B-side of Satan’s Blues
(Written by Autry DeWalt Jr.)
My relationship with the saxophone mirrors that of one of my musical heroes, Gruff Rhys. I’m guessing that a great many people born in Europe between 1970 and 1980, and thus whose musical palette was initially shaped in some way by the landscape of Eighties pop, probably have a similar thing going on, but Gruff just happened to state it more baldly than anyone else. Gruff’s initial, instinctive reaction to a sax solo was one of physical revulsion, later describing the noble horn as “Satan’s own instrument”. “I generally dislike the saxophone. I like saxophones if they’re just doing basic notes, that’s fine. But saxophone solos I don’t enjoy. It has that vomit-inducing quality, it’s a physical thing”, he told the NME a couple of years ago. And a few years ago, I’d have agreed with him.
Because of its sheer power (in every sense), and because it’s so open to abuse by people with no taste, and because of the cultural signifiers (MOR, sleaze, overprocessed Eighties cheese) that can’t help but come to mind every time it hits certain notes, the sax needs to be handled with extreme care. Those signifiers also put off the young indie-pop fan looking to broaden her horizons, forbidding a casual delve which would immediately reveal the vast oceans of difference between Kenny G, Evan Parker and Junior Walker.
But times change. Gruff’s latest LP has sax all over it. And thanks in no small part to Walker, my own attitude has changed too; when I hear a sax strike up, I no longer get an immediate sense of doom, or the gag reflex Gruff mentioned, but rather I’m looking for someone to do something, well, cool with it.
That being said, it still feels dangerous, except that the fear of the player going out of control and ending up raucous and cacophonous (of which I’d approve!) has been replaced by a different fear: the player teetering on the edge of a vat of sticky AOR “R&B” soup. And as I mentioned when talking about the A-side, the uncompromisingly-titled Satan’s Blues, Junior Walker was as bad as anyone when it came to not knowing whether he’d fallen in. He just about keeps his feet dry here – at the cost of making a more interesting record, it has to be said – but he’s moving noticeably closer to the pot.
Monkey Jump is not at all dissimilar to some of Stevie Wonder’s early singles, a semi-instrumental showcase designed to highlight a one-trick act who’s not (yet) known as a vocalist. It may or may not be a coincidence that this almost shares a title with Stevie’s Monkey Talk, as the two records are very much alike, conceptually at least; here, apart from a few shoutbarked interjections (Awwwww, look at that monkey JUMP!), it’s a driving instrumental all the way, thudding bass and guitars providing a brief two-minute vehicle for Walker’s sax solo to float over the top.
Musically, it’s based around the same kind of riff as the first Motown instrumental, the house band’s Snake Walk from 1959, but it’s nowhere near as energetic, or as interesting – and it never seems to quite realise just how precariously it’s balancing on the edge of good taste. For every moment of cool, like part of the soundtrack to some hypothetical Sixties black action thriller, there’s a moment of peril, like part of the soundtrack to some hypothetical Sixties white spy comedy. The semi-screamed chants are enough to frighten off the squares, keeping it on the right side of cheese, but that carries its own danger (as Stevie had discovered), nudging it towards throwaway novelty status instead.
It all balances out, more or less, into a mildly diverting instrumental that doesn’t cause revulsion but doesn’t live in the memory. There’d be much better, and much worse, from Junior Walker yet.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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