Patti Smith – Horses – 1975

1974 was a pretty good year for music: Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads were all forged in the bright white heat of prototype punk. This extraordinary juncture also saw Patti Smith, the darling of New York’s underground club scene, put together the Patti Smith Group: an ensemble of musicians who, a year later, would go on to record one of the most celebrated albums of all time.

‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’

So begins Horses. 

The most immediate thing about Horses is the arresting portrait of Smith on the cover (famously shot by her partner in crime, Robert Mapplethorpe); the insolence and androgyny of the striking young face that meets your gaze so steadily. Then, dropping the needle, it’s her voice: she doesn’t sing like a girl – she’s not attempting to prettify the way she sounds. Before Patti Smith, there was no precedent for a women to sing like this in the world of rock and pop. ‘Us girls never stood in front of a mirror posing as if we had a guitar because we had no role models,’ said Viv Albertine of The Slits. ‘So, when Patti Smith came along, it was huge. She was groundbreakingly different.’

For me, the most remarkable moments of Horses are the hypnotic ‘Kimberly‘ (which Morrissey and Marr apparently reworked to create ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle‘)…

‘The palm trees fall into the sea
It doesn’t matter much to me
as long as you’re safe, Kimberly
And I can gaze deep
into your starry eyes, baby’

…and the enthralling dance of flick knives and rush of horses’ hooves that is ‘Land‘ (interpreted so thrillingly in Michael Clark’s latest work ‘to a simple rock ‘n’ roll…song‘)…

‘In the sheets
there was a man
dancing around
to the simple
Rock ‘n’ roll
song’

The self-confessed simple rock ‘n’ roll song structures and freeform lyrics occasionally give the impression of spontaneous outbursts, almost like fragments of sublime improvisation that just happen to have been captured on tape. Of course, that’s one of the most remarkable possible feats of craft – to create something immaculate that appears effortless; to retain the power of a sketch.

Four decades have passed since Patti Smith recorded Horses, yet it remains one of the most pertinent albums for this day and the next: a vicious, tender, incantatory record; a spell, cast to music.