It’s certainly not your kid’s punk rock album.
By the time the Patti Smith Group let Horses loose in November 1975, its noble leader had already trod the boards as an actress, written for influential seventies rock magazine Creem, and had published a book of poetry, “Babel.” When she needed an outlet for her musical adventures, she assembled guitarists Lenny Kaye (curator of the legendary “Nuggets” psychedelic anthology LPs) and Ivan Kral, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and pianist Richard Sohl, with Velvet Underground icon John Cale producing.
This potent combination produced one of the few albums that withstood American punk’s dramatic rise, and equally dramatic fall, by the end of the seventies. For its thirtieth anniversary in 2005, Patti reassembled the band in London (with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass) and performed the entire album live as a living document.
But was it really punk? Sure, the energy, passion and attitude of punk is there, but “Horses” went beyond the buzzsaw guitars, frustrated, angry vocals, and the clichés that ensured punk’s heyday in America was relatively short. Poetic, literary and artistic illusions are splashed all over the album’s original eight tunes (a live take of the Who’s “My Generation” was later added as a bonus track). How punk an instrument is the piano? It meanders in and out, rarely pounded in anger. The album feels like late-night smoky beatnik jazz at times, too.
Call it what you want. Just make sure the words “groundbreaking” and “classic” are thrown in somewhere.
Patti Smith — Horses: Track-by-track review
Over a bluesy piece of piano come Patti’s first words on record: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
“Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels didn’t want to hear that sentence when she performed on the show shortly after the album’s release, but she didn’t care. Van Morrison probably needed another drink after hearing what she was doing to his hit of 10 years before with Them.
But then again, this wouldn’t be the last rock chestnut she’d radically reimagine and rework. Starting at a leisurely pace, the band slowly accelerates as she improvises her way to the chorus, which she screams and yelps like someone more determined to tear down art than venerate it.
2. “Redondo Beach”
The band comes back with a curveball: Sharp, spiffy reggae, with some piano flourishes, belying the song’s tale of a dead friend. Patti sings it with an insouciance that denies the sadness and sentimentality she may feel just a little guilt over not feeling.
Turn down the lights, bask in the soft piano and occasional brief squall of guitar, and float away on the free verse. This song will make you wonder if Patti anticipated the 21st century’s rise of poetry slams.
The imagery slowly grows more desperate, more violent, but she somehow stays cool in the face of the controlled turmoil before the song winds down in some doo-wop scatting. “We like birdland,” the song ends, but we love the nearly 10-minute journey even more.
4. “Free Money”
Surging, furious punk rock — once the song hits its stride, Patti sings with the sonic equivalent of money fever. As the piano noodling of the opening gives way to the band slowly putting its foot on the guitar gas, she equates money not with the laundry lists of hardware and designer goods later glorified by rappers, but with pure pleasure and freedom. Patti decided a little greed was good long before Gordon Gekko gave us permission to do that.
A much more controlled song in the preciseness of guitars and keyboards, but no less intense. Patti worries “something will make it go crack,” but her little sister will remain safe.
6. “Break It Up”
A little taste of piano, then swallow some heavy chords before gulping down the impassioned chorus. A power ballad done the PSG way — with the buildup of tension and its shouted release.
7. “Land: Horses/Land Of A Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)”
More or less the title track, it starts at full gallop and twangs along through an incident of homoerotic violence out of “A Clockwork Orange.” After Patti pounds home the imagery of “Horses! Horses! Horses!,” the band swings into its take on “Land of a Thousand Dances,” only to return to our victim’s awakening and descent into the “sea of possibilities.” Rimbaud, the sea, pituitary glands…forget it, she’s on a roll, free associating her way through psychosis. By the time it winds down, your soul and psyche are gasping for air.
What missing a loved one sounds (and hurts) like. Brief, soft, moving, unforgettable. This was the last song ever played at the sacred shrine of punk rock called CBGB’s in New York City, with Patti adding to the original a roll call of friends and scenesters who could not be with her that night in late 2006.
9. “My Generation” [bonus track]
No threat to Daltrey and Townshend’s legacy, but big, loud sloppy fun, with a shoutout to Cale and the boys getting a turn at the mike.
Horses by Patti Smith
“Break It Up”
“Land: Horses/Land Of A Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)”
“My Generation” [bonus track]