Horses (album)

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Studio album by
ReleasedDecember 13, 1975 (1975-12-13)
RecordedAugust – September 18, 1975
StudioElectric Lady (New York, New York)
ProducerJohn Cale
Patti Smith chronology
Radio Ethiopia
Singles from Horses
  1. "Gloria"
    Released: April 1976

Horses is the debut studio album by American musician Patti Smith. It was released on December 13, 1975 by Arista Records. Smith, a fixture of the mid-1970s underground rock music scene in New York, began recording Horses with her band at Electric Lady Studios in August 1975. She enlisted Welsh musician John Cale to produce the album.

The music on Horses was informed by the minimalist, garage rock-inspired aesthetic of the then-nascent American punk rock movement. Smith and her band developed the album's songs around simple chord progressions. The musicians' frequent improvisation, however, differentiated them from other contemporary punk acts. Smith's lyrics on Horses encompassed ruminations on her family, tributes to deceased rock icons, and imagined narratives.

Horses was released to widespread acclaim from music critics. The record experienced modest commercial success, managing a top 50 placing on the American Billboard 200 albums chart. Horses has since been widely recognized as a seminal recording in the history of punk rock, as well as one of the greatest and most influential albums in all of popular music. The album has been credited as a key influence on numerous artists, including rock acts such as R.E.M., the Smiths, PJ Harvey, and Hole.

Background and recording[edit]

John Cale (pictured in 1977) was enlisted by Smith to produce Horses.

By mid-1975, Patti Smith and her band had established themselves as a popular act within the New York underground rock music scene.[1][2] In the spring of that year they shared a two-month residency at the New York club CBGB with the band Television, gradually developing a sizable following.[1][2] Smith eventually caught the attention of music industry executive Clive Davis, who was scouting for new talent to sign to his recently-launched label Arista Records; he later offered her a record deal, which she accepted.[2] Arista made arrangements for Smith to begin recording her debut album in August 1975.[3] Smith initially suggested that the album be produced by Tom Dowd, and there were initial talks of booking studio time with Dowd in Criteria in Miami.[3][4] These plans were complicated by Dowd's association with rival label Atlantic Records.[4] Nonetheless, Smith had a change of heart and instead set her sights on enlisting Welsh musician John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, to serve as the album's producer, as she was impressed by the raw sound of his solo albums, such as 1974's Fear.[2] Cale, who had previously seen Smith perform live and was acquainted with Smith's bassist Ivan Král, accepted.[3] The recording of Horses ultimately took place at Electric Lady Studios in New York, with Smith retaining the same backing band with whom she performed live—Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, Lenny Kaye on guitar, Ivan Král on bass, and Richard Sohl on keyboards.[2][5]

According to Smith, Horses was a conscious attempt "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."[6] The differences between Cale's and Smith's work ethics – Cale being an experienced recording artist, and Smith at this point primarily being a live performer – became apparent early on in production, and were a source of tension between the two artists, who frequently argued in the studio.[2][3] Cale recalled that the band initially "sounded awful" and played out of tune due to their use of damaged instruments.[3][7] He decided this was not feasible and, to their protest, procured them new instruments.[7] The music on Horses was performed almost entirely by Smith and her band; Smith opposed Cale's suggestion to augment certain songs with strings.[8] The album's sole guest musicians were Allen Lanier of Blue Öyster Cult and Tom Verlaine of Television.[3] Lanier, who was Smith's boyfriend at the time, did not get along with Cale and particularly Verlaine.[3][4] The final recording session, held on September 18, was one of the "most explosive" sessions, culminating in Lanier and Verlaine getting into a physical altercation.[3]

A notecard with handwriting
A cutting card from the Horses recording sessions

By the end of recording, and for some years immediately following the album's release, Smith was quick to downplay Cale's contributions and suggested that she and her band ignored his suggestions entirely.[2] In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone, Smith described the experience:

My picking John was about as arbitrary as picking Rimbaud. I saw the cover of Illuminations with Rimbaud's face, y'know, he looked so cool, just like Bob Dylan. So Rimbaud became my favorite poet. I looked at the cover of Fear and I said, 'Now there's a set of cheekbones.' In my mind I picked him because his records sounded good. But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. I went to pick out an expensive watercolor painting and instead I got a mirror. It was really like A Season in Hell, for both of us. But inspiration doesn't always have to be someone sending me half a dozen American Beauty roses. There's a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And he had me so nuts I wound up doing this nine-minute cut that transcended anything I ever did before.[9]

