Not Fade Away

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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

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