Deep Cuts

Deep Cuts: The 1980s–Rock Sax’s Last Great Era

I was thinking the other day about the death of the saxophone.  When the rock era dawned, having a sax player on the front line was as commonplace as featuring a hotshot guitarist. The tuba didn’t make the jump to the rock stage, nor did the bassoon, the flugelhorn, or the oboe. Flutes enjoyed a little popularity during the ’60s and ’70s thanks to the folkies and Jethro Tull, but with that exception the only lung-powered instrument to survive the end of the bobby soxer era was the sax.

It didn’t just survive, it thrived. Try to imagine James Brown without Maceo Parker, or Springsteen without Clarence Clemmons. Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” or Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” without their slinky saxes? No thanks.

Thirty years into the rock era, the sax was still blowing strong. The ’80s might be remembered for plastic music like A Flock Of Seagulls’ “I Ran” or Gary Numan’s “Cars,” but as the guitar faded into the background and synthesizers moved to the front of the stage, somehow the sax managed to hang in there. My guess is that sometimes those gated snares, drum machines, and keytars needed a little something organic to balance them out.

When the ’90s dawned, the rock sax vanished. What killed the saxophone? Was it grunge? It’s hard to imagine “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a sexy sax solo, after all. Was it boy bands? Auto-tuned divas?

Maybe, maybe, and maybe, but I accuse Kenny G on the cruise ship with his shitty little soprano sax. Once that soulless circular breather bleated all of the cool out of the instrument, saying you liked a good sax solo was like confessing that you enjoyed farting in the bathtub just to sniff the bubbles.

But much like that soapy stench, our sulfurous memories of Kenny G eventually faded, so lets revisit some sax-related songs from the woodwind’s last great hurrah:

“One Step Beyond,” Madness.

“Only the Lonely,” The Motels.

“Who Can It Be Now?” Men At Work

“Modern Love,” David Bowie.

“The One Thing,” INXS.

“Harden My Heart,” Quarterflash.

“I Believe,” Tears For Fears.

“Party At Ground Zero,” Fishbone.


There you have it: Eight ’80s cuts that blow, daddy, blow. What did I miss? I’m listening.



4 replies »

  1. “Smooth Operator” – Sade
    “Is It a Crime” – Sade
    “Urgent” – Foreigner
    “Deacon Blues” – Steely Dan
    “Jazzman” – Carole King
    “Never Say Never” – Romeo Void
    “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” – Pink Floyd
    “I Want a New Drug” – Huey Lewis and the News
    “Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart
    “I Can’t Go For That” – Hall & Oates


  2. OH lord, the list is too long:

    Bowie’s “Young Americans” – the whole album. David Sanborn weaving in and out and around almost every song….that alto was like a second vocal. When I played, I worked that album to the bone, trying to get that sound. “Fascination” – just listen to that horn come alive. The alto sax on so many of his albums, it was incredibly unique, he could go from slinky sexy to menacing in a 4 bar change.
    Also, Bowie himself on “Diamond Dogs” the way he wrote the alto into the songs when Bowie himself played his sax he would whirl and twirl it and let it go on it’s own like magic.

    And of course “The Big Man” Clarance Clemons…*big sigh* ..even though Bruce now uses Clarence’s nephew, who is a worthy tenor sax ripper on his own.
    IF there were to be another Sax player in The E Street Band, it was Jake Clemons or nobody. Clarence’s shoes are impossible to fill – just listen to the 10 minute “JungleLand”, nothing fancy, no impossible jazzy moves, but Clarence and his tenor sax become one entity in that solo that for over 30 years could rip through the heart of every audience, no matter the size.

    Maybe rock sax died along with Bowie and The Big Man. I think maybe a lot of the beautiful up front Sax solos are now part of a horn section, they have quieted down in recent years. Maybe the sax itself has sat down to mourn the loss of its idols.


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