Revolutions: Patti Smith's "Horses"

Revolutions explores some of the records that have altered and influenced the music world.

The Rock Hall and Klipsch Audio take fans deep inside these albums to showcase their significance and impact. In this episode, we take a look at Patti Smith's 1975 cult favorite Horses

In 1974 New York City’s underground was bubbling with a new scene. Punk rock echoed out of lower Manhattan from clubs like CBGB. Here you could experience the rush of unapologetic rock that took no prisoners. Here, Patti Smith was a fixture.   

Smith and her bandmates Lenny Kaye, Richard Sohl, Ivan Kral and Jay Dee Daughtery held a two-month stint performing at CBGB. After only a year of playing together, the Patti Smith Group were signed by industry legend Clive Davis. They set out to record their first album, Horses, at New York’s Electric Lady Studios.

In the studio the group refused to let go of the wild, gritty elements that made their reputation. Smith's stream-of-consciousness delivery was halfway between an earnest slam poet and a primal punk singer.

Horses was a new strain of rock 'n' roll predicated on bold statements and sounds—including sandpaper-rough proto-punk guitars, dramatic tempo shifts and a vast dynamic range.

The recording experience could be tense. At times, Smith clashed with producer John Cale.

That friction, however, led directly to Smith recording one of Horses' most striking songs, "Birdland."

Inspired by Peter Reich’s Book of Dreams, the nine-minute opus was a wrenching rumination on the death of a parent. Smith's grief-stricken singing was met with scraping guitar corkscrews and a bristling piano.

Loss is also the theme of "Elegie," a song honoring Jimi Hendrix. The band deliberately recorded “Elegie” on the fifth anniversary of the guitarist's death. In it, skeletal piano shivers merged with wispy guitars and Smith's wails.

Yet amid the loss, Horses was more celebratory than sad—and emerged as a way for Smith to reclaim and embrace sorrow. Horses emerged as a provocative study in lyrical contrasts.

Smith's sentiment is felt on the tender "Kimberly," a song about her youngest sister, and the surreal and twisted imagery on the sprawling "Land” brings forth the poetic voice Smith favors in her lyrics.

The snarled garage-punk stomp "Gloria" starts with Smith’s intonation, "Jesus died for somebody's sins/But not mine," before exploding like a blistering supernova.

Smith sounded disinterested in emulating anyone—much less embracing anything that would make her resemble a typical woman in a rock 'n' roll band.

That freedom from stereotypes was also evident on the LP cover, which featured a black-and-white photo of a rumpled-looking Smith wearing a loose-fitting men's dress shirt, a suit jacket casually draped over her shoulder.

The album peaked outside the top 40 of the Billboard albums chart, but Horses had a sizable impact on the future alternative music boom, with members of the alt-rock nation hailing it as a life-altering album. 

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