It’s hard to think of another song so instantly recognisable as the 1963 hit ‘Be My Baby’. The first song that The Ronettes recorded with Phil Spector, the track has come to exemplify the producer’s ‘Wall Of Sound’ technique which saw Spector feed the audio from his live room into echo chambers and then back to the control desk, resulting in a blisteringly intense layering of instruments and textures. Here, Patti Smith Group manage to evoke the impressive scale of that legendary recording in the classic rock band set up.
Following the release of ‘Hey Joe’ and the memorably titled ‘Piss Factory,’ Patti Smith Group became one of the first bands from the New York’s downtown new wave scene to land a major record deal after Clive Davis signed them to Arista in 1975. Patti Smith’s Horses was released in the December of that year and blended her beat poet-inspired lyrics with the minimalistic aesthetics of CBGBs-era punk groups.
Although Horses was released as a solo record, by the time 1976’s Radio Ethiopia was unveiled, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Richard Sohl, Ivan Král, and Jay Dee Daugherty had decided to release their material as a five-piece, so the album was attributed to Patti Smith Group. After four albums and one career-halting neck injury, the group disbanded, leaving Smith to raise a family with her new husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith – founder of The MC5.
In their short career, Patti Smith Group earned a reputation as one of the most stimulating live acts on the burgeoning punk circuit. This cover of ‘Be My Baby’ sees them at their peak. They hold nothing back in smashing into the R&B classic with everything they can muster. As Daugherty pounds that immortal opening beat, Smith offers up her soaring vocals, singing the lines: “The night we met I knew I needed you so / And if I had the chance I’d never let you go” with the same shimmering vibrato that makes Ronnie Spector’s lead vocal so mesmerising.
One of the glorious things about ‘Be My Baby’ is that it’s so simple. Written by husband and wife Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the song is written from the perspective of a girl trying to convince the man she adores to give her just one chance to prove her affection. She tells him that she’s loved him since the day they met and tries to persuade him that they are perfect for one another. The lack of metaphor and imagery in her argument gives ‘Be My Baby’ a sense of directness perfectly suited to the punk aesthetics of Patti Smith Group. There’s no Dylanesque introspection here; nor is there the mythological imagery of Leonard Cohen. ‘Be My Baby’ succeeds without the need for any of the linguistic bells and whistles that characterised the countercultural ballads of the hippie generation.
Make sure you check out Patti Smith Group’s cover of this era-defining track below.