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JMT 1.09 Sax, Drums, & Rock 'n Roll

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 9: Sax, Drums & Rock 'n Roll

The members of the saxophone family are an established part of the jazz and marching band worlds, and they continue to make inroads into classical orchestral repertoire. There are myriad television themes such as The Benny Hill Show (Boots Randolph's 1963 hit 'Yakety Sak'), along with a plethora of film themes such as St Elmo's Fire that feature this evocative woodwind instrument. Saxophones are also indispensable when it comes to R&B and funk, but when it comes to the world of rock and roll, where electronics and synthesizers often reign supreme, the sax can seem a bit neglected. I can already see some of you waving your hands and screaming 'Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band', and of course, you're absolutely correct! However, there's a bit more to sax and rock 'n roll than the Boss.

Let's begin by watching this short introduction to the instrument by Freddy Rivas:

There are lots of great sax solos in rock and roll, and they generally fall into two categories. There can be short solos in the middle of a piece (which add to the song but probably wouldn't be missed if the solo fell to another instrument), and then there are the sax parts which actually become intrinsic to the song. An example of the former, is Bruce Springsteen's massive 1975 hit 'Born to Run', featuring the phenomenal Clarence Clemons (1942-2011) on a soaring tenor sax solo beginning just after the 2 minute mark. Although he fills in during other parts of the song, the sax tends to get lost in the mix, especially in live performances.

The sax adds to the overall energy of the song and would be desperately missed by fans; but if you didn't know it was supposed to be there, chances are you wouldn't miss those 20 seconds. Bob Seger's band features saxophonist Alto Reed, who plays tenor sax on the classic 1973 song about life on the road called 'Turn the Page'. This song does more to incorporate the saxophone into the overall structure of the piece by featuring a bit of sax in the background in conjunction with the recurring riff that opens the song:

For the takeaway, however, I'd like to move on to a song which features the alto sax (a cousin of the tenor sax which is higher pitched), and I'm going to argue that the sax is so integral to the song that it cannot survive without it. I'm talking about the 1978 hit 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty. First of all, let's strip it down to the iconic alto sax solo, largely isolated from the original recording, courtesy of Lisa Simpson:

Now here's the actual 1978 recording, with the alto saxophone solos played by Raphael Ravenscroft: (lyrics here)

But wouldn't this be an amazing piece even without saxophone? I'm not convinced that it would be. As an experiment, now that I've given you a new earworm (sorry!), try listening to a bit of this music track that is designed to accompany a saxophone soloist. I miss the sound of that emotive solo as soon as it fails to come in.

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street' begins with a 20 second improvisatory style introduction: a flute line is played on the synth whilst freeform Latin percussion combines with triplet cymbal crashes to create a feeling of uncertainty before the sax sneaks in at 20 seconds. Abruptly the volume cranks, the sax wails, the Fender Rhodes keyboard comes in, and the percussionists set a strong beat resulting in another 20 seconds of introduction before the volume drops. At nearly a minute into the song, Rafferty finally begins to sing the first verse.
  • 2. One of the most powerful things about this song is the lack of a vocal chorus. Like a lot of Rafferty's work the lyrics are semi-autobiographical (check out Wikipedia for the song's origins), but that still doesn't account for the lack of a chorus. The song's format calls for an 8 line verse followed by a 6 line pre-chorus (beginning with the words You used to think that it was so easy), and then guess what happens? At 1.47, where there should be a chorus, the listener is treated to a reprise of the iconic sax solo from the intro again - a genius, blues-based line emotionally delivered by Ravenscroft.
  • 3. The second long verse begins at 2.22, and just as before, it's followed by another 6 lines that create a pre-chorus (beginning with the words But you know he'll always keep moving). The listener is now primed and ready for the sax solo to return, but instead, at 3.28, the electric guitar slides into a searing 30 second solo. The multi-string glissandos are reminiscent of a plane taking off, while the single note slides keep the intensity of the solo moving forward, taking the listener in a completely different direction.
  • 4. As with most hits, the genius is not only in the music and the arrangement, but it's in the lyrical content and structure as well. 'Baker Street', oddly functional without the requisite pop or rock song chorus, manages to produce conflicting emotions within the scope of a 4+ minute song. The lyrics at the end of the first half, which lead us into the second solo state one more year and then you'd be happy, but you're cryin', you're cryin' now. This is an absolutely perfect place for the sax to return, with its evocative solo. So why does the guitar come in first at the end of the second half? The lyrics The sun is shining it's a new morning, and you're goin', you're goin' home demand something other than the saxophone. The electric guitar solo gives us a sense of excitement, and of resolution, despite the slides. By the time the sax returns to bookend the song, it's a finished micro-movie of the mind. In other words, it's utter, utter brill.
  • 5. Even though I focused on three songs from the 1970s, that doesn't mean that there aren't great sax-based pop and rock songs from every decade. Check the links at the bottom for even more great sax solos from other decades. If you only have time to listen to one, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and proceed directly to 'Careless Whisper' by George Michael.

Buddy Holly gave us the original formula for rock: guitar, bass, and drums. Even though that eventually morphed into lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, the addition of other instruments along the way have continued to give additional colors to the popular music. Piano? Think Fats Domino and Billy Joel. Flute? Think Jethro Tull. Chamber orchestra? Think Neil Hannon and the Divine Comedy. Bagpipes? Think AC/DC, Paul McCartney, and even ABBA.

As composer Sergei Rachmaninov once said, Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.

Even More Sax, Drums & Rock 'n Roll!
1956: Tutti Fruitti by Little Richard sax quartet
1961: Runaround Sue by Dion 2 saxes, one mostly claps!
1977: Just the Way You Are by Billy Joel Richie Cannata plays the Phil Woods solo
1978: Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen Clarence Clemons takes a 2.5min solo!
1984: Careless Whisper by George Michael solo by Steve Gregory
1992: I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston solo by Kirk Whalum
2011: The Edge of Glory by Lady Gaga solo by Clarence Clemons

If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)

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