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Horses
Patti Smith

Arista 4066
Released: December 1975
Chart Peak: #47
Weeks Charted: 17

Patti SmithIf critics are having nightmares these days, one of the worst of them will undoubtedly be about not liking Horses, Patti Smith's ubiquitous debut album. Without missing a beat, the nation's linotypers seem to have shifted from Springsteen to Smith, and there is no escaping this strange New Jersey Nightingale. Sneakers are out, Rimbaud is in, and I feel so poeticized I could die. However, after listening to the record a dozen times, not only do not like Horses, I never want to hear it again -- these days a difficult admission to make.

Poet Patti Smith loved rock-and-roll long before she decided to become a rock-and-roll singer. And once the decision was made, I suspect, she accepted it as already accomplished fact, rushing through her first album as if some kind of transition or training period were unnecessary. She can talk all she wants to about Mick, Keith, and Brian, but Horses sounds less like a Rolling Stones record than a poetry reading at the local "Y." She may look, she may even think, rock-and-roll, but more often than not her carefully precise recitations lack the craziness of the real pandemonium she is striving for. Right now, it's all too serious, not enough fun.

Patti Smith - Horses
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Try as I might, I simply cannot warm to the music and poetry of Horses. I respect the effort behind it, but how much can you respect a record you wouldn't dream of playing for pleasure? "Patti Smith is nothing if not new" is the line of defense her admirers offer to mockers, but the album sounds to me like a morbid, pretentious rehash of Jim Morrison and Lou Reed, Smith's two major late-Sixties influences. Even "Land," the best song in it, said to be based on a vision of Jimi Hendrix's last hours, metamorphoses from the Velvet Underground into the Doors for one of its neatest tricks. "Free Money," another of the better cuts, cleverly weds love to money, making all the double entendres triple, but musically it is again derivative of the late, lamented Underground.

But the Velvets could play, and they didn't sound as if they were recorded in a separate room down the hall from the singer. On most of Horses, Smith's voice is placed so far front that she sounds strident and affected even when she isn't. Thus isolated, anyone's singing is likely to appear spoiled, precious, arrogant without reason; Patti's does.

Poetry, I suppose, is the part which defies translation. Patti Smith is a good poet, but even the best of her work seems -- I've struggled hard to characterize it -- pointlessly pregnant. Horses is too pregnant to be taken seriously, yet it is surely not funny nor meant to be. It is pregnant past the point of aesthetic return, so heavy at times that it cannot make the simplest movement with grace. And when those huge coils of self-important surrealism unwind aggressively toward me, I find it urgent to look for a way out of this place.

In the early Sixties, I had a friend on Philosopher's Row; he used to play all his "serious" records in a dark room lighted only by black and purple light bulbs and iridescent art. Incense burned. Nonsense reigned. He would have loved Horses.

- Paul Nelson, Stereo Review, 4/76.

Bonus Reviews!

Near legendary New York poetess and songstress comes up with an almost free-form rock set that is much much better than one might have expected. Produced by John Cale, the set comes closest to catching the urgency and sheer energy of the early Velvet Underground since the emergence of that group. Smith's interesting and totally unique talk/sing song makes this set the most accessible LP of its type yet for those who do not feel at home with this type of material, and there are guest stints from Tom Verlaine and Allen Lanier. Frantic and frenetic instrumentation behind Smith's vocals also work well. A truly powerful effort that offers the listener something new for a change. Best cuts: "Gloria" (the old Them hit), "Free Money," "Kimberly," "Land," "Elegie."

- Billboard, 1975.

