certainly responsible for the future of emo. These were the bands that picked up where Jawbreaker left off, and each in their own way contributed to shaping the future chart-topping genre. The Get Up Kids weren’t the first to combine punk with twinkly guitars and dramatic lyrics, but they did it in a way that was severe yet lighthearted, and left the listener singing along.
Four Minute Mile wasn’t as big of a seller as the Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good, though part of that can be attributed to the trouble Doghouse Records had in keeping up with demand. But what they lacked in sales figures, they made up for in the kind of hype that led to a bidding war for their next album. Labels like Sub Pop and even Geffen showed interest, but after a brief agreement with Mojo, The Get Up Kids finally landed with their manager’s label, Vagrant.
With the momentum they gained from Four Minute Mile and constant touring, The Get Up Kids were poised to be one of the first breakout bands in emo, and to a great extent, they were. Their success continued with the release of Something To Write Home About, which was a masterful follow-up to their unfussy debut. The album was a huge seller for Vagrant, and helped usher in the label’s domination of the punk-influenced emo sound. But The Get Up Kids never broke to the next level.
In an interview with Popmatters, Pryor talked about why they chose to grow as a band, rather than worry about pleasing fans. “If I tried to write an album like I was 18, it would suck. Even if the songs were good, it would be a totally different headspace. You just get to a point where you’re like, ‘Sorry you don’t like it.'” The Get Up Kids embraced growth as their career continued, and as a result, their discography shows an honest band aging throughout the years.
Four Minute Mile was a snapshot of a young band with their career ahead of them. The earnest candor of the lyrics coupled with the innovations in bridging punk and emo make this album a staple in emo’s history. It’s understandable why some would choose to cling to this album desperately; 20 years later, it holds up as a near-masterpiece. But had The Get Up Kids rehashed this album over and over, the close-to-perfect legacy it left behind might have been tarnished. They played the long game, and avoided becoming a Get Up Kids cover band, something they left for their successors to do.
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.