This article was originally published in Death and Taxes on February 24, 2012.
The saxophone is an instrument that has run through an ongoing cycle of cool and uncool dating back to the birth of rock & roll. In the early 1950s, the sax was a key instrument in the new genre’s foundation, its rough timbre bringing an edginess to the unprecedented sound. While bebop jazz had plenty of sax, rock & roll was bringing hip music to the teenagers, which made it more dangerous, especially when considering how alarmingly seductive the instrument could be in a low budget make-out movie.
While rock took a brief dip in the early 1960s, being revitalized by The Beatles, the saxophone remained missing from most ’60s-band repertoires, with only the Dave Clark Five carrying the torch. Glam rock had an interest, but its usage wouldn’t be in vogue again until the 1980s, its sound being a regular fixture not only in mainstream music, but in post punk groups like The Psychedelic Furs and The Cure, not to mention 2nd wave ska bands like The Beat and The Specials.
In the ’90s however, nothing was less cool than the saxophone. Having grown up in this decade, I can attest that the mere thought of its raspy howl coming anywhere near a guitar was cringe worthy. Most indie rock bands followed suit with its unhipness, with only the Britpop wave giving it an occasional shot, often minimally.
In recent years though, more indie artists are seeing the beauty of the once reviled instrument. While at times the sax may have been getting new usage just for the ironic novelty of it, more artists now are using it in ways that are indeed nostalgic but that also legitmately tap into the initial joy and excitement that made rock musicians gravitate towards it in the first place. Here’s a shortlist of some of our favorite sax solos from indie rock’s past and present, hearkening back to its few unusual appearances from the punk era, through the ’80s synth pop boom, and then jumping forward to its current resurgence.
Roxy Music – “Re-Make/Re-Model”
Saxophonist: Andy Mackaye
The saxophone had been taking a nap in the ’60s as far as young hip music was concerned. Glam rock’s nostalgia for the golden age of rock & roll gave the instrument another chance to beef up hearty rock & roll, which oddly enough had crawled back into the indie spectrum, with dominant record sales skewing more towards soft rockers and singer/songwriters in the early ’70s. The Rolling Stones had plenty of sax on “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main St.,” but art glam band Roxy Music did one better by including a saxophonist into the band, the multi-instrumentalist Andy Mackaye. They’ve had many songs with prominent sax power, but the best example of this can be found in their introduction to the world on “Re-Make/Re-Model.” There’s a lot of insane awesomeness going on in this song, from its license plate chant chorus to Brian Eno’s squawking keyboard, but Mackaye’s wailing is probably the track’s most memorable feature.
The Stooges – “1970”
Saxophonist: Steve Mackaye
Arguably even stranger than Roxy’s arty concoctions was proto-punk rockers The Stooges, blaring at listeners with fiery bursts of saxophone on the second half of “Fun House,” their caustic sophomore effort. No relation to Roxy’s Andy Mackaye, Steve’s appearance on “Fun House” seemingly comes out of nowhere, first appearing halfway through “1970,” as if he had shown up late to the studio and was making up for lost time. He goes on to ride out the rest of the album to it’s noise jam closer, “L.A. Blues.” Mackaye’s appearance on the album was so memorable that when the band reunited in 2003 to play Coachella, he was invited on board and has gone on to play with the group as a featured member ever since.
X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
Saxophonist: Lora Logic
The sax remained mostly absent from the punk revolution, the focus being on simplicity — the saxophone after all was a leading instrument, and solos were often frowned upon. British band X-Ray Spex had a sound that rose above the outpouring of new punk acts in 1970 for breaking that unwritten code. “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” is an electrifying classic. The sax part was played by a teen girl who went by the name Lara Logic, who was fired from the band before the single even took off, (that’s Rudi Thompson playing in the above clip). Logic went on to form Essential Logic as well as record with The Raincoats, The Stranglers, and Swell Maps in later years. She eventually rejoined X-Ray Spex during their 1995 reunion.
Contortions – “Contort Yourself”
Saxophonist: James Chance
While sax on a punk song was unusual, the strange and unexpected was exactly what No Wave was all about. It’s hard to say which band of the genre was the weirdest but it pretty much goes without saying that James Chance & the Contortions were the most fun. “Contort Yourself,” the band’s flagship song, warbles on a mutant James Brown bassline and demented guitar clangs. When frontman James Chance isn’t howling and screaming his lungs out, he’s wailing away on some insanely discordant sax, a style that would go on to bear a huge presence on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” twenty years later.
