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.
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.
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)
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)
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. YouTube
Monte Video and the Cassettes “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” (1982)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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. YouTube
Left, Right and Centre “Don’t Go” (1985)
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)
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)
“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)
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. NZ On Screen
Tex Pistol “The Game of Love” (1987)
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)
“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)
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)
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)
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)
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*