Cale said in 1996 that Smith initially struck him as "someone with an incredibly volatile mouth who could handle any situation", and that as producer on Horses he wanted to capture the energy of her live performances, noting that there "was a lot of power in Patti's use of language, in the way images collided with one another."[4] He described their working relationship during recording as "confrontational and a lot like an immutable force meeting an immovable object".[4] Smith would later attribute much of the tension between herself and Cale to her inexperience with formal studio recording, recalling that she was "very, very suspicious, very guarded and hard to work with" and "made it difficult for him to do some of the things he had to do".[4] She expressed gratitude for Cale's persistence in working with the band and found that his production on Horses made the most out of the band's "adolescent and honest flaws", affectionately referring to Cale as "a brother" to her.[4]

Musical style[edit]

Smith characterized Horses as "three-chord rock merged with the power of the word".[11] The album is widely considered a key example of early punk rock.[12] William Ruhlmann of AllMusic stated that Horses is informed by several defining qualities of punk rock, citing Lenny Kaye's rudimentary guitar playing, the "anarchic spirit" of Smith's vocals, and Smith's emotionally-charged lyrics.[13] The band "proudly flaunted a garage rock aesthetic" and displayed a punk rock sensibility in their reliance on simple chord progressions, while Smith "sang with the delirious release of an inspired amateur", emphasizing "honest passion" over technical proficiency.[14] Peter Murphy of Hot Press noted that Smith's vocals on the album alternated between being sung and spoken, and "challenged the very notion of a demarcation" between the two forms.[15]

AllMusic editor Steve Huey observed that the album borrowed ideas from the avant-garde, with the music showcasing the band's free jazz-inspired interplay and improvisation, while still remaining "firmly rooted in primal three-chord rock & roll"; he called Horses "essentially the first art punk album".[1] Smith and her band's propensity for improvisation differentiated them from most of their punk contemporaries, who generally shied away from solos.[16] Throughout the album, they also tempered their punk sound with elements of other musical styles, balancing more straightforward rock songs with excursions into reggae ("Redondo Beach") and jazz ("Birdland").[17]


Among Smith's inspirations on Horses was Charles Baudelaire, whose fashion she also emulated for the album's cover photograph.

Smith's approach to writing lyrics reflected her background as a poet, drawing inspiration from sources such as the French Symbolism movement and the works of Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, and Smith's lifelong idol Arthur Rimbaud.[18] CMJ writer Steve Klinge found that the lyrics on Horses recalled the "revolutionary spirit" of Rimbaud and the energy of Beat poetry.[19] Author Nick Johnstone suggested that Smith's style of writing lyrics from a gender-ambiguous perspective was informed by her teenage readings of Rimbaud's work, which convinced Smith that "each person contains as much female as male".[20]

Several songs on Horses were inspired by Smith's experiences with her family.[21] "Redondo Beach", in which Smith sings about despairing over a missing lover, was written by Smith following an incident involving her sister Linda: the two sisters had gotten into a heated argument, prompting Linda to leave their shared apartment and not return until the next day.[10] "Kimberly" is a dedication to its namesake, Smith's younger sister, and finds the singer recounting a childhood memory of holding Kimberly in her arms during a lightning storm.[17][21] On "Free Money", Smith describes growing up in poverty in New Jersey and recalls her mother fantasizing about winning the lottery.[21]

Smith penned other songs about notable public figures. "Birdland" was inspired by A Book of Dreams, a 1973 memoir of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich by his son Peter, and revolves around a narrative in which Peter, at his father's funeral, imagines leaving on a UFO piloted by his father's spirit.[22] "Break It Up" was written about Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors. Its lyrics are based on Smith's recollection of her visit of Morrison's grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery,[23] as well as a dream in which she witnessed a winged Morrison stuck to a marble slab, trying and eventually succeeding in breaking free from the stone.[24][25] "Elegie" was recorded, per Smith's request, on the fifth anniversary of the death of rock musician Jimi Hendrix, which fell on September 18, the final day of recording.[26] The song is a requiem for Hendrix, incorporating a line from his song "1983".[2][21] Smith said it was also intended to pay tribute to other deceased rock musicians such as Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Janis Joplin.[27]

