5 Great Pop Songs That Were Almost Ruined by Saxophones

The instrument is a treasure. Its use in chart-topping hits is a crime.

November 8, 2021 7:18 am
Peter Gabriel and Tim Cappello perform on stage at Knebworth House, near Stevenage, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, on September 9th, 1978.
Peter Gabriel and saxophonist Tim Cappello perform on stage at Knebworth House on September 9th, 1978.
Gus Stewart / Redferns / Getty Images

Years ago Courtney Love railed against saxophones in rock music, then felt like she had to apologize.

I feel no need. Saxophones — happy belated National Saxophone Day, BTW — on their own are worthy, but their presence in pop or rock songs (particularly in one decade) is often, well, embarrassing. 

I get a lot of pushback on this no-sax argument — even more than when I (correctly) claim a hot dog is a sandwich or Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. The retort usually begins “What about …” and is followed by the usual suspects: Bruce Springsteen, “Baker Street,” Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them,” Roxy Music, jazz.

So let me narrow my anti-sax stance: I don’t believe saxophones belong in pop songs as standalone solos. 

Some of my mistrust of the saxophone involves cultural appropriation — the idea that this instrument, associated more with a specific genre (jazz), is often shoved into pop hits by white artists. Jazz, as musical legend Sonny Rollins noted in a 2020 ABC News interview, is a Black art form. And the saxophone is intrinsically linked to that art.

Rollins rightly defended the instrument, particularly as history hasn’t been kind to it: the sax was once labeled “degenerate” and has been the target of scorn for everyone from the Nazis to the Vatican.  “[The saxophone] confounds a lot of people and they’ve been trying to disgrace it and put it down,” he said. 

But honestly? While I can hide behind a cultural critique, I really feel like the saxophone is kind of showy and unnecessary, at least for radio hits. Unlike guitar solos — which at least involve instruments that are often being used to construct the rest of the song — the sax is often an interloper in pop, a dissonant and disconnected wail that lacks musical context.

(Side note: There’s a very popular TikTok account that adds unnecessary sax solos to popular songs that’s worth checking out if you’re not a sax-pop fan.)

Below, I outline five songs unnecessarily ruined or tainted by sax solos. I left out tracks where the instrument is tied into the song’s construction or hook (like Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” or Wham’s oft-parodied “Careless Whisper”) and also ignored songs from more indie or less pop-focused acts — The AV Club nicely tackled those saxophone casualties here. Instead, these are chart hits that didn’t need any extra wailing.

M83, “Midnight City”

A scorching synth-rock banger from the French musical collective, this hit — a ubiquitous presence at the 2012 Olympics — immediately loses all its euphoric energy once Fitz and the Tantrums’ James King begins his sax solo. M83 band leader Anthony Gonzalez defended the sax use on his biggest song, once noting, “Sometimes a song needs an element to be finished. You know that this element has been overused in the past and is considered clichéd or cheesy, but the song needs it.” Honestly, a fadeout would have worked just as well.

Tina Turner, “We Don’t Need Another Hero”

An epic if oddly constructed soundtrack song that already involves a children’s choir and the need to shoehorn the term “Thunderdome” into a lyrics, this single from the third Mad Max film features saxophonist Tim Cappello. (If there was a hit song in the late ‘70s or ‘80s that needed a sax, you called Cappello, the oily, muscle-y multi-instrumentalist pictured at the top of this article.) While he played with Peter Gabriel, it was Cappello’s touring with Turner that got him noticed; that recognition later turned into a rather, uh, memorable performance in the Corey Haim vampire flick The Lost Boys. For this track, Turner doesn’t seem to know what to do once Cappello takes over, gamely singing “do do do do do do” over the sax’s empty screech. 

Bonus video: Here’s Cappello from The Lost Boys. You can’t not watch.

Icehouse, “Electric Blue”

An ‘80s Australian synth-pop act that sadly only had two hits on this side of the world, Icehouse delivered a near-perfect earworm with “Electric Blue,” a cheesy pop song that perfectly encapsulated romantic yearning with a somewhat non-sensical chorus and the distraction of the the singer’s awesome mullet. Then, way too early on (about halfway through), an out-of-place saxophone break. It’s so unnecessary that The Killers simply replaced it with guitars during their amazing 2020 quarantine cover.

Lady Gaga, “The Edge of Glory”

I realize Gaga’s second album Born This Way was supposed to evoke the ‘80s — it’s all very Pat Benatar — but this anthemic single awkwardly adds in a Clarence Clemons sax solo that both stretches out an already lengthy song (5:20) and, at least in the video, inspires a truly odd dance sequence. 

Psychedelic Furs, “Pretty In Pink”

While long associated with the John Hughes mid-80s film of the same name (which is named after the song), “Pretty in Pink” was actually a minor hit single for these English modern rock legends back in 1981. The re-recorded version for the film unnecessarily tacks on a saxophone outro, and the video features, natch, a saxophonist silhouetted in shadows. 

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