Friday, December 5, 2008

Horses: Patti Smith

In 1975, there was an album released with a chick on the cover. A compellingly strange chick. Feminine and androgynous both – unkempt hair, just above shoulder length, dressed in a man’s shirt and pant (or maybe they were her own), complete with suspenders and a coat slung over her shoulder. From the cover, it looked like she was staring someone down. She looked like she could kick your ass. She was also mysteriously sexy, and buyers then must have wondered what possible sounds were inside.

It turned out she could sing a bit, write a bit too. More than anything else, Patti Smith was a template, an image future generations could mould themselves into. It became ok to write dense, difficult poetry, set it to choppy rock rhythms, and sing in a hoarse voice. Most importantly, she proved that you could be a woman and do all that. Horses was one of those fortunate landmarks which were recognised upon their release as something new, and unique, and revolutionary. A lot has been written about how this was a proto-punk album. True and reductive at the same time, this is proto-punk in the same way the Velvets were proto-punk. Not much is there by way of beauty, the guitars and loud and fuzzy, everything seems to churn and grind. But like the Velvets on their apocalyptic first album, Smith grasp over rock ‘n roll dynamics was sure. Remember 'There she goes again’ with its strummed acoustic solo which suddenly becomes twice the song speed? Smith does similar things here – moreover, it is her voice which literally drives her raw but sympathetic band over these cliffs. See how ‘Free Money’ builds, starting out with slow piano, picking up pace and then, out of nowhere, suddenly exploding. But nowhere on this album do you hear the yammering anger of punk – in its place there is pain and dislocation, revenge and lust, explosion and orgasm, violation and eclipse.

It is interesting how Smith re-works old rock ‘n roll classics on this album – songs that had the spirit or the sonic template of punk, years before the movement got its name. She takes Van Morrison’s garage anthem of lust ‘Gloria’ and makes it even creepier and tougher than the original. The creepiness on display here though doesn’t even come close to the Land trilogy, a truly unhinged medley of the locker room rape of a boy called Johnny, Chris Kenner’s ‘Land of a thousand dances’, and three separate Patti Smith vocal tracks talking and singing us through what appears to be a suicide. And there’s a great bonus for anyone buying the re-issued version of the album – the Who’s ‘My generation’, with John Cale (producer on Horses) on bass. It’s a live version, with all the sonic clarity of a cat stuck inside an empty metal dustbin, and all the excitement too. Smith stretches her vocal chords unlike anything on the studio album, the band plays like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and hundreds of punk bands would in a few years. Cale plays the most violently distorted fuzz bass ever, you can barely hear the other guitar over it. It makes one long for the unpredictability of those times, or failing that, that brief period in the early nineties before the candle flickered out altogether.


Miss P said...

can u pls put the my genertaion cover on 'five', if there ever is a 'five'? its not there on the album i have. unhappy it makes me.

a fan apart said...

'five' is complete and cannot be amended. would have to go on a 'six'