Patti Smith Group

Radio Ethiopia

Horses (Arista ‘75) Rating: A+
This is regarded as a seminal punk recording from a longtime CBGB’s veteran, dubbed the “punk poetess” for her unique melding of free flowing, poetic lyrics with a basic brand of spare, energetic garage rock. Produced by legendary former Velvet Underground member John Cale, her excellent backing band included former rock critic turned guitarist Lenny Kaye, whose primitive guitar stabs anchored the band’s bare boned attack (other band members included drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Ivan Kral, and keyboardist Richard Sohl). Starting out with the immortal line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” (does she know how to make an entrance or what?), it was clear from the start that this was something different, and it isn’t until later on that it becomes apparent that this song is actually a distinctive reworking of Them’s classic “Gloria.” For one thing, with her strange yodels, ticks, and deep pitch Smith makes for a dramatic, wholly unique singer; I for one consider her a great, incredibly passionate singer even though she probably wouldn't make it out of the first round on American Idol! Delivering literary but genuinely exciting music, Smith became a role model to many subsequent female (and male) rockers (just ask Michael Stipe), but her willingness to take chances will always mark her as a true American original. True, this album was seen by some as self-indulgent (like Television's Marquee Moon which this challenges as the best album from the CBGB's scene, this is far more ambitious than your typical punk rock record and as such it's really only tangentially related to punk) and it wasn't exactly a runaway commercial success. Still, songs such as the reggae tinged “Redondo Beach” (the lightest track here along with "Kimberly") and “Break It Up” (that’s Television’s Tom Verlaine superb on guitar, while its shouted chorus is also memorable) are actually quite catchy. Meanwhile, the transcendent 9+ minute epics “Birdland” and “Land” (comprised of three separate parts, the middle section of which reprises the soul classic “Land Of A Thousand Dances”) are elevated by her intense, expressive vocals, while musically these surreal, adventurous tracks recall Bob Dylan or John Coltrane more than the Ramones. The iconic black and white cover photo showed that Patti was a tough, thoughtful, no frills type of woman who meant serious business, a point that's perhaps best exemplified by the thrilling rocker “Free Money,” one of my favorite songs ever. Far from being just an "influential" album that's much beloved by punk rockers, critics, and feminists, Horses is simply one of the best rock albums of all-time, and despite subsequent successes during a sporadic recording career (including the Bruce Springsteen co-penned hit “Because The Night”) she never again quite recaptured the intense beauty and sheer magic of this legendary debut.

Radio Ethiopia (Arista ‘76) Rating: B+
Patti hired hard rock producer Jack Douglas in a bid for commercial success, but this resulting album, fittingly released as the Patti Smith Group (notice that each song is a co-write), actually fared worse commercially, while critical reaction was more mixed compared to the near universal acclaim accorded its predecessor. But how many artists who have recorded an all-time great debut album have matched it with a similarly outstanding second album? Not many, and Radio Ethiopia was certainly a worthwhile follow up, even if it's less consistent and less cohesive than Horses. The album starts strongly with "Ask The Angels," a great straightforward hard rocker which shows off the band's fuller, heavier, more guitar-based sound (Kaye puts in an impressive "guitar hero" worthy performance throughout the album), and I like "Ain't It Strange" even better, though maybe it's a tad over-long. Like "Redondo Beach" this one is reggae tinged but the pace is slower and the vibe is intense, atmospheric, and dark, with keyboards and guitars leading the way along with Patti's vocals. Trouble first appears on "Poppies," which could've been a good 3 minute pop song but becomes self-indulgent and less musically compelling once the spoken word part commences. Fortunately, "Pissing in a River" provides another sparse, dramatic highlight, with another commanding vocal performance, before "Pumping (My Heart)" delivers more good if disappointingly straightforward hard rock. The lighter, melodic "Distant Fingers" (like "Ain't It Strange" actually written before Horses) makes me think of Blondie (not a bad thing), and then comes the problematic title track, which has moments of intrigue and excitement but which is mostly 10 minutes of noisy self-indulgence. "Absyssinia" is a short, experimental fadeout that's not as effective as the prior album's "Elegie," and that's the primary problem with this album. As much as I like the majority it, and as much as I love "Ask The Ages," "Ain't It Strange," and "Pissing in a River" in particular, this album will always suffer by comparison to Horses, as Radio Ethiopia was merely a very good but highly flawed follow up.

