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Off Beat Empire: Originality

The great Thriller dance Marching Band conspiracy

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Iowa State at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As I was sitting in the stands in Ryan Field this past Friday, trying to shrug off a 55-yard completely unnecessary Buckeye field goal, the joyous Buckeye crowd and a much smaller (fewer?) and less joyous contingent of remaining Northwestern masochists were serenaded by a rendition of a variety of songs celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The show was perfectly fine... very well executed, some good arrangements, and some very good drill (which I wish I could show video of, but for some reason, NUMB isn’t posting much this year). However, about two minutes in, I realized that by taking part in this column, I had already reviewed almost exactly the same show at least three times before, including a portion of performances by MSU and an almost near-exact copy of performances by Purdue and Ohio State - right down to the unfurling of the American Flag to an astronaut on the lunar surface and fire extinguishers to power a “Rocket Man” rocket.

All of that got me to thinking about just how little originality is really demonstrated over the course of the season. Seriously, just about every band in the conference will perform some variation of the following...

  • Motown: Some of this was driven by Aretha Franklin’s passing last year, but just about every band does some variation of Motown just about every year. I could understand that when my parents were in their ‘40’s, but is Motown music so popular that it should appear every single year?
  • TV Shows / Movie Themes: Granted, there is a variety to choose from, but a TV or movie theme is pretty much guaranteed once every season.
  • xxth Anniversary of whatever: Especially the 50th anniversary. Any event tied to the anniversary will probably form the kernel of a show. If it’s not an event, it’s a movie, the debut of a major album for a rock band, something like that.
  • The latest big musical to come out on the big screen: Lately it’s “Greatest Showman”. Any big-budget Disney release. Any rock biographies like Bohemian Rhapsody or the new Elton John movie guaranty that you’ll play the music of that group once as well.
  • Halloween show: Thriller dance!
  • Veteran’s Day: Salute to the Services!
  • Big Band Jazz: Some room for variation, but will almost always include “In the Mood”, or “Swing, Swing, Swing” or something like that.
  • ‘80’s show: Probably includes Thriller dance. At least most of these are somewhat varied.
  • Classical Show: Sometimes a bit more variety, but a lot of “Firebird Suite” or “1812 Overture”.
  • Space Show: Star Wars, Star Trek, Gustav Holst’s the Planets, plus Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (especially with the Elton John movie!).

Now, obviously there is always a show or two that expands beyond that list, but this probably covers at least 60%-70% of what is going to be played, which kind of begs the question... are Marching Bands just delivering good, crowd-pleasing favorites on relevant themes, or are they falling into a rut due to lack of creativity? There is a ton of music out there... so much to choose from that it seems odd that I keep coming across the same tunes over, and over, and over again in these shows, but yet that is what seems to keep happening. Does anybody care, or do they basically want to see their favorites repeated each year?

Me... I’m a sucker for Latin big band sound, orchestral music (particularly American composers such as Gershwin or Copland), and pretty much well-executed Funk. I don’t care as much about Nostalgia in music or in the show... I would rather hear some compelling, complex arrangements that were always intended as instrumentals than a catchy TV theme or some Brittany Spears tune that was popular when I was in junior high (who am I kidding... my Junior High was Bon Jovi, Poison, and Guns-N-Roses). I appreciate the lengths that bands go through to entertain their crowds with the familiar, but at some point, I just want to hear really, really good music performed at a high level and I feel like Classical and non-TV / non-movie orchestral music has taken too much of a back seat to the familiar / pop culture in recent years.

Anyway, I’m curious what others think.


Show Preferences

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    I love the Thriller dance. Pop nostalgia is the way to go
    (12 votes)
  • 17%
    Movie and TV tunes all day (at least mix it up with Sanford and Son or something)
    (19 votes)
  • 5%
    Motown (how old are you?)
    (6 votes)
  • 9%
    Classical / non-Pops orchestral
    (10 votes)
  • 21%
    Big band jazz / swing
    (24 votes)
  • 35%
    I don’t care. I’m just here to watch the Twirlers
    (39 votes)
110 votes total Vote Now


Video this week includes performances from Illinois, Iowa, Minesota, PSU, Rutgers, and Wisconsin.