The Cure – “A Night Like This”
Saxophonist: Ron Howe
The 1980s was a time where saxophone shops were finally in the red again. There are many great examples of sax glory, from Wang Chung to Oingo Boingo, but being that it was more common place, we’ll just dwell on one of our favorites, The Cure. Guitarist Porl Thompson often provided the band with sax flurishes during his tenure with the group, but whenever they needed a soaring solo performance, they usually outsourced. Ron Howe plays the solo on “A Night Like This,” a single that teeters between underrated and fan favorite. Not included on their comprehensive 2001 “Greatest Hits” album, it’s a regular fixture at the band’s concerts and remains one of their most arresting songs.
Violent Femmes – “I Held Her In My Arms”
Saxophonist: Steve Mackaye
Before we dart forward past the saxless ’90s, one thing should be said for the Violent Femmes’ 1986 single, “I Held Her In My Arms.” The album that it’s from, the Jerry Harrison produced, “The Blind Leading the Naked,” is pretty bad. It carries absolutely none of the charm that drew listeners to their 1982 debut, the angsty acoustic punk replaced with gated reverb bombast and a set of mostly weak songs. That being said, the jittery pop rock of “I Held Her In My Arms” is fantastic — and wouldn’t you know, The Stooges’ Steve Mackaye played the signature sax part. The song for many has remained a forgotten gem from the Femmes’ back catalog, but has seen some modern day loving thanks to Alkaline Trio and The New Pornographers, who both started covering it live, the latter once with Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano at a 2007 Webster Hall show.
Beck – “The New Pollution”
Saxophonist: David Brown
There is but one stop in the ’90s for this mixtape. On “Odelay,” Beck composed a collection of genre hopping numbers that dove into the cesspools of pop history. The Dust Brothers had previously painted the town red with soul and funk on the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” and on “Odelay” went even more off the wall with their crate digs. David Brown’s saxophone part on “The New Pollution,” is a key element to the song’s Austin Powers-esque swing, sounding like a stroll through a casino with Burt Bacharach as the main act.
Sleater-Kinney – “Step Aside”
Saxophonist: Mike Wayland
It’s perhaps shortsighted to classify the ’90s as “saxless” — there was after all, Morphine, but most of our key favorite bands from the era cast the instrument out. It didn’t really suit the time anyway. However, ’90s hard rockers, Sleater-Kinney, surprised everyone on their 2002 album, “One Beat,” when a swaggering horn section crept up on the dancey “Step Aside,” sitting pretty right in the center of the album. Punk rock purists were not happy when the band upped the accessibility of their sound on “All Hands on the Bad One,” but time has all the more proven that Sleater-Kinney were always ahead of the curve and were more important that any made up rock & roll regulations.
Deerhunter – “Coronado”
Saxophonist: Bill Oglesby
“Halcyon Digest” was one of, if not the best album to come out of 2010. One particular great thing about that record was how much Deerhunterpacked in its back end. While the record started strong with the engulfing “Earthquake,” when “Coronado” hits at track 10, the group hits it out of the park. Bill Oglesby’s sax lines are the musical personification of ‘good times,’ sounding like every great party and job promotion strut that could never be done justice with a lyric.
M83 – “Midnight City”
Saxophonist: James King
There are many great examples of sax use in the last year. There’s the smooth soft rock musings of Bon Iver, Gayngs, and Destroyer, and of course the freak-out Afrobeat of tUnE-yArDs, but the best 2011 example of a saxophone capturing the full beauty and spirited hights of the instrument would be the solo the marks the coda of M83’s “Midnight City.” It’s an outro that should last forever, let alone longer than the minute it’s allotted at the end of track 2 on “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” Possibly the best instance in the song’s existence so far was the group’s performance of it on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” last November, where the sax player arose out of the background at his cue and rode the song into synthpop heaven. As Stereogum had put it when that sax part came up, “Oh man. Game over.” That performance has been perversely scrubbed from the Internet by NBC, but until it resurfaces, the video will suffice for all out sax glory.