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Top 5 '80s Songs That Best Bear the Presence of Saxophone

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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.

1. Rick Springfield - "Don't Walk Away"

Rick Springfield
Frank Edwards/Archive Photos/Getty Images
The prominent role played by sax in this underrated Rick Springfield gem seems initially to be a strike against it, particularly given the sticky, steamy, perhaps even porny tone of the song's intro. But ultimately the track has two major things going for it that help it transcend any dated elements in its sound. First of all, this stands as yet another piece of evidence that Springfield is a fine songwriter, capable of spinning a variety of melodic layers into intricate, solid structures. Even better, the sax part found here delivers a significant, lively boost that combines sublimely with the other equally important components of the song. Though a bit heavy on sax initially, the tune displays a key sense of balance that works wonders.

2. Glenn Frey - "You Belong to the City"

Single Cover Image Courtesy of MCA

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.

3. Sting - "Fortress Around Your Heart"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M Records
A perfect example of the favorable potential of the "less is more" philosophy, this sophisticated 1985 Sting solo offering benefits from Branford Marsalis on alto sax, to be sure, but it also demonstrates a proper proportion of restraint. Never blaring or intrusive, Marsalis' contributions provide texture and flavor without ever sounding tawdry. It's a good thing for the saxophone's reputation that Sting's solo debut performed as well as it did, although I'd hazard a guess that many listeners fail entirely to notice the subtle presence of the instrument. I know I was surprised on a repeat listen at the layers provided by Marsalis and their uncanny ability to enhance rather than distract within the framework of this well-constructed song.

4. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - "Bobby Jean"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

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.

5. Fear - "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/London-Sire

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.

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