Listening to Patti Smith’s Horses is like going on a tour of New York’s post-war music monuments. The album’s songs take the listener on a journey from Gerde’s Folk City, with its beat poets and bongos, to the jazz innovators of the Village Vanguard to Andy Warhol’s Velvet Undergound-era Factory and, finally, to Hilly Kristal’s CBGB club, the cradle of America’s punk movement. PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and Karen O spring to mind as just a few of the go-against-the-grain performers quick to acknowledge their debt to Smith’s groundbreaking work.
Horses presents such a mixed bag of styles that each one would fit a different film. “Gloria”would pair well with Travis Bickle’s mental breakdown in Taxi Driver. The multifaceted “Land” could be used in a Gus Van Sant film about the death of a transgender teenager and its aftermath in a small town. Even the cheery-sounding reggae of “Redondo Beach” is used by Smith to relay a lesbian suicide story worthy of director Todd Solondz.
In spite of the “Godmother of Punk” mantle some drape around Patti Smith, when she released her debut, Horses, in 1975, few critics called it a punk album. Even today, such a label would be a misnomer for what amounts to a collection of art poems set to a variety of musical genres. That said, there’s no denying the manic energy and iconoclastic style that starts with Robert Mapplethorpe’s striking cover photo and can be felt on nearly every track. It’s also undoubtedly an album for misfits. Smith told NPR in a 2004 interview that she set out “to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different… I wasn’t targeting the whole world. I wasn’t trying to make a hit record.”
Smith’s explanation isn’t a bad summary of the punk ethos, but it also conveys the bohemian worldview she learned firsthand from mentors like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan. And Horses’ diversity and originality make it difficult to pigeonhole. Just try to name another punk effort from the era that contains two nine-minute epics. Taking such risks also made Smith a target for parodies like Gilda Radner’s Candy Slice character on “Saturday Night Live.” While some of the songs’ lyrics (see “Birdland” and “Land”) can seem a bit pretentious when taken out of context, Smith deserves props for possessing the ballsit took for a woman in the mid-70s to tell the money men and well-meaning advisors to piss off.
Of course, when Smith chose former Velvet Underground member John Cale to produce Horses, she probably hadn’t considered what it would be like to work with an artist whose opinions were as strong as her own. The battle of egos proved epic. Now, years after burying the hatchet, Cale and Smith both agree some the album’s compelling energy resulted from their struggle. Major credit should also go to Smith’s stellar backing band. Lenny Kaye’s tasteful guitar work, Jay Dee Daugherty’s punchy kick drum, Ivan Krall’s subtle bass lines, and Richard Sohl’s elegant keyboard passages give the set a sweet accessibility that counterbalances Smith’s oft-acidic stance.
The original Arista Records pressing of Horses was mastered at Sterling Sound by Bernie Kirsh and Bob Ludwig; the lacquers are signed by the latter. And the disc has all the hallmarks of a classic Ludwig cut. It opens big, and the bottom end feels compellingly present without detracting from upper-frequency information. The 2006 Speakers Corner reissue was remastered by Ray Staff at Alchemy Studios. SPL readings indicate Staff’s version plays between one and two dBs quieter than the original.
After matching the volume levels, Staff’s remaster sounds somewhat less grainy but more restrained and slightly less three-dimensional when compared to Ludwig’s vivid version. Detail-oriented customers may also notice Speakers Corner’s cover photo looks slightly washed out when placed directly next to the more saturated monochromatic variations of the 1975 original. While I prefer the original pressing’s sonics, finding a near-mint copy with a decent cover costs well in excess of $50. Because the remaster is considerably less expensive and free of the occasional wow and flutter on the original, the Speakers Corner LP makes for an easy recommendation.
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