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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.”


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