Win: Illinois Led Zeppelin show (Oct. 12th)

OK, it’s a 50th anniversary performance, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Zeppelin show performed by a marching band, before, which is a surprise given how popular and influential the group was at the time. Tunes played included “Black Dog”, “Rock N’ Roll”, “Immigrant Song”, and “Stairway to Heaven”. I’ve said before that it’s sometimes very hard to translate rock or soul into an instrumental ensemble, but I think that the Illini did a pretty good job, here, of not just playing the melody, but capturing a bit of the spirit of Zeppelin while still being very clean in their sound. Drill felt sustained throughout as well and again, the band is very clean in their execution. I would have gone nuts if they had tried to replicate the percussion break for the “Fool in the Rain” pseudo-bridge section or the opening to “When the Levee Breaks” (John Bonham was just awesome), but beggars can’t be choosers. Of course, the Illini finished with their traditional three-in-one.

Place: Iowa American Musicals (Oct. 19th)

The Hawkeyes gave us a rendition of various musical pieces that had found their way onto the big screen. It’s killing me that I can’t figure out the first piece (pieces?), so anybody who can help me out it would be greatly appreciated, but I know that the show moves through music from “La La Land” and the classic “76 Trombones” (what a nightmare) from the Music Man. What I love about this performance is the Hawkeyes full, big sound particularly on the first half of the show. They have a really nice, relaxed swing sound that still delivers a big punch. Drill is very good, although it had a few more pauses throughout (which is probably my biggest factor in selecting the Illini over this show... this one might have actually sounded a bit better). Still, overall, this is quite a performance and very entertaining throughout.

Show: Rutgers Various Music of the ‘40’s, 50’s, and 60’s (Oct. 19th)

I would have featured this one today based almost solely on the sound of the pieces from the ‘40’s - Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got that Swing)”. Both pieces were executed very well with a nice, full sound and just the right amount of swing to really jazz things up. The band moved on to a variation of “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin for the ‘50’s (with the help of what I believe is the alumni band) and completed with various Motown pieces from the ‘60’s. Drill was very good early, but petered out at times (particularly during “Splish Splash”). Still, this was really good sound throughout and quite an enjoyable show.

All Others

Iowa HMB TV (Oct. 12th)

Various TV themes that range from Sesame Street to Friends. It’s a fun piece and there’s something in there for just about everybody in the crowd, but it’s very hard to generate good contrast and big hits when you’re confined to a ~30-second theme for each song. The video board show was sufficiently cheesy, I guess. Interesting that they chose constipated Hawk to perform the skits with them.

Minnesota: Greatest Hits (Oct. 12th)

The Gophers tried to capture my heart with an arrangement of Malguena (one of my all-time favorites), but I was mostly just confused as to why the heck that piece was sandwiched between Aha and Lady Gaga... the theme made zero sense (supposedly its band favorites). There were some musical choices (such as the lower brass lick for Maleguena) which I didn’t think worked quite right, and I felt like cohesion was lacking at certain points, but it was still an entertaining show. The band featured other athletic programs as part of an extended serenade toward the end.

Penn State: Various Marvel Movie Themes (Oct. 19th)

Everything from the Avengers to Guardians of the Galaxy to Black Panther. I’m getting these from a fan cam so the microphone situation isn’t the best, and the sound seemed pretty good, but a bit flat at times. Drill was very simple with a lot of park n’ bark in-between, but still a solid show from the Blue Band.


Elton John Tunes (Oct. 20th at Lambeau Field)

Various TV Shows (Sept. 28th)

We’re starting to get more from the Badgers and they’ve set up an official YouTube site to post some shows, now. For those who have read this column for a while, you’ll know that I haven’t been the biggest fan of the Badgers for the past few years due to their simple drill and choppy, overly loud sound (which I blame mostly on their marching step). Well, I think that the new Director is starting to develop drill that is much more appropriate and in line with the rest of the conference while maintaining that unique Badger style. He’s also doing a lot to improve the overall sound of the band. The microphone is kind of tough for the official video from Sept. 28th, but I think the sound on the Lambeau video is probably the best I’ve heard in a while for the Badgers. The Band is still a bit too wedded to straight lines and on-the-line or between it drill, but they do a much better job spacing themselves over the field and avoiding just one big geometric shape like they used to do in the past. I like what I’m seeing and look forward to hearing and seeing more under new leadership.

Did Not Play: Coach’s Decision

It’s still tough to get video from Indiana, Nebraska, and Northwestern, although I saw NUMB’s Space / Apollo Landing show in person and it was very well-performed. I believe that Michigan, MSU, and OSU were all either on the road or on break. Nothing new for Maryland or Purdue, although I believe both bands were in action, recently.


I kind of wish there was more classical music and a bit less TV themes, but oh well... the bands are still very entertaining. I’m still holding out for a proper performance of “Cuban Overture”, “Fanfare for the Common Man”, or Pictures at an Exhibition “Great Gate of Kiev” one of these days.