"Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine." Forty years ago, Patti Smith opened her astonishing debut album Horses with these immortal words. Delivered over piano chords with a slow, deliberate certainty, it was the unmistakable statement of a 28-year-old woman taking complete ownership of her life and sound.
This sense of being true to yourself defines the record: it’s there in Smith’s blending of musical styles, combining classic rock’n’roll with punk rawness and extended improvisation; it’s there in her lyrics, which mix self-laceration with poetry that channels Rimbaud and William Blake; and her vocal delivery, which can be sonorous and beautiful or hoarse and ragged, and it’s there in the androgynous black-and-white cover shot of her slinging a jacket over her shoulder, staring down the lens of her lover Robert Mapplethorpe. Any one of those elements might have made Horses notable; bring them all together and it’s no wonder Smith’s uncompromising vision captivates every generation that encounters it.
This summer, fans of all ages will have a chance to hear the entire album played live, as Smith takes Horses on tour, playing four dates in the UK including Field Day in London, and Glastonbury festival.
“It is a remarkable anniversary,” acknowledges guitarist Lenny Kaye. He provided the abrasive, guitar “scrubbing” accompaniment to his friend Smith’s early poetry performances, and it was from this that Horses evolved, via a lengthy residency at the legendary New York venue CBGBs, and with the addition of bandmates Richard Sohl, Ivan Kral and Jay Dee Daugherty. The 1975 album was superbly produced by John Cale, who pushed the band to continue improvising in the studio.
Kaye is still in Smith’s band today: “It’s very gratifying that an album made 40 years ago is given a place of honour in rock’s great pantheon. I look out at our audience and I have to say, the first five or 10 rows haven’t got any older since the 1970s! And that, to me, is the most gratifying thing of all.”
I count myself as a latter-day fan, even if I came to Horses pretty late in my musical evolution, when a friend put “Redondo Beach” on a mixtape near the end of university. I loved how Smith’s drawl – half-insouciant, half-pain sodden – loped over that reggae beat. Once I finally got the album, it went straight on my MP3 player, while the cover was Blu-Tacked to my wardrobe. Both stayed put for a long time.
It’s an album that hooked my feet first – for who can resist dancing to the glorious swing of “Gloria”? But, unlike many records I listened to as an early-twentysomething, its power wasn’t really about identifying; Patti did not reflect my personality or speak to my fragile love-life – instead she got right to the very soul. I was gripped by the album’s spiritual potency, a sense of looking both inwards and out into the Universe. “The sky will split/And the planets will shift/Balls of jade will drop and existence will stop,” she prophesies on “Kimberly”. It makes you feel as small as when you look into the night sky.
With those mystical lyrics riding raw over the band’s extended jams, this is pounding, surging music that lifts the listener up and away, as if riding the white horses of some huge wave. “It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars,” she sings on “Birdland”, “Cause when he looked up they started to slip.”
Horses is the greatest rock’n’roll record of all time. But that claim’s not mine – it’s Philip Shaw’s opening salvo in his book about the record. Professor of Romantic Studies at the University of Leicester - and a member of the band Alberteen - Shaw believes Smith’s lyrics reward the same academic reading as the great poets he teaches.
“Is it objectively the greatest rock’n’roll album ever made? That’s impossible to verify,” he concedes. “But a case can be made for it, on the grounds that it does a lot of things that rock albums hadn’t done previously. It allied the low culture of rock’n’roll with the high culture of poetry; it really advanced the place of women – and the cover! It’s so challenging: the way she looks is as radical as when Bowie appears in the early Seventies in terms of androgyny… I think it freed up a lot of women, not to have to worry about being ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’.”
Damn right. But today, it can be hard to remember just how controversial her look and sound was in 1975. So says Viv Albertine, whose band the Slits took inspiration from Smith’s unapologetic attitude and frank sexuality. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a girl who looked how I felt inside – half boy, half girl .... Back then, if you were a woman you had to be quiet, and never say you enjoy sex, or make noises like she did. [Horses] absolutely and completely changed my life.”
Albertine recalls how her punk friends – the male friends at least – dismissed Smith as “an old hippy”. But for the women, she was galvanising. “Us girls never stood in front of a mirror posing as if we had a guitar because we had no role models. So, when Patti Smith came along, it was huge. She was groundbreakingly different.”
Not, Albertine insists, that the Slits copied Smith’s style or sound directly. “She released in me the feeling that I can be whoever I am. She was such an individual that to be influenced by her meant you had to be yourself.”
This is borne out in the variety of acts that cite her as inspiration: the Smiths, PJ Harvey, REM, Martha Wainwright, James, Hole, U2, even Madonna. “It’s a pretty strange record, for all the bands that have claimed lineage with it – not a lot of the bands sound like us,” muses Kaye. “What they get is the pure inspiration and possibility that the album represents.”
And it’s fair to say that Smith and her band were responding to a wide range of influences themselves. While Smith may have been dubbed the “godmother of punk”, there’s little of punk’s destructive bent; incorporating extracts from 1963 rock ‘n’ roll number “Land of a Thousand Dances” and a version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, Horses has at least one hoof in the past. “What we hoped to achieve was a reinvigoration of the music that had given us a sense of who we might be,” explains Kaye. “We’re as much of a Sixties band as anything – the long-form improvisation of the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd were in us, and the Rolling Stones. We weren’t like the punk generation that felt they had to erase the past; we felt very much like missionaries.”
Did they have any inkling that this record was going to be significant? “Really, we were very young,” laughs Kaye. “I listen to Horses now and I feel like we were young colts champing at the bit.” 40 years later, they may have lost that youthful energy, but this fan at least is very glad that Horses will ride again.
Patti Smith plays Field Day, Manchester Apollo and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 7-9 June
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