Album Analysis | Patti Smith - Horses
Leave it to Patti Smith, the 29-year-old punk poet from New Jersey, to stretch rock n' roll to its absolute limits and create a stunning debut record that would open up countless opportunities for women in punk rock.
At its core, Horses is an exercise in self-indulgence and pretentiousness. Patti leads off the album with a handful of slow piano notes and the brilliant and ominous line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine". Forty-two minutes later, the album ends with a murky and apocalyptic ballad that's a subtly-crafted memoir to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and her other heroes who had died. Blending in her influences from the proto-surrealist French poet Arthur Rimbaud and New York City's Beat Generation, Patti Smith's Horses is a sinister, uncompromising and uncomfortable album that set out to challenge rock's conventions and be unabashedly unique. In her own words,
"I was consciously trying to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different… I wasn't targeting the whole world. I wasn't trying to make a hit record."
Smith's experience living in the turbulent art scenes of New York City and Paris laid the foundation for her musical career. She was heavily involved with poetry and visual arts since high school, where her inability to fit in gave her more time to explore the works of Bob Dylan, Rimbaud, James Brown and other literary and musical artists. To nobody's surprise, The Velvet Underground were particularly influential to her; she met Lou Reed in 1970 and become interested in "Sister Ray", which she later describes as "a dissonant surf doo-wop drone allowing you to move very fast or very slow". The works of The Who, with their bombastic crunching rock, The Doors, with Morrison's gothic poetry, and Bruce Springsteen, whose blue-collar tales are depressingly inspiring, also influenced her songwriting.
But more than any specific artist or cultural movement, her guiding principle was that of liberation and autonomy; she had no interest appealing to a record label or target audience, and if her free-form poetry mixed over sparse guitar chords in "Birdland" or "Land" can indicate anything, it's that she loved artistic freedom. Horses stands as a tremendous bout of artistic expression, but also as an album that shows it's okay to deviate from the norm. Before 1975, there weren't many notable women in rock, let alone punk - the movement that derided the establishment and cultural norms, of all things. Energetic and powerful songs like "Gloria" and "Break It Up" laid the groundwork for female-led punk artists like The Slits, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Blondie, The Raincoats, and PJ Harvey. The art of improvisation that rampages through Horses is far different from the more conventional punk rock that would erupt from New York and London soon after its release, and Smith is one of the rare artists who could successfully fuse her influences from John Coltrane to The Rolling Stones.
After missing out on the role as the lead singer of the New York-based rock band Blue Öyster Cult, Patti turned to rock music as her creative outlet. She began leading the Patti Smith Group as the songwriter and vocalist, as well as contributing on guitar in some moments. Lenny Kaye was the lead guitarist, and he was particularly great at creating great, simple riffs ("Free Money") as well as creating atmospheres ("Elegie"); Tom Verlaine of Television played guitar on "Break It Up". Arguably the most important member behind Patti was Richard Sohl, the pianist whose work was essential at giving Patti's poetry more power. His work on songs like "Break It Up" and "Birdland" was instrumental, and he was especially good at switching between tense and eerie periods and more streamlined and calm bits. Sohl added drama like nobody else besides Patti could. Ivan Kral, a Czech refugee, and Jay Dee Daughtery, who started as the group's soundman, would make up the rhythm section; their bass and drum work, respectively, was simple yet worked very well with the musical simplicity of the group.
Their first single was released in 1974; the A-side covers Hendrix's "Hey Joe" with a drastically different, and much more intense, introduction, while the B-side "Piss Factory" recounts Smith's days working in a factory with ferocious, scathing poetry that was their first hint at greatness. John Cale, who had been in The Velvet Underground and had an experimental and great solo career by 1975, was responsible for Horses' dynamic and gritty production. Although he gave the band instant street cred, he didn't get along well with Patti. In an interview, she says, "I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist".
However, this creative tension was responsible for some of Horses' best moments. In the same interview, she credited Cale's foreboding influence for "Birdland", saying,
"...inspiration doesn’t always have to be someone sending me half a dozen American Beauty roses. There’s a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And he had me so nuts I wound up doing this nine-minute cut [“Birdland”] that transcended anything I ever did before.”