I don't feel much intelligent sympathy for Smith's apocalyptic romanticism. Her ideas are as irrelevant to any social apocalypse I can envision as they are to my present as a well-adjusted, well-rewarded media professional. But Smith (in this manifestation) is a musician, not a philosopher. Music is different. The fact that I'm fairly obsessive about rock and roll indicates that on some sub-intellectual level I need a little apocalypse, just to keep my superego honest. That, of course, is exactly what she's trying to tell us. However questionable her apprehension of the surreal, the way she connects it with the youth cult/rock and roll nexus is revelation enough for now. This record loses her humor, but it gets the minimalist fury of her band and the revolutionary dimension of her singing just fine, and I haven't turned off any of the long arty cuts yet. A

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The poet, critic and songwriter Patti Smith won critical acclaim for her debut collection of music and verse. It is a set unlike any other well-known rock album, consisting of recitations with musical backing breaking into powerful rock. For example, the poem "In Excelsis Deo" moves into a thrashing cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria." A line from this piece became the title of Tony Parsons' book The Boy Looked At Johnny.

If the votes of our panel are correct, Horses represents the Best Recorded Work by Rock Critics. Not only did Smith herself publish early in her career but guitarist Lenny Kaye was an established rock journalist.

The group had its greatest success later with a straightforward song, Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night," but Horses remains the best example of the full range of its work.

In 1987, Horses was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #87 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

It isn't hard to make the case for Patti Smith as a punk rock progenitor based on her debut album, which anticipated the new wave by a year or so. The simple, crudely played rock & roll, featuring Lenny Kaye's rudimentary guitar work, the anarchic spirit of Smith's vocals, and the emotional and imaginative nature of her lyrics all prefigure the coming movement as it evolved on both sides of the Atlantic. In that sense, Horses was an influential record. But in another sense, it was sui generis, and that's what makes it still a singularly important album in rock in general. As heard here, Smith is a rock critic's dream: a poet as steeped in '60s garage rock as she is in French Symbolism, capable of declaiming, "Go, Rimbaud, and go, Johnny, go!" The literal meanings of the songs are more obscure than they seemed to be in 1975; can anyone tell by listening to it that the hallucinogenic "Birdland" refers to the experiences of biophysicist Wilhelm Reich's son Peter? Probably the rock references are clearer -- "Land" carries on from the Doors' "The End," marking Smith as a successor to Jim Morrison, while the borrowed choruses of "Gloria" and "Land of 1,000 Dances" are more in tune with the era of sampling than they were in the '70s. In fact, however, in its formal aspects, little of subsequent music has followed on from Horses. Producer John Cale respected Smith's primitivism in a way that later producers did not, realizing that for her rock & roll could serve as a framework in the same way that, as a poet, she might use sonnet form. In that sense, the loose, improvisatory song structures worked with Smith's free verse to create something like a new spoken word/musical art form, especially in "Land," where two separate vocal takes were mixed together, an effect that no one before, with the exception of Marvin Gaye, had realized, and that few have tried since. Horses was a hybrid, the sound of a post-beat poet, as she put it, "dancing around to the simple rock 'n' roll song.

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

One of the more successful matings of poetry and rock, this landmark changed the role of women in rock and paved the way for rock without excess. * * * * *

- Jeff Tamarkin, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Smith's debut album, Horses, is required listening for anyone interested in her music -- or in the evolution of rock music into the genres of punk and grunge. From the album's opening refrain ("Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"), Smith creates an edgy and disconcerting standoff between artistic expression and listener expectations that's troubling even today. Tracks such as "Redondo Beach" and "Free Money" still stand up quite nicely. * * * 1/2

