Stanford’s Marching Band is in big trouble…again. Apparently, that’s kind of their thing. I know I’m not supposed to think it’s funny, but I do.
I can respect that some marching bands view it as their job to proliferate pep. I think it’s cool that there are marching bands like the Ohio State University squad, whose mind-boggling formations and arrangements are truly the height of musical excellence. And really, at the heart of it, I can’t overstate the importance of marching bands in general as a proving ground, meeting place, and performance space for aspiring young musicians.
But forget about all that gooey claptrap for a minute. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band exists only to spread mayhem, subvert order and gleefully micturate all over tradition.
It is this lust for life that landed the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Rock and Roll Band” in deep dung this December. The band has been suspended and will not be permitted to take the field again during this academic season.
This suspension was a long time coming. It’s also not the first time its happened. To wit, this ensemble has been banned from more places than you’ve ever been.
But this disciplinary action will come with far-reaching implications. For more than 50 years, Stanford’s marching band has been student-run, with little to no directorial authority. The University says that the LSJUMB’s days of self-determination have come to an end. When the band does return to the field in Fall of 2017, it will be under the yoke of a reconstituted leadership structure.
So does this mean that the LSJUMB’s reign as a force for loosely choreographed hooliganism are coming to an end? And if so, how should we feel about it? These kids have been a thorn in the side of administrators for decades, a constant source of controversy, and a hotbed for student misconduct.
On the other hand, they’re really funny. (Sidenote: Laughing out loud is not the same as condoning.)
Anyway, let’s quickly explore the charges against the band and then take a look at their rap sheet, which rivals the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard for both prolificacy and creativity.
The Charges Against Them
The suspension comes as a consequence of a year-long investigation by the University’s Organization Conduct Board (OCB), which found that musicians had violated both an alcohol suspension and travel ban (imposed for prior antics) by renting a cabin in Tahoe using band moneys.
As scandals go, this one is minor for a band given over to frequent and public acts of disobedience. But there are also murmurings of hazing that include binge-drinking and sexually suggestive questioning during initiation interviews. Of course, these activities are not funny, but they were really just the icing on a whole huge cake of debauchery.
In its conduct review, the university determined that there was “a total lack of accountability and responsibility in the current organization.” Administrators insisted that during its suspension, the band would be forced to confront its “systemic cultural problem,” particularly through the imposition of a new faculty director.
The student-run band issued a response to the suspension that was not particularly conciliatory, arguing that the ensemble was being unfairly targeted because “it does not fit into the mold that provides the University a lucrative brand, a well-manicured image, and administrative expedience.”
All of this is, of course, true. And it’s also not a particularly damning indictment of the university or its values. But the question does remain, if the band does not fit the university’s mold, how has it become such an ingrained part of Stanford culture?
Who are the LSJUMB?
Before they were the bad boys of band camp, the LSJUMB was a traditional marching band overseen by a popular director named Julius Shuchat. When the university sacked Shuchat in favor of Art Barnes in 1963, band members revolted. In order to quell the rebellion, Barnes transformed his band into a student run organization. It is thus that the band’s formative years coincided with an era of political protest, public demonstration, and civil disobedience. Against this historical backdrop, the LSJUMB evolved into an organization equal parts frat party and performance artistry.
Operating as a so-called “scatter band,” one that moves chaotically into formation rather than in the order of a traditional marching band, the LSJUMB quickly became a force for provocation. Eschewing the usual Sgt. Pepper-style marching band uniforms in favor of fishing caps and flair, the band peddles almost entirely in powerhouse arrangements of classic and modern rock tunes. Billing itself as the World’s Largest Rock and Roll Band, Stanford actually has 13 proper album releases under its belt. Pretty solid listenable stuff if you’re into marching band arrangements of Green Day, Blind Melon, and P-Funk (which you obviously should be).
