If you were a young man hoping to make your way in the world of popular music in the 1920’s and you wanted to be the star of the show there was only one real choice of instrument to play and that was the trumpet. Loud, portable and flashy the trumpet was the show offs first choice of instrument. Louis Armstrong was the most influential player of the day and a whole load of wannabes trailed in his wake.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the trumpet was still popular but there was a new kid on the block. The saxophone was a bit more versatile, a bit sexier and with the rise of Charlie Parker and Be bop not to mention the swing bands it was the saxophone that had the star potential.
And so, it remained into the 50’s. Obviously there were other musicians available but inevitably the band leader would be a sax player or a trumpeter, so they could stay at the front of the stage and let loose a blistering solo now and again. For 20 years the sax was king.
All that changed in Britain with the advent of skiffle. Instead of having to study embouchure for years Britain’s schoolkids had found an instrument that was rewarding to play from day one, namely the guitar. Strange to relate but the guitar was still an exotic instrument in the 1950s being generally the province of cowboys, flamenco musicians and inaudible jazz rhythm sections. The instrument was not even that easily available and generally existing specimens were of pretty poor quality but being British we persevered and eventually we were replete with guitars and guitarists some of whom went on to become Jimmy Page and John Lennon.
And that was the beginning of the end for the saxophone, it didn’t happen overnight, through the 60’s some bands realised the added value of the brass section. In order to get that genuine soul feel the likes of Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers were prepared to accept the cost of having a couple of blokes at the back giving it that extra punch.
But there’s the clue, the sax had now moved to the back of the stage along with the bass and drums, the guitar was now at the front. The trouble with the saxophone is it can only play one note at a time so essentially it solos all the time. Most songs only have limited space for solos and the guitarist is going to want to have most of them. The sax has a distinctive sound but it always sounds like a saxophone and if our ears are crying out for new sounds then the saxophone is not going to provide them. Hence Traffic’s Chris Wood would spend a lot of time on stage poking about with keyboards because there was only so much sax the band needed (OK he played flute as well but there’s a limit to how much of that we can take). Even the big man Clarence Clemons used to spend more time underutilised as a tambourine player as Springsteen really didn’t want every song to have another sax solo in it.
And increasingly the sax player is having to multitask, a bit of percussion, some background vocals, even a bit of dancing just to justify their role in the band.
The 70’s saw the sax at a low ebb -more of that in another post, keyboards were opening up a whole new world, guitars were getting more effects there was a whole new sonic palette which didn’t necessarily need a sax parping away over it.
That wasn’t the end though, for some reason as the 80’s dawned the Saxophone crept back into popular music without us really noticing. I blame Spandau Ballet who moved their second guitarist over to Sax and had a huge it with True and marked the Saxophone down as a symbol of the Thatcherite upwardly mobile decade.
As a drummer it hadn’t escaped me that drums seemed to be becoming redundant as drum machines took over. There was also the practical issue that I didn’t have a car and just moving a drum kit about was a logistical nightmare. The saxophone looked appealing, and I could take it on the bus. I spent the next 5 years learning to play the instrument. Like a lot of instruments, it was easy to make a start on but hard to sound really good, but I practised and practiced. Ironically I also bought a car and drums didn’t die out completely so I could have saved myself the trouble really.
The main thing that brought my personal love of the sax as well as the audience’s tolerance of the instrument to an end was its limitation. I did join a band but as we didn’t have a bass player I usually had to fulfil that role instead and when that band mutated into another one there were so many songs where the guitar sounded better than the sax that it just seemed better to stick with the guitar.
For a brief period, the sax was back though, ABC, the Spandau Ballet, Haircut 100 all featured the instrument and were all massive for a couple of years. And if you didn’t have a sax player one would be inserted. I recently caught a clip of archetypical 80’s band T Pau doing their massive hit ‘China in Your Hands ‘on Top of the Pops. At the end after all the histrionics the producer has decided there’s just got to be a sax solo. The result is all members miming and trying to convey the gravitas of the song while ignoring the fact that a sax is coming from somewhere else.
It’s probably just me that finds that sort of thing entertaining but in the 80’s there seemed to be a whole lot of artists staring off into the middle distance while the mysterious sax was dialled in. From Wham to Whitney everyone wanted the sound that suddenly smacked of sophistication.
And, all of a sudden, the bubble burst, samplers became available and from the 90’s onwards a genuine sax solo had suddenly become a thing of the past.
Here on thefutureispast we are going to remember the days when the sax still had a role