Cale wished to recreate the energy of the group's live performances, and he succeeded. Cale's production is gentle on the piano-dominated tracks, allowing Patti's emotionally-drenched and powerful vocals to work wonders. Highlighting her vocals as well as Sohl's excellent keyboard playing makes "Elegie" and "Birdland" fascinating, and a rawer production would only hurt their power. When the group rocked, Cale rocked with them; "Gloria"'s distortion of the Van Morrison classic is one of Smith's most dynamic songs, and the deliberately crunchy production on this song allows the whole band to deliver their raw power. "Land" and "Free Money" stretch rock n' roll to its limits with a seemingly-infinite buildup of tension and ideas, and this tension in the recording studio can easily be attributed to the careful, but brilliant, production. It's similar to the production of his solo album Fear, released a year before; the album's balance between elegant piano rock and storming proto-punk definitely helped him produce Horses with such delicacy.
The balance on Horses, as well as the consistently enchanting songwriting, is what makes it such a unique album. For a record that gets labelled as proto-punk nearly all the time, it's ironically progressive. Which punk band would make an album primarily built off piano rock with two suites that run over 9 minutes long, as well as an opener at nearly 6 minutes? Compare this to other records rooted in the proto-punk canon like Raw Power (1973), New York Dolls (1973), and The Modern Lovers (1976), which owe their ambitions to rock n' roll like Horses, but sound nothing like it. This album sounds like the antithesis of punk, which "formally" sprawled out of the underground a year later, yet thousands of punks across the east coast took after Smith's headstrong attitude and inverted rock n' roll.
There really isn't a single cut from the album that's straightforward; even "Gloria" has a progressive song structure that rips rock's conventions to shreds by the end. Did Van Morrison ever envision his hit single to be morphed into a lesbian anthem a decade later? Probably not. "Redondo Beach" also hints at lesbianism, and its tales of a young suicide wouldn't be expected in a reggae song. "Kimberly" is a similarly gentle song, well needed as the mediator in between the thrilling "Free Money" and the tense "Break It Up", and the album's most conventional one. It still utilizes Smith's powerful vocals over simple music, but it's the least damning one here. "Birdland" and "Land" are two progressive suites that are the best examples of Smith's poetry, as they run amok; the former is mainly driven by Smith's vocals and Sohl's piano, but Kaye's guitar work in the background makes it more ominous, while the latter's rock n' roll swagger fits well with the narrative. "Elegie" is a short and ominous closer that echoes Jimi Hendrix's "1983..." with the line, "it's much too bad that our friends can't be with us today". This is likely a reference to her influences, as Hendrix, Morrison, and Rimbaud had died and weren't with her today, to her despair. It does more to confuse the listener, but it's a tremendous atmospheric piece.
Patti was lucky that Horses was commercially and critically successful after its release near the end of 1975. There was no precedent for this album's mix of philosophical poetry and minimalist rock n' roll, and this album is meant to make the listener uncomfortable with no shortage of artsy, progressive tracks and only one or two accessible tracks. Without any singles, Horses managed to chart highly in the U.S. and become universally adored by critics at the time; some of it may be derived from Patti's street cred, along with Cale's production, but the music really is fascinating and trend-shattering. She would go on to make good albums with the Patti Smith Group, but none were as captivating nor consistent as Horses; the follow-up Radio Ethiopia (1976) comes close, with a far less accessible and a much harsher atmosphere (especially the ferocious, "Sister Ray"-esque title track) without nearly as much acclaim to it.
Forty-four years later, Patti Smith's Horses stands as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. It's hard to understand how a group who were hardly a year old could make an album that's so overflowing with ideas, but also with enough sense to work out all these ideas and condense it into one album. From its iconic black-and-white album cover to its adaptations of rock standards to its brilliant balance between storming punk rock and long, complex piano-dominated tracks, Horses is a magnificent album that's confusing, but deserves all the acclaim it has received over the years.