The band’s theme song is a killer adaptation of Free’s epic riffer “All Right Now” but its arsenal is said to include thousands of rock arrangements. Such is to say that the band’s musicianship is not up for debate. Like many of history great gonzo rockers, these guys are as talented as they are off-the-wall.
But man, are they off-the-wall. For a sense of this band’s orientation, take a quick look at their spirit animal. Their mascot is the Stanford Tree, which is basically what it would look like if your dog ate a bonsai then vomited the remains into a pile of stick-on googly eyes. The Tree is the anthropomorphic embodiment of all that is wonderful, weird and kind of embarrassing about the Stanford Marching Band.
And one more quick note before getting into the band’s glorious legacy of disruption. Owing less to its miscreant tendencies than to its relative disarray as a marching unit, the band was directly involved in one of the most famous and controversial plays in sports history. I mean literally, the whole 144 member entire marching band was involved in the play.
“The Play,” as it is dubbed for its singular notoriety in football history, took place in the final four seconds of The Big Game against arch-rival University of California, Berkeley in 1982.
Down 19-17 late in the 4th quarter, Stanford quarterback John Elway led the type of late-game comeback drive that would ultimately make him an NFL legend. Driving the ball into field goal range, Elway helped his team secure a 20-19 lead in the waning moments of the game.
In order to limit the potential of a kickoff return, Stanford’s kickoff team squibbed the ball to Cal’s Kevin Moen, who lateraled to Richard Rodgers who, after gaining only a yard, pitched the ball back to Dwight Garner.
As Stanford tacklers engulfed Garner, both the players and marching band members waiting behind the end zone presumed the game was over. All 144 band members rushed onto the field, unaware that Garner had effectively pitched the ball back to Rodgers.
Rodgers broke free and pitched to Mariet Ford, who sprinted up-field and into the throng of band members. With one more pitch, he lateraled to Moen at the 25, who completed the unlikeliest touchdown return in history by plowing through a trombonist.
Though officials couldn’t be certain that each of the laterals leading to the touchdown was legal, the mayhem on the field also prevented them from determining otherwise. The score was upheld and Cal emerged victorious, 25-20 in what remains among the most shocking moments in sports lore.
In fairness, that play isn’t exactly part of the present story but it is absolutely stitched into the fabric of the LSJUMB’s ridiculous history.
Bad News Band
The band’s history is otherwise engulfed entirely in disrepute.
These guys are pretty much constantly in trouble. The current suspension is only partially due to the events leading immediately up to it. Whatever went down this year, it was merely the last straw for frustrated administrators.
Behold a towering legacy of inspired idiocy:
- In 1972, while visiting Anaheim for the Rose Bowl, LSJUMB members hijacked the microphones at Disneyland’s Storyland Canal boats, regaling passengers with the scandalous “true story” of Storyland Canal. To date, the marching band is not welcome in Disneyland.
- In a 1986 home game performance against the Washington Huskies, several marching band members dropped their pants. Six of them were—perhaps due to chilly conditions—moved to relieve themselves on the field (on their own field. Tsk Tsk.)
- Not two weeks later, in a home game against USC, the scatter band managed to find a series of coherent formations, first spelling out the phrase “NO BALLZ” and consequently taking the shape of male genitalia. The band was consequently suspended for a two game stretch which included the annual Big Game against Cal.
- In 1989, the USC Trojan Marching Band festooned the beloved Stanford Tree with toilet paper. Their delicate sensibilities offended, the members of LSJUMB proceeded to initiate an all-out brawl with the rival marching band. Fisticuffs were broken up by referees.
- The band used a 1990 road game against the University of Oregon to stage a protest against logging and the destruction of spotted owl habitats in the northwest, taking various formations that included a chainsaw and the word Owl. By order of the governor himself, the band would not be welcome in the state of Oregon again until the year 2001. This incident also prompted a new policy requiring that each halftime show be reviewed and approved by the Stanford Athletic Department.
