If you're even a casual fan of '80s music, you're more than familiar with the rising use of saxophone in pop and rock music during that decade. It's hard to say exactly why the sax solo became so popular and yet so offputting during this period, but maybe a kitchen sink approach to production helped drown out selectivity in the decade's often busy arrangements. Even so, there are certainly examples like these of the saxophone being used wisely and even perhaps tastefully during the '80s, especially in the genres of mainstream rock, arena rock and soft rock. And, of course, there are always surprises.
To his credit, Glenn Frey of the Eagles had a pretty good '80s track record when it came to the presence of saxophone in his songs. But even more than "The One You Love," this slow-burn classic of the era features abundant sax and still genuinely makes it work. Again, by virtue of being one of the rock era's most accomplished songwriters, Frey begins from a position of strength. Also, perhaps this track's association with iconic TV drama Miami Vice may be a factor here, but I always see steam rising from rain-slicked city streets when I hear this song. The saxophone part is tasteful as well as sultry, and the end result turns out to be a solid, rather timeless pop/rock tune that avoids the common pitfalls of saxophone-infused pop.
It's probably cheating a bit to include a Clarence Clemons-tinged track on this list, simply because Bruce Springsteen's visible sideman boasts the lightest yet most forceful touch on the saxophone perhaps of any rock musician ever to play it. In this case, a first-rate song helps the cause of Clemons' solo, but it hardly needs the assistance in providing a distinctive inspirational flourish to a rugged, salt-of-the-earth tune that already features plenty of emotional resonance. In this way, the saxophone here becomes the knockout punch, taking on a role rarely afforded it in most musical scenarios. You don't hear much about folks playing air saxophone in their rooms or in the crowd at a concert, but Clemons increases the odds here.
Perhaps the saxophone's most atypical and fascinating appearance in '80s music takes place on this famous track from Lee Ving's often controversial punk rock band from L.A. The title's reference to the instrument in question certainly seems to carry more than a little disdain, but the fact that a post-modern, frenzied sax solo takes up so much space within the song adds an intriguing, original tone to the whole affair. Ving may be best known for the extreme right wing viewpoints he often seems to espouse, but there's always been a strain of irony and even intellectualism that runs through his confrontational lyrics. That complexity bleeds over into the musical elements of this tune and makes this a transformative '80s sax moment.