The 1990 Drum Corps International World Championships headed to Rich Field outside Buffalo, New York, finishing with the Cadets of Bergen County in first place.
This year two corps enjoyed their highest Finals placement up until that point; the second-place Cavaliers and third-place Star of Indiana, meaning that for the first time in DCI history, no California-based corps sat amongst the top-two in the Finals competition.
Also notable, Dutch Boy became the first Canadian finalist corps since 1977, and a new Florida ensemble, Magic of Orlando, first entered competition with many arrangers and instructors from the disbanded Suncoast Sound.
Blue Devils’ “Selections from Tommy” was based on the groundbreaking double album rock opera by English rock band The Who. “Tommy” was the band’s fourth studio album, mostly composed by guitarist Pete Townshend.
The corps’ show did not follow the order of the rock opera’s plot, but referenced the main theme of the original production with five large triangular white tarps representing pinball paddles and one round white tarp representing a pinball. The production marked the first major foray for the Blue Devils outside of jazz, with only one arrangement, “Pinball Wizard,” done in the hardcore jazz style to which fans had long been accustomed from the corps.
Other parts of the Blue Devils’ production were influenced by the 1972 “Tommy” studio album recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, titled, “Symphonic Rock: The British Invasion.” Other parts, such as the jazz arrangement of “Pinball Wizard,” came from the mind of brass arranger Wayne Downey.
The production started with “Overture.” The corps’ musical treatment was quite faithful to the original’s symphonic rock treatment. The movement also included a bit of “See Me, Feel Me,” which achieved increased popularity when it was played by the band at the famed Woodstock Festival before being released as a single.
Next came “Sparks,” featuring the color guard spinning large red X-shaped props and white balls at the end of short poles, sort of as if playing a game of jacks. This movement ended with the brass section playing a loud chordal tag in a line at the very front of the field as the guard performers introduced light pastel flags with long, wispy stretches of fabric to soften the visual element of the show.
Thundering drums accompanied a screaming soprano solo, alluding to the melody of “Tommy Can You Hear Me.” This led the music directly into “Pinball Wizard,” by far the jazziest of all the selections, reverting to the hard-driving type of music that fans had traditionally expected from the corps.
As the percussion introduced “Underture,” the brass players appeared to ricochet off the white tarps like balls bouncing off the paddles of a pinball machine. Like in the original, this percussion feature included a reprise of the main melody from “Sparks,” introduced by the horns.
The selection ended with an emotionally-wringing reprise of “See Me, Feel Me.” A company front formation of brass players pushed the melody into the back row of the stands. They finished things off with a little bit of the finale from “Overture,” before spelling out a stylized rendition of the name, “Tommy.”
After successfully negotiating a program that was mostly of an idiom that wasn’t jazz, the 1990 Blue Devils demonstrated the corps could head in any artistic direction without being confined to one particular musical idiom.
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.