Music Editor Letty Gardner discusses why Patti Smith’s 1975 debut ‘Horses’ is an incredible listen and an essential album
Patti Smith is one of the most central and formative female artists in punk music. Smith’s most recent album, Killer Road, was released in 2016, and from her 1975 debut Horses, her discography spans over 40 years, showing the daunting breadth of work she has created. I wanted to introduce her debut album, as a place to start when listening to Patti Smith, but also as an essential album in of itself.
Working out of the 1970s New York art scene and living in Manhattan’s famous Chelsea Hotel, Smith was influenced and spurred on by the movements being made around her, but for so long found it difficult to find a medium that suited how she wanted to artistically express. Surrounded by the big names of the art world, frequenting the stomping grounds of Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, and working alongside life-long friend and occasional partner Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith knew she was to create something, teasing Mapplethorpe about who was going to ‘get famous’ first. Spending the late 60s and early 70s frustratedly writing, drawing, and dabbling in acting, Smith eventually started putting on poetry shows with jarring and abrasive musical backing, with this project developing into the recording of an EP, a cover of Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ with her own track on the b-side, and eventually Horses.
This development is key to understanding her wort. The fusion of jazz poetry and punk stemming from her origins as a frustrated poet, and taking influence from icons such as Bob Dylan, who she grew up adoring, and Mapplethorpe, who shot the album cover, and who she ceaselessly worked alongside in these developmental years.
Still touring and performing, most recently at this year’s All Points East, alongside headliner Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Patti Smith remains an important and unforgotten figure. Seeing her perform at Glastonbury 2015, I didn’t know a lot about her, but her aged, grating voice husking ‘Gloria’ from between long grey hair suggested an artist who was not keen on the live fast die young atmosphere of 70s punk, but rather continually creating and commenting.
The album opens with ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’. ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’ was a lyric dotting about in Smith’s mind and work from when she first started to write poetry, so I associate this track the most with her original development, working her long thought out ideas into an incredibly compelling song. This is a very empowering track, and one of Smith’s most well-known, for its dynamism and unique and innovative use of spoken word.
With the jingling guitar mirroring the sound of The Clash and Talking Heads, ‘Redondo Beach’ may be a good place to start listening to Patti Smith. This subtle step into a more poppy, accessible style is also present on later works, most notably on ‘Because the Night’ from her 1978 album Easter, but her wayward singing style firmly sets it apart from the norm here.
The beautiful ‘Birdland’ relates most overtly to spoken word. Similarly to the narrative-based song-writing of Nick Cave, ‘Birdland’ aims to tell a story, described by The Guardian as ‘excursions of incantatory poetry over improvised noise’. With Smith’s early shows playing to this format, this track encapsulates the live energy of these shows that fit neither into poetry nor rock, but a curious and exciting mix of the two.
The opening chugging energy of ‘Land: Horses/ Land of a Thousand Dances/ La Mer(de)’ solidifies Horses as the startling debut it is heralded as. The chaotic raw voice of Patti swirling up and down, between and around the improvised instrumentals, playing with textures, rhythm, loud and quiet, speaking over herself at points, and translating to the listener a pure punk energy is incredible. Whilst this album is made up of remarkable tracks, this one stands out as the track that summarises the sound and energy Patti Smith was trying to communicate with Horses.