aNewDomain — They killed the cow. But worse, they banned the band.
Last week Stanford University officially suspended the ever-controversial Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) for spring 2017, saying it plans to to hire a professional band director who will have far more control over the band’s membership and operations.
The move heralds the sad end of the irreverent musical commentary and wildly creative free expression that characterize the band, which was named one of the top 10 college marching bands in the nation last year.
Greg Boardman, Stanford’s vice provost, penned the letter that notified the award-winning band of the decision last week, saying band members had violated alcohol and travel policies.
A Trojan horse? Maybe.
Earlier this week, Stanford Band reps characterized the move as just an excuse to neutralize the organization, which has been under fire for its outrageous musical commentary and gags for 53 years now.
The band says it will appeal the decision, but the outcome doesn’t look good.
Larger forces seem to be at work here.
“Never has a pitcher of beer, shared by three of-age band alumni at a friend’s farewell dinner, provoked such a dramatic response,” a band spokesman wrote in a letter appealing the decision.
Describing the decision as an Inquisition-like attempt to curtail and control the band, the Stanford Band spokesperson ended the letter with this:
“The funkless still need funk. Who else will bring it?”
It isn’t the first attempt to hobble the band, of course.
Back in 1972, Stanford’s president was offered a one million dollar check by a donor if only he would criticize the band. He didn’t. He ripped up the check, as the story goes, saying that he loved the band.
Those days are over.
Revenge of the cow
Band defenders maintain that complaints about the Stanford Band stem from this Rose Bowl performance, which included a so-called ‘peopled-cow.’
Iowa fans weren’t pleased. Afterward, some complained the band insulted the whole state by displaying this cow.
Here is the YouTube video of the Rose Bowl Halftime performance, along with the peopled cow. In the video, you’ll hear some 60,000 Iowa fans booing.
The show was actually a lark poking fun at the online dating site called farmersonly.com.
Perhaps Iowa fans were so thin-skinned because, at halftime, the score was 35-0. The game was Iowa’s first Rose Bowl appearance since the early 90s.
I spoke to the leader of the trumpet section, who explained the origins of the peopled cow this way:
“Every Rose Bowl the show scripts are vetted by a committee so the jokes are not really that good or edgy, then we go do it and they are offended because they came in expecting to be offended and it is a self fulfilling prophecy. And yes in the video you can hear the 60,000 Iowa fans booing. It was literally like hitting the broadside of a barn because they were in no mood for humor. Instant feedback. And the tweets were crazy.”
One tweet read: “Just wait until we get to the parking lot Stanford Band!” he said.
The trumpeter told me the guy who tweeted that never showed up, though.
Rose Bowl officials, by the way, chastised the band for the gag.
Stanford Band vs OJ Simpson
It wasn’t the first time. The band has a long history of getting in trouble for its often outrageous performances.
The list of activities it’s been suspended or reined in is long, but one of the high points was in 1994, when 19 band members skipped a field rehearsal in Los Angeles to play outside the LA County Courthouse instead. The occasion was jury selection for the OJ Simpson murder trial. As prospective jurors marched in, these band members played songs including the Zombies’ “She’s Not There.”
Simpson defense lawyer Robert Shapiro called the courthouse stunt “as a new low in tasteless behavior,” according to this writeup.
But the band wasn’t done with Simpson yet.
Later the same year, at a show at the Stanford-University of Southern California game, band members drove a white Ford Bronco with bloody handprints on it onto the field. It was an unveiled reference to the so-called “low speed chase” Simpson gave police before his arrest.
Simpson, of course, played football for USC and won the 1968 Heisman Trophy for his role there.
Stanford Band vs Oregon
In 1990, Stanford suspended the Stanford Band for a performance at a game against the University of Oregon. Criticizing the logging of the spotted owl’s habitats in the northwest, the band marched in a formation shaped like a chainsaw, and then in a formation in the shape of the OWL, which they morphed into AWOL.
In response, Governor Neil Goldschmidt issued a decree that the band not return to Oregon for 10 years.
After this incident, all halftime shows were reviewed and approved by Stanford’s Athletic Department.
Check it out.
The days of the Stanford Band’s cheeky commentary and over-the-top creative musical expression are over now, though. For good.
The most famous play in college football history?
The top 10 college band list that includes the Stanford band doesn’t include University of California at Berkeley, I should note.
Cal still proudly brags that they got to perform in the Super Bowl just 15 minutes from Palo Alto, in favor of the Stanford Band. And it can be proud of that. Not everyone can be as creative as the Stanford Band, after all.
That’s why it’s so famous.
One of the most famous plays in the history of college football history involved the band.
That was in 1982, at the Stanford-Cal game. In the final moments, the Stanford Band rushed the field, apparently because it thought Stanford’s victory over Cal was secured. But it wasn’t. A Cal player took the opportunity to use the band as cover to score the game winning touchdown and defeat John Elway, which he did. Then he ran into a Stanford Band trombone player in the end zone.