- Christopher Scapelliti, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Patti Smith was acclaimed by a few esteemed critics as being "The core of punk." She had been wholly obsessed with Rimbaud, exhibited as a painter, began her performing career by reading poetry in Saint Mark's Church, NY and was a muse to Robert Mapplethorpe (who took the cover shot of her in a man's suit). But wasn't punk supposed to be dumb? Simplistic? Hence The Ramones, who emerged from exactly the same tiny New York scene. Yet Smith started a scene with a seven-week stint at CBGB's club on The Bowery in 1975 that attracted the bright, the brilliant and the debauched -- and the Warhol crowd. She mixed Rimbaud, Verlaine, Hendrix and Morrison (Jim), met rock critic and guitarist Lenny Kaye and came up with the extraordinary debut album Horses. Listening to Horses is like having sex with someone who chants Rimbaud at every passionate peak. And it is brimming with such peaks. Any album that begins with the words, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" promises all manner of interesting perspectives. Released in December 1975, Smith pre-empted the punk upsurge -- in Britain at least -- and her intellectual sexuality just seemed to crash through all the barriers. Horses has everything. It's punkily streetwise, intellectual yet fashionable. John Cale's vigorous production gave it a raw, timeless edge. Electric music for the mind and body.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

Produced by Velvet Underground veteran John Cale, Horses firmly put Patti Smith in the tradition of the New York underground, but her range was far wider, evoking everything from the smoky ambiance of Billie Holiday to the free-ranging expressiveness of the Beats. For a woman to draw these connections in 1975, and to encapsulate it all in a package that rocked effectively, was truly stunning. Smith's band, meanwhile, was one of the most visionary of the time, combining the raw, energetic street feel of the Velvet Underground with jazz and film music ideas that made full-fledged freak-outs like "Birdland" among the most shocking rock performances of the era and placed the Patti Smith Group firmly in punk's top echelon before either the Ramones or the Sex Pistols came along. Signed to Clive Davis's Arista records in 1975, Smith arrived right at the crossroads, smack dab in the middle of the cultural malaise known as the seventies. If any album made the future happen faster, it was Horses. Two and a half decades later, Smith is still reaping the rewards for her vision, and so are we.

Horses was voted the 28th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Joe S. Harrington, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

From its first defiant line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," the opening shot in a bold reinvention of Van Morrison's garage-rock classic "Gloria," Smith's debut album was a declaration of committed mutiny, a statement of faith in the transfigurative powers of rock & roll. Horses made her the queen of punk. But she cared more for the poetry in rock. In "Free Money," "Redondo Beach" and the incantatory rave-up "Land Medley," she sought the visions and passions that connected Keith Richards and Arthur Rimbaud -- and found them, with the intuitive assistance of a killing band (pianist Richard Sohl, guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty) and her best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who shot the unforgettable cover portrait.

Horses was chosen as the 44th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Horses rewrote the rules for female pop stars and provided a new road map for everyone from Chrissie Hynde and Johnette Napolitano to Courtney Love and Liz Phair. Yet the effect of Patti Smith's debut was not limited to one gender. The vocalist combined the power of the burgeoning NYC punk scene with the adventurous narratives of the San Francisco Beat poets to create a truly unique sound that influenced such artsy acts as the Talking Heads and R.E.M.

Working with producer John Cale, Smith delivered a work so hypnotically raw and achingly personal that its punch has not lessened in 30 years. The album was a completely realized piece of art, starting with the exquisitely honest cover portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe. Horses begins with a total overhaul of Van Morrison's "Gloria" as the singer delivers one of the greatest opening lines in the history of rock -- "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" -- and then rides a bouncy merry-go-round of sounds on "Redondo Beach." Smith would begin her career-long exploration of long-form compositions with dramatic results on the nine-minute epics "Birdland" and "Land." Lenny Kaye's urgent guitar work played a big hand in shaping such tracks as "Break It Up." Yet, it was Smith's singular delivery, a combination of Burroughs spoken-word and Lou Reed snarl, that separated "Free Money" and "Kimberly" from everything that had come before -- or, really, after.

Horses was championed by critics and became a moderate commercial hit, peaking at No. 47 on the Billboard charts. More significantly, it established Smith as rock's premier punk poet, a title she has yet to lose.

