In Defense of the Punk Saxophone
They say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t. I stand with the former in saying that there are those who think saxophone sounds good in punk rock, and those who don’t. While the saxophone has been present in punk basically since the jump, it has always come with a concomitant lineage of hardcore mooks who just don’t wanna hear about it, or who want to make fun of it. For reference, please see Fear’s “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones.”
What sax-punks know—skapologist cornballs aside (and yes, “Skapologists” is a freebie band name to any nascent skankers out there, as I’m sure as hell not gonna use it for anything)—is that this hated woodwind has some of the most potential for unmitigated gnarl and blurt of almost any instrument, and it doesn’t even need to be plugged in for that to be true. There are as many definitions and qualifiers of what counts as “punk” as there are punk bands, but the music’s universal joy comes in the rush of its racket, its pure blare, and few instruments blare like saxophone. Besides, isn’t doing stuff that uptight squares hate the OTHER universal part of being punk?
I submit for consideration the following evidence that sax-punk rules. For brevity’s sake, I’ve left out classic U.K. bands like The Cravats, ’90s Chicago emocore outliers Sweep the Leg Johnny, and current wailers like Scissor Now! and Taiwan Housing Project, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?
X-RAY SPEX • “OH BONDAGE! UP YOURS!”
ESSENTIAL LOGIC • “AEROSOL BURNS”
Aside from providing valuable schematics for what would become Riot Grrl, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” is perhaps the clearest Ground Zero for sax-punk (unless you count Side B of The Stooges’ Funhouse album, which I don’t, because I think calling The Stooges “punk” is reductive. That’s a whole other thing, though). It’s less skronky than some of what was to come, but teenage Lora Logic’s horn on X-Ray Spex’s 1977 debut single still slashes and burns with the best of them.
Speaking of Lora Logic: she was unceremoniously sacked by X-Ray Spex within a year, reportedly because she was taking too much attention away from vocalist Poly Styrene (R.I.P.). After a year or so in art school, she formed Essential Logic with some classmates and went on to take post-punk into wild spaces informed by dub, free jazz, and a bunch of other inputs. They were a great band all around, with plenty of punk spirit through to the end, but their first single “Aerosol Burns” has the clearest punk signifiers and the wildest blowing.
FLIPPER • “SEX BOMB”
Some punks brought horns into their music specifically to flip the bird at hardcore meatheads, and “Sex Bomb” is definitely an example of that. Though not as creepy-crawly as the lion’s share of their output (that snail’s pace being another move to repel purist dweebs who demanded a strict diet of faster/louder), the track remains both Flipper’s signature tune and a bellwether of alienation rock. All of this was already true on the original single version, but the version that appears on their Generic album brings the audience-loathing to a frothing boil with a dual saxophone assault that’s like a basement-bred cross between Albert Ayler and the E Street Band. Almost forty years later, it’s still one of the most perfect, and most gleefully annoying, tracks that punk rock has ever produced.
GEZA X & THE MOMMYMEN • “I HATE PUNKS”
Flipper weren’t the only band biting the fists that pumped for them. Geza X was the soundman at legendary L.A. punk club The Masque, and produced a grip of unquestionably pivotal California punk singles (The Germs’ “Lexicon Devil,” Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia,” and Black Flag’s “Six Pack,” for starters) before starting his own band. Older and more experimental-minded than other punks, Geza had grown skeptical of what punk was becoming by the time he formed The Mommymen with a bunch of local scene heavies (including members of X, The Germs, and 45 Grave). That skepticism, of course, inspired this high-anxiety anthem, which upped its potential to irritate pit rats by including both saxophone and marimba. Apparently, the negativity that fueled The Mommymen’s sole LP You Goddam Kids! had largely mellowed by the mid-1990s, when Geza X found himself behind the board for the recording of the Meredith Brooks pop hit “Bitch.”
NEON HEARTS • “REGULATIONS”
Everything about Neon Hearts is so perfectly 1977 punk, you’d almost think they were a fake band pulled out of central casting for an episode of Knight Rider or something. Their most well-known joint, “Regulations,” is about (you guessed it) how rules fuckin’ suck, and it’s a perfectly predictable three-chords-and-the-truth classic. The only thing about it that’s at all surprising is that saxophone, which cuts through the mix like a damn knife.
DOWNTOWN BOYS • “WAVE OF HISTORY”
Sax-punk is more broadly accepted in our modern times, but Providence political punkers (say that three times fast) Downtown Boys are tirelessly making the rounds to put the last nail in the coffin of any remaining doubters. It seems to be working, too: they are (naturally) playing Riot Fest this year, have a record coming out on Sub Pop in August, and are widely viewed as one of the most important punk bands currently operating. Put that in your horn and blow it!