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End on End: RITES OF SPRING


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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