Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Come Join The Bands

The New York Times had a great article today on the college bands that play at NCAA Tournament games, as well as the forces which impact their repertoires. In a nutshell, the rationale for college bands' apparently narrow songlists stems less from musical capabilities and more from alumni likes:

Step inside an arena where N.C.A.A. tournament games are being played. Close the eyes during timeouts. Listen to the pep bands play their jaunty tunes. And remember what year it is.

Pep bands may provide the N.C.A.A. tournament’s greatest culture clash — giving a time-warped soundtrack to games that decide this year’s champion.

At last weekend’s Pacific-10 Conference tournament in Los Angeles, Staples Center was periodically filled with horn-tooting variations of songs by Bon Jovi (“Livin’ on a Prayer”), Boston (“More Than a Feeling”), Ozzy Osbourne (“Crazy Train”), the Police (“Message in a Bottle”) and KC and the Sunshine Band (“Get Down Tonight”).

Across the country, during the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, the well-worn strains of Michael Jackson (“Thriller”), Kansas (“Carry On Wayward Son”), Guns N’ Roses (“Paradise City”) and the Doobie Brothers (“Long Train Runnin’ ”) helped fill the downtime when the court was empty.

It can seem that the pep bands are forever behind the times, playing from song lists borrowed from classic-rock radio stations and wedding-reception D.J.s.

But there is a method to their madness — and to their Madness (“Our House”).

“We try to play songs that not only appeal to the blue-hairs in the crowd, but also to our students,” said Jim Hudson, director of athletic bands at Arizona State.

The brass-heavy 30-piece ensembles (the tournament allows no amplification — meaning no electric guitars — and only 30 band members for each team) are typically subsets of the university’s much larger marching band. And there are plenty of reasons why the song lists (most bands arrive ready to play 40 to 60 songs) can seem dated.

Mostly, it is because fans want it that way. Bands are looking to get toes tapping and chins wagging no matter the listener’s age.

There are other reasons. Rock anthems, with their catchy melodies and complex chord progressions, often lend themselves to arrangements better than other genres. Older songs have become part of each band’s familiar repertory and never leave. Copyright issues and costs can limit the possibilities for fresh tunes.

So exactly how does a song get added to the slate? Here's UCLA's approach:

Updating the songbook is an annual tug-of-war. Most bands hold year-end votes for band members. At U.C.L.A., the bottom five songs are dropped. Five new ones are added.

“ ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ is the most controversial song we have,” said Reesa Jones, the undergraduate teaching assistant leading U.C.L.A.’s band at the Pac-10 tournament. “Some love it, some hate it. Tubas love it, because it’s their one chance for a solo. But a lot of others just hate it.”

U.C.L.A. recently added songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Can’t Stop”) and Matchbox Twenty (“How Far We’ve Come”). The band also regularly plays the theme song from the 1970s television show “The Jeffersons” (“Movin’ on Up”).

I was at the UCLA/Stanford game in Pauley Pavilion a couple of weeks back, and I noticed they were playing Matchbox Twenty's recent hit. The band also seems really partial to the Offspring. Overall, I like the UCLA band's arrangements and songlist, which I've heard for years and have always marveled at how updated it seemed to be.

I also like the Stanford band with all of its irreverence and non-conformist humor. Their halftime routines are priceless, especially when juxtaposed against a goose-stepping regiment like Cal's or USC's bands. But I have to say, I always thought the Stanford playlist was pretty weak, further eroded by the fact the band members always seemed to be too drunk or distracted to play the songs clearly (with the exception of "All Right Now," the unofficial fight song (played after touchdowns, or more recently, after field goals (or even first downs?))).

Finally, the article talked about rights restrictions on the song. Technically, one is not supposed to hear Van Halen's "Jump" or any John Williams composition (themes from Star Wars, Jaws, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, among many). That can't be right; I could have sworn I heard one of these tunes before. But maybe I'm hallucinating.

I remember seeing a game at Wrigley Field in which a four- or six-piece old-time band came out in between innings and played a tune or two, and I thought it was great. I'll try and find the picture later. I love the fact that sports can hearken back to yesteryear, with all of its nostalgia, when done thoughtfully, and that holds for college hoops as well as major league baseball, my two favorite sports.


StolenMonkey86 said...

I feel sorry for myself everytime I think about this, I played with the GMU Pep Band my freshman year (2004-2005), but then got out of practice - meaning no free trip to the Final Four (that wasn't a fun semester anyway, but that's besides the point). We generally tried to play a combination of fan favorites and player favorites, but I think it was the athletic director that didn't like "Regulate" or "Tear it up" to be played, and that's why we stopped that.

Really though, it's all about instrumentation and getting the songs to not sound retarded. For the 80s there was a lot of synthesizer stuff, so that's not too bad. I'd like to hear Coldplay's "Clocks" done by a pep band, but even then it could use a bit of embellishment.

I just don't know why pep bands don't play more ska. Fun baselines and horn riffs - seems perfect.

Orel said...

A pep band version of "Regulate"—I'd like to hear that. What instrument did you play?

Steve Sax said...

StolMonk, thanks for your comment. I don't know if I'd like to hear Coldplay at a basketball game, but I think it would be funny to hear "Man I Feel Like A Woman" after a particularly lame flop.

I played piano, limiting my marching / pep band potential.

Good luck to Mr. Mason against the Irish...

Orel said...


jalapeno said...

i think they quoted reesa incorrectly. far as i know, we (ucla band) doesn't play "build me up buttercup."