A friend of mine suggested a while ago that the use of horns in rock and roll is very under-rated. While a horn section is certainly a staple of soul and old school R&B, it’s not an instrument that comes directly to mind when you’re thinking of rock and roll. So for this blog post I’ve decided to list some of my favorite rock songs that make full use of horns.
The Rolling Stones – Rocks Off
I could probably list about 15 different songs by The Rolling Stones alone for this. The obvious choices would be “Waiting on a Friend” with the saxophone solo by the great Sonny Rollins. But I’m going to go with Rocks Off for this. For starters, it’s one of the Stones’ best rockers. It’s messy, and the harmonies on the chorus don’t entirely sync, and the horns nearly drown out the vocals. Yet they all carry the same melody and somehow it works – you get the horns stuck in your head. After the final chorus Mick Jagger lets out an exuberant, “Wooo!”. It’s as if even he knows it can’t get any better than that.
I’m sure lots of people will read this post and suggest that I choose “Jungleland” – The Big Man’s de facto anthem. Truth is, I don’t rank Jungleland as highly as one of Bruce’s best as other people do. But on “Thunder Road” rarely has a saxophone solo sounded so triumphant as it does here. “Thunder Road” is as perfect rock song as they get, but the entire song rests on Clarence Clemon’s saxophone at the end. The open road would not sound as as convincing without it. The song may be about getting away, but the saxophone represents the possibilities of the destination.
U2 – Angel of Harlem
One of my favorite U2 songs, and one of their best. Bono name drops Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and A Love Supreme on a song about Billie Holiday which would almost be unbearable if it weren’t for the sheer joy he shows in the song. But it’s really the brass that makes the song. The horns weave in and out between Bono’s lines during the verses, adding extra life to his ode to Billie Holiday. In concert Bono has often declared that “the goal is soul” – they achieved it in spades on this song.
The Beatles – Penny Lane
An obvious choice, but you could also pick about a dozen or so other Beatles songs just like The Rolling Stones. I’m going with Penny Lane, because the trumpet is so an integral part of the song. It’s a song about childhood, and like the flip-side of the single Strawberry Fields which saw Lennon experimenting with both lyrics and music- Penny Lane is also experimental just not quite as extreme. The trumpet solo is in fact in a mock-Baroque style, which also fits the over-all sound of the song extremely well.
George Harrison – What Is Life
Without a doubt, George Harrison’s best song as solo artist. The use of both the saxophone and the trumpet elevate this song right as soon as the drums kick in. Thanks to Phil Spector‘s wall of sound, the horns almost completely take over the chorus which is one of George’s catchiest.
David Bowie – Young Americans
I couldn’t make this list, without listing this one. It’s Bowie during his “plastic soul” phase. It’s borderline campy, which is kind of the point. The saxophone is one of the trademarks of the song – it’s trying to keep up with Bowie’s fast vocal delivery, and it’s a close call over who actually wins until Bowie delivers the famous “ain’t no one song” line near the end.
The Clash – The Right Profile
Just like Montgomery Clift (who the song is about) this song nearly veers out of control several times. The horns seem to be the only thing actually anchoring it down. The horns blast around the band and Strummer who delivers one of his best vocal performances describing the destruction of the life of Montgomery Cliff sometimes in horrific detail. The saxophone solo in the bridge provides some added weight, and lets Strummer breathe for a few moments.