Prince’s success across a wide range of styles is why we’ll be talking about him in a hundred years, but isn’t how most long-standing fans process his persona. Most people know Prince for a few key songs during impressionable points in their lives, or they’re going to. He may have peaked thirty years ago, but his peak was so high he couldn’t fall from it if he tried (and he’s released plenty of albums to suggest that’s a possible goal). Outside of the content and structure of the songs themselves, Prince’s defining heyday sound (80s-90s) can best be boiled down to two distinct musical features, one obvious, the other less so: his screams (consisting of two particular versions: the “eye” scream and the “ouwa” scream) and the Prince Sidestick. Most people’s favorite Prince song probably contains one of these two features. And yet, only the screams remain in his regular production toolbox, the Sidestick having done the work of cementing his sonic reign long ago.
Every great spoof or identifier of Prince’s persona takes a shot at the first feature, but the second is equally important to deep analysis of his success. Prince was a genius at modifying the public’s perception of who he was and what he was capable of, and his music was almost exclusively where much of that perception was handled. Identity was as important to his persona as the music, and these musical identifiers – one vocal, one technological – were key in making it easy for the public to draw their attention to what he was doing as an artist. It was a keen alchemy, and separated him from the pack beyond just writing singular songs. It was the weirdo icing on the fascinating cake.
I want to focus on the second element here – the Prince Sidestick. The screams are easy: you hear them, you know it’s Prince, done deal. Left to my own devices one day, however, I began wondering when the sound first appeared in his catalog; the chunky knock that, for years, marked a Prince song as distinctly his, and despite its unique arrangement and amplification – or because of it – was rarely mimicked. It was a sound so steeped in Prince’s aura that it marked one as a base imitator if it appeared in their music. Ready For The World, an 80s era R&B band that never heard a Prince riff it didn’t mind shoving into a song, got off the ground by adhering as closely to his formula as possible. “Oh Sheila” is what happens when a bunch of dudes from Michigan think they can do “Lady Cab Driver” better. (Spoiler alert: no) But they pretty much burned themselves by doing so and you’d be hard-pressed to find other acts who tried. The theory, sure. The sound itself? Why, who would bother?
Controversy is the first great Prince record, and “Sexuality” is the first song that hips us to what Prince is capable of rhythmically, and lays the ground work for the sidestick, though it doesn’t actually introduce the sound. Other songs on this record also lay the land for what’s coming: “Annie Christian” unveils the kind of rhythmic opportunities that Prince would later use the sidestick in, and “Jack U Off” essentially uses a double-struck treated tom where Prince would later use the sidestick. The theory was there, his rhythms waiting for Prince to find the sidestick, turn the pitch knob on the LinnDrum, and hit that little black button to further cement his sound.
The rhythms only had to wait eleven months.
The first appearance of the Prince Sidestick is nine seconds into the song “1999”, blending into the top of the tom fills so effortlessly one wonders why it’s never happened before. When you hear it, you know you’re in a Prince song. And he knew what he had too: the sound appears on half of the songs on the 1999 album, and is a sound so quintessentially Prince – so key to defining and dog-earring his presence in the landscape of American pop music – that it kicks off the first song of the album that stands as the crowning achievement of his career, Purple Rain. In fact, of the nine songs that make up Purple Rain, six songs feature the sound. At the height of his powers and during the uncontestable breadth of his rule over the music world, the Prince Sidestick was a defining part of his palate, a subversive utensil in a toolbox designed to build the perfect pop star.
Its job done during Purple Rain’s tenure, the Prince Sidestick fared less well as time marched on and Prince began almost immediately to reinvent himself (again) in an attempt to stay awake during the creative boredom that can set in with great success and being surrounded by sycophants. His next album, Around the World In a Day, set out to deconstruct the very image he’d spent the previous four years creating, and the titular Sidestick was a victim of that reformation. It appeared on only three songs noticeably: “Pop Life”, “America” and “Raspberry Beret” (the singles, mind you). It hovers underneath the mix in “Temptation” almost imperceptibly, an afterthought on the final song of the record, mostly placed out of a need to fulfill a rhythmic hole than to enhance the song or define the artist. By the time his next film and album rolls around, it is all but gone, almost entirely replaced with explosively treated handclaps and toms reverbed until they were dripping with effect.
What the discerning listener will find interesting is that when he needs to re-establish himself or score a hit, he knows where the spice rack is. While the bulk of most of his records since Purple Rain feature tracks that don’t use the sound, many of the standout tracks and hits from later records do. Prince knows when to apply the rub and when to let the song simmer…usually depending on what his career needs. He knows when to apply the magic to himself. When you hear the Sidestick, he’s trying to get your attention, maybe even trying to meet you halfway past the lights and yes men.
Long live the Prince Sidestick. When he’s using it, he’s very likely thinking about you.
10 Songs That Feature The Prince Sidestick
- Let’s Go Crazy
- When Doves Cry
- Darling Nikki
- Raspberry Beret
- Little Red Corvette
- Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)
- The Ballad of Dorothy Parker