Now that summer's here, I have way too much time to think about the esoteric elements of pop music. I find it funny that certain techniques and bells and whistles get used to the point of parody by artists and producers in certain era. For example, after SNL's famous "more cowbell" sketch, I noticed the ubiquity of cowbell all over classic hard rock, from Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" to Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band." More recently, auto-tuning has become ubiquitous, and credit/blame has to be given to Cher's "Believe." The charts haven't been the same since.
Here's an odd thing I noticed awhile back while listening to classic rock radio in my car: arena rock bands of the late seventies-early eighties period seemed partial to using keyboard triplets in their songs. It kinda works, in that it gives the fairly boring arrangements a sense of urgency. This style was mastered first by the pros in Toto via their hit "Hold the Line," which got a lot of play on the Godfather's pizza jukebox in my hometown back in the day. A year later Jefferson Starship blatantly borrowed Toto's approach with the slightly more up-tempoed "Jane." (This song is used to great effect in the opening credits sequence of Wet Hot American Summer.) Last but not least, Bon Jovi began their regretably long career with the triplet driven "Runaway." Weird, huh?
Pop music of the same era also relied very heavily on saxophone riffs solos. I think it probably started with Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" and confirmed itself with Supertramp's "Logical Song" in the late 1970s. In these songs, which are about the pain of growing old and dying dreams, the saxophone expresses a kind of emotional anguish. Accordingly, when George Michael in his Wham! days wanted to show his more sensitive, less cavorting around in short shorts side with "Careless Whisper," he put a big honkin' sax riff on the track. This device was a tad overused, and with time became less effective. For example, the sax solo on Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero" is pretty bitchin', but moreso as a musical, rather than emotional moment. Of course, sometimes the intended effect was just to add something punchy and distinctive, like the sax solo on Huey Lewis and the News' "Heart of Rock and Roll," The Waitresses' "I Know What Boys Like" or Billy Joel's "You May Be Right."
I am not sure what replaced the sax solo after the mid-80s, but likely candidates are squeely guitar, overly big-sounding snare drums, or synthesized horn sections. As cheesy as they were, I have to say I wish they would have stuck with piano triplets ans sax solos instead.