Music

A journey through saxophone in New Zealand pop in the 1980s

Jerry Rafferty's sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on "Baker Street

Jerry Rafferty’s sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on “Baker Street


In 2011, American popstress Lady Gaga released “Edge of Glory” which was notable for its saxophone solo by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary sax man Clarence Clemons. “The sax solo is back,” declared the world of music. Except that didn’t happen. (Or maybe Lady Gaga was so ahead of her time that it’s taking everyone else a while to catch up.)

But this brief rebirth of the sax solo is a good enough excuse to look back at the history of the sax in pop. Patient zero was Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” whose 1978 hit found a new place for the sax solo in popular music.

This kicked off a decade-long trend for sax in pop. Notable works included “Who Can It Be Now” by Men At Work (1981), the sun, surf and sax of Duran Duran’s “Rio” (1983), the smooth sax of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1984), through to INXS’s epic “Never Tear Us Apart” (1988).

Coinciding with the rise of the music video, I can’t help think that the popularity of the saxophone was in part due to how cool it looked. It was not uncommon for the sax player being the only musician shown playing his instrument in a video. The sax is a great big shiny brass instrument that is played with full body emotion. Put the saxophonist in a jacket with the sleeves pushed up and you’ve got instant cool.

But what of the sax in New Zealand pop? Were the musicians of Aotearoa immune from such trends? Of course not. So to celebrate this bold, brassy period, here is a history of the saxophone in New Zealand pop videos of the 1980s.

Jon Stevens “Montego Bay” (1980)

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When the saxophonist only plays on a small part of the song, what do you do with him for the rest of the video? Jon Stevens’ band solves this problem by putting the sax man on cow bell duty, before he stealthily ditches it and lets loose on his sax for the second chorus. Also, the sax cuts a better silhouette than the cardboard palm trees.
NZ On Screen

Screaming Meemees “Stars In My Eyes” (1982)

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The Screaming Meemees were the most indie of all the acts to succumb to the lure of the sax, so it’s not your typical sax appearance. “Stars In My Eyes” has more of a funk brass thing going on, but the video goes all out with this silhouette of the double sax attack. See how the saxes tower over the trumpet, asserting their superiority.
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Monte Video and the Cassettes “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” (1982)

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Neither the innuendo-laden song nor the video includes a saxophone, but the video is set at a bar that features a neon saxophone light. Proof that by the early ’80s, the sax was a visual icon of cool. You can’t quite see it in this shot, but there are musical notes coming out of the sax.
NZ On Screen

Sharon O’Neill “Maxine” (1983)

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This is almost as classic as a 1980s video sax solo gets. But as the vid is all about Sharon (and Maxine), the video isn’t interested in who the saxophonist is. We never see his head, only his hands and his sax, playing in a dark bar. (And we know it’s a bar because there is a neon sign reading “BAR”.) This is cut with footage of Shaz looking sensually relaxed, no doubt being soothed by the sax.
NZ On Screen

Tim Finn “Fraction Too Much Friction” (1983)

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The song is full of sax, but I initially thought the video had taken the bold step of being saxless, instead just focusing on Tim strutting his stuff while holding a ghettoblaster. But the lure of the sax was too strong. While the rest of the band might remain invisible, the video can’t resist a few shots of the saxophonist overlaid with smoky, sparkling fireworks.
NZ On Screen

DD Smash “Outlook For Thursday” (1983)

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DD Smash have a lot of fun with the ridiculousness of the sax, using it as both a tool of good and evil. So powerful is the DD Smash brass section that it mortally wounds Dave Dobbyn. Later in the video, we see the gentle side of the brass, gently soothing the hottie drummer as he relaxes in the sun. Perhaps he and Sharon can compare notes on the power of sax relax.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Room That Echoes” (1985)

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A saxophone features in this alternate video for “Room That Echoes”, but here’s the kicker: no one plays it. It just rests on its stand at the back of the room (that echoes), looking all cool while the Urlich siblings dance around it. It’s almost like some sort of pagan ritual, in which the god of ’80s cool is invoked. And for a song that is more about style over substance, that’s a perfectly logical and successful choice.
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Left, Right and Centre “Don’t Go” (1985)

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When the sax is joined by another member of the brass family, it’s usually a trumpet. But not when Don McGlashan is involved. This protest song against the planned 1985 All Black tour of South Africa features Don on his euphonium and Rick Bryant on sax. In any other video, this might be enough to stand out, but the joyous heart of the “Don’t Go” video is Chris Knox with a giant mullet and denim cut-offs.
NZ On Screen

Netherworld Dancing Toys “For Today” (1985)

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For a song that’s jam-packed full of brass, the “For Today” video exercises great restraint, with only a few brief shots of the brass section. Even during the big climatic build-up, the brass players are seen in the background cautiously jumping around with their instruments. The focus is wisely given to the stars of the video – Annie Crummer and the Interislander ferry.
NZ On Screen

Sonny Day “Savin’ Up” (1985)

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“Savin’ Up” was a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song originally recorded by his (and Lady Gaga’s) saxophonist Clarence Clemons, so it’s no wonder that the sax player in the video gets the star treatment. Sonny Day’s line-up of backing singers (including Annie Crummer) parts and the tight-trousered saxophonist steps forward to deliver his bitchin’ solo, accentuating the piece with strategic hip thrusts. The backing singers are so impressed they give him jazz hands.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Good Luck to You” (1986)

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This pouty, urban love letter to pre-crash Auckland begins with an amazing shot. Margaret Urlich sits in the window of the much loved cafe DKD. Below her at the cafe’s entrance, the saxophonist poses in the doorway, while playing the song’s introduction. Despite the bitter lyrics of the song, there’s something rather romantic about this shot.
YouTube

