In 1948 and ’49 the surest way for a record label to score a rock hit was with a honking sax instrumental, as the raucous sound dominated jukeboxes and house parties during those years and in the process established the nascent genre’s most flashy characteristic – controlled mayhem.

But in 1951 it’s a different story entirely as the genre has proven it doesn’t need showy attention-getters to draw interest and so the instrumentals have been largely toned down or done away with altogether.

Just how far has the honking sax instrumental in rock fallen in two plus years, you ask?

Well, this is one that more or less qualifies, but even it comes attached with an asterisk, ans it has, among other attributes – a vocal refrain, a trumpet solo and a massed horn climax that may be played with the appropriate gusto, but does so with a sound better suited for another era, another genre and another audience.


I Wish You Were Mine
It makes sense that if you’ve gone to the trouble of signing saxophonist Joe Houston to a contract that you’ll surely go to great lengths to violate before long, you might as well get at least one record where he uses his horn in a featured role.

That doesn’t seem like a very difficult plan of action considering Houston had been shaping up to be one of rock’s leading lights in this field before that wing of the factory was all but closed down and its employees re-assigned to other departments or laid off altogether, despite their past success.

Yet when he WAS given another chance, first via the re-issued Blow, Joe, Blow on Modern a few months back, then with the top half of this, his first Mercury side, Worry, Worry, Worry, he managed to show that it was premature to write him off after barely reaching his twenty-fifth birthday, as both songs charted extensively around the country.

What better time then to see if maybe his main occupational trade, blowing his own horn as it were, might be taken advantage of a bit more with Hard Time Baby, something which turns out to be a good idea done in by some unexpected confusion regarding its methods.

Who knows, maybe it’s not their fault, after all it’s been awhile since these kind of simple straightforward rock instrumentals were being done with any consistency and it’s entirely possible that everyone involved just forgot how they worked.

Can We Get On Sometime?
There’s nothing altogether wrong with the concept of kicking off what is ostensibly an instrumental with a quick vocal refrain to set the stage for what follows. In some ways it’s possible it might even make the jumping off point for the musical side of the equation seem all the more potent.

Here it at least tries to “ground” the record by giving the song a point of view, one that frames the music as an expression of desire of a guy over a girl who remains just out of his reach.

Now that doesn’t necessarily explain the title, Hard Time Baby, but I guess you can’t have everything and at least the lines, rudimentary though they are, work to bring this perspective into focus.

What ensues after they shut their yaps however is much less compelling as the mistake they make is to let the guys in the studio not named Joe Houston play too large a role starting with the full horn section riffing away in unison, sounding halfway decent maybe but hardly compelling.

When it leads into a trumpet taking the first solo however, even though it’s mostly avoiding the extremes of the instrument, you scratch your head wondering what exactly the point of all of this is. Yes it’s played with a certain amount of aggression, but an aggressive trumpet is certainly not the same as an aggressive sax when it comes to stirring the passions of listeners and while Houston quickly jumps in to take over the damage has already be done, dimming the impact of that riff with a poor choice of weaponry.

Houston’s presence alleviates this concern just enough for you to get your bearings again but he’s being hampered by the utter lack of direction in what he’s playing. There’s no strong hook, nor any melodic thread to pull and while his playing is suitably fierce at times, it’s also rather meaningless without a more consistent vision on display.

He goes up, he goes down, he honks, he squeals, he tries for a churning effect – all of the game plan’s most trusted maneuvers are thrown in, but since it contains no structural sense whatsoever they fall mostly flat.

Impressive techniques in search of a coherent platform.

With nowhere to take this, no climax to build to, no solid support provided by the rest of the band save for the simplistic piano and drum backing, the other horns are called back in to try and put a capper on it which closes the record with a cheesy whimper instead of a big bang.

Not So Sweet And Kind
In other circumstances this type of nondescript quasi-instrumental would make for an ideal B-side to a national hit… something which had a fair display of musical proficiency by its headliner but nothing to overshadow the more appropriate efforts on the A-side that was gaining wider notice.

Yet when the artist is someone like Joe Houston, a budding sax star whose medium of choice should be the instrumental side rather than the vocal half, the shortcomings become a little harder to take.

Considering his opportunities to show what he can do with his horn as of late have been lacking, Hard Time Baby has to be termed a missed opportunity for someone who needs to remind the music world what he’s capable of if left to his own devices.

Instead this has the appearance of a compromised track from the start – literally that is, as in Mercury Records deciding to “allow” Houston to blow for all he’s worth provided it’s couched by more familiar touchstones, none of which help his cause any, nor do they push the rock instrumental back into the spotlight in a way that might allow for others to take things even further.

While it doesn’t completely refute what we’ve come to admire in Houston’s playing, it also doesn’t make us anxious to hear more and that’s something which we’d have rarely said back in the day when sax instrumentals may have left listeners exhausted, but never so tired that we couldn’t be dragged back on the floor for another… and another… and another still.

This one on the other hand makes us content to sit the next one out.


(Visit the Artist page of Joe Houston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)