Music

In Defense of Good Sax

I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let's take three and call it a day.

A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I'd like to challenge--not because his opinion isn't valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I'd argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let's name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of the monster hit "Frankenstein" by everyone's favorite albino, Edgar Winters, Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn't dig it. In fact, he doesn't dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn't particularly dig the saxophone, period. Klosterman states, "I guess I'm just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes."

Okay. It's not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a knee-jerk disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I'm not accusing Klosterman of being one, I'm lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than the Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own--and love--every album by the Strokes yet have never heard of, say, Secret Chiefs 3. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock: first, it's an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes (as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter). I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: at least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let's take three and call it a day.

First, there is "Jungleland" by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (recently discussed in detail here), which just happens to be the best rock song of the 1970s. Anyone have a problem with this?


Second, "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I've got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile on Main St., as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?


Finally, let's celebrate the way our favorite "extraneous instrument" can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that. If "Jungleland" is the best song of the decade, Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" is far and away the coolest. Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can't, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it.


This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above: "I'll learn to work the saxophone / I'll play just what I feel / Drink Scotch whiskey all night long / And die behind the wheel". Sounds pretty rock and roll to me. What about you?

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Forty years after its initial release, one of the defining albums of US punk rock finally gets the legacy treatment it deserves.

If you ever want to start a fistfight in a group of rock history know-it-alls, just pop this little question: "Was it the US or the UK who created punk rock?" Within five minutes, I guarantee there'll be chairs flying and dozens of bloodstained Guided By Voices T-shirts. One thing they'll all agree on is who gave punk rock its look. That person, ladies, and gentlemen is Richard Hell.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image