Tex Pistol “The Game of Love” (1987)

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I’m not sure, but the brass on this synth-heavy song also sounds electronic, so it’s further testament to visual power of the sax that it was included in the video. The slick, minimalist video keeps it simple with Ian Morris and Callie Blood having a side-on his-n-hers brass-off (that’s a showbiz term) on the wet, black set.
NZ On Screen

Herbs “Sensitive to a Smile” (1987)

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“Sensitive to a Smile” is largely a tribute to the people and environment of Ruatoria. But even the old kuias, the cheeky kids and the dreadlocked bros must step aside for a while to let the sax man have his moment of glory.
NZ On Screen

80 in the Shade “Heatwave” (1987)

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This all-star pop extravaganza came together not for charity but to make an ad for L&P with a scorching cover of the Martha and the Vandellas hit. There’s sax all through it, but the saxophonist appears just once near the end. I suspect this is partly because sax was become a bit uncool, and partly because the sax player wasn’t anyone famous, so they drafted in a model to play the part.
YouTube

When the Cat’s Away “Melting Pot” (1988)

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By the late ’80s, the pop sax was on its last legs, with the instrument instead lurking in the background, underscoring the other instruments. But the visual lure of sax was still strong. Near the end of the video, the Cats are seen with three saxophones and two trumpets, showing a much bigger brass sound than what is actually heard. They’re clearly having a ball mucking around with the instruments, which makes me wonder what it would have sounded like during the video shoot.
NZ On Screen

Dave Dobbyn “Love You Like I Should” (1988)

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Margaret Urlich makes yet another appearance, this time shimmying around Dave Dobbyn in a midriff exposing bolero jacket. But lurking in the background behind Marg and Dave are two sax dudes, playing the bass honks on cue. They are given a couple of shots early on, but the video’s focus is on Urlich and Dobbyn’s folk dancing.
NZ On Screen

Holidaymakers “Sweet Lovers” (1988)

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By the time I came to watch this video, I’d developed an instinct for sax spotting. I didn’t remember there being a saxophonist in this video, but something told me otherwise. And there it was – less than a minute before the song’s end, the fellow who had previously been shaking some maracas suddenly appears with a sax and squeezes out some barely audible notes. By this stage it seems like the sax was well on its way out, being kept in only for its strong visual appeal.
NZ On Screen

Maybe the sax was part of the bright, exciting, affluent part of the ’80s that started to wither with the 1987 stockmarket crash. It’s not so economical to have a band member who spends a lot of the time standing around, swaying from side to side, waiting for his few seconds of glory. The economical grunge era had no room for such excesses.

The sax didn’t totally die out, but rather than being the cool thing that everyone did, it was left to acts who understood the power of the sax and could harness its power. It lived on in the kids of the ’80s who grew up immersed in the sax pop. Acts like the effervescent Supergroove, jazz master Nathan Haines, and genre mixers Fat Freddys Drop all found a place for sax.

So while the full-on sax solo may have tooted its last toot, that bold brass instrument will always have a place in the world of New Zealand pop. *Honk*

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10 thoughts on “A journey through saxophone in New Zealand pop in the 1980s

  1. What! only one NDT song?
    Nice to see The Newton Hoons Horn Section in this one too

    ;- )

    But what about this NDT one for sax-appeal?
    Saxes suspended in Grey Lynn!!

    I still have those leopard skin print sheets
    that comprise the entire set decoration
    – in the lounge,at Hakanoa street –
    Gee, I even get a cameo,
    Immortality is mine!

    …another fine No-Better-Than-It-Needs-To-Be
    Chris Knox production.

  2. a further thought, triggered by synchronicities occurring
    – you also really need to add the Miltown Stowaways
    ‘Strong and True’ (1983 clip by William Keddell)
    – has sax – starts with it, in fact…
    (from those same Newton Hoons, cameoing, again.)
    – and has suspended sax! (plus an Arrow!)
    – and a certain Dexy’s influence

    they all went on to do well I understand…

    what’s more it has an early appearance of Kiwi Anvil
    (well before Neil Finn’s latest Hobbit offering!)
    ;- )

    perhaps the reemergence of the Sax in the latter
    part of the 20th century was partially attributable to
    unimpeachable President Bill Clinton’s lament:
    “I did not have sax with that woman.”

    • I’ve had a few more suggestions, so I suspect a follow-up post may be in order! The “Soul Searching” vid is great, especially with the sax hanging from a tree. Well, no one could ever assure them of making a cliched sax video.

  3. Neat story :)

    Note too that the sax was only in the video of Stars In My Eyes. It made no appearance on the record. Artistic licence by Willie Keddell (the director)

  4. Guy says:

    Best post ever Robyn, it just exudes sax appeal. You have a lovely style of writing – and observing – and instagram and twitter have not yet stolen that from you.
    On a very slightly related note, I had an hour long conversation last night with a man about his trumpet. Which was nice…
    I suggest that your next post also covers fluegelhorns as they are very cool, but not as showy-offy as the sax.

    • Thanks, Guy! Twitter used to steal my best ideas, but it’s also good at giving me good ideas. I like the suggestion of the fluegelhorn, but I’m not sure how much they appear in New Zealand pop. I shall investigate.

  5. It’s a bit of a cheat as it’s a live vid rather than the actual one, but how about an honorable mention to the Blams’ Don’t Fight It Marsha, It’s Bigger Than Both Of Us?

    To be honest, I adore the video for showing how a charismatic lead singer can somehow pull off punk thrashing whilst holding a French horn :D

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