On her 1975 debut, Smith was full of piss and vinegar, seriously interested in bringing together high art and low three-chord rock & roll. - Douglas Wolk.
Throughout my seven years as a hardcore fan of The Smiths, I've flicked past this album countless times in record shops. A few months ago, I finally swallowed my pride and picked it up. It's not much like anything Morrissey has ever written, but still pretty bloody good. The album feels fractured - broken, even - and it takes many people many listens in order to find beauty in something so surprising. Horses was produced by John Cale, and sometimes reminds me of The Velvet Underground's most outlandish moments. Yet the lyrics, or should I say poems, are more striking even than the moments of grating, itching guitar.
For we must not forget that what we're listening to is, at its base, a poetry reading set to music. Or perhaps just set in the same room as music. The main reason Patti collaborated with guitarist Lenny Kaye was for him to provide a backing to her recitals. On Horses, this is not really the impression we get. Some have called it pre-Punk Punk. For me, the music and the poetry variously get lost in each other, duel with each other, ignore each other, and caress each other. It's a kind of free form rock. In 1975, Billboard described the arrangement as "Frantic and frenetic instrumentation behind Smith's vocals". Perhaps Smith viewed this experimental rock 'n' roll recording as an act of composing in a different poetic form. Instead of the staid fourteen lines of a sonnet, she offers us the thrilling form of verse, chorus, verse.
Enough of me - over to Patti:
- Gloria is a standard magnificently reworked. A splendid example of the album as a whole, as it slaps the listener around the face with its smashing together of rock and poetry. I've resisted the temptation to quote the album's brash opening-line so far, but I can resist no more: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine". That's sure to set the tone.
- Birdland: "It was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars /
'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.". Father, son, Nature, Death.
- Free Money is my personal favourite. At once wistful and frighteningly urgent. A twisted elegy of love intertwined with the filth of money. "Scoop the pearls up from the sea /
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need".
- Kimberly is purportedly about a "little sister", but we cannot help feeling that the poetess is actually writing about her own child - born or unborn - or perhaps even adopting a persona and talking to her infant self. One of the easiest songs, musically-speaking. "Oh baby, I remember when you were born, /
It was dawn and the storm settled in my belly".
- Break it up is packed with violent images of Smith's apocalyptic vision. At once sexual, angelic and bloody, this track presents us with a snippet of the "piss and vinegar" to which Douglas Wolk refers in the opening gambit. "We rolled on the ground, / he stretched out his wings. /
The boy flew away and he started to sing. /
He sang, “Break it up..."
- Land, the album's chef d'oeuvre is divided into three segments: Horses, Land of a Thousand Dances, and La Mer (de). Horses is summarised rather well in the line "Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,
And go Johnny go". We are presented with the collision between the woman's knowledge of French Poetry in her allusion to Arthur Rimbaud, and her rock 'n' roll sensibilities, with the recurring references to the infamous Johnny. The title of the Libertines song The Boy Looked at Johnny is taken from this track. Talk of horses, strange and frightening sex, and the freedom of the sea.
- Elegie: "There must be something I can dream tonight, /
The air is filled with the moves of you". A piano-led, contemplative track which provides a mellow closing to Horses. Unlike most of the pieces on the album, this one never picks up the frantic pace, but remains somewhere in the grey area between sombre and serene.
- Bonus Track: My Generation, which is not included on all the pressings of Horses. A messy cover, which serves as an alarm clock to send the listener crashing back into reality after the original album has come to its gentle conclusion. It can stand alone as a vibrant song, but sits uneasily next to Horses.
Released on the Arista record label. The Patti Smith group is: Richard Sohl on piano; Lenny Kaye playing lead guitar; Ivan Kral on guitar and bass; and Jay Dee Daugherty who plays the drums. Horses was chosen as the 44th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in December 2003.
Sources: The All-Music Guide to Rock, Collins Gem Classic Albums, www.amazon.com, www.bbc.co.uk, www.superseventies.com, www.plastic.com, www.popmatters.com, www.alwaysontherun.net.
You may not care to know that this is the best music I have ever come across to have sex to. Albert Herring tells me that Radio Ethiopia is better if said sex is taking place during a thunderstorm.