Easter (Arista ‘78) Rating: A-
After a serious neck injury caused by an in-concert fall Patti and her group came back with Easter, which is generally regarded as her second best album (I concur) and which was her commercial peak due to the Bruce Springsteen co-penned hit “Because The Night,” which came about simply because they shared producer Jimmy Iovine (and the same studio as a result). Somewhat famous (or infamous) for its cover photo featuring Patti’s armpit hair, Easter is indeed a very good album even if it’s not the once-in-a-lifetime type of triumph that Horses was. Bruce Brody temporarily replaces Richard Sohl on keyboards, and the album lives up to its title with many religious references, but Easter can still be greatly enjoyed even by the non-religious listeners among us, such as yours truly. Unfortunately, the album gets off to a rather ignominious start with “Till Victory,” a decent but somewhat flat attempt at an anthem, and “Space Monkey” (the lone song to feature Sohl), arguably her most annoying song ever. Fortunately, things get righted on the aforementioned big hit, a great song even if it was popular (and therefore unpopular with some fans who preferred that Patti remain an underground cult artist). First there’s those dramatic piano chords, some excellent lyrics as you’d expect from writers of Bruce and Patti’s caliber, and mostly it has great vocals and a catchy chorus going for it (Bruce would reclaim the song years later with a popular and hard rocking version on his live box set, while later on the 10,000 Maniacs also had an “unplugged” hit version of their own). “Ghost Dance” continues with an intriguingly atypical track that I’d describe as a "tribal folk song with world influences and chanted vocals," while “Babelogue” is a short poetry recital in front of a loud, boisterous audience. I’m not a big fan of it, in all honesty, but hey it is short, and the lead in to “Rock N Roll Nigger” is one of the most exciting moments on any Patti Smith album. Like many people, I’m conflicted about this controversial track, as I don’t think Patti is a racist and I think it’s merely meant to be an outsider anthem, plus musically the song flat out rocks and is an undeniable highlight. That said, it’s hard to ignore the repeated, problematic use of a word that should never be uttered. Fortunately, less controversial songs such as “Privilege (Set Me Free)” (apparently a cover song though I’m not familiar with the original) and “25th Floor/High On Rebellion” (really one song though not listed as such) also effectively deliver intense, dramatic hard rock, albeit with spoken word elements as well, while “We Three” and the epic, ethereal, hymn-like title track are two of her very best ballads. On the whole, this "minor classic" is more straightforward and commercial than her prior two efforts, but it’s still plenty strange and moody for someone who was now considered a mainstream artist.

Wave (Arista ‘79) Rating: B+
With Sohl back in tow and working with old friend and mutual admirer Todd Rundgren, who produced the album (too slickly, many seem to think), Wave was the last Patti Smith Group album for many years as she retired to a life of peaceful domesticity with future husband and former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. The album’s first track, “Frederick,” is basically a joyful love letter to Fred, while musically it has a good melody that recalls “Because The Night” but is lighter and poppier, and the welcome harmony vocals that appear here (and elsewhere) are a Todd trademark. “Dancing Barefoot” is a haunting, atmospheric, somewhat psychedelic song that’s simply among her very best songs ever (and the album's clear highlight), and I also like (but don't love) their cover of The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star,” which was partially inspired by an incident where the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious cut Patti’s brother’s face with a broken bottle. “Hymn” is short, skippable, and aptly titled, while “Revenge” is a dark, angry dirge that’s mostly notable for its dual guitar solos (almost call and response in nature at times), while “Citizen Ship” is a moody, intense builder that also contains a wailing guitar solo, as again Lenny Kaye excels throughout the album. “Seven Ways Of Going” is more experimental but also quite powerful in places, and “Broken Flag” is also notably different, mostly ballad-like but also featuring an anthemic buildup with choir-like vocals, celestial keyboards, and a soaring guitar solo. Lastly, “Wave” is a spoken word piece in tribute to the recently deceased Pope John Paul I, which, though movingly detailed, musically doesn’t really maintain my interest after repeat plays (then again that’s how I feel about most spoken word mood pieces). Overall, though I agree with the common perception that this was the Patti Smith Group’s weakest album to date, I think that Wave is an underrated album that isn’t quite as “polished” or as “conventional” as many make it out to be (i.e. I have no major problems with Todd Rundgren’s production). There’s much to be admired here in terms of variety and different sounds, and Patti and company mostly wrote good songs too, even if the overall quality isn’t quite as high as previously. Alas, as previously mentioned, retirement soon beckoned, and as such “Wave” the song can also symbolically be seen as Patti waving goodbye to her fans, her bandmates, and her career, which would be briefly resurrected on 1988’s Dream Of Life (largely a collaboration with Fred) and only resume in earnest after Fred’s death in 1994. She has worked steadily if not exactly prolifically since then, usually with Kaye and Daugherty by her side (but not Sohl who died from a heart attack in 1990, or Kral), but most would agree that her best work was with the original Patti Smith Group on the albums reviewed here.

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