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The Saxophone: 8 Songs That Show Off Rock's Underappreciated Horn

The Saxophone: 8 Songs That Show Off Rock's Underappreciated Horn
Photo by Daniel Kramer.

Bruce Springsteen is currently in the middle of a world tour with E Street Band, their first without saxophonist Clarence Clemons. "The Big Man" passed away one year ago today from complications resulting from an earlier stroke.

His death was sad for many reasons, but the reasons most relevant to the world of rock and pop were that we lost a great sax player, one of the great sidemen in classic rock, and one of the few people in the latter half of the 20th century to make playing the saxophone look cool.

After the core rock instruments of guitar, drums, and bass, no instrument is more rock and roll than the saxophone. The piano is cool and versatile, but when you need something different for your song -- be it a different sonic texture or an alternate to the typical guitar solo -- the sax brings something to the party few instruments can rival.

Whether it's giving a song a quiet, smooth pad or rivaling the guitar for roughness and grit, the saxophone gives a song a link to the primal roots of rock music and reminds us that no matter the genre it all starts somewhere.

This isn't a list of the definitive history of the sax or the greatest sax performances of all time. More than anything it's a reflection of the sax's place in music, a place that Clemons certainly had his hand in building.

8. Bruce Springsteen, "Jungleland" "Born To Run" may be the anthem, but for my money the best moment of the album is when "Jungleland" slows down to let The Big Man take the spotlight for over 2 minutes of pure emotion bursting forth from his sax.

Piano and violin may set the mood, vocals may tell the story, drums may push the song forward, and the guitar may get its moment in the sun, but the heart of the song lay in what Clemons lays down. Springsteen may have always been destined for stardom, but it's hard to imagine his classic '70s output without Clemons by his side.

7. Pink Floyd, "Us and Them": Everyone knows the bombastic sax solo in "Money", but a more interesting version of the sax arrives later in the album. For all the talk about how progressive Floyd was for their use of synths of Dark Side of the Moon I find it fascinating that two of the songs on the album take time for sax solos.

Of course, the synth and the sax play essentially the same role on the album, creating an atmosphere that highlights the messages of the individual songs. In "Us and Them" the sax plays the part of the calm before the storm and the fury of its arrival.

 

6. The Cars, "All Mixed Up": The Cars might not have known it at the time but on their eponymous 1978 debut album they were helping to set the stage for countless New Wave sax solos in the '80s. "Good Times Roll" and "Just What I Needed" might be the best-known songs from the album and the synths the most prominent instrumental add-on, but there's an argument that "All Mixed Up" is equally important.

More than just the song forever attached to the end of "Moving In Stereo," the end of "All Mixed Up" is a reminder that the sax still had a place in New Wave.

5. The Cure, "A Night Like This": This isn't the only Cure song to feature a sax, but it may be the most famous, or infamous depending on your opinion. While some critics aren't fans of its appearance, I've never really had a problem with the sax solo in this song.

Sure, the live version that replaces the sax with a guitar solo is just as good, but that doesn't make the studio version bad. I don't know what made the band decide to go with the sax solo here, but it's an interesting experiment if nothing else.

4. Phil Collins, "I Missed Again": While he may have got his start playing weird prog-rock songs with Genesis, Phil always had a love for Motown and soul. While the R&B and funk sounds on Face Value may have been a surprise to audiences at the time, it was really just an extension of his natural loves.

When it came time to add horns to the songs on his debut album, he didn't just hire any group of horn players; he brought in the Phenix Horns, who played with Earth, Wind & Fire. Collins could have hired any studio hands, but he brought in some really talented players, which is probably why the sax solo in this track is so solid.

 

3. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "Let Me Be": The '90s weren't the best time for the sax in pop and rock. The instrument never completely went away but it was rarely as prominent as in the '80s. Outside a few groups like the Dave Matthews Band, you rarely saw the sax outside of ska and big bands.

The most successful of the ska/punk hybrid bands of the era, ignoring No Doubt (who were more trumpet/trombone people), were the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whose songwriting abilities put them just a little bit further ahead of their contemporaries.

2. M83 - "Midnight City": M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez is the first to admit that the sax solo might be considered cliché or cheesy, but when "Midnight City" needed a big retro finish it was a natural fit.

Last year's album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is full of a retro '80s vibes with songs sounding like they're from the greatest John Hughes soundtrack that never existed. "Midnight City" was one of the best-reviewed songs of 2011, thanks in no small part to a sax solo that takes it from being a great song to an instant classic.

Lady Gaga, "Edge of Glory": Here at the end we return back to where we started: Clarence Clemons. When the biggest pop star in the world needed something special for the closing track for newest CD, something to take it from album closer to anthem, she called in the Big Man.

Clemons rose to the occasion, laying down another classic solo just a few months before he passed away. We may have been sad to see him go, but hearing him on the radio in 2011 made things a little bit easier.


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