The first University of Virginia football game I attended in this role was the 2016 season opener against Richmond. I had been gone for decades. Watching the first half, I felt as though I had never left.
We looked hapless. I drifted into reverie. A clash of cymbals woke me back to the present. Our band took the field.
Gone was the orange-vested crew I had remembered, the self-ungoverned, self-parodying, self-styled “Virginia Fighting Cavalier Indoor/Outdoor Precision? Marching Pep Band and Chowder Society-Revue.” In its stead high-stepped the no-nonsense successor with the on-the-nose name, the Cavalier Marching Band.
They’re good, and I’m good with that. I love both bands, old and new. One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different. Or maybe one is better, the other more different.
The Pep Band was full of irony. The Marching Band has tons of brass. Pep performers dressed mostly alike. CMB musicians have uniforms, and not just uniforms but capes, and not just hats but plumes.
And they can flat-out play, and march, and morph into formations, all simultaneously. Search YouTube for their performance at the 2018 Belk Bowl. Watch as they form a seven-abreast solid V above crossed sabers and the horns nail Carlos Santana’s “Smooth.”
Smooth was never part of the Pep Band repertoire. Neither was subtle, like when a band member took to the field in prison stripes and ball-and-chain in 1977 to parody host Maryland’s freshly convicted governor—“in our own backyard,” the opposing athletic director fumed to The Washington Post.
Those of us who lament that the Pep Band left us too soon should be thankful we had them for as long as we did. They taunted Death every football weekend, especially at away games. As Associate Editor Ed Miller reports in our cover story, the scramble band spent its 30 years on Grounds keeping one marching step ahead of the authorities.
The Pep Band was born of its times, 1974, amid post-Watergate irreverence and perhaps the most transformative period in University history. It was the eve of Saturday Night Live, the year of Young Frankenstein.
You can find the Pep Band on YouTube, too, including the 1974 Virginia Tech game Ed recounts and the turkey leg incident. If the quality looks fuzzy, that’s not the video. It’s the band. There’s a reason the band’s full name includes a question mark after “Precision.”
Watch the Pep Band outline a V on the field. Sure, there are gaps in the line and not enough crew to close the top, but fans got the general idea. We came for the punchlines, not penmanship. The Pep Band broke all the rules, save one: grammar. To spell out “’HOOS,” six members, nearly 10 percent of the company, embodied the much-neglected apostrophe.
Was the Pep Band as funny as we remember it? Read the story, watch the videos, decide for yourself. You can’t go by me. I mean, whenever Young Frankenstein comes on, my wife has to leave the room.
Richard Gard (Col ’81)
Vice President, Communications, UVA Alumni Association