For one summer, in 1985, the District of Columbia declared itself the epicenter of the new punk rock, a flashpoint still roiling with the energy of its peerless hardcore scene but possessed of a restless desire to push beyond the now-familiar formulas of that genre into something unexpected and utterly vital. Rites of Spring, for many, was the embodiment of that “Revolution Summer,” a band with a preciously small output — until now, only one LP, 1985’s End on End, and one 7”, 1986’s All Through a Life — and, at a mere 15 shows, an enigmatic live presence, though one that became legendary in reputation and rippled outward with enough energy to help shake away the disillusionment felt by punks in the nation’s capital once hardcore saw itself co-opted by violent thugs and paint-by-numbers imitators. By the time the band called it quits in late 1986, not even two years after it formed, its influential work had been done. Singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty went on to play in the last great punk band, Fugazi, and Rites of Spring’s chapter in punk history seemed finished.
But now, Dischord Records has unearthed six demo cuts of songs that appeared on the band’s only full-length, End on End, and the venerable label has released the tracks on a disc titled, in typically laconic Dischord fashion, Six Song Demo. To some people, this discovery is akin to dusting off the full schematics for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or lounging on the shore of Loch Ness while a prehistoric creature crawls from the water and shakes itself dry for its photo-op. In other words, shit is exciting.
Of course, this isn’t new Rites of Spring material in the purest sense of the word, as we’ve heard these songs re-recorded for the LP. Still, it’s a glimpse into the development of an essential band, and its impact benefits from the surprise of being able to listen at all. From the start, it has to be said Rites of Spring managed to improve upon every one of these six tracks in the time it recorded these demos and the time it revised them for End on End. That, in itself, is remarkable — for a band whose reputation rests so firmly on its uncontainable energy, it’s fascinating to see evidence Rites of Spring functioned as any professional act does, honing its craft and sharpening its edges over time. Picciotto’s voice, especially, sounds both fuller and rougher on End on End, his performance on that LP one of the greats in recent rock history. Listening to each demo followed immediately by its final LP cut, if nothing else, cements the notion End on End managed to capture a band operating for a moment at the full peak of its estimable powers, something like a lightning bolt pressed into wax.
Except for “End on End,” which the band would later stretch into a frantic seven-minute anthem, the demos’ differences here are largely aesthetic rather than structural when compared to their final versions. “Persistent Vision” misses the tape loops and backwards vocals that flavor its final version’s bridge, sonic elements that at the time sounded as shocking, to the punk palate, as a wooly mammoth popping up in a Turner landscape. In fact, Six Song Demo proves as interesting for what it doesn’t include as much as for what it does; much of the band’s more experimental, boundary-stretching material isn’t here — the shifting dynamics of “Drink Deep,” the pop-laden guitar heroics and personal poetry of “For Want Of.” That suggests Rites of Spring moved rather quickly from the chug-chug blueprint of hardcore into exploring its own much richer, more eclectic vision.
Ultimately, like most reissues of early cuts and demos, Six Song Demo pleases more effectively as a historical document than as a stand-alone disc. But when dealing with a band as unique as Rites of Spring, history can seem as vibrant and full of life as the present, if not more so. These songs are an essential piece of punk history, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from experiencing Six Song Demo as a living, breathing work of art on its own terms.