1987 Week: The sax bomb — INXS, ‘The Lost Boys’, and ’80s pop culture

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

The virility of youth is the engine of civilization, at least according to the popular mythology of our culture. Every human is at some station of a long conveyer belt with birth at one end and death, certain and inevitable, at the other; our perspective on everything around us refracted through a lens of age, our relative slope going up or down this winding craggy peak affecting how we feel about the bombardment of the senses that is living in our modern world. Young blood is the gold standard of culture’s economy; we are either bartering our gold for the respectability that only the aged can provide, or paying favor to the young for a brief glimpse of that sweet sweet golden jackpot. If music is the translation of society’s unconscious throbbing yearnings into ephemeral auditory sensations that can be experienced en masse, then waves of popular culture mania so often center on music’s ability to surround and capture youthful longing so that it may be packaged and presented to young and old alike as part of our ever-pulsing cultural/economic machine.

Rock and roll, by 1987, was officially in its fourth decade of being Madison Avenue’s grandest creation, placing the sound of youth within a plastic shell and using its youthful clarion call to spin off countless auxiliary marketing campaigns. Music took the torch from cinema, and henceforth the attitude of youth was perennially captured by the mythology of the cinema star and the enthusiasm of song — together, movies and music forged an alliance to define and refine “cool” for each season of life. In 1969 it was Steppenwolf and Easy Rider; in 1977 it was Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever; in 1987, it was bloody fucking vampires wearing Wayfarers.

In cinema there are few better parables for the way a society’s elders use culture to achieve immortality via the seduction of its own youth than 1987’s The Lost Boys, the story of a small town finally breaking the spell of sacrificing a portion of its young to a vampiric local ruler. If the good-defeats-evil ending seems tacked on or forced, it’s because it was and it is — and because prior to the denouement, the film creates a perfect microcosm of the interaction between culture, power and age in our society. If “cool” represents a valuable-yet-ephemeral commodity, then the understanding is that the young have it, the old want it, and those with power will find a way to use it to stay in power. The secret heroes of the film are the Frog Brothers, played by Corey Feldman and Corey Haim in their breakout roles, the wise-beyond-their-years adolescents who do not possess the cool so coveted by the vampiric coven but whose warnings go foolishly unheeded.

The nature of what “cool” was evolved rapidly in the 1980s: Where hipness in the 1950s and 1960s was evoked with rebellion cloaked in nonchalance, by the ’80s it was clear that technical proficiency and a sarcastic wit were not just useful attributes in a young person, but traits that could potentially topple the existing order. Thus the nerd was born, a cultural creation of the computer age, a creature able to achieve superhuman feats against the system and The Man with just a few keystrokes, coupled with an intentional lack of sartorial sense that eventually read as subversive chic. The key in the 1980s was technology: Its use was cool, and its replacement of analog norms was cause for celebration.

But some symbols of cool were harder to replace than others, particularly in popular music, where production techniques honed through generations of practitioners did not immediately give way to the new computer overlords. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the inexplicable preponderance of extended saxophone solos in pop radio tunes: As synthesizers and sequencers came to replace guitarists, drummers and even singers, listeners still craved the sultry passion of a burst of saxophone proficiency.

Early MTV hits are of course lousy with sax solos, from “I Know What Boys Like” to “Rio” to “Maneater” — but even in 1987, radio hits showed no indication that saxophone would soon become the dodo of instruments on pop and rock radio. The sheer breadth of musical styles that featured saxophone solos in pop hits is astounding: In 1987, it didn’t matter if you were listening to teeny-bopper jams like Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams”, or George Harrison’s solo comeback single “Got My Mind Set On You”, or Icehouse’s “Electric Blue”, or the Dirty Dancing hits “Hungry Eyes” and “I’ve Had the Time Of My Life”, or LL Cool J’s “Going Back To Cali” — if you had the radio on in ‘87 for more than five minutes, at least 30 seconds were going to be a sax solo.

