Aug 132013

Last week I was driving around and flipped the dial to my local Oldies station. Prince‘s “1999” was getting underway. That’s one of the few Prince songs I kind of like (although I don’t like it as much as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which always sounds to me like a better version of the same song). I decided to stop flipping and listen to the entire song, anticipating the “I’m a bigger man” character building side benefits to come.

The more I tried to throw myself into the mild enjoyment I get from “1999” the more I felt myself getting perplexed by the song’s rhythm track. People like to dance to that song, don’t they? “It’s got a lousy beat, and you can dance to it!” I imagine some kid telling Dick Clark.

I don’t dance, but I was trying to imagine what elements of the song I might let flow through my hips, if my body ever worked that way in the presence of music. The electronic drums are nothing to write home about. There’s a repeating electronic tom-tom fill that’s especially annoying. The song has very little in the way of bass. What’s at the bottom end may be some kind of synth-bass that’s triggered by the artificial, never-varying drum beat. What in “1999” makes people feel like dancing? Is the rhythmic interplay of the funk guitars and the vocals enough? Is this how people dance to forms of folk music completely lacking drums and bass?

Following “1999” was a song that I can easily imagine dancing to, The Rolling Stones‘ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I focused on the drum-and-bass parts. Charlie Watts barely varies his simple kick-snare pattern. The bass is cool, moving all around that simple drum part. The maracas are outstanding. If I were capable of dancing, this is the kind of song that would draw me to the dance floor. Is it because the drums, however invariable, are real? Is it because the bass adds variety? Is it because the maracas are so outstanding?


  8 Responses to “It’s Got a Lousy Beat, and You Can Dance to It!”

  1. machinery

    Thank you for the line “The song has very little in the way of bass.” That’s been my repeating refrain for years on this site every time Prince comes up.

    Expecting Bakshi’s head to pop off.

  2. This is a very valid criticism of early Prince. On his early one man recordings, the rhythm beds, usually drum machine and synth-bass, are very slapdash and sketchy, sounding thrown down in a rush to get to the nifty guitar and synth parts. But the stuff on top makes me totally forgive his inattention to those details.

    How come when he gets the bottom end going, beginning around “Sign of the Times”, then the complaint is that the material isn’t as good as the early stuff. “Emancipation” has some great low end work and it’s completely ignored.

  3. 2000 Man

    I find that just completely ignoring Prince at any point in his career works for me.

  4. I believe the appropriate dance moves for each are as follow:

    The crowd-participation prom dance from “Teen Wolf” for “1999,” spasmodically twitching shoulders and bobbing your head as if chasing that last vapor from the dragon for “JJF.”


  5. BigSteve

    Most of the song has a one-note synth bass thing, but listen closely from about 5:00 to about 5: 40 and you can hear a bass guitar playing a sort of a solo!

    I like the idea of Prince being “slapdash and sketchy.” It’s like he’s got so much music coming out of him that he can’t stop to make things perfect. There’s some kind of electronic handclap sound on the four in the basic rhythm loop, but real handclaps wander in kind of haphazardly in the fourth minute.

    But the danceability really comes from the rhythm guitars, which is why the songs breaks down to the scratchy part in the last 30 seconds. There’s a wah-wah guitar part keeping it funky in the rest of the song too. Those guitars dancing around the relentless electronic loop and the big organ chords are what make the song work.

  6. BigSteve

    I agree about the Sign o the Times album. Of course When Doves Cry on Purple Rain is an exercise in no-bass songcraft, but it does have a heavy kick drum sound.

  7. I think that the lack of bass on that song is artfully done.

  8. I agree completely with you on the appeal of the “slapdash and sketchy” In his early one man band era, Prince seemed to have so many interesting musical ideas that he just threw together some backing tracks so that the ideas could be heard. I think he’s the only artist that rivals the Beatles in simultaneously being wildly experimental and massively popular.

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