Meltdown: Patti Smith'S Horses, Royal Festival Hall, London

The power and the passion
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The Independent Culture

Patti Smith is standing alone on the stage reciting the poem that describes her teenage dream to escape a blue-collar production line ("Inspecting pipe, 40 hours, $36 a week") and go to New York City to express herself as an artist.

Patti Smith is standing alone on the stage reciting the poem that describes her teenage dream to escape a blue-collar production line ("Inspecting pipe, 40 hours, $36 a week") and go to New York City to express herself as an artist.

"I'm gonna get out of here, I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train go to New York City, I'm gonna be so bad, I'm gonna be a big star. And I will never return - no, never return - to burn out in this Piss Factory."

Thank goodness she kept her promise. Thirty years ago, as the penniless poet was recording her debut album Horses, Britain was in a state of seemingly terminal torpor. Economically, rampant inflation had forced a change of prime minister and employment prospects for young people were bleak. Musically, things were even bleaker.

Brotherhood of Man and The Wurzels topped the singles chart; Demis Roussos and John Denver were among the best-selling album "artists". Then, one night in May 1976, everything changed. Among the usual staid line-up of that week's Old Grey Whistle Test was a scruffy urchin-woman from New York with the soul of Rimbaud and the spirit of Jim Morrison. Patti Smith was like nothing we'd seen before.

After a spellbinding de(con)struction of the Hendrix classic "Hey Joe", she launched into a hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness monologue called Land that began with a sort of male rape scene and led us through images of horses, long-forgotten dance crazes, murder and, if memory serves, references to the newly defrocked Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, while her band created an hallucinatory crescendo of white noise around her. It was an almost religious experience and in that single, transcendent, 10-minute spell, I was converted.

Later that night, still stunned by what I'd seen and wondering whether to throw out all my old records, my friend Ben and I had a late-night snack at the Hard Rock Café. In those days, you didn't expect to see rock stars unless you had a private jet or were staying in a five-star hotel. But who should be in there but Patti Smith and her band. Small-talk was exchanged and tickets were offered for the following night's concert at the Roundhouse, a show that could genuinely claim to be the birth of punk in Britain, even if no one had coined the phrase yet.

A month later The Ramones would arrive and The Sex Pistols began a residency at the 100 Club. The Clash and The Damned were still in rehearsal rooms, waiting to make their debuts. Patti Smith started it all.

Thirty years later, the power and passion of Smith's landmark debut album Horses remains undimmed as she marks its 30th anniversary with a first performance of the entire album. As Smith puts it in the programme for Meltdown: "We are still seeking to serve, communicate and inspire." She does all three. Dressed as in Robert Mapplethorpe's iconic cover photo - man's black suit jacket, outsize white shirt, skinny black tie, ripped black jeans and boxer boots - Smith looks tiny and frail beneath her shaggy mane of now-greying hair.

But at 58, her passionate belief in the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll shines through from the spine-tingling moment she recites the words that first introduced her: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." The audience remains awestruck as Smith, backed by original guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist/ pianist Tony Shanahan, and a subdued Tom Verlaine embellishing from a stool at the back, takes us on an hour-long trip that fulfils her promise to "infuse the innocence that was there at the inception [of Horses] with 30 years of experience."

Improvising randomly, injecting her songs with love, tenderness, passion and fury, Smith's restless spirit of invention and sheer passion for her art ensured this was more, far more, than mere nostalgia. It was, as it always was, sheer transcendence.

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