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Horses. Great or Greatest?

Jason argues that Patti Smith's Horses is simply the greatest debut LP of all times

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by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
Lines stick into you like shards of glass...

Horses - Patti Smith
(Arista Records)
(1975)

Robert Mapplethorpe's arresting black and white photograph of Patti Smith on the front cover of 'Horses' is an indication of the uncompromising and groundbreaking music inside.  A revolution is about to unfold and Patti is standing there, self-assured and a little nonchalant. She seems to be saying "Take it or leave it."

The starkness of the image makes clear that we're not about to hear a bunch of soppy love songs by a delicate flower. We may instead be exposed to ideas and opinions, it may get loud and it's probably going to confront some perceptions of what a singer can and cannot say. 

Over a solemn piano solo, the album starts with one of greatest opening lines (to my mind - the greatest), in rock music:

'Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine'.  

It's a defiant drawl. A statement of intent, and this is delivered before  she turns the soulful yearn of  'Gloria' (originally by Van Morrison's sixties band, Them) inside out so that it's unrecognizable from the original, and it's such frantic and lustful reincarnation. She throws in her own stream of consciousness poetry and yelps the 'I'm gonna make her mine.' over and again whilst Lenny Kaye's choppy guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty's drums race behind her. John Cale's unfussy production just adds to the ferocity. 

It's almost a relief that the melodic reggae of 'Redondo Beach' follows next.  But beyond the joyful groove is a dark contemplation of guilt. What if you'd had an argument with a loved one and they'd subsequently gone off and drowned in the sea, only for their body to be later washed up on a beach? The juxtaposition between the innocent tune and Smith's agonised lyrics is poignant and over powering. 

Like much of the album, the nine minute long 'Birdland' moves into territory that most rock music would shy away from.  Inspired by Peter Reich's Book of Dreams (where the authors dead father appears to him in a vision), it's a tale of bereavement. But in this story the grieving son moves from a vivid funeral scene to a surreal and disturbing story as the boy  realizes that his father is an alien and he then witnesses his body being  torn apart by birds. It's a breathless and captivating tale. 

Each track is a gem in it's own right, but it's the lengthy closer 'Land' that defines the record.  This is where 'the boy looked at Johnny', then come the 'horses, horses, horses...' (probably a heroin reference) and the whirlwind begins. What follows mixes rock 'n' references (the mashed potato, do the watusi etc.), a diversion into 'The Land of a Thousand Dances', the returning riff of 'Gloria'.  Lines stick into you like shards of glass ('life is full of pain,  I'm cruisin' through my brain'),  it's a hallucinatory journey that ends in suicide. It's a brave and bewildering song that offers up something new every time I hear it. 

A few days ago, as I was thinking about writing this piece, I came across the famous picture of Chrissie Hynde, Polly Styrene, Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine and Pauline Black taken in 1980. I hadn't seen the picture in a long time but it suddenly struck me that, in the five years since the release of 'Horses', the musical landscape had utterly changed.  

The six women in the picture were making music and expressing views that would have affronted people a decade before. And I felt that Patti Smith may have given them a guiding light and sense of liberation that they did. And it still does. 'Horses' is the greatest debut album that I know of.

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Jason Lewis
UK Music Editor

Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.

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