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(Credit: Stephen L Harlow)

Music

How Patti Smith's 'Horses' saved rock music

Punk changed the world quicker than any art movement since a rather pretentious neanderthal excused themselves from the hunt and scribbled a Wildebeest on the cave wall and inform their fellows that it was an important new thing called art. As the far end of prog rock began to shackle guitar music with a stilted notion of overproduction, phoney ayahuasca epiphanies, tasteless cheese-cloth shirts and generally unexciting and unrelatable ideals for the disenfranchised youth, punk came along and said, ‘we’ve got something to say and we’re going to scream it’. 

Horses – Patti Smith (Credit: Arista)

In an instant, the idea that to be in a rock band you had to be a virtuoso seemed remarkably old-hat and a revolution was underway. But that revolution was spun out in such a manic maelstrom that it was fated to hit the skids and end in a blaze. It was albums like Horses that transcended the inevitable demise and ensured that the message of having something to say was more important than having the means to say it, was sustained. Now, thanks to Patti Smith and her artistic wherewithal, the ethos of punk lives on and rock in all of its many guises remains a vehicle for social change, free from the clutches of autocracy, where any kid can make it and deliver a message therein. 

Punk, by definition, can’t be pinned on a single person; it crawled from the plashy depths that rock ‘n’ roll landed in after the prelapsarian slip of the 1960s and snarled up like a straggly dirge to that loss of innocence. It came clad in drainpipe trousers and copious leather, and it needed a grand nurturing hand. Patti Smith was that nurturing hand. And Patti Smith is nothing if not grandiose. The opening stanza to her memoir concludes, “men cannot judge it, for art sings of God and ultimately belongs to him,” and the first lyric she ever put forward to the world in the opening rap to her 1975 debut album, Horses, was “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

That opening line was inspired by Albert Camus, the renowned existentialist. There is a message in that very influence itself — Smith had a keen eye on the importance of punk. It was a strange movement in that it was determined not to take itself seriously, but within that was its vital importance. With existentialism in the mix, Smith grasped the core of punk before others had even processed it and yielded it as a weapon to take down the status quo. She recognised the profound message of the movement and loaded it with, well, profundity. 

As she told Mojo Magazine, “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.” This was the mothering that punk needed, and it was Patti’s proliferation of poignancy that catapulted it from cult skylarking to a vital creative voice.

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This was the sort of creative revolution that William S. Burroughs had in mind when he wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”And as it happens Smith met the literary hero in 1979 and he asked her what punk was all about. “There isn’t anything to know. The seventies basically were a period where different people were trying to take a throne, you see? The only people that were interesting at all,” she began.

Adding: “I think what it was, was a hunger that we didn’t know that a lot of us had. We all felt loneliness as a hunger for something to happen. As we thought we were lonely, a group like Television thinks they’re alone. The boys that later became the Sex Pistols thought they were alone. All of us people that should have been perpetuating, or helping to build on, the sixties, we were dormant. And we thought we were alone.”

Smith proved vital in this sense of unifying youth too. In the most obvious way, she was a woman in a world where there were very few. If punk was going to be subtly about social change, then having a woman at the forefront was a bold message. What’s more, with Horses femineity runs throughout, not so much as a celebration of womanhood, but in a vital acknowledgement of individuality. This message still soars on the record even today, in part, reflecting the need for further social change and inclusivity, but also because Smith propagates it so boldly and brilliantly.

The youth felt disenfranchised, and suddenly they were willing to forgo things in their own fashion. “Our credo was, “Wake up!” I’ve said this before, but just to tell you, in case you haven’t read or anything: I wanted to be like Paul Revere,” Smith mused.

“That was my whole thing I wanted to be like Paul Revere. I didn’t want to be a giant big hero, I didn’t want to die for the cause. I didn’t want to be a martyr. All that I wanted was for the people to fuckin’ wake up. That’s all I wanted them to do, and I feel that that’s what happened,” she said. 

Under the recommendation of New York’s foremost guitar forebearer, Lou Reed, little Patti Revere was given a chance to ride through the night and deliver her fateful message. Smith, Lenny Kaye, Ivan Krahl, Richard Sohl and Jay Dee Daugherty then entered the studio with Lou Reed’s former Velvet Underground bandmate, John Cale, on production. On November 10th, 1975, their course of the cultural history-changing debut, Horses, seized the tailwind of rock and spun it off in an amorphous new storm. 

Horses inspired everyone from Nick Cave and his Bad Seed’s bandmates to R.E.M. and all-girl groups like Hole. The record created a space for rumination within the riotous milieu of punk without losing any of its cutthroat visceral edge that seethed out from youth’s ungrateful tongue and it is this has proved an abiding influence forevermore.

In short, punk made guitars fun again. As fellow seminal seventies rocker Richard Hell explains in his brilliant book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, “What other intelligent way to live is there but to laugh about it? The alternative, also respectable, is suicide. But how could you do that? Not only would it betray a woeful lack of humour, but it would keep you from finding out what was going to happen next.” The Godmother of Punk has always been about what happens next in an ever-evolving career, and it is with this finger to the pulse attitude and passion for self-expression that Patti Smith saved rock ‘n’ roll.