- Jim Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Patti Smith once described her artistic enterprise as "three-chord rock merged with the power of word." She didn't mean just any old words. From the very first line of this endlessly praised debut -- "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" -- Smith uses incendiary poetry as her guitar substitute, her rage-maker. She howls. She brays. She hurls language in sprays of outrage, mocking piety one minute and making solemn prayerful incantations the next. A romantic with deep appreciation for life's beauty, Smith is also a rebel in the great rock tradition, and an artist as bent on cultural confrontation as the Beat poets were. This confluence of perspectives -- worlds not so peacefully coexisting -- is at the heart of her debut album, Horses




Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review: Patti Smith
Group: Easter

Article: "A Highly Selective
Basic Library of Punk Rock"

Seventies' Greatest
Album Covers: Horses

Article: 'What I've Learned'
by Patti Smith /
Book Review: M Train

Patti Smith Lyrics

Patti Smith Videos

Patti Smith Mugshots

Horses is an unusual beast, a series of manifestos and vignettes with wild torrents of words flung against the music at odd angles. Tilting headfirst at complacency, Smith spins several images at once, while riding three chords as far away from party-time escapism as anyone's ever gone. She's so good at reanimating rock that when she seizes an old warhorse -- the Wilson Pickett hit "Land of a Thousand Dances" -- as part of her triptych "Land," it comes out all disfigured, with an almost nuclear glow.

Smith grew up in rural New Jersey and, after dropping out of college and working factory jobs, fled to Manhattan in 1967. She became romantically linked with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who encouraged her to perform and later bankrolled her early recording sesions. In 1975, Smith headlined a two-month residency at CBGB; she was discovered by Clive Davis and signed to Arista Records.

This album, produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale, was released in December 1975, and immediately hailed by critics as a major work. It established Smith as a galvanizing force, if not the most important woman in rock. The rare punk neoclassicist, she acknowledged the titans of classic rock (notably Bob Dylan and Van Morrison) while distancing herself from rock cliché. Her subsequent works, notably the big-beat-bold Easter and the poignant grief cycle Gone Again, bolster that initial impression -- even if, ironically, her legacy now extends to the fiercely independent riot grrls who were direct descendents and the even poppier Avril Lavignes of the world, who came later.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

(30th Anniversary Edition) Patti Smith's 1975 debut album is one of the most important, continually inspiring records ever made: a call for a new heaven on Earth in a revolutionary language of poetry, gunfire guitars and rock & roll jukebox classicism. Thirty years later, Horses is reissued with twice the title and force, twinned with a disc of Smith and her current band (with guest guitar by Television's Tom Verlaine) playing the whole of Horses live in London this year. It is no mere replay. This time around, Smith's voice is deep and ragged, scarred less by age than by infuriated disappointment. The original runaway ecstasy of "Free Money" is now pure wartime, a raging defense of outlaw morality in a new century of unchecked greed. In "Land," Smith's epic ode to the power of dreams, the way to ascension still runs through "Land of a Thousand Dances." It is also littered with "leftover machine guns and tanks... old syringes": the debris of a world miles from wisdom and redemption. "My generation, we had dreams... and we fucking created George Bush," Smith rails in the London white-noise encore of the Who's "My Generation." Then she turns to those next in line: "Rise up! Take the streets, make change, the world is yours!" So are these songs. * * * * *

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 12/1/05.

First Disc: The anarchy-in-the-U.S. 1975 debut that announced the arrival of both Smith and the budding American punk scene. Bonus Disc: A new, in-concert reprise of the album taped this summer. A risky proposition, especially 30 years after the fact, but Smith is still remarkably fierce -- she's a voodoo adult, not child, at this point -- and the album now feels like an incantation. Still the unapologetic old-school boho poet, she sounds more than ever like her hero, Dylan -- even slipping a putdown of BlackBerrys and cell phones into "Land." Overall grade: A-

- David Browne, Entertainment Weekly, 11/18/05.

Insisting that Jesus died for somebody's sins but not hers, Smith treats rock & roll like the only true religion -- with all the agony and ecstasy and "Gloria" hosannas that implies.

Horses was chosen as the 84th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.

- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.

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