Few albums can boast as beguiling and startling a start as Horses; that distant piano and the cold androgynous voice declaring “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” and there we are, barely twenty seconds into the album and with such simple iconoclasm Patti Smith had created one of the most memorable moments in alternative rock.
Not that you get a chance to even register this, as Patti and her band then immediately launch into a frenetic rendition of the garage rock standard ‘Gloria’, a three chord wonder of a song that showcased both the band’s primal scruffy rock and roll stylings and Smith’s uncompromising proto-punk howl.
On the stripped down archaic sound of tracks such as ‘Gloria’, ‘Land’ and ‘Free Money’, it is easy to see why Horses has been frequently held up as one of the key influences behind punk. It is hard to imagine that without the critical acclaim that Horses garnered, other CBGB/ Max’s Kansas City artists such as The Ramones would have been able to break through.
However, as important an influence as Horses undoubtedly was on punk rock, it is the long term importance and influence of the album which is even more impressive. Removed from the dramatic and raw setting of the music, the lyrics that Patti Smith was singing are a uniquely surreal poetry incorporating a patchwork of references both earthy and literary. The lyrics often feel like a sublime mix of Arthur Rimbaud and Jimi Hendrix, visceral beat poetry that took the norms of the rock & roll lexicon and distorted it into what feels like an entirely new form of protest.
On the best moments of Horses, the only lyricist that could be compared to Patti Smith is Bob Dylan in his amphetamine-drenched late 60’s reverie. Songs such as ‘Birdland’ and ‘Kimberly’ contain lyrics that are undisputedly brilliant poems, whose depth contrasts brilliantly with the joyously amateur racket produced by the band. For this reason Horses became a key text for a generation of lyricists who found success in the early eighties as the white hot nihilism of punk burnt out. Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Ian Curtis of Joy Division and Morrissey were all huge fans of the album. ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’, the first song written by Morrissey with Johnny Marr, owes a great deal to the album track ‘Kimberly’ (in fact it’s so similar that it is amazing that it never got them into trouble).
What really sets Horses apart is that it is an album of contrasts. It is masculine and feminine, tender and tough, visceral yet often so serene, it is a maze of contradictions and it should be a mess but instead it is a glorious triumph of art over logic.
You can hear it in the way Smith’s voice careers madly between disconnected drawl and vulnerable howl in ‘Break It Up’. The lyrics switch between perspectives, with little demarcation until her voice finally cracks in the bridge as she sings “I can feel it breaking”, drawing the listener ever deeper into her torment.
However to really understand Horses you have to go to ‘Land’, the album’s multi-segmented and idiosyncratically contrary centrepiece. Here more than anywhere else, all the elements that make the album so beguiling come together in dramatic fashion. Like ‘Gloria’ it is a ramshackle proto punk tune that passes through a slipshod cover (in this case ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances) before falling in on itself in glorious fashion, all the while Patti Smith’s lyrics are at their most obtuse, celebrating her idol Arthur Rimbaud (not Rambo as I mistakenly heard on my first listen). It is bizarre and breathtaking and no one would ever dare to make a first album like this in the paranoid noughties, and for that reason Horses remains a solid gold classic.