The Bloody Mannequin Orchestra by Eric Anderson
(from Unicorn Times, Washington DC) - 1984
A girl perched studiously erect in front of a piano had just finished singing "Send In The Clowns." It was the B.C.C. High School talent show, and even the parents were starting to shift in their seats. The school's barrel of talent showed scrapes on the bottom.
But suddenly, as if divine intervention had lowered gods from the heavens to save the show, The Bloody Mannequin Orchestra (BMO) rose rumbling from the depths of the orchestra pit on the hydraulic stage.
At times BMO's music can be dissonent and grating, in the "No New York" collapsed vein. But BMO's stance has never fit the desperate profession of mean and cool that so often slouches fist in fist with that sound. To them, an audience is never a mirror to preen before. This charming open stance is not out of ignorance of the trend towards doom-rock. It is in reaction to it.
"Orchestra" is more than a slight exaggeration. The entire string section consists of Sharon Cheslow on guitar and Roger Marbury on bass; Charles Bennington, his chops, and his saxophone are the woodwind section all by themselves; Colin Sears covers percussion. Alex Mahoney must be the diva. All except Cheslow were seniors at B.C.C. The fact that BMO had passed the audition was less a sign of the school's open-mindedness than evidence of the organizer's desperation.
Marbury was unrecognizable in rubber elephant ears and trunk, a bedsheet and long-haired wig. Mahoney stalked across the stage ala Henry Rollins of Black Flag, throwing four years of frustration at being called a computer kid back in the collective face of his school. His gyrations somehow dramatically increased the gravitational force on the audience's jaws. This was not the stuff of talent shows.
After three songs, BMO sneaked into their rapping anthem, "Cool As Shit." On cue, the Old Faithfuls in the auditorium ran down the aisles and clambered onto the stage. The stage began to descend. "Cool as shit/We're cool as shit." Was that someone unrelated dancing in his seat? The floor rose again and the banging rhythm went on. Finally it sunk permanently and straggling fans hoisted themselves to safety and exited. The M.C.'s were speechless.
This single moment epitomizes BMO far more than any of their performances at hip/happening clubs such as 9:30 and d.c. space. It, more than any other, reflects their essence: young, gangingly enthusiastic, while often intentionaly innocent of trends, and with tongues balanced somewhere between cheeks and biting teeth. None of the occasional writers who have tried to explain BMO's uniqueness have gotten it right because none have really understood. The BMO sound is a product of the BMO attitude. It's a way of thinking that doesn't surface enough to have inspired any labels or catalogue descriptions.
After a BMO concert at the 9:30 Club last September, City Paper wrote of "their heterodox blend of avant-garde swing and pogo-beat." The review went on to describe the physiques of the band members. A miffed fan complained to the editor: "I find it quite unfair to make an issue out of the fact that a person appears 'nerdy' or that they are in need of glasses..." And, "that some members in the band are, contrary to your report, old enough to shave."
True, they are young, but they are young and eloquent. Maybe this is their great advantage. William Burroughs was a deviated heroin addict who had the self-discipline and competence to publish his hallucinations. Would Naked Lunch and Junkie be so notorious if any other addicts had been as ambitious and disciplined in their writing?
The Bloody Mannequin Orchestra was conceived in Sears' dark, musty Bethesda basement, mined with petrified cat feces. In the previous five years, this hospitable spot had been a venue for as many bands as a good many Rockville rock clubs combined. The room was appropriately titled "Reverbs" for its ear-bleeding echoing properties. Most shows' total attendance was the number of people in the band (who often strikingly resembled those in the previous band). And, most groups existed only for the duration of their performance. But often the performances were compelling, with elaborate props and satires such as the spontaneous hardcore group with a set list the length of a roll of toilet paper (promptly torn up), and "The Scary 1's" who played only at midnight with candles, cloaks and no lights.
A few serious bands played there as well. Sears played in the hardcore Capital Punishment, among others; Cheslow led Chalk Circle. Most of these bands were discouraged by the lack of open-minded, casual outlets in the D.C. area. Except Reverbs. BMO started there, using equipment left behind by other groups.
"Me and Roger wanted to start a band that wasn't structured," says Sears, "just to be noisy."
"Where we could exchange instruments," adds Mahoney.
BMO never like confining themselves to one kind of music, or, for that matter, one instrument. Not for them, touring arund playing the same licks in the same sequence to incite some reaction. BMO are great practitioners of the volley-ball-rotation school of music, often switching places or vocals with each song.
Once BMO had a place to play, a sort of vanity club, they needed a recording label to satisfy the tens (maybe) thirsting for 24-hours-seven-days-a-week of their music. So Sears joined founder Jeff Turner in a new recording label called WGNS (We Got No Station). Beginning with limited edition (based on limited demand) cassette compilations, BMO released a total of sixteen songs packaged with other groups, serious and not-so-serious. This past month, BMO released a 12-inch extended-play record on the WGNS/EPU label, entitled "Roadmap to Revolution."
The new record may surprise those who remember the Orchestra as they once were. It is smoothly and thickly produced (possibly the best product yet from Don Zientara's Inner Ear Studio, noted for its many local underground releases), and, if certain members didn't know how to play their instruments, they do now. While BMO's earlier "basement tapes" are slightly more revealing, this product is much more musically compelling.