In The Lost Boys, an easily duped out-of-towner teenager and his gentrifying family are, one at a time, seduced by vampires; to show the inducement of the teen boy, the film shows him falling under the spell of a woman at a large outdoor rock concert. Playing is “I Still Believe”, a song written by The Call, performed by a band fronted by Tim Cappello, a legendarily in-demand session saxophonist who cut his teeth with both Peter Gabriel and Carly Simon before joining Tina Turner’s band; radio listeners would have known him primarily for the forceful sax pummeling that came in at the three-minute mark of Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)”, a powerful dose of bludgeoning synth-soul that nearly topped the charts in mid-1985. Cappello looked like he would have fit right in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the film whose closing credits “Hero” played over: He was a massively jacked shirtless long-haired dynamo whose sweat-oozing performance in The Lost Boys is iconic and unforgettable, a cheesecake groin-humping extravaganza of full-throated singing and shaking-the-sweat-off-the-sax mania.

Saxophone tends to be an instrument for sidemen, not the main attraction, at least in American popular music; as much as music fans loved to hear saxophone they rarely if ever knew who was playing the solos they were enjoying. The musicians themselves, especially if they were truly sidemen rather than full band members tended to have really interesting musical career journeys, especially if they really stuck to it. For instance, if you put the words “saxophone” and “eighties” together nowadays for most people, they will think of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” — as they should, because the song is a masterful composition and performance. The signature sax line and soloing in the song is performed by Steve Gregory, a journeyman player who, by the time he did the “Whisper” session in 1984, had an impressively diverse sessionography, having played as part of Ginger Baker’s Airforce in 1970 and travelling to Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria to play with the legendary Fela Kuti. It is entirely possible that in 1984, as the trend of classic rock radio created an army of stations competing for bandwidth on the FM dial with pop, a listener could hear “Careless Whisper”, exclaim “Ugh, I hate this modern pop crap,” and then find a station playing 1969’s Rolling Stones smash “Honky Tonk Women”– featuring a sax solo recorded by Steve Gregory.

When a phenomenon is peaking, it is ubiquitous, with no sign that the fall is soon to arrive. In retrospect, the saxophone orgy that was ’80s radio pop seems preposterous, laughable, only enjoyable from an ironic distance; but what is difficult to convey is the sense of cool that went with these sax displays. It was just how authentic music sounded, for both young and old alike: There was a stealthy intro, a powerful verse, an anthemic chorus, repeat with perhaps a bridge thrown in, the second or third chorus built to a crescendo — and then get a saxophone guy to take you to the bridge. If you were a band in the ’80s that wanted to make it, especially on radio, you had a saxophone player. And he wasn’t the outcast dork, he was the cool guy in Wayfarers.

1987 would hardly be the last year that sax would be heard on the radio; 1988 would be awash in the dripping sax of Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting For A Star To Fall”, to name just two; Tim Cappello himself would still get his growling runs to reverberate all over the world’s radios in Tina Turner’s massive “Simply the Best” in 1989. But the writing was on the wall — perhaps because the sax solo as an art form overshot by 1987, or perhaps because the echo-laden new wave strumming of bands like U2 showed that you could fill enormo-domes around the world without anything more than four guys playing guitars and drums — as long as the guitar sounded like a synth wash or a horn’s bleat, who needed the extra musicians anyway? But beyond the scold of automation and redundancy, the truth is that the crass raspberry of the saxophone just became audio anathema, a little too much anchovy paste in the sauce until the mere mention made one shiver. The sax solo went from representing a part of a rollicking rock sound to becoming the sound of a dated 80s pop single, like a sitar solo in the ’60s or a wah wah guitar in a ’70s porno theme tune: It became uncool.

The Lost Boys was a slow-burning hit as a film, but was a moderate blockbuster as a soundtrack album, in part due to the surprise hit “Good Times”, a rousing cover of an early ’60s Easybeats hit by Jimmy Barnes, backed by an up-and-coming Aussie band called INXS.

A quick perusal of INXS’s single discography prior to “Good Times” showed how versatile and chameleon-like they were: Their core sound was clearly post-punk new wave, but with the kind of anthemic heft that would propel a band like U2 into the stratosphere in 1987 and 1988 with the cataclysmic success of The Joshua Tree. Unlike U2, however, INXS had big band chops that lent their frequent forays into funk and r&b a semblance of authority, which partially explains how they cracked the Top 5 in America in 1986 with “What You Need”.

