I wrote up D.C. punk legends Rites of Spring and interview the band members for Stop Smiling Magazine's D.C. issue
Monday, November 03, 2008
END ON END: RITES OF SPRING
By John Dugan
In the mid-Eighties, Rites of Spring took hardcore punk music to glorious, ecstatic heights and infused the DC punk scene with a spirit of personal revolution. The band’s music captured the fleeting precious nature of youth and left the lucky few fans who managed to catch them live with an almost religious experience. Rites of Spring only played 15 shows during their lifetime, but fans remember those gigs like they happened yesterday. Two of the band’s members, Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty, would go on to join DC post-punk legends Fugazi.
Although Rites of Spring’s sole album has probably only sold around 60,000 copies, it remains a touchstone for the period. The band is sometimes regarded as the originator of “emo,” but the quartet’s output bears little resemblance to the whiny, commercial indie pop of the last decade. For one, ROS possesses a fiercely organic feel and a timeless romanticism that’s the antithesis of mall culture; as recorded work, their songs remain fresh, explosive and affecting almost a quarter century after they were originally released.
Guy Picciotto, Mike Fellows, Brendan Canty and Eddie Janney were a group of friends before they were an official band, according to Picciotto, who sang and played guitar in ROS. Picciotto and Fellows, who played bass, were born days apart at the same hospital, and wound up hanging out together at punk shows in the early Eighties. “Mike and I were sort of barnacled to Brendan’s first band, Deadline,” says Picciotto. “The group of us who were affiliated with Deadline were known as D.O.D., which as a subset in DC punk, had its own dance moves and way of dressing. Mike and I would bum-rush the tail end of Deadline shows, grab their instruments and improvise chaotically until the plug got pulled.
After Deadline broke up, the D.O.D. strain got more formalized when Brendan, Mike and I formed Insurrection with Terry [Deadline’s bassist] as the vocalist. That band, which was the product of listening almost exclusively to Discharge, Rudimentary Peni’s first 7” and Venom, played throughout 1983, recorded a [now lost] tape at Inner Ear and then fell apart.” Afterward, Janney whose band Faith had split up, joined the foursome. “Playing music together was just a logical outcome of us hanging out with each other almost constantly. It was very tight,” says Picciotto.
Except for Janney, who had moved into the Dischord house in Arlington around that time, everyone else was still in high school and living at home with their parents when they formed the band. “We drove out to the record shops to buy records, lots of singles,” Canty remembers. “I collected Buzzcocks and Wire singles and early Scritti Politti.” The four hung out at Georgetown arcades and pizza joints, and found jobs at the famed Yesterday and Today Records and a movie theater in Georgetown. As Fellows recounts, “There was a lot of aimless teenage shit that we encoded and mythologized. There was a strict system of pacts, where if something was declared, and then seconded, it then had to be executed without resistance, like watching Nena’s ‘99 Red Balloons’ video 99 times without leaving the room, or crawling home from miles away.” Canty claims the ROS spent every Monday duckpin bowling for years.
By 1983, the hardcore music explosion in the States had attracted attention from the mainstream media — most of it negative.
Consequently, punks had become associated with the mindless vandalism that was a byproduct of the hardcore scene rather than the creativity punk music inspired. In the nation’s capital, thuggish violence was poisoning the community atmosphere. As a consequence, many key bands sputtered out. Alec Bourgeois of Dischord Records remembers the dark days. “You have to understand how miserable the general climate at punk shows was at this time,” he says. “Shows that had previously featured a diverse community of punks, rastas, freaks, queers and, yes, thugs — mostly looking out for one another — had degenerated into huge mosh pits of mostly ex-jocks and suburban skinheads.” Yet by the mid-Eighties, there were some hints of a rebirth within the DC music scene. For one, the Beatles-esque quartet Gray Matter, which formed around guitarist Geoff Turner, began playing out in 1983. Meanwhile, the still unnamed post-Insurrection foursome stuck to practicing in Picciotto’s basement for a whole year.
