There are very few instances where I actually appreciate the saxophone. The only ones that spring to mind are the Pink Panther Theme, and maybe a few songs by They Might be Giants.

Nowadays, the sax is mostly confined to jazz (A genre I can generally steer clear of by staying away from Jazz Fest and by turning off CBC Radio 2 in the evenings) and to New Easy Adult Contemporary Age Listening music like that of NEACALE banner boy, Kenny G (cue retching noises now).

While saxophone is pretty easy to avoid now, that wasn’t always the case.

Saxophone used to play a much more prominent role in pop music. The sax often took the place of lead guitar in the obligatory instrumental solo or a song’s hook. There were songs that simply crumbled under the weight of this ugliest-of-all-instruments. Careless Whisper is the most obvious offender; an otherwise pleasant little tune by a young George Michael that is now mercilessly mocked as the drivel it became due to the horrid overuse of saxophone.

But today, in the interest of avoiding a repeat of this seedy history, I’m going to explore a few of the exceptions to the rule: ’80s songs that overcame their saxophone handicap. These songs, despite the best efforts of the saxophonists involved to bring them to ruin, emerged as timeless classics; they are THAT good.*

*By “good” I mean that I really like them. There’s no attempt to be objective here.

The Logical Song by Supertramp
Between a fantastic melody and great lyrical wordplay, this song was destined to be a hit, but it suffers from not one but TWO lengthy saxophone solos (You’re killing me here, Supertramp!). The song is good enough to survive the first solo, but the second one – the one that closes out the song – runs on for the better part of a full minute! And it enters with such a screeching that I’ve simply taken to truncating the song when it pops into my iTunes playlist. I skip to the next track just before that second solo takes off. Thank goodness for digital music and track-skip functionality. Back in the ’80s when I relied on cassettes for music, FFWD wasn’t always so straightforward. (Sorry, original version of the song is not available)

Gold by Spandau Ballet
Even I’ll admit this song is cheesy. The combination of bongo drums AND saxophone are a deadly combination, and yet I still love it. I always felt like it has a great energy to it – which is weird because it’s not really that up-tempo. And the bongos just somehow work. Maybe the evil effects of sax and bongos somehow cancel each other out. Who am I to say?

Overkill by Men at Work
I was going to write about Who Can it Be Now for this entry – after all, it’s got both a prominent role for the sax throughout as well as one of the worst solos in sax history – but it’s also not as good a song as Overkill. Frankly I’m not sure WCIBN actually DID overcome it’s sax handicap. But Overkill certainly did. Of course Overkill uses the sax throughout but Men at Work at least used a guitar for the solo (mostly) – and the sax throughout is well incorporated so it doesn’t stand out too much.

Rio by Duran Duran
Ahhh, Duran Duran. With my sister being such a massive D2 fan growing up, I was inundated with their music. And while I hated them simply to spite her, I eventually grew to love them too – although it probably took longer than she would have liked. I’m still a fan of their earlier music and even enjoy some of the stuff they’re putting out to this very day. Rio is easy one of their best. The solo is all saxophone though, so why do I like it so well? Simple really, I don’t even listen to the sax. That section of music has one of the best funky basslines I’ve ever heard and my attention is invariably directed to the fine work of bassist John Taylor throughout the entire song (it really picks up halfway through the sax solo and carries on throughout the rest of the song. Love it!). The Sax just doesn’t register for me.

We Don’t Need Another Hero by Tina Turner
I hesitate to put this one in. I have never understood what it was about this song that I liked so well, but for whatever reason, for me it’s one of Tina’s best. Of course, I used to deny my love for this song to my friends because it wasn’t “cool,” but I’ve moved past caring what others think. I’d actually be keen to hear a good cover of this song – one that not only strips it of its the cheesy saxophone solo but also removes reference to the word “Thunderdome” – a lyric that forever ties the song to a bad Mel Gibson movie.

Maneater by Hall & Oates
Not only does it have a sax solo, but this song has a lame sax solo. It basically starts by adding one note at a time to a simple scale! At least put in an effort, Mr. Saxophone! Sadly, I didn’t appreciate Hall & Oates back in the day. Oh, I liked the odd song by them, but their sound was much more developed than I gave them credit for – and even if they strayed into saxophone territory now and then, their catalogue mostly holds up today. But this song was always one of my favorites.

That’s all I can think of for now. Saxophones were a menace in the ’80s and I’m thankful we’ve moved on. Although nowadays I do hear a lot of ’80s synthesizer sounds coming back into modern pop songs. I can only hope the dreaded saxophone doesn’t suddenly make a resurgence.

Do you have any favorite ’80s songs that were nearly ruined by bad saxophone?


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