That one is always in the top ten historic moments compilations. Watch it below.
RIP Stanford Band (1963-2016)
At the Stanford vs Army game in 2014. I’m an engineer at Google, and the company was passing out free tickets to anyone who wanted them in the lobby. Stanford won 35 – 0. At the game, I ended up seeing the now 60-something trombone player.
Now, I am no ageist but I figured he probably was not a current student at Stanford. So I looked online to see what was required to join the band.
It said you could join if you were a student, former student or had no affiliation at all. You just needed to love music. That sounded like me, so I wrote a short note to the band, saying I was a Google Engineer and that I wanted to try using Google Glass on the field during a halftime show.
Stanford Band’s Ricky Hoft emailed me back and said come on over for rehearsal. I did that, and ended up playing with the band for the game against Utah in November 2014.
And I kept my promise, too. I used my Google Glass for the game. Check out my Google Glass video of us charging the field, below.
So I thought my debut at the game would be a one and done kind of adventure.
But then I changed my mind.
I was an experienced marching band guy, after all. I had performed in 44 half times with the largest military precision marching band in the United States, the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band . That was back when I was an undergraduate from 1989 – 1993 at Texas A&M.
That organization is totally different than the Stanford Band, and that is okay. Such a radical delta in organizational culture and expectations is part of what made joining such a compelling proposition. It was different and something to do for the pure joy of it.
Maybe letting a 45-year-old Google engineer come play tunes by using a drivers license as collateral (to borrow the jacket ) is wild and crazy and off the reservation and bohemian and should be forbidden.
That would be the conventional view.
Well, a return to convention is what the Stanford band suspension is all about, right?
It’s a foolish. Consider: The band’s decision to let in someone like me, who just loves music, join the Stanford Band can help out students. In my case, it helps build networking bridges that can lead to opportunities for band members to go apply for positions with companies like mine — if that is the path they choose to follow.
So yes, I did play with the band in fall 2015 — at games against UCF, Arizona, UCLA, Cal and in the 2016 Rose Bowl game against Iowa.
I did it to get my 50 halftimes lifetime, a mission accomplished.
The highlight of my tenure came when I was able to see myself in the highlight video of Francis Owusu’s catch versus UCLA behind Wadood’s back with three quarters of a million views.
Here’s the video, below. I’m 24 seconds in, right after the video cuts to the band. You can see my Google badge on my leg because it was a Thursday night game. I’d just come over after work and I’d forgotten to take my badge off.
To give back to the band for the great opportunity they gave me, I’ve since assisted members of the band apply for internships at Google.
When my coworkers ask why in the world I would do this, I always tell them: Because they let me play.
So sure, I can see why, perhaps, Stanford feels that, at a minimum, you have to be a student at Stanford to represent the University at halftime at an NCAA football game.
And that means that if I tried to do what I did in 2017 , which is what I did in 2014, 2015 and 2016, that I would no longer be welcome to participate in the Leland Stanford Jr. University Marching Band.
The last word
Sure, there have been calls that this was long overdue, usually from annoyed rivals who had been panned once or twice.
But there are voices at Stanford that are appealing this action. Stanford was different. And now they will be less different. It does feel like the Title IX investigation and probation was always political cover for the University to disband the LSJUMB and restructure it as a more conventional organization.
Look, the members of the Stanford Band are (mostly) students at Stanford University. These are really smart eggs.
But Stanford’s ban of the band is just plain dumb.
Stanford, if you want to abolish the LSJUMB and establish a more conventional marching band, just say it. Just come out and say it.
Don’t insult our intelligence.
The authoritarian revolution, as personified by the election of Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office, seems to have won the day in Stanford, too.
Stanford’s band neutering is nothing less than a shameful put-down of a celebrated band, which got its start after revolting in 1963 and gifting the university with an unmatched 53-year marching band tradition.
Well, godspeed, Stanford Band.
I am just glad I was able to be in it when it was able to exercise its free spirit and awesome creative freedom.
For aNewDomain, I’m Richard Hay.
Full Disclosure: I am not a Stanford student nor have I ever taken classes there. I never knew you could join the band by showing up to rehearsal and playing the songs. I would have never payed $100 for seats at the 2013 Stanford vs. Oregon game if I had known I could have gotten a free ticket and great seats if I joined the band. I did not even know that was a thing! I am a Google engineer and from 2007 – 2015 I worked 15 minutes away in Mountain View.
Cover image of Stanford Band spelling out “Oh No” instead of OHIO at a 2014 Stanford-Ohio State game via: SBnation.com, All Rights Reserved.
PS: Want to feel like you were part of the Rose Parade on Colorado Avenue in Pasadena? Check out the 360 video of the Rose Parade:
What would Naurav, a 22-year-old Iowa drummer I befriended in the line for In-n-Out burgers at the end of the Rose Parade, think of all this? I wonder.