The Blue Devils, for the first time wearing black and gray uniforms in place of their historic blue ones, remained undefeated right up until the second-to-last show of the season. During the Finals competition, the Devils dropped to third, under the Scouts and Santa Clara Vanguard, with Vanguard finishing in second place for the fourth consecutive year.
With tight and tough competition all summer long, the spread between the first and 12th place finalists in 1988, at just 12 points, remains the smallest in history; and until the 2015 Finals, the spread of just two points between the first and fifth place corps was the smallest on record.
Spirit of Atlanta had first earned a spot as a top-12 finalist corps 10 years earlier, its stylistic path for a decade set when the corps rocketed into sixth place in just its second season. From 1978 through 1987, the corps was noted for its emotional wailing brass that played mostly southern-tinged music, including lots of jazz and blues. Just a few of these selections included “Old Man River,” “Blues in the Night,” “Dixie,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Amazing Grace,” and an entire show devoted to “Porgy and Bess.”
The corps’ percussion section had established itself over the years as well with a drum line that often featured exciting percussion pyrotechnics over classical subtlety, which was popular with fans. The color guard often utilized handheld props that were reflective of southern culture, such as parasols and handheld fans. The ability of the guard members to melt into a theatrical role helped the ensemble take home best color guard honors twice during the 1980s.
But everything we knew about Spirit of Atlanta was all to change in 1988.
The creative staff included DCI Hall of Fame member Jay Bocook, a newcomer to writing for drum corps. He had made a name for himself as a published arranger for marching bands, popularizing a drum corps sound right at the time when the competitive marching band activity was becoming more corps-like and less based on military close-order drill and halftime music. Among the corps’ color guard staff was Scott Chandler, who has since led Blue Devils to multitudes of color guard awards. And Sal Salas, technically the drill writer, had a big hand in conceiving the integration of the color guard section into the show.
The staff thought the corps was overdue for a stylistic overhaul in 1988, believing its southern themes had become a bit stale and subsequently restraining the corps from moving forward. The decision was made to jump headfirst into a new identity, a new style, and leave behind the prior decade as a pleasant memory instead of enshrining it in a museum of drum corps history.
Consequently, the corps’ ninth-place performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” was quite jarring to fans who weren’t prepared to hear the corps play symphonic music. If they were asked back then what composers’ music they expected Spirit of Atlanta to play, Stravinsky may have been comically placed just under Captain and Tennille, Rick Astley, and Bananarama.
Stravinsky had composed the ballet “Petrushka” in 1910-1911 for impresario Vaslav Nijinsky and his Parisian troupe, Ballet Russe. In 1910, Nijinsky’s faith in the 28-year-old composer paid off big when his first commission for Stravinsky, “The Firebird,” became an instant international success. Three year later, Nijinsky and Stravinsky would team up to shock both the ballet and music worlds with “The Rite of Spring,” a radical production that left audiences shell-shocked. “Petrushka” was the work in the middle of those great musical icons of the 20th Century
“Petrushka” tells the story of three marionette puppets brought to life to experience human emotions such as love, jealously and rage. The puppets’ strings were represented at times during Spirit’s production as color guard props.
1988 Spirit of Atlanta
1988 also featured a new look for the corps with color guard costumes that were white on one side and mostly blue on the other. The two colors led down to a white shoe at the bottom of one leg and a blue shoe at the bottom of the other. The brass and percussion sections wore updated uniforms sparkling with metallic reflections and glitter accents.
Prior to the start of the production, corps members were positioned as marionettes, their arms lying limp and swaying in the breeze. Suddenly, the strings of the puppeteer removed the slack and the show began. What followed was the angular Stravinsky music so beloved by fans of orchestral music, but so shocking to Spirit of Atlanta fans expecting something more akin to “Georgia This” or “Dixie That.”
During a percussion feature, the drum line utilized nine bass drums. The five largest drums had mirrors attached to assist in backing up and the four smallest basses each had a small tom attached to the top, for a total of 13 drums in the bass line. This is also where the guard members brought out the marionette strings attached to the control bars of a hidden puppeteer.
At the nine and a half minute mark of the production, the show had one of the most haunting musical effects ever heard on the drum corps field. The brass players faced backfield and turned up the volume of the baritone section, playing 14 powerful chords to the back of the stadium that rebounded to the ears like a low-pitched train whistle emanating from the inside of a long mountain tunnel. While this had limited effect in a stadium without super-reflective concrete back stands, within the confines of Arrowhead Stadium, it shook the bones.
Interspersed throughout the show was the orchestration of delicate sounds and an occasional moment of silence that predated Star of Indiana’s “Medea” production by five years, which is one of the most-remembered corps to make use of those techniques. Today, Spirit’s show would seem somewhat old school, with its lack of large sets and the performance of a single piece of music that could be followed by someone with an original orchestral score. But in 1988, many fans were trying to figure out if they were witnessing more of the future or more of the death of the past.
For this week only, you can save on the DVD that contains this complete Spirit of Atlanta performance.
Buy the 1988 Legacy Collection DVD.
(Available 20% off for a limited time only.)
Discount DVD offer ends Monday, September 26, 2016.
Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than 35 years and serves as a staff writer for various Drum Corps International projects. Boo has written for numerous other publications and has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating.
As an accomplished composer, Boo holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music theory and composition. He resides in Chesterton, Indiana.