“The record company said, ‘no saxophones in a punk band’. So I said, ‘forget it!’”Marlene Marder
When punk came along in 1976- 1977, it was all about amplified noise; distorted guitar, heavy bass and fast, simple drums, but a few girls got in there with their saxophones. At the time, Marlene Marder was a member of Swiss punk band Nasal Boys, playing saxophone, but to little effect:
When the ambitious boys in her band signed to a punk record company, Marlene was forced out to preserve the Nasal Boys’ street cred. And when she joined all-women punk band Kleenex (who later changed their name to LiLiPUT), Marlene was needed to play guitar and sing most of the time. But as we look back on what saxophone players contribute to punk bands, we think that the sax sounds of LiLiPUT are part of a different and more interesting musical approach – an alternative to punk’s mainstream guitar-rock imitations.
Lora Logic was in X-Ray Spex with Poly Styrene at the start, and created the vibrant sax parts that were later recorded by another player when Lora was sacked, just before the band recorded the album Germfree Adolescents. Lora went on to record and gig with a number of bands, including The Raincoats, The Stranglers and Red Crayola as well starting her own post-punk band Essential Logic.
“I guess I was attracted towards playing the saxophone because of Bowie as well, since I loved the saxophone arrangements on his early material. I didn’t just want to be a fan of David Bowie’s; I wanted to be David Bowie.”Lora Logic interviewed by Mike Appelstein
For a few years, saxophone was edgy, innovative and raucous. The 2-Tone acts had whole brass sections and songs built around sax and trumpet riffs. Post-punk acts like Toxic Shock and the early Thompson Twins had saxophone played by women as a central instrument that provided a lot of the melody.
But the punk girl players were soon pushed out as sax breaks in pop songs became a fashionable shorthand for ‘classy’. From ‘True’ to ‘Rio’ to ‘Careless Whisper’, the 1980s boys snatched back the saxophone and accidentally invented the whole concept of ‘smooth radio’. In more recent years, saxophone has again taken a back seat and seems to be an occasional session instrument that’s brought in to boost a live show, or add character to one track on a band’s album.
“Its sound is very exciting – rich and mellow. It sounds like a female.”Kate Bush talking about The Saxophone Song 1978
The main point of punkgirldiaries blog is to trace music back to the huge impact that punk rock had in getting women involved in playing music, but that doesn’t mean that we’re uninterested in what came before .. particularly when female musicians were having success and challenging gender expectations decades earlier.
The saxophone was patented in 1846, but it wasn’t until the 1940s when US company Selmer redesigned the instrument to make it easier to play that it became truly popular. And it’s interesting to see that women sax players were quite well-known playing in all-female big bands and running their own acts, including leading all-Black and multi-racial women’s bands. Some of these sax pioneers, born in the late 1920s are still alive today and punkgirldiaries wants to salute all of those women who were professional touring musicians back then.
Women on Saxophone – a Who’s Who
We think there should definitely be a lot more sax playing in music today and that alternative bands should snatch back the instrument so that it’s no longer the sultry sophisticated urban glissando. What we long to hear is the kind of band where a naughty-sounding honking sax … or, dare we say it, even the blast of an 8-girl wind band … could be central to the entire sound.
Please comment on this post if you know about saxophonists or have particular favourites; we’re not experts in wind!