TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 April 2012
Along with the debut albums by The Ramones and The Clash, and Television's epic Marquee Moon, Patti Smith's 1975 album Horses is, for me, one of the seminal recordings of the punk/new wave era of the late 1970s. Featuring a mix of semi-spoken, snarling and screaming vocals, and peppered with Smith's poetic lyrics, Horses is my favourite album by this most eccentric and inspired of female artists, despite the obvious qualities of follow-up album Radio Ethiopia, and the smattering of quality songs included on the album Easter.
The album's showcase songs are the extended epics Birdland and Land. The former is a haunting, jazz-inflected and improvised poetic rant by Smith over a backing of beautiful piano playing by band keyboardist Richard Sohl, and culminating in the most melancholic, chanted (and, some would say, out of place) 'do wap' ending ever recorded. Land is quite simply a brilliantly constructed and innovative masterpiece, comprising a spoken, echoing introduction, followed by Smith's outrageous version of Chris Kenner's Land Of A Thousand Dances ('do the Watusi'),gradually morphing into an impassioned Smith diatribe (featuring a dedication to French poet Arthur Rimbaud), and including the now frequently referenced lyric 'the boy looked at Johnny' (Libertines song, Burchill/Parsons book), all with the backing of guitarist Lenny Kaye's Velvets-inspired playing.
For any 'normal' album, two such epics would be sufficient. But, of course, Smith has only just got started. The album's first side (in old vinyl parlance) is bookended by a brilliant cover of Van Morrison's (with Them) song Gloria and the exquisitely melodic Free Money, which features some wonderful piano from Sohl, a song that incidentally was given an early tribute via a 1978 cover on Geordie band Penetration's debut album. Kimberly is another piece of pure musical poetry, dedicated to Smith's then 18-year old sister, the song features another astonishing vocal performance from Smith, and concludes with the magical, repeated vocal refrain, 'as long as I can gaze deep into your starry eyes, baby'. Two of the album's songs are specific dedications - Break It Up, co-written with, and featuring some sterling guitar playing by, Television's Tom Verlaine, was apparently inspired by a dream Smith had which featured Jim Morrison, and Elegie, co-written with Smith's long-time partner, Blue Oyster Cult keyboard player Allen Lanier, is a tribute to one of Smith's all-time musical heroes Jimi Hendrix, and features one of the more conventional, but still heartfelt, Smith vocal performances.
The final song included on the initial vinyl album release is the relatively insubstantial (particularly in comparison with the other weighty compositions here), but catchy, ditty Redondo Beach. Despite its light tone, Redondo Beach tells the tale of a girl's seaside suicide (poetry's quite easy really) - this is a song that has frequently featured in Morrissey's live set list, and you can see why when reading the lyrics. On the CD version of the album, we are treated, as an album closer, to a magnificent live version of The Who's My Generation, on which Smith really 'punkifies' the song (expletive lyrics included). The rendition features a great bass solo interlude from album producer John Cale, and concludes with Smith's appropriate 'cry for action' or maybe punk maxim, 'we created it, let's take it over'.
A fitting conclusion to one of the most important and influential records of the late 20th century.