In 1988 I joined the Hansen Elementary School band and the most important decision of my life was to choose an instrument. Since I had five years of piano lessons, the band instructor pushed me towards percussion. Being a 10-year-old idiot, I thought percussion was the trombone, the Screech Powers of the fifth-grade band. The choice was easy. Cool kids played the saxophone.
That lasted all of a year after I realized the drummers only had to carry a pair of drumsticks to band practice rather than lug a saxophone case all the way from home every Tuesday and Thursday. Still, 1988 was a magical year for the saxophone. It was the last good year of cheesy ‘80s music glory when hair metal still sprayed everything with Aqua Net. This meant coked out production. Little self-awareness. And saxophone solos getting tossed around like keys at a swap party. This sample of five, for reasons of my own, are the best goddamn saxophone solos of 1988.
5. The Beach Boys, ‘Kokomo’
Mike Love was the first diagnosis of LSS – Lead Singer Syndrome. Every musician has been in a band where the lead singer decides he needs to look like a bigger contributor to the band’s musical composition. Thus one day as you exhale your warm-up puff of weed, your singer announces he bought a new guitar – or worse – a banjo. Mike Love took it a step further and broke out the sax, despite once admitting he didn’t know more than four notes. And let’s be clear about one thing, when you listen to a Beach Boys, no one has ever said, “You know what this song needs? A saxomaphone.” Except Mike Love that is.
The early days for the lead singer of the Beach Boys were Fun, Fun, Fun. The brains of the Boys, Brian Wilson, was happy to let his long, tall cousin ham it up in the spotlight. With the increase in Wilson’s LSD intake came less sun-soaked pop songs – and less Love. Wilson let his brother Carl and guitar player Al Jardine take the lead more often as songs became more complex, requiring wider vocal ranges. On Wilson’s magnum opus, “Good Vibrations,” Love is relegated to mumbling the bass line. And as Love’s hairline receded, the saxophone came out more often. By the mid-80s Brian was under the strict control of his conniving therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, and by the time the song “Kokomo” was handed to The Beach Boys, the $430,000-a-year quack refused to let Wilson participate in the recording.
This gave Love free reign to do what he does best – chew up scenery on stage and break out a fake saxophone solo. Joel Peskin recorded the studio version of the solo, but just as Love’s ubiquitous baseball cap hides his hairline, busting out the alto saxophone on stage hides his lack of musical talent – as well as the worst dance moves in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
In every zombie serial, you know that sense of relief and happiness you feel when the survivors finally find a sanctuary such as a farmstead or prison or luxury yacht, and your heart swells as you think, “They are finally safe.”
I get the same feeling watching the video for “Waiting for a Star to Fall” by Boy Meets Girl.
But then one of the stupid kids explores beyond the safety of the walls and the next thing you know a zombie horde is bashing through boarded-up gates and someone’s dead grandma is gnawing on your 15-minutes-of-fame like a dog on a T-bone.
“Waiting for a Star to Fall” is the perfect pop song. Even more perfect than “Kokomo.” After moving from Seattle to LA to make it as songwriters, married couple George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam were the lucky survivors who were able to fend off the undead swarms by writing pop hits “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” for Whitney Houston. While at a Houston concert, Rubicam saw a falling star, and that was the seed for “Waiting for a Star to Fall.” The song was specifically written for Houston, but her producer Clive Davis rejected it as Houston was taking her music in a different direction. So Merrill and Rubicam recorded it for themselves as Boy Meets Girl and released it on their second album Reel Life.
The tenor saxophone solo played by Andy Snitzer (who would later go on to tour with The Rolling Stones and Paul Simon) leads into the song’s dramatic pause before launching back into the resounding chorus. The single reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and then Boy Meets Girl fell victim to Hollywood’s merciless horde and they became just two more faceless zombies banging away on a keyboard.
Merrill and Rubicam remain a song-writing tandem despite divorcing in 2000. Though they were tossed back into the abyss of the music industry, Boy Meets Girl will always have “Waiting for a Star to Fall.” The pure joy of the song and the sepia-toned music video depicts a naively happy couple on top of the world, dancing along the ocean and amongst fields of swaying grass, oblivious to the massacre that awaits. It was the late ‘80s – a time when bubbly pop music ruled before the sour-pusses of grunge ruined everything for everybody and reality bit a big chunk out of Boy Meets Girl’s keister.