“What You Need” featured a lengthy and lively saxophone solo courtesy of Kirk Pengilly, as does almost every INXS single; if the band specialized in tightly-wound guitar funk that split the difference between The Time and James Chance, Pengilly’s contributions tended to be less smooth and more jagged and stabby than the sax one typically heard on the radio. This wasn’t necessarily a tip of the hat to the late-’70s No Wave, though: if anything, it was the merging of sax solo hegemony with burgeoning nerd culture ascendancy.

Early in the band’s career, management re-styled Pengilly at the band’s “nerd”, giving him big glasses and dorky hair and encouraging him to play up a spastic stage presence. The archetype of the Aussie spazz punk nerd prodigy was also hitting its peak with INXS’s rise in 1987, and would spill over into full ubiquitous with the release and subsequent stateside success in 1988 of the Aussie indie film Young Einstein, which capitalized on the brief mania for Greg Pead’s character Yahoo Serious. He was a genius, he was crazy, and he was a precocious polymath, and for about a year, people couldn’t get enough of him.

Pengilly lets loose mightily on the sax in “Good Times”, a slice of fun-having Mellencampia that sounded unbelievably American for a 100% Australian musical project. But the song is most remarkable for masking INXS’s clear main weapon: Lead singer Michael Hutchence. This would not be the case with the next INXS single, “Need You Tonight”, the lead-off from 1987’s Kick.

It simply cannot be overstated what a presence Michael Hutchence was in popular culture in 1987 and on into 1988: He was, simply put, a golden Adonis dropped like an A-bomb into the lap of the late 1980s, detonating with a force that was rapid and gargantuan. For most of America, Hutchence’s hormonal presence in their lives began with the video for “Need You Tonight”, as Hutchence unsubtly announced himself as a sex icon of his age. When compared to the Brit/Aussie frontmen of his time, Hutchence stood out: He wasn’t preachy or self-serious like Bono or Peter Garrett (the vocalist for fellow Aussie act Midnight Oil, who had a breakout hit in 1987 with “Beds Are Burning”), and yet he wasn’t a sophisticated loverman like George Michael or Terence Trent D’Arby (whose ubiquitous “Wishing Well” dominated the soul charts in 1987). Hutchence had one foot in the pop world, one foot in the hard rock world of, say, Bon Jovi, and yet managed to present effortless cool the whole way.

It wasn’t just the generous curly locks that flowed down his face, his black leather pants, rocking the shirtless leather bomber with the too-obvious “sex” metal pendant: In the “Need You Tonight” video, Hutchence spins and shimmies and ducks and folds nonchalant hair-flops into elaborate soft-shoe bob-and-weaves in a manner that suggests that he doesn’t really care, music is just music and he has to express his desire the way a caged black panther has to lick its lips before devouring its prey.

Hutchence, of course, quickly moved from being cool and young to being a celebrity, and within a decade his celebrity would be his undoing. It seems preposterous that he has been dead nearly 20 years — but the oddity of it isn’t due to all the musical and cultural cycles that Hutchence has sat out due to his being deceased; it’s more to do with the fact that he never made the leap from an icon of cool youth to an icon of eternal cool. His passing was too sad, too bizarre, and, perhaps most crucially, he was 37 years old and thus denied membership to the 27 club. His final hit with INXS was “Elegantly Wasted”, after all: He was seen as a disposable pop hero for teenagers until his death, and thus was never valued for his significant contribution to music and culture for anything of any significance.

Because in the end, the artist winds up tossing their heart and soul into an infernal machine that pitilessly weighs the value of their contribution against the desires of the marketplace. “Youth is wasted on the young” goes the oft-misattributed yet pithy saying; but really, the value of youth is wastefully consumed by the most indulgent and reckless amongst us, in a cruel cycle of famine and feast that aims to harvest new crops of youthful vigor eternally, forever. If “cool” has been a way to subvert the drooling expectations of the establishment, it has long since been subsumed by the ever-shifting machine of culture and celebrity, forging icons and idols out of instruments and human flesh, fusing them together from a slurry of molten materials into a shape that is ever-appealing to the reptile portion of our cerebellums. But that said, even the most cynical of creations from the dream factory manage to fascinate, deviate, deliberate, reinstate, activate, recreate, annihilate or detonate; at 98 we all rotate.

Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.