- A fat lot of good that policy did. During a 1991 halftime performance at Notre Dame, the band’s drum major donned a nun’s habit and conducted the band using a wooden cross. This…was not well received by the home team and led to a minor melee in which a disgruntled Fighting Irishwoman physically accosted said drum major, condemning him to eternal damnation.
- For some reason, the band really got a kick out of the whole O.J. Simpson thing. In 1994, 19 members of the band showed up at the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse during Simpson jury selection to perform a set of thematically-selected classic rock tunes. Defense lawyer Robert Shapiro—an arbiter of good taste if ever there was one—called the gesture “a new low in tasteless behavior.”
- The band stooped yet lower later that same year during a game against USC, O.J. Simpson’s alma mater, driving a blood-spattered White Ford Bronco onto the field in a super-subtle halftime nod to Simpson’s infamous medium-speed chase with police officers prior to his arrest for murder.
- Amazingly, in spite of the events there in 1991, the band was allowed back to Notre Dame for the 1997 travesty in which it doubled down on its Catholic-bashing while adding a Riverdance formation and a joke about the Irish potato famine to its performance. This earned LSJUMB a two-year ban.
- Cringe warning: In 1999, after opposing UCLA players were ensnared in a scandal involving the use of handicap accessible parking, the LSJUMB’s halftime performance included the formation of a disability-accessible symbol and featured the Stanford Tree in a wheelchair.
- In both 2002 and 2006, the band was sanctioned for violations of the school’s alcohol policies.
- The 2006 sanction coalesced into a full-fledged suspension just as the band was scheduled to move into an expensive new facility. Under the mistaken impression that their former Band Shak was to be demolished, band members subjected the trailer to a spirited round of vandalism. The band would eventually be reinstated in the summer of 2007 and would be removed from alcohol probation shortly thereafter.
- In 2015, the Stanford Organization Conduct Board panel and Title IX Office undertook a joint investigation into the band’s behavior based on allegations that it had engaged in misconduct involving alcohol, controlled substances, and hazing. The investigation included a one year travel ban on athletic events away from campus.
- Just as soon as the ban was lifted, the band appeared at the 2016 Rose Bowl and favored University of Iowa opponents with a performance that included a corn maze, cow tipping, and an array of other farmer-baiting debasements. Iowa fans were outraged.
Lucky for the Hawkeyes, the Fighting Irish, the Golden Bears, and every other would-be target of its musical lampooning, the LSJUMB was recently condemned by the OCB panel, bringing about the suspension that takes us up to present date.
The reality is that Stanford’s Marching Band has no intention of getting its act together. For all the traditions this band so joyously dismantles, it there is one tradition that remains cherished and closely guarded within its ranks. The LSJUMB’s raison d’etre to stand unyielding to authority, taste and decency. Say what you want about its message (which is neither consistent nor coherent) but this ensemble is true to the twin spirits of rock and roll and rebellion.
And in spite of running afoul of sensitivities, breaking the kinds of rules that college students are wont to break, and generally failing at least a hundred standards of public decorum, they’ve never actually hurt anybody who wasn’t dressed as the opposing team’s mascot.
Of course, we can’t blame the University for this suspension. It’s fun to laugh at these guys but I’m not sure I’d want them to represent me. Moreover, a little oversight probably couldn’t hurt if the rather serious allegations about hazing and substance abuse are true. There is little to be gained from such off-field foolishness and it is the university’s responsibility to ensure that such behavior does not continue. That said, we’d hate to see the band’s on-field foolishness go along with it.
Here’s hoping the cultural reconfiguration of this band isn’t too dramatic from a performance standpoint. There’s no doubt that its performances are often edgy, frequently ill-conceived and indisputably offensive. But the Stanford band is possessed by a certain irrepressibly scrappy and harmlessly tasteless charm that adds color, life and unpredictability to an age-old game. Besides, where can you sow the spirit of rebellion if not on a college campus.
May the LSJUMB return from its suspension with its sense of mischief intact.