I was listening to the David Bowie album David Live this morning, released in ’74 during the Diamond Dogs/Thin White Duke era. While it’s interesting to hear Bowie in a live post-Spiders setting, singing with a soulful voice clearly ravaged by cocaine yet somehow earthy and even hopeful, I’m noticing that there is a hot, clean style to the backing band that’s a little too late-night talk show. In particular, the horn player keeps spiraling and doing little fills and trills that annoy the shit out of me. I feel like any moment, Don Pardo’s voice is gonna go “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night! With G.E. Smith and the Saaaaaaaturday Night Live Band!”
I did a little research, and the horn player on this thing is David Sanborn, the soft jazz villain who played with Elton John, Eric Clapton, Al Jarreau, and a host of other mistake-makers. From looking him up on YouTube, he’s definitely a monster that must be stopped. What was in the cocaine in the seventies and eighties that made people think saxophone had to be this way?
In the early days of rock, sax was king, what with Little Richard and James Brown even trying to emulate its sound with their voices. The sixties brought great surf bands such as the Belairs and Lively Ones using sax in a sparing way, coming in on a solo or bridge, and the horns of soul music sax was a honking mating call that either was a great lead instrument (ala King Curtis) or did a dutiful role backing up the melody of a soulful singer or sitting back with the trombone. In the glam era, the return to roots rock can be felt in bands like Roxy Music and Gary Glitter, with their horns a’grownlin (even Bowie took a turn himself on sax, playing his own parts on songs like “Changes”). And of course we can’t forget the Stones’ and Kinks’ early seventies stuff with horns a’plenty, sometimes good and sometimes not-so-good.
But somewhere between glam and the Thin White Duke, terrible saxophones became the norm for rock combos flexing their soul muscle. Unfortunately, it seems that Sanborn’s role on Bowie’s tour really boosted Sanborn’s career, and encouraged Lou Reed and a bunch of other people who should have known better to get him on their albums and tours, too. Pretty soon he’s appearing in the insidious Paul Simon film One Trick Pony (okay, it did have the B-52s in it, but only to make fun of them), then he’s appearing in David Letterman’s band, doing music for Scrooged and Lethal Weapon, and generally fucking up music with his stinky faux-soul sax for a good ten-fifteen years.
It looks like his star has kind of dwindled (people are doing better drugs these days, I guess–oh wait…) but there’s a chance, like syphilis, that he could spread to a new generation of minors just when it seems the incidences of his music are low. Now is the time to strike, before he ruins any more David Bowie albums.