Sax in the 70’s

Last week I made a case for the temporary death of the saxophone in the 70’s. This week with a bit of racking of the brain I have come up with a small tribute to the people who honked and parped their way through that decade. In an attempt to make my task easier I am totally ignoring the USA, sorry guys, you invented Jazz and had a more comfortable relationship with the instrument (and I don’t know enough about obscure American music).

So here’s a quick salute to the men (!) who kept the sax alive in the 70’s


Mel Collins

Collins was the player who took over the sax role from Ian McDonald until Robert Fripp decided he didn’t want a saxophone player anymore. Collins then went on to join the unfashionable pub funk band Kokomo by the time they disbanded he was ready for a sax for hire role with the likes of Dire Straits, Camel. Roger Waters and the Rolling Stones.

Andy Mackay

An important musical and visual element to the early Roxy Music mix of ancient and modern. Mackay’s sax could be heard honking away somewhere in the mix in the early days. By the Avalon period he was contributing more traditional saxophone breaks which left him with enough time on his hands to take a Batchelor of Divinity course in 1988


Phil Shulman

Having been born in 1937,10 years before his brothers Phil Shulman got the saxophone role in Gentle Giant while his younger siblings got the rock instruments. In a band that, between them, played over 60 instruments on one album there was a lot of instrumentation to compete with and when Phil left Gentle Giant became a bit more muscular and rock orientated.


David Bowie

A multi instrumentalist but saxophone was his first instrument and one that no one else around him could play. Its not unusual for a bit of sax to creep in in a Bowie record and very welcome it is too. Not having dedicated his life to the instrument Bowie has a distinctive tone, it’s a bit naive but also quite touching and always distinctive.


Didier Malherbe

Multi talented French person Malherbe contributed distinctive flute and sax to Gong from virtually its inception to the turn of the century.  He was interested in world music from an early age and he has adapted himself to whatever the band has served up from circus music to free Jazz. Nicknamed Bloomdido Bad De Grass by Gong leader Daevid Allen he’s a poet as well as a musician


Nik Turner

One time roadie turned musician with Hawkwind Nik Turner perhaps encapsulated the anarchic spirit of the band more than any other members. Luckily, at their prime the band had a monster rhythm section which made whatever Turner or guitarist Dave Brock play over the top relatively unimportant. Turner’s free approach to soloing over everything led to his expulsion from the band but he was a significant member for the glory years including the epic Space Ritual.

John Helliwell

Another with his roots in the 60’s soul scene Helliwell joined Supertramp from the Alan Bown Set. He compensated for the lack of consistent saxophone action in the band’s set by playing percussion and keyboards, doing backing vocals and acting as MC and general joke teller. His personality was crucial to the bands survival, acting as the luke warm water between the ice and fire of Rick Davis and Roger Hodgson

John ‘Irish’ Earle

Despite starting his musical career with the ‘challenging’ Gnidrolog Earle was a fairly standard Rock saxophonist in big demand where any band wanted to sound American (especially if that band was Irish). Earle played in the brass section for Graham Parker and the Rumour as well as Thin Lizzie and The Boomtown Rats. He even played with Shakin Stevens, the Clash and Randy Crawford


Lol Coxhill

Coxhill was in his 40’s for most of the 70’s, impossibly old! Another eccentric character (there’s a pattern emerging here) Coxhill had played with visiting Jazz musicians as well as being on the fringes of the free improvisation music scene. He didn’t like to be tied down for long but he did have stints with Kevin Ayres which led to involvement with Mike Oldfield and even an appearance on the second Dammed Album.

Ron Aspery

Back Door were destined to be remembered for their Bass player Colin Hodgkinson who played his instrument as a lead to make the best of the trio format. Aspery was overshadowed but was a crucial part of the melody of the band. Back Door could almost be classed as forgotten now but they were musicians’ favourites in the mid 70’s. The band inevitably spit with the advent of punk but Aspery was good enough to go on to play with Jan Hammer.

Davey Payne

Member of Kilburn and the High Roads and then Ian Dury’s band the Blockheads. Another bohemian character with a love of all things Jazz especially in incorporating the techniques of Roland Kirk into hisd playing. Especially skilled in making the sax produce unusual noises and irritating Ian Dury.

Gary Barnacle

Barnacle took over the role of sax for hire from John Earle at the end of the 70’s. He was born in Dover and started out their playing with his father and brothers in local jazz bands, the drummer in these bands was invariably Topper Headon. When Headon Joined the Clash Barnacle became their go to Saxophone player. From there on he’s played with a list of people so huge I can’t be bothered to try to replicate it.


Lora Logic

I’m not actually certain if it’s Ms Logic playing on X Ray Specs’ ‘Oh Bondage’ but if not it’s her arrangement at least. One of the few times pure punk used a saxophone and it’s crucial to the uniqueness of the song. She had a short career, forming her own band which transported her directly from punk to post punk and then becoming a Hare Krishna.



With the advent of Two Tone the sax was back. Saxa was even older than Lol Coxhill but the way his band mates and the press talked about him you would have thought he was 100 when he was only in his 40’s. Saxa had played with some of the original Ska and bluebeat stars before moving to England and waiting 18 years to join The Beat. Saxa was pretty essential to the bands sound although he plays pretty much the same solo every time. He died quite recently proving he couldn’t have been as old as we thought he was.


Lee Thompson

Unlike most Sax players Thompson has virtually no interest in Jazz preferring Reggae, Ska and circus music, therefore, unlike a lot of players he’s firmly integrated into the band Madness rather than occasional soloist.



So, what have we learned?


In a business that prided itself on being outside the norm it was the sax player who invariably was the real oddball. Apart from the few session players who were happy to fit in with others there’s an awful lot of strange people listed above. Perhaps it was something about playing an instrument which was out of step with everything else that was happening in music at the time, but in the 70’s the sax player could be the most ‘out there’ band member.

There’s still one more though, the greatest 70’s saxophonist/weird bloke of them all

David Jackson

As Van Der Graff Generator were essentially organ and drums any other instrument was going to have a lot to bring to the party. Jackson was an eccentric looking guy, even by prog standards who modified his instruments and would often play two at once and then modify their sound with electronics. The result was the sax as we had never heard it so far, squawks, shrieks, military fanfares and occasional moments of beauty. Years after leaving he developed the soundbeam technology which enabled disabled people to make music.


That’s it, its probably not an exhaustive list but I am exhausted after compiling it.

If I’ve missed anyone (I’m sure I must have) do share

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6 Responses to Sax in the 70’s

  1. Aphoristical says:

    How about Raphael Ravenscroft – saxophone player on ‘Baker Street’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. greenpete58 says:

    Excellent list, with a few names I’m not familiar with. Since you obviously know Canterbury (Coxhill, Malherbe…thank you!) how about Elton Dean? And maybe you mentioned Chris Wood in your previous post, but he was still going strong with Traffic, I think.

    We Yanks did invent jazz, like you said, but you Brits employed sax into rock music much better, in my view.

    Liked by 1 person

    • moulty58 says:

      Thanks, I always get confused in time with Traffic they seemed to go on forever. Of the top shelf f my head I thought Elton Dean was in soft machine and once you get into jazz rock the list expands rapidly so I didn’t go there.
      Yes , I agree probably because we weren’t dogwood a jazz we had to try harder. I think another sax related post is in the pipeline !


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