the first big uk review of horses

[from "Weird Scenes Inside Gasoline Alley," by Charles Shaar Murray, New Musical Express, November 1975]

First albums this good are pretty damn few and far between.

It's better than the first Roxy album, better than the first Beatles and Stones albums, better than Dylan's first album, as good as the Doors and Who and Hendrix and Velvet Underground albums.

It's hard to think of any other rock artist of recent years who arrived in the studios to make their first major recordings with their work developed to such a depth and level of maturity.

Listen. Last April I saw Patti Smith play CBGB in New York, and she knocked me flat on my ass, which was impressive since my preconceptions weren't helping her any. I mean, whenever an act is hyped to me—whether it's on a big scale like Springsteen or even a few friends (either mine or the act's) frothing at the mouth some—my first instinct is to come right back at them with a big 'So what?' or 'Oh, yeah?'

What I mean is, like our American cousins say, I'm from Missouri. You gotta show me.

Believe me, Jim, she showed me.

OK, she's a lady poetess, which is generally not the stuff of which rock heroism is made.

She also ain't too good-looking, if you're judging her by conventional gosh-what-a-cutie-nudge-nudge standards.

Plus she's from New York, which means that she isn't available to be checked out at the grass roots by British audiences, which in turn means that you're going to have to get hip to her through media instead of discovering her for yourself—just the same way that American audiences are going to have to learn about Dr Feelgood via rock press rather than by those happy accidents that we all know and love, etc.

Three strikes down. Foreign, female but not stereotypically attractive, and f 'Chrissakes, a poetess.

Just the stuff to appeal to, let's say, a Mott fan from Bradford. Thing is, it really doesn't work like that. If you add up what Patti Smith appears to be when viewed from a distance, and then go see her or (to get nearer to the point) listen to Horses, the result of a few weeks of madness and desperation in Electric Lady studios with famous Welsh person John Cale riding herd on the operation, the disparities become apparent.

Horses is some kind of definitive essay on the American night as a state of mind, an emergence from the dark undercurrent of American rock that spewed up Jim Morrison, Lou Reed and Dylan's best work.

Like Patti Smith herself, it's strange, askew and flat-out weird. It's neurotic and unhealthy and dank, a message in a bottle sent from some place that you and 1 have only been to in the worst moments of self-doubting defeated psychosis.

It's night-wailing, street corner blues, the midnight flight out of Gasoline Alley, to Desolation Row, a thrashing exorcism of public and private demons.

Horses is what happens when the fuses blow and the light goes out

'Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine ...' Smith's singing voice draws on her received black influences as well as the teenaged school of girl-group vocals.

The playing of her band (Lenny Kaye on guitar, Richard Sohl known as 'DNV', an abbreviation of 'Death in Venice'—on piano, Ivan Kral on bass and latecomer Jay Dee Daugherty on drums) sounds kind of amateurish and off-the-wail at first, as does Smith's singing (she can't quite hit a low note straight on), until you realize that they simply lack the kind of standardized stylized mechanization that we've come to confuse with 'professionalism'.

In this and so many other ways, Patti Smith's album hips you to just what's wrong with a lot of other stuff you've been listening to, tips you off as to who's really doing it and who's just going through the motions.

The first dive into the maelstrom comes with 'Gloria', the old Van Morrison/Them rabbler-rouser beloved of garage bands since time immemorial.

It's done with grinding stickshift guitar played off against teethgrinding methedrine piano, vaguely like the stuff Mike Garson was doing way down in the mix on Aladdin Sane and strategic areas of Pin Ups.

It's a stunning opener, achieving almost the same psychotic/sexual/dervish whirl as some of the Doors' longer, stranger rides.

In general, there's a Doors feel to the keyboards (particularly the organ) and a Velvets edge on the guitars, though this is purely coincidental, as no resemblance is intended to anybody living, dead or intermediate.

