Sax in a rock song can be many things: missing link to the big band swing the upstart genre replaced in the early 1950s; supplier of complex countermelodies; beloved siren song of Ray Ban Wayfarer-clad dads everywhere.
It’s also probably the most hated pairing of instrument and genre since Sting picked up a hurdy gurdy. But why? Why so much vitriol? Rock saxophone haters cite any number of alleged transgressions. It’s too cornball, too nakedly emotional, too painfully earnest, too skeevy. See: Clinton, Bill; Seger, Bob; G, Kenny.
There is no way to affect irony when a playing saxophone. It is a frankly dorky instrument, which is its biggest flaw or greatest strength, depending on your tolerance for schmaltz. Tastes evolve, and some vocal music
snobs lovers have come to disparage the heart-on-its-sleeve emotionality of the sax in favor of the otherworldly synths and perennial chiming guitars of modern indie rock, or the minimalist melodies of all genres “post-.”
Before passing judgment, let us first confront the reedy brethren we would banish from our earholes. Come with me on a journey through time, space, and spit valves to discover those songs the rock saxophone lends its uniquely guileless magic.
Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”
This is probably the most obvious example to cite, the track that singlehandedly sold a million horns in the late ‘70s. Does this song even have verses? I have rarely listened past Raphael Ravenscroft’s blustery, evocative, ever-so-slightly flat eight-bar sax riff because it goddamn owns.
X Ray Spex, “Oh, Bondage Up Yours!”
The rock saxophone’s potential for cheesy melodrama is well-trod ground, but few souls are willing to admit it is, in fact, punk as pure hell when properly handled. Case in point: Poly Styrene’s brittle squawk tears the patriarchy a new one, alternating with Lora Logic’s jubilant, sunny sax riffs to transform the lyrics’ raw feminist rage into an explosion of unadulterated joy. It’s an unexpected combination that feels as fresh today as it did in 1982.
Morphine, “Murder for the Money”
Need more proof of the saxophone’s rock ‘n’ roll potential? How about a band that straight up replaced guitars with sax? That’s right: belly-rumbling baritone and tenor saxophones carry the melody lines in this weirdly windswept ode to contract killing. Though it was released in 1997, Morphine’s atmospheric saxscape takes the sound of ‘80s excess to such surreal extremes that one gets the feeling this is what the inside of Patrick Bateman’s head sounds like. You know, in a good way.
David Bowie, “Modern Love”
Rock’s great collaborator made an excellent call in choosing the backing band for his most enduringly popular, radio-friendly album—just ask Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose career took off after he lent his Texas blues swagger to Let’s Dance. Warm tenor sax tone wraps around this irresistibly danceable standard like a fuzzy Lacoste sweater.
Bruce Springsteen, Literally Any Song from Born to Run
Let’s go with “Thunder Road.” Take us home, Clarence:
Angelo Badalamenti, “The Pink Room”
Dig that delicious sleaze. No sound conveys Laura Palmer’s nightmarish descent into moral degradation quite as effectively as the syphilitic wheeze of a solo tenor sax—or makes the darkness feel so seductive. Fire Walk with Me, David Lynch’s small-town horrorshow prequel to Twin Peaks, is littered with signifiers of wholesome Americana, so what better score for the Russ Meyer-tinged depravity of the Pink Room sequence than the instrument that signaled red-light kitsch for generations of moviegoers?
They Might Be Giants, “The Statue Got Me High”
The Brooklyn-based duo that proved the accordion could de-sock via rock gives the rock saxophone a similar rehab in this charming, upbeat entry from 1992’s Apollo 18. As with many early TMBG songs, the video is utterly delightful, with Johns Flansburgh and Linnell leading us pied piper-style into their realm of geeky nonsense. Grab a charred and smoking chair and enjoy.
Radiohead, “The National Anthem”
Kid A—along with its underrated sister album Amnesiac—marked an exciting departure for Radiohead, ushering in a new millennium with space-age electronic sheen. Thom Yorke and company might have embraced the synthesizer with open arms, but it’s the discordant blats from the humble saxophones running alongside that iconic heavier-than-a-tank bassline that make “The National Anthem” a track for the ages.
David Bowie, “Lazarus”
This self-aware swan song uses jazz instrumentation to evoke a feeling of aching sadness mingled with longing for, and acceptance of, transcendence. Here the falling saxophone figures form a mournful chorus, responding to an ailing Bowie’s poignant, cracking vocals as one of the most protean entities in rock poses a final, elegant paradox: Ain’t that just like me?
I hope this list proves that the sax is as vital and versatile an instrument as any in the rock repertoire, not an embarrassing holdover from a previous era, the musical equivalent of a vestigial tail. Love it or hate it, there’s one thing we can all agree on: “Turn the Page” is the worst.