Sleazier Sounds

Alex Abramovich

Steve Mackay, the saxophone player, died in October. I found out just last week, after falling into a YouTube hole marked 'Stooges', though his death was covered not only by the music press but by the Washington Post and the Guardian. This is slightly surprising; Mackay did many things with his life, but he's known for playing on a few tracks on one album, which came out 45 years ago. Then again, the album is Fun House, and one of those tracks is '1970' – mind-blowing, earth-shattering music, which really was made to shatter the earth: 'What the Stooges put into ten minutes was so total and so very savage,' Iggy Pop wrote in his memoir, I Need More, 'the earth shook, then cracked, and swallowed all misery whole.'

Mackay's playing on that record alone does a lot to redeem the reputation of the much-maligned rock saxophone. Why maligned? Because of Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis and the News, and Andy Hamilton, who plays the solo on Duran Duran's 'Rio'. And because of the 'sexy sax man', Tim Cappello (who, actually, turns out to be kind of awesome). The general impression in these cases, and not a few others, is that rock saxophonists are superfluous members of bands that are already playing superfluous music.

But the saxophone is central to rock, and not just because of Bruce Springsteen's 'Big Man', the late, great Clarence Clemons, or the equally great Andy Mackay of Roxy Music, or the epically great 'honkers and shouters', like Louis Jordan and Illinois Jacquet, who emerged from the big bands in the 1940s, and came up with rhythm and blues in the first place.

Take Keith Richards, who may or may not have nicked the riff for 'Satisfaction' from Martha and the Vandellas (there's some disagreement over which song he would have nicked it from). What's more certain is that he played it, through a fuzzbox, as a placeholder on what he thought was a demo recording, to indicate where the horn lines would go. Years later, he said that Otis Redding's cover of 'Satisfaction' was closer to what he'd had in mind than the Stones' own recording.

Or take the riff that Dave Davies played, ten months earlier, on 'You Really Got Me'. It, too, was a horn riff transposed to guitar (supposedly, Davies slashed his amp to get the fuzzed-out effect). Other guitarists – Link Wray, Paul Burlison of the Rock and Roll Trio, and many more – had also damaged their amps, intentionally, to get fatter, fuzzier, sleazier sounds, which approximated a saxophone. The tradition goes back to 'Rocket 88’, recorded in 1951 and often cited as the 'first rock and roll song'. Willie Kizart is supposed to have played his guitar through an amp that fell off the roof of his car on the way to Sam Phillips's studio.

Above all, there's Lou Reed's beautiful, insane solo on the Velvet Underground's 'What Goes On', which was made by laying three or four guitar lines on top of one another. The result sounds surprisingly like an Ornette Coleman sax solo (which was, in fact, the sound Reed was looking for). But then Ornette Coleman solos are more or less what Steve Mackay was playing with the Stooges. Is it so strange that, at the extremes, jazz and rock should fit together so nicely? A shitty thing about standard histories of rock and roll – ones that tell us that the music is half country and western, half rhythm and blues – is that they always slight jazz. (To do otherwise would be to suggest that rock and roll was being played, by black musicians, well before Elvis Presley followed Willie Kizart into Sam Phillips's studio.) But the truth is that electric guitar solos are directly descended from saxophone solos via Charlie Christian, who defined his instrument (which was once seen as a joke among jazz musicians, much as the saxophone's a joke in rock) by being the first guitarist good enough to cop saxophone riffs in cutting contests.

Someone should write a book about it. Meanwhile, now that I'm listening to it, the sax solo on 'Rio' is cheesy, but great.


  • 9 January 2016 at 8:59am
    cufflink says:
    Thanks Alex, this is good strong topped-up coppee. But where's your mention of the great 'Road Father' of wild sax? Yes I'm on about Woody the Herd.
    Did he not get a blown kiss from Stravinsky to play louder? And did he not turn Liederkranz Hall into a Pernot and water fog? Earth shattering? Why sir get your vinyls out and gander at Caldonia or better still move your feet with a dish of Apple Honey.
    His line-up of Getz, Hefti and Zoot Sims commands peer cheers for all the sexy saxes; and moreover the Herman library indexed Nistico on tenor; that's when you could get streaky Rock and Roll from the overloaded groaning automat. Gillespie, of course re-set the time signatures opening valves to raucus vibratos of ecstasy and amped befuddlement.
    The complete low-down on all this resides in the head of impresario Andrew Childs, if you can ever sit him down.

  • 10 January 2016 at 1:46pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Charlie Parker, the Hendrix of the sax solo, would have understood, got, the rips and rags of that proto-punk ethos sax. His sallies into bebop were pre-punk, too, though his notes were like golden drops of love juice from heaven.

    We played "Television" on "The Suburban Pirate" on Croydon Radio last Friday, Alex, after your previous post about Richard Hell. Strangely enough, the show recently featured Carlos Aguilera playing "Misty" on his sax during his 12-hour brain operation, to indicate to the brain surgeons that he was still "with it".

  • 12 January 2016 at 11:25am
    Ubique says:
    Thank you Alex.

    James Osterberg's memoir is "I Need More", not "I've Got More".

    cf. "I Got Nothin'" ex Kill City.

  • 12 January 2016 at 5:13pm
    MacCruiskeen says:
    "the truth is that electric guitar solos are directly descended from saxophone solos"

    And, of course, the role of the solo itself in jazz had been completely transformed by Armstrong's trumpet. It was Armstrong who elevated the solo from 'riffs' to completely developed musical statements. Armstrong is the great-grandfather of all pop-music solos as we know them today.

  • 12 January 2016 at 9:41pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Thanks, everyone (Armstrong: Absolutely), and UGH: I had the book right beside me. Clumsy fingers, will fix!

  • 14 January 2016 at 4:20pm
    Boursin says:
    A very nice piece indeed, and it's easy to agree with the aesthetic judgements – but at least four factual errors curiously still remain:

    1) Of the "honkers and shouters" of Arnold Shaw's book title, only the honkers were saxophonists; the "shouters" part refers to the so-called blues shouters, i.e. such uninhibited singers as Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris and Jimmy Witherspoon.

    2) "You Really Got Me" was not "five months earlier" than "Satisfaction", but approximately ten months earlier. The former was recorded in mid-July 1964, the latter in mid-May 1965.

    3) Johnny Burnette only played acoustic guitar. You meant the lead guitarist in his Rock 'n' Roll Trio, Paul Burlison.

    4) The guitarist on Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" is not Ike Turner, but Willie Kizart. For all his later deserved reputation as one of the wild men of the guitar, it's piano that Turner plays on this particular track, as he did on many of his earliest recordings.

  • 17 January 2016 at 5:37am
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Oh, Jesus, that's terrible. I'll stand by everything else I said up there but ask my editor to fix the above. Thanks so much for pointing those out, Boursin; pure ignorance on my part except for Arnold Shaw, which was just sloppy of me.

  • 17 January 2016 at 5:41am
    Alex Abramovich says:
    (Although, in context, I'd argue that Louis Jordan is a a shouter as well as a sax guy.)

  • 18 January 2016 at 6:33pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Fixed. Thanks again.

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