“The room at my parents’ house was a stucco-walled rectangle with a carpeted floor, and it sounded great,” Picciotto remembers. “We could play there every day after school until my dad came home, and then we had to stop so he wouldn’t have to hear it. My mom would just sit upstairs above us with the house shaking around her. Our practices were very intense. A lot of gear got smashed well before we ever played a show. All four of us wrote riffs and brought them in. We would jam on them and make them into songs.”
In 1984, before ROS played their first show, the band made its first demo tape in Don Zientara’s basement studio. Their goal was to capture its initial batch of songs. “We’d been writing for a bunch of months without having played a show yet,” says Picciotto. “Then Mike said he wanted to leave DC to move out to Los Angeles.” The first six-song demo included backwards overdubs and tape loops, in addition to snippets from the bedroom cassettes the band members were making at home. There were no gaps between songs; they all segued together. The recording session marked the first time drummer Canty had heard Picciotto sing. “It blew my mind,” says Canty. “Guy went in and let it all out.”
Fellows drove off to LA as the band sent him a copy of the finished demo while continuing to play together as a three-piece and working summer jobs provided by Mayor Barry through the Neighborhood Planning Council. By mid-summer, Fellows had taken the bus back to DC for good. Later that week, on July 29th, the band played its first show at the Food For Thought restaurant. Meanwhile, the band’s demo had been making the rounds among friends, and the scene-within-a-scene learned the words to all their songs before a record was cut or a band name was chosen. But that was about to change: The band had decided on a name taken from the liner notes for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring swiped from Picciotto’s parents’ record collection. “It talked about the riot at the premiere of that piece of music and that inspired us,” says Picciotto. “We wanted that kind of thing to happen. We wanted that to be the vision.”
Despite the rise of gratuitous violence in the hardcore scene, it was still a fantastic time for music. “We loved all the DC bands, and D.O.D. was always in effect at the shows of Faith and Void, Minor Threat, Scream and Bad Brains,” says Canty. “We were into West Coast music like everyone else: the Germs, Black Flag, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen.” (Rites of Spring even opened for D. Boon and Co., but had to play acoustic because Canty had broken his collarbone in a car accident.)
The music of Wire, the Buzzcocks, the Saints, the Birthday Party, the Mob and the Wipers — which Canty discovered on a Pacific Northwest trip — all figured into the Rites’ musical universe. Picciotto’s personal favorites included Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan and everything by the Zombies and the Beatles. “We would also get into kind of the ‘wrong’ records bands would make, like Positive Touch by the Undertones or Cast of Thousands by the Adverts,” says Picciotto. Later on, the band members discovered Television, the Fall and the Smiths. When they played a rare out-of-town gig in Detroit, they saw Sonic Youth for the first time. Lyrically, however, Rites were in a different class than their post-punk forebears. “I really was writing the stuff without thinking about it a whole lot,” says Picciotto. “In Rites of Spring it just sort of came out in a more private language.”
In the mid-Eighties, ROS had played only 14 or 15 shows total — and only two of those were outside DC — but they played each show as if it were their last. “We just felt like we were on a mission to destroy — both literally and figuratively,” says Picciotto. As high as their energy level was as a live band, their onstage momentum was often held up by long tuning sessions between songs. Yet when the band lost control, guitars were often cracked over amps, which made for a ferocious live show. Luckily, Gibson guitars from the Sixties were still cheap and plentiful at Angela’s Instruments in DC, and could be glued back together in time for the next gig.
“Their shows felt like nothing less than seismic explosions,” says Bourgeois, who saw the band play at Food For Thought. “One second they were screaming and thrashing through furious power chords with hair, bodies and guitars flying all over the stage. And then — bang — they would stop on a dime and launch into a melodic run so perfect you couldn’t fathom how on earth two guitars, a bass and drums could create such a beautiful sound.”
The band’s arty energy extended to hand-painted set lists, flower-strewn stages and strobe lights. Without making it explicit, they seemed to be unconsciously drawing from the playbook of the Velvet Under-ground or MC5 — and One Last Wish, a short-lived band the ex-ROS members would form before Fugazi, would later cover MC5’s “Looking at You.”
