I came across a short video with highlights from the 1990 New Zealand Music Awards. There were three nominees in the Top Album category. The first was Straitjacket Fits’ second album, Melt, which perfectly captured the band’s tense combination of noisy and gentle pop-rock. The second nominee was the Chills’ popular album, Submarine Bells, with a diverse track list kicked off by the magnificent “Heavenly Pop Hit”. The third nominee was… Moonlight Sax.
Oh, that’s right. Moonlight Sax used to be a thing. Performed by saxman Brian Smith, it was an album of easy listening saxophone covers of pop classics. Songs to get the Moonlight Sax treatment included “Just the Way You Are”, the Moonlighting theme and “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Are you feelin’ it? Yeah.
The album was released right at the tail end of the trend for the sax in popular music (as previously examined here), but that didn’t make a difference. It was a successful popular album. Not only did it peak at number one in the chart, it was certified platinum. (Bri’s website has a pic of the platinum award, based around a framed CD).
Moonlight Sax followed Carl Doy’s similarly mega successful Piano By Candlelight series of the late ’80s, which established a hungry market for easy listening instrumental CDs. And it’s very important that these were CDs – not LPs or tapes. Fully embracing the fancy new format, letting the sax notes ring soft and clear. Moonlight Sax was followed by Moonlight Sax 2 in 1991, and the Moonlight Sax Collection in 1993.
If cafes had been a thing in New Zealand in 1990, I’m sure Moonlight Sax would have been the ubiquitous cafe soundtrack. Instead I like to think that no dinner party of 1990 could have taken place without the hostess popping the Moonlight Sax CD into the family compact disc player.
There were others in the genre. In 1996, the instrumental albums Beautiful Panflute 1 (there was no sequel) by Max Lines and Romantic Strings by the Starlight String Quartet were both nominated for best album, losing to Shihad’s perfectly named Killjoy, but neither of those album had the impact of Moonlight Sax. Since then, easy listening instrumental albums have been absent from the Tuis.
It’s easy to think of Moonlight Sax as a remnant of the ’90s that would never survive today. But the nominees for Album of the Year at the 2014 New Zealand Music Awards tell a different story. Amid the cool girls of Tiny Ruins, Lorde, The Naked and Famous, and Ladi6, there’s also the trio Sole Mio and their nominated debut album SOL3 MIO. That album contains popera covers of easy-listening classics, including the Fleetwood Mac tune “Songbird” – the very same song that kicks off Moonlight Sax. Therefore, one can only conclude that the dinner party hostesses of the early ’90s are the seniors of today who enjoy going to matinee performances of Sole Mio.
As it happens, it was the Chills who won Album of the Year in 1990, and along with the Fits, they’re lovingly remembered as part of Flying Nun Records’ golden age. But I think the shiny compact disc of Moonlight Sax deserves to be remembered as well. There’s always going to be an audience for music like this.
Here is the final track from Moonlight Sax, the show-stopping medley of saxophonic pop classics from “Careless Whisper” to “Baker Street” with all the boring bits removed so you can totally mainline that cosy, familiar groove.
Bonus! Of course the internet has to be weird about “Moonlight Sax Medley”. Here’s an except from the track – the intro of “Careless Whisper” – seamlessly looped into an epic 16-minute masterpiece. If you listen to the whole thing, by the end of it you will have seduced yourself.