Horses also features two adaptations of songs by other artists: "Gloria", a radical re-imagining of the Them song incorporating verses from Smith's own poem "Oath",[28] and "Land", already a live favorite, which features the first verse of Chris Kenner's "Land of a Thousand Dances".[29] On "Land", Smith weaves the imagery of the Kenner song into an elaborate narrative about a character named Johnny—who was inspired by the similarly-named homoerotic protagonist of William S. Burroughs' 1971 novel The Wild Boys—while also referencing Arthur Rimbaud and, less directly, Jimi Hendrix, whom Smith imagined to be the song's protagonist, "dreaming a simple rock-and-roll song, and it takes him into all these other realms."[30]


"I think it is one of the greatest pictures ever taken of a woman."

Camille Paglia[31]

The cover photograph for Horses was taken by Smith's close friend Robert Mapplethorpe at the Greenwich Village penthouse apartment of his partner Sam Wagstaff.[24][32] Smith, shrouded in natural light, is seen wearing a plain white shirt, which she had purchased at a Salvation Army shop on the Bowery, and slinging a black jacket over her shoulder and her favorite black ribbon around her collar.[24][32] Embedded on the jacket is a horse pin that Allen Lanier had given her.[24] Smith recalled that Mapplethorpe "took, like, twelve pictures, and at about the eighth one, he said, 'I have it.' I said, 'How do you know?' and he said, 'I just know,' and I said, 'Okay.' And that was it."[33]

Smith has described her pose on the cover as "a mix of Baudelaire and Sinatra".[34] The black-and-white treatment and unisex pose were a departure from the typical promotional images of female singers of the time.[35] Arista executives wanted to make various changes to the photograph, but Smith overruled their suggestions.[32] Clive Davis later wrote that he was initially conflicted about the image, recognizing its "power" but feeling that it would confuse audiences unfamiliar with Smith and her style of music.[36] He put aside his reservations and approved the cover after coming to a realization that he needed "to trust her artistic instincts thoroughly".[36] Smith has maintained that she had not intended to make a "big statement" with the cover, which she said simply reflected the way she dressed.[34] "I wasn't thinking that I was going to break any boundaries. I just like dressing like Baudelaire," she said in 1996.[37]

Release and reception[edit]

On September 18, 1975, the same day that they finished recording Horses, Smith and her band performed a live show in promotion of the upcoming album at an Arista Records convention, where they were personally introduced by Clive Davis.[26][38] They previewed five songs from the album: "Birdland", "Redondo Beach", "Break It Up", "Land", and, as their encore, "Free Money".[38] According to a contemporary account by journalist Lisa Robinson, the performance was met with an "ecstatic" response from the Arista executives in attendance.[38] Horses was released on November 10, 1975.[39] Commercially, it performed respectably for a debut album,[40] despite receiving little radio airplay.[41] In the United States, Horses peaked at number 47 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, remaining on the chart for 17 weeks.[38][42] The album also managed chart placings in Australia, where it reached number 80,[43] and the Netherlands, where it reached number 18.[44] "Gloria" was released as a single in April 1976.[45] Smith's cover of the Who's "My Generation", performed live in Cleveland, served as the single's B-side.[46]

Horses was met with near-universal acclaim from music critics.[47] Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, John Rockwell wrote that Horses is "wonderful in large measure because it recognizes the over-whelming importance of words" in Smith's work, covering a range of themes "far beyond what most rock records even dream of".[48] Rockwell highlighted Smith's adaptations of rock standards as the most striking songs on the record.[48] In Creem, Lester Bangs wrote that Smith's music "in its ultimate moments touches deep wellsprings of emotion that extremely few artists in rock or anywhere else are capable of reaching", and declared that with "her wealth of promise and the most incandescent flights and stillnesses of this album she joins the ranks of people like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, or the Dylan of 'Sad Eyed Lady' and Royal Albert Hall."[49] Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said that while the album does not capture Smith's humor, it "gets the minimalist fury of her band and the revolutionary dimension of her singing just fine."[50]