It was obvious to everyone that the band needed to record an album, which Dischord would release later that year. Picciotto recounts ROS going for a different sound in its next session with Zientara. “We wrote a bunch more songs really quickly, and then went in to make the record in February of 1985,” recalls Picciotto. “That record was way closer to the live experience than the first demo. It was recorded with all four of us in one tiny room facing each other with no separation at all. We tracked all the music live in one take in the dark with a strobe going. Later on, I recorded all the vocals for the 13 songs in one take as well, one after the other. There are barely any overdubs at all — just some backups, a few bits of percussion and maybe a guitar part here and there. We played the improv ending on the last song, ‘End On End,’ until the tape ran out and rolled off the reels. That was it. It’s a crazy-sounding record.
The drums sound utterly strange and everything is blown out. I really think the bass playing on the record is what makes it work. Mike is one of the most underrated bassists, bar none. His lines own the record.”
The inward-looking quartet was often just entertaining themselves instead of trying to build a massive audience for their recordings. They formed temporary bands with names like Saw, Band of Baghdad, Black Light Panthers, Elephant Fury and Truly Subtle, recording tapes of onetime songs on cassette four-tracks or boom boxes. “It was just the currency of being together,” says Picciotto. One of these four-track tape projects/alter egos was more sophisticated than the others. Featuring Embrace guitarist Mike Hampton, the members of ROS moonlighted as “the rigidly conceptual” pop band Brief Weeds with song themes limited to specific subject matter like fathers of girlfriends or magic. Years later, K Records released some of the songs as seven-inch singles, and a complete album, titled Ambrosia, remains unreleased.
By the summer of 1985, a new mood and aesthetic was in the air. Many DC punk veterans credit Rites of Spring for kick-starting hardcore punk’s second act, which came to be known as “Revolution Summer.” The rebirth peaked in July of 1985 when ROS and Gray Matter were joined by Ian MacKaye’s Embrace at a Food For Thought show. Later on, an ROS show at the 9:30 Club, opening for the Jet Black Berries, followed one of the legendary punk percussion protests at the South African Embassy, and included spontaneous anti-apartheid chanting. The new energy in DC gained notice on the national punk scene in issue # 47 of the LA-based zine Flipside, which featured Scream, Rites of Spring and the Dischord house. In an interview for that issue, Ian MacKaye cited ROS and Beefeater as the ones who finally pushed punk to a new place.
Unfortunately, the bubble burst within a year or two, and DC maintained its reputation for short-lived bands.
With little thought of carrying the band on outside the Beltway and not much of an underground touring network providing the framework for musicians to choose punk music as a career, the band didn’t make plans beyond the next week. “I was pretty provincial in that respect, and really only cared first about playing for the band itself and then playing for the core audience we had,” says Picciotto. “I didn’t give a shit about anyone else understanding it. Plus, I really thought DC was the center of the universe musically. It was just about expression in the most immediate context and environment.”
Considering the transcendent and volatile nature of ROS shows, expectations were also building around the band, and the spontaneous rapture had come to be expected. They had also set high standards for themselves. “When it didn’t feel like a massive, killer catharsis, it just felt lame,” says Picciotto. The band’s final show felt lackluster, and the recording of the All Through a Life EP might have proved too experimental. Instead of using their gorgeous live sound, the band cleaned up the production for its new, more intricate songs. The lack of distortion left Picciotto’s voice a bit too exposed. Soon after Fellows quit, ROS broke up, and the EP came out anticlimactically. “It was a good lesson,” remembers Picciotto. “Of course at the time I wanted to hang myself from a tree.”
One Last Wish formed from the ashes of ROS soon after, recorded an album and then broke up as well. A year later, the members of ROS reconvened as the noisier, improvising live act Happy Go Licky before Janney — who was sometimes subject to stage fright — chose to study painting in France. “HGL was lawless and we knew we could go onstage with no map and something cool would take place. Rites of Spring had to bite the dust in order for that to happen,” recalls Picciotto. Bourgeois might be speaking as a teenage fan, but he’s not laying it on too thick when he sums up the band’s significance: “The spirit of punk as an underground revolution, as reintroduced by the Rites of Spring, has lasted relatively intact to this day.”
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