When Patti Smith arrived in the world of music, she may well have hauled the steam train onto different tracks, but for a while, the architect of this shift went unheralded. “I was young,” she once told Mojo Magazine, “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.”
However, that great seismic shift was subtle in its uptake, as most things ahead of their time prove to be. Her debut record Horses peaked at 47 in the US and the follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, saw Patti and her band slip towards sophomoric obscurity, reaching a disappointing peak of 122. She was evidently in need of a hit.
Two years on from Radio Ethiopia came Easter, a record that would see her break into the mainstream. Easter peaked at 20, and this glimmer of commercial success was in no small part down to the hit ‘Because the Night’, and it was a hit that was fated through a fair chunk of happenstance.
In 1978, Bruce Springsteen was busy recording his album Darkness in the Edge of Town. Patti Smith just so happened to be recording in the studio next door. Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen had written a track called ‘Because the Night’ but he had no place for it on his record.
“Bruce was writing this song while I was recording Easter,” Smith told The New Yorker, “And he was having difficulty with the lyrics, very unlike Bruce, as he was. He had a great chorus and a very anthemic piece of music in my key and he gave it to me. At the time I had met my future husband Fred [Smith]. And I was waiting [for a long-distance call] which cost a lot of money, so we only got to talk to each other once a week. […] So, one night I was waiting for him to call and Bruce had given me this music and I had sort of neglected it.” Smith goes on to explain that she was sat by the phone waiting for Fred to call and she jokes that she “was all dressed up for this phone call” and she waited and waited for him to call.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I picked up this cassette with Bruce’s music and I wrote some lyrics to occupy my time. Fred ended up calling me about midnight and by then I had written the lyrics to my most successful song. And that’s why in this song it has the words, ‘Have I doubt when I’m alone / Love is a ring, the telephone’ because I was waiting for a phone call from Fred.”
‘Because the Night’ was Patti Smith’s equivalent of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. It pushed her into new territory but retained the visceral artistic edge that made her an influential talent in the music industry in the first place.
Patti Smith has always been about what happens next in an ever-evolving career, and it would seem that a phone call lingering for a while in the ether of possibilities transmuted her punk attitude into a piece of pop perfection and changed the course of her career once more.
Below, you can check out both Patti Smith’s and Bruce Springsteen’s counterpoint version of the song.