Rites of Spring


Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Rites of Spring – “Hidden Wheel” from All Through a Life/End on End (1987 and 1991, respectively, Dischord Records)


The era in which Rites of Spring were active is one which I have completely idealized in my head. I started attending punk and hardcore shows in Minneapolis in 1996, just over a decade after 1985’s Revolution Summer in DC (more on that later), but it may as well have been a world and lifetime away.

Since then, DC birthed Fugazi, the band that brought Rites of Spring guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto and Dischord founder Ian Mackaye together, and like so many others of my generation, I heard Fugazi first and then worked my way backwards. Or maybe I heard Minor Threat before that and worked my way real forwards and then a little backwards, but you get the idea. There’s this whole middle chapter of DC hardcore/punk/indie rock that too often gets forgotten, and for me that’s the chapter that really holds the most interest.

The history is explained better than I ever could by its participants in Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ incredible Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, a book I consider essential to anybody who even considers themself to have the slightest punk tendency, a book I’ve read twice, a book whose updated edition I probably need to get my hands on. But I digress.

Revolution Summer: Rites of Spring (and Embrace, Ian Mackaye’s post-Minor Threat pre-Fugazi band; and Gray MatterOne Last Wish, and others) were part of a shift in DC hardcore from everything being as fast and aggressive as possible (see: Bad BrainsTeen Idles, Minor Threat), to a more introspective tunefulness that included a wider swath of emotion than that era was known for (though, to be fair, there is a Minor Threat song with chimes in it). No surprise, then, that the braintrust over at Thrasher magazine decided to coin the term emocore in describing the sound, a term that served to splinter, in the late nineties, a punk scene that five years prior had been rather unified.

God, you guys, it’s so easy to digress here. I could talk for hours about Rites of Spring and this era. Here’s my condensed take on it as someone who wasn’t there but really wants to sing in a band that sounds like Rites of Spring and One Last Wish meets Ebullition and…Jesus! I’m off track again!

The era is important and inspiring and worth inspecting because there was an artistic shift in the music, which we attempted to discuss above. There was also the emotional shift, which was probably somewhat overblown (or a matter of being greater in perception than in reality), though there are stories of kids bursting into tears at shows during this era.

The music is probably seen as being more emotional than what came before largely because the lyrics dealt more with the internal than the external and were, as such, much less overtly political. But here’s the thing that’s often missed: it’s not as if the political punks that birthed DC hardcore in the first place suddenly stopped being political, or punk for that matter, as evidenced by such googlable and laudable efforts as the Punk Percussion ProtestsPositive Force DC, and the fierce DIY ethic that defined the whole scene. Or, as I mentioned, the intentionality of Revolution Summer.

There’s a film that is either about to come out or is currently out in select cities/theaters now called Salad Days that promises to do in film what Dance of Days did in a book. If any of this is even halfway interesting to you, chances are you should rush out to go see it. I should, too.

“Hidden Wheel” is a song from the band’s later work, originally released on an EP in 1987 as a followup to their 1985 s/t LP. Honestly, by this time Rites of Spring had started to stretch their sound out even more, sounding a bit more like eighties U2 (you know, back when their songs were interesting, before the drummer was replaced by a robot) than anyone might have expected.

The lyrics could be about a lot of things, but it’s easy to see how Guy may have been documenting the taking hold of a moment: “is this the first time I’ve seen the colors of this room?” Kids had worked together to create a movement, and then redefined what that moment was and could be. Still, though, like anything idealized, there’s a certain sense of regret: “I’ve found the hidden wheel / and it rolls to reveal / that I’m the angry son / I’m the angry son.” There’s a real sense of dissatisfaction here.

Of course, it could be about something completely different, which is probably why the lyrics of these bands from this particular city and era are so beloved even today — the sentiments are universal themes that can be applied and reapplied to a myriad of situations. I still don’t know about crying at shows, but then, based on some of the live Rites of Spring footage I’ve seen from that era, it may just have been that moving.