3. Billy Ocean, ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’
This song, and its saxophone solo, win all the points. Even though GOMDGIMC topped at number one on the charts, the casual Billy Ocean fan only remembers the pride of Trinidad and Toboggan for “Caribbean Queen” – a feelgood earworm that could only be knocked off the charts by Whams!’s incendiary “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
Secondly, the clever wordplay that is “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (“Get in the backseat, baby!”) was the theme song for the best movie starring the two Coreys, and a movie that epitomizes the late ‘80s – License to Drive. Add a young Heather Graham that nearly put this 10-year-old bonehead through puberty and a great performance by the tragically underrated Carol Kane (“I’m not a witch, I’m your wife!”) and you have yourself a mildly entertaining hit that I will sit and watch anytime the internet is not working.
And finally, we get to GOMDGIMC’s saxophone solo played by record producer Vernon Jeffrey Smith. The solo doesn’t come until three-quarters through the song. The eight-measure burst of R&B soul is performed by a cartoon in the video, which was supposed to be groundbreaking at the time, as the video juxtaposed a real-life Billy Ocean with cartoon characters (though Who Framed Roger Rabbit – also released in 1988 – it is not).
2. Steve Winwood, ‘Roll With It’
This song played non-stop on the radio when I was a kid and for some reason I thought the mush-mouthed Steve Winwood was saying “hell with it” and I was like, “Woah, he’s saying a dirty word.” Steve Winwood (not to be confused with Bruce Hornsby) is a boring guy as far as appearances go. But jeepers creepers has he recorded with some of the coolest names in rock ‘n’ roll history. He played on Jimmy Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” He backed Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker on his Hammond 3-C organ. He played with Clapton before he became god. Hell, he was on stage when Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne held onto their pants watching Prince deliver the best guitar solo ever. So I can only assume Steve Winwood is cool in person.
But you know who’s even cooler? Andrew Love, the sole musician credited with playing saxophone on Winwood’s Roll With It album, and one can only assume it is Love playing the solo on the song. Here’s the thing. The video, incredibly directed by David Fincher – because why not? – shows a white dude blowing out this simply perfect saxophone solo. Andrew Love is not white. He is a Black guy who started his career as a studio musician for the legendary Stax Records in Memphis. Love played with Otis Redding. He played with Elvis. And he played with Steve Winwood.
1. INXS, ‘Never Tear Us Apart’
Oh Michael Hutchence. You autoerotically asphyxiate me with your eyes.
In university, my smoking buddies put together a blues rock outfit called The Chasers. We were everything rock ‘n’ roll should be. Both of our frontmen had black eyes at our first billed gig because we got in a brawl with football players the night before. On another night as we got called to the stage at The Green Room we frantically searched for the rhythm guitarist/drug supplier as he had just informed a girl whose blouse was a button away from committing a felony that he had “a Ford Taurus, a set of keys, and a backseat.”
The Chasers were awesome. One of our songs simply repeated the phrase, “If you go down on me, I’ll go down on you,” over and over. But like all fever dreams, after a year of beer bongs, bong rips and sloppy blow jobs our five-piece had dwindled down to a soft rock trio. All that left was our straight-laced keyboard player, the disgruntled bass player and myself on the skins (none of whom owned a Taurus). We still got gigs simply based on the bawdy legacy of The Chasers. Instead of leg-humping originals, we played The Beatles. We played Ben Folds. And I convinced the other two to play “Never Tear Us Apart,” INXS’ brooding, makeout-inducing love song.
I was such a shitty drummer that I could never come down on the downbeat following the dramatic pause that slammed home the cathartic saxophone solo, played by INXS’ grossly underrated saxman Kirk Pengilly. Our solo was played by Ben, the keyboard player who eventually put the final knife in The Chasers when he chose his job at the meat deli over the band.
Just as “Never Tear Us Apart” was played at Michael Hutchence’s funeral back in 1997, this song was the death knell of The Chasers.
We should have had a saxophone player.