Those first honking, headlong steps taught the band so much.
When the Seed & Feed Marching Abominable made its debut at the Inman Park Festival parade in 1974, about 30 players wore ill-fitting black suits scavenged from local thrift shops and trimmed at the seams with bright yellow tape to resemble high-school band uniforms. They knew only five tunes.
What the Abominables, as they call themselves, lacked in epaulets and repertoire, however, they made up for with brassy determination. Instead of saving their energy for stretches where the crowd was thickest, they preened and performed nonstop on the lengthy route through the hilly Atlanta neighborhood. The marching band refused to yield, as it were, and by the end of the trek, the wind-instrument players, especially, were red in the face. Most of them, including the baton-twirling “Abominettes,” collapsed from exhaustion to the ground.
“The way the band looked at that moment sparked an idea,” says founder and bohemian impresario Kelly Morris. “What if, in the middle of a march, the drums go slower and slower and the band melts into a big death scene in the middle of the street?”
Cued by “Stars and Stripes Forever,” it became the group’s signature shtick, a literal show-stopper, and one of the few constants in this giddy, ever-mutating collective of overaccessorized music-makers.
“During a Snellville parade, (country comic) Jerry Clower was the grand marshal riding with us,” Morris. “Neither he nor anyone else knew what on earth we were doing when we fell to the ground, followed by a moment of silence. The highway patrol got worried. Then a horn started ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and we resumed.”
Since then, the Abominables have evolved, in their anarchic, unabashedly hippie-dippy fashion, into an in-demand, quasi-professional Atlanta institution that struts all over the country at events such as the Spoleto Festival and Austin’s “South by Southwest.” With some professional musicians among the 100 members and the guidance of a “semiconductor,” their sound has grown tighter, while remaining gloriously loose. Any starch in the uniforms is purely ironic.
“The band manages to be a parody of a marching band while being … an actual marching band,” says Henry Slack, a founding member and trombone player. “It’s a, well, difficult concept to grasp, but for some reason it works.”
You have to see, and, well, hear it to understand the cult following.
“It’s a Mardi Gras version of John Philip Sousa meets Dr. Seuss,” says Charles Bohanan, another trombonist.
Members gather on Tuesdays in the Little Five Points Community Center to rehearse songs such as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Louie Louie,” and Blondie’s “Call Me.” Like a Friday night football game in a small town, the band’s tubas, drums, and cymbals reverberate all over the neighborhood, with some unusual flourishes: a bleating kazoo, the tintinnabulation of a washboard, or maybe a didgeridoo – whatever is handy.
“At one point we had four accordion players,” Slack says. “And there are always people who play the triangle.”
Auditions are not required. Nor is musical ability or rhythm. The S&FMA welcomes nonmusical performers, called “Despicables,” to dance in boas and tutus; generate spontaneous street theater; and steer the band around fireplugs.
“I’m the pompom girl,” says a high, sweet voice belonging to Josie Starnes, who, at 77, is the oldest member. (The youngest is 2½.) She then begins to shake her demure booty as the band strikes up “Superfreak.”
It all began with one bass drum.
“Life without a bass drum is unthinkable,” Morris writes. Never mind that he does not play it or any other instrument. He started the band as a lark when he was operating Kelly’s Seed & Feed Theatre, drawing inspiration from the creative ferment of the times, showcased in the politically radical Bread & Puppet and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. For one of its early numbers, the S&FMA appeared in a satirical Tom Cullen play called “Deep South,” which satirized racial stereotypes.
“The band was supposed to represent the ‘white race,’ as in, ‘Look, it’s white people marching and playing their own kind of music!’” Morris says. “They wore their original uniforms, but torn to shreds because they’d supposedly been marching for hundreds of miles on the interstate median, and had gotten lost in the jungle, among other things.”
After the theatre disbanded, the band played on. “It’s been hard to kill,” the founder says with a laugh. “I never imagined that it would become this organic community and last this long.”
Much of its endurance lies in its appeal to a large but undersung school-yard demographic: the band geek. The Abominables’ recruitment pitch: “Do you miss the sound of a thumping bass drum… Do you need more cow bell?” If, long ago, you grudgingly traded your battered clarinet case for a briefcase, this scene is for you.
“About 10 years into the band’s existence, we did a survey of members about the last time they had played their instruments before joining us,” Morris says. “Most of them had gone for 15 years without playing and really missed it.”
For them, the S&FMA offered gigs at the Fox, the Woodruff Arts Center, and other heady venues, albeit in drag.
“It was envisioned as a band that could march well and play passably,” Morris says. “It turned out to be the opposite.”