Not Fade Away
This month’s obituaries
At Camden’s Electric Ballroom in October 1979, following a support slot with the Selecter, the Beat were approached by Jerry Dammers of 2 tone Records. the Specials man offered them a label deal, providing they could cut a debut single immediately. Hastily booking time in the studio, they prepared a cover of Smokey Robinson classic “tears Of A Clown”. “Days before we went into the studio, we found Saxa,” Ranking Roger later recalled in Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music And Politics Of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone And Red Wedge. “He was this old, loud Jamaican man that just got drunk all the time and was always aggressive and cussing and swearing. there must have been a good 35 years’ difference between us, but as soon as he blew that saxophone, baby, you’d shut up.”
Born Lionel Augustus Martin in Croft’s Hill, Jamaica, Saxa was by then approaching 50. He’d spent the last few years playing the club circuit around Handsworth, having settled in the West Midlands soon after moving to the UK in 1960. the first ska boom had seen him tour with a number of names, chiefly visiting Jamaicans Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and Laurel Aitken. But the emergence of a new generation of ska-friendly post-punk bands afforded Saxa a more substantial legacy. “He was the most mesmerising saxophone player we’d ever heard,” the Beat’s singer-guitarist Dave Wakeling told Rachel. “He played a couple of gigs with us and then said: ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for you boys.’”
Saxa’s fluent melodicism and exultant buzz served as both contrast and complement to the Beat’s tight, choppy energy. Not only did he knit together their many moods – from ska and reggae to Motown, R&B and frisky pop – he also provided an authentic link to the music of his youth in Kingston, where he’d jammed and recorded with members of the Skatalites. Saxa’s arrival instantly helped the Beat achieve commercial success, with four of their first five singles – “tears Of A Clown”, “Hands Off… She’s Mine”, “Mirror In the Bathroom” and “too Nice to talk to” – making the UK top 10 at the turn of the 1980s.
Ill health forced him to retire following the recording of third LP, Special Beat Service, in 1982. He was replaced by Hazel O’Connor’s sax player, Wesley Magoogan, though Dave Wakeling’s fears proved to be founded. “[Saxa] was one of the cornerstones [of the band],” he told
Musician magazine early the following year. “And the idea of losing someone that important had us worried that the whole thing might fall apart.” Within months, the Beat split up.
Saxa lent his talents to the band’s two factional offshoots, General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (adding an exquisite solo to the latter’s “Funny How Love Is”), prior to hooking up with ex-member Everett Morton in the International Beat in 1990. He remained in place until the mid ’90s and, in 2003, took part in the Beat’s one-off reunion show at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Saxa live with The Beat in New York, September 1980