Repackaged reactivated classic punk
Although hailed as the first punk rock album – Horses was originally released in 1975 – Patti Smith’s debut has little in common, musically, with the Sex Pistols or even with New York contemporaries like Television. Richard Sohl’s icy piano intro to her appropriation – you could hardly describe it as a cover – of Van Morrison’s garage soul classic Gloria, which opens the album, and Patti’s slow drawling announcement Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, is still as alien and disturbing three decades on as it was upon first release. Although the Ramones debut wrote the musical blueprint for punk, Horses added something more complicated and indefinable to the mix.
Thanks to Patti, a generation grew up pretending to be beatniks, romantic junkies, androgynous New York street visionaries and opium deranged 19th century French decadent poets. She made pretentiousness hip.
This legacy edition includes a remastered version of the album – a definite sonic improvement over previous CD reissues which all had a slightly tinny quality – as well as her incendiary cover of My Generation, originally released on the b-side of Gloria.
The bonus disc is a live recording of Horses as performed by Patti with original band members Jay Dee Daugherty and Lenny Kaye along with Tom Verlaine (who played guitar on Elegie on the original) caught at the Meltdown Festival earlier this year.
The live disc, like all bonus discs on every repackaging ever, is utterly disposable. It isn’t bad, it’s just a bit too much of a Guardian colour magaxzine thing, an empty exercise in nostalgia. It’s the original that you need, that still sounds like a revolution, that still says not to look back. While a lot of classic punk has aged badly, Horses still sounds timeless. Perhaps that has something to do with her enduring influence on everyone from Marilyn Manson to PJ Harvey. But perhaps it is because nobody – not even Patti Smith herself – ever really followed up on some of the ideas suggested by this album. The white hot improvisations, the torrent of words and poetry, was closer to some derranged free jazz experiment than the post-Velvet Underground milleu in which she found herself cast. Follow up Radio Ethiopia was an unsuccessful attempt at making a punk album while successors Easter and Wave were fairly mainstream – albeit excellent – rock albums.
Horses remains a glimpse into a wasteland populated by dead rock stars and other wreckages of humanity. It is her great American novel and has never been bettered.