Thursday, October 23, 2014
Sax-y Pop Songs of the 1980s
This week brought the sad news of session musician Raphael Ravenscroft's death. In case you didn't know, he was the man behind the saxophone riff on "Baker Street," perhaps the most iconic pop song sax riff of all time. I've made my love of this song and its deeper meaning a subject of an earlier post, and I still mean every word. That 1978 hit must have had a big impact on record producers, since the saxophone suddenly started appearing all over the hit records of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Of course, the sax had been huge in fifties R&B and rock and roll, and Motown players like Junior Walker could use it to wicked effect on songs like "Shotgun." Pink Floyd brought in Dave Parry on their monumental Dark Side of the Moon album, where his sax really added something extra to their sound on tunes like "Money" and "Us and Them." However, the only rock band with a consistent sax presence was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, where the "Big Man" Clarence Clemons' honking sax played a crucial role on "Born To Run" and "Rosalita."
Once "Baker Street" hit, the saxophone suddenly became a ubiquitous record producer tool. In 1979 Supertramp hit it big with their Breakfast in America album, and saxophone offers crucial texture to "The Logical Song" and other tracks. Other bands that didn't feature sax jumped on the bandwagon. Take for instance cock rockers Foreigner, who had ridden to fame on sweaty-riffed odes to coitus like "Hot Blooded." On their 1981 4 album their sound got a post-New Wave update on "Urgent," with its keyboards, metronomic beat, and effects-laden guitar. What put it over the top was an absolutely savage saxophone solo by Junior Walker. It screams and wails and communicates burning desire much more immediately than Lou Gramm's typically overblown vocals. Without that solo I don't think this song is a hit.
As the 80s ground on, the sax was everywhere, often showing up on solo breaks, rather than as the main melodic instrument. It fulfills this role on Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero," where the solo gives the song that extra little degree of 80s-tastiticness to put it over the top. Similarly, just as "True" by Spandau Ballet gets too frothy for its own good *bam!* here comes the saxophone. Former Eagle Glenn Frey managed to briefly crawl out of the polyester ooze of the 1970s and nail the Zeitgeist of the mid-1980s with two sax-driven hits: "The Heat Is On" and "You Belong To The City." I swear that for a two year stretch whenever my mom picked me up from Wednesday night CCD (where public school Catholics like myself got our catechism) this song came on the radio every single time. Perhaps the DJ on that shift just really liked it. In any case, the sax riff on this song might be the "Baker Street" of the 1980s.
The one other contender for the title is "Careless Whisper," the song that bridged George Michael's time in Wham! and his solo career. This is the kind of song that I am ashamed to admit a fondness for, but this saxophone riff cannot be denied. It dominates from the start, and I've been hearing it at malls and airports for almost thirty years now despite the downer subject matter of the song. It's a sound so distinctive that when I hear it and other songs with that sax sound I'm instantly transported back to the 80s, whether I like it or not.