'Gloria' is followed up by the album's least impressive track, 'Redondo Beach', which is a New York impression of reggae (I detect the dread hand of Mr Cale in this track, though he doesn't actually perform on any instruments) and features Ms Smith doing a strange kind of JA Dylan vocal. Not the most immediate piece on the album, but kinda charming.

'Birdland', however, is the goods.

Building relentlessly over a slow, obsessive piano with a sawtoothed guitar whining someway in the distance, Smith wails like the proverbial lost soul—and here the shade of Mr Morrison looms inescapably over the proceedings right up until the 'final strands of shredded-wire feedback.

It's chilling as hell, so keep yer woollies on for this one, fear fans.

The first side rides out on a fair piece of decompression with 'Free Money' written for Smith's current old man, Allan Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. It's got a kind of 'Johnny Remember Me' production on the voices and metallic Del Shannon-style rhythm guitar. Choogling to orgasm, you might say.

When you get over to side two, you happen on to 'Kimberly', a song about Patti's sister of the same name and very Velvets about the bass and organ, though the latter instrument also has a fifties/Farfisa/Ray Mangarde vibe to it. It's based on an incident that occurred during a thunderstorm, and sounds it.

'Break It Up', co-written with Tom Verlaine of Television, follows.

Verlaine was Patti's last old man (anyway, he was when I saw the two bands together in April), and he plays guitar on the track, a kind of liquidly malevolent electronic burble. It starts out as slow, almost blues, before the piano switches into that distant nursery echo type of riff that'd go down a treat as the soundtrack to a remake of "The Turn of the Screw."

Next up is the album's unquestioned piece de resistance, 'Land', the piece that completely skulled me out when I saw her do it at CBGB. It's the melange of a mutated 'Land of a Thousand Dances' (Chris Kenner and Fats Domino would probably haveta undergo intensive care if they knew what she's done to their song, ma) and a scorching recitation about a kid getting beat up in a locker-room, blazing into a free-association sexual fight which utilizes the horse as a sexual metaphor in much the same way as Morrison used the snake.

Except that Jimbo was pretty much preoccupied with his own snake, and Smith's sexuality is far more outgoing as she rides the horse and the sea comes in and the sexual spiral of letting go/breaking through inexorably begins again. Like Van Morrison said, it's too late to stop now.

Kaye balances vicious guitar razor-slashes against the relentless bass-heavy rhythm while it builds into a Velvety whirlpool.

The dissociation is dramatized by the over-dub juxtaposition of Patti singing the lyrics on one track and reciting/performing them on another.

It's a falling, possessed performance, fuelled by the kind of energy you run on when there's no energy left, a death-defying kamikaze leap into places you go when you want to either come out different or not come out at all, one step over the line and no direction home. The last cut, 'Elegy', a tribute to Hendrix with Lanier on guitar, is over so fast that by the time you've gotten over 'Land' it's already gone.

Horses is an album in a thousand.

I'm not gonna jive you about how influential it's going to be (in terms of it stimulating dozens of toy Patti Smiths to come crawling out of the woodwork I hope it has no influence at all), but, God knows, it's an important album in terms of what rock can encompass without losing its identity as a musical form, in that it introduces an artist of greater vision than has been seen in rock for far too long.

It may not sell, it may never infiltrate the lives of more than a handful of people, but its existence means that there is some record of the most arrestingly bizarre set of perceptions of the American underlife to be set to music since the decline of Lou Reed and the death of Jim Morrison.

The fact that Patti Smith is a woman may well alienate listeners who are prepared to be receptive to a basically passive female intelligence (like Joni Mitchell), but may find an album of extrovert, ferocious female intelligence (like this one) somewhat unnerving.

Not to mention the fact that people always get weird in the presence of a powerful sexuality expressed by someone who they may not happen to find attractive.

And Patti Smith sure ain't Maria Muldaur (thank you, Lord). However, I'll say it again ... first albums this good are pretty damn few and far between.


Copyright © Charles Shaar Murray 1975

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