On Wednesday, Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band died. While anybody who had seen him deteriorate over the past few years can’t claim it was a surprise, it was bender-worthy for The Dilemma and generally sad for any rock fan. Especially because there’s a good chance that The Big Man was the last brand-name horn player in rock history.
Believe me, I don’t want to like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at all. I realize that they’re frat boys ripping off black culture to a Pat Boone-esque degree. But I don’t turn them off on the rare occasion they come on because they are one of the few bands that still have a horn section. See, I love horn sections… it’s basically the reason I love to watch Treme, to get my horn fix. Horns bring a presence to music that no other instrument can duplicate. They’re basically an instant party. Think about it… if you see four guys on a corner playing guitars, you’re probably walking by. A brass quartet? You’re stopping for a minute. They’re the only instruments that can get people to spontaneously follow them down the street.
But in popular music in the 21st Century, horns are pretty much dead. Why?
1) The Decline of Music Education
Part of the appeal of the guitar is its ease. It’s cheap to buy and you can teach yourself… all you really need to learn is a few chords to get started. On the other hand, horns are hard to learn and relatively expensive. And they’re loud as hell. Which one are you going to buy for your kid?
For a while, though, kids were able to learn horns as part of the school band. They were supplied with instruments, with at most a reasonable rental fee. They were given lessons and had people to practice with. They had a place to practice that wouldn’t annoy the rest of the family.
But school music programs have been on a steady decline for a while now, and are nonexistent in many places. This has decimated the pool of talent.
2) The Punk Ethos
I love punk music, and the philosophy that comes along with it. But it has had some unintended consequences. What was meant to clear out the underbrush of rock pomposity (which it did… for a while), also threw out musical competence. As much as I respect the “learn three chords… now start a band” ethos, it was never meant to replace real musicians as well. The world has room for The Ramones and The JB All-Stars, but at some point the former became the gods and the latter became the nerds. And since people start bands to get chicks, there became no upside putting in the work to learn a difficult instrument.
3) Party Music Went Electronic
Maybe the death of horns became inevitable with the rise of amplification. One of the great things about a horn section is that it makes a hell of a racket. This was much more valuable when a Jack White couldn’t fill a room with a single guitar.
Let’s face it… there are drawbacks to a horn section. It’s great for starting a party, but not necessarily a great supplement to earnest singing. It’s no surprise that Clemons’ presence in the E Street Band got progressively less important as Springsteen got more serious (re: boring and didactic). Nobody wants to have to concentrate to hear Bob Dylan under blaring horns. And the party music that horns are made for is now electronic dance music or hip-hop (although the tuba in The Roots and Jay-Z’s live show proves that horns and rap can mix well).
R.I.P. Big Man… I really wish there was someone to pick up the torch.