Horses attracted some detractors from the British music press.[38][47] Street Life reviewer Angus MacKinnon found that the album's minimalist sound merely reflected Smith and her band's musical incompetence.[51] Steve Lake's scathing review of Horses for Melody Maker attacked the album as an embodiment of "precisely what's wrong with rock and roll right now", panning it as "completely contrived 'amateurism'" with a "'so bad it's good' aesthetic".[52] Conversely, Jonh Ingham of Sounds published a five-star review of Horses, naming it "the record of the year" and "one of the most stunning, commanding, engrossing platters to come down the turnpike since John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band".[53] Charles Shaar Murray of NME called it "an album in a thousand" and "an important album in terms of what rock can encompass without losing its identity as a musical form, in that it introduces an artist of greater vision than has been seen in rock for far too long."[54] English television host and future Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson was so enthused by the record that he made repeated attempts to book Smith and her band for an appearance on his Granada Television program So It Goes.[55]

At the end of 1975, Horses was voted the second best album of the year, behind Bob Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes, in the Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of American critics published in The Village Voice.[56] NME placed it at number 13 on its year-end list of 1975's best albums.[57] According to writer Philip Shaw in his 33⅓ book profiling the album, the enthusiastic reaction to Horses from the music press quickly assuaged observers' suspicions that Smith had sold out by signing to a major label.[38] The positive critical reception, along with substantial promotional efforts by Arista, ensured that Horses enjoyed healthy, if not particularly high, sales.[58]

Legacy and influence[edit]

Retrospective professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic5/5 stars[13]
Chicago Tribune4/4 stars[59]
Christgau's Record GuideA[60]
Mojo5/5 stars[61]
Q5/5 stars[63]
Rolling Stone5/5 stars[64]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide5/5 stars[65]
Spin5/5 stars[66]
Spin Alternative Record Guide10/10[67]

Horses cemented Smith as a central figure in the New York punk rock movement, alongside contemporary acts such as the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads.[68] It has been frequently cited as the first punk rock album,[12][69] and one of the key recordings of the early punk rock movement.[70] Publications such as Q and Rolling Stone have ranked it among the best punk albums of all time.[71][72] Horses is considered a landmark for both punk and new wave music, inspiring a "raw, almost amateurish energy for the former and critical, engaging reflexivity for the latter", according to Chris Smith in his book 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music (2009).[41] In The Observer, Simon Reynolds wrote, "Pipping the Ramones' first album to the post by five months, Horses is generally considered not just one of the most startling debuts in rock history but the spark that ignited the punk explosion."[2] Variety critic David Sprague said that "Horses—which became the first major-label punk-rock album when Arista unleashed it in 1975—not only helped spread the gospel of Bowery art-punk around the world, it set the tone for smart, unbending female rockers of generations to come."[73]

Various recording artists have specifically named Horses as an influence on their music.[68] Siouxsie and the Banshees acknowledged that the song "Carcass" from their 1978 album The Scream was inspired by Horses.[74] Michael Stipe of R.E.M. bought the album as a high school student and said that it "tore [his] limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order", citing Smith as his primary inspiration for becoming a musician.[47] Morrissey and Johnny Marr shared an appreciation for the record, and one of their early compositions for the Smiths, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle", utilizes a melody based on that of "Kimberly".[75] Courtney Love of Hole stated that Horses helped inspire her to become a rock musician,[76] while Viv Albertine of the Slits stated that Horses "absolutely and completely changed [her] life", adding: "Us girls never stood in front of a mirror posing as if we had a guitar because we had no role models. So, when Patti Smith came along, it was huge. She was groundbreakingly different."[5] PJ Harvey stated in 1992 at the beginning of her career: "I heard Horses once and it was brilliant – not so much her music as her delivery, her words, her articulation. Her honesty."[77]

Horses has been considered by music critics to be one of the greatest and most influential albums in recorded music history.[30][78] It has been included in various lists of the best albums of the 1970s and of all time.[79] In 2003 and 2012, the record was ranked at number 44 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time,[80][81] later placing at number 26 on a 2020 updated list.[82] NME named it the 12th greatest album of all time in a similar list published in 2013.[83] In 2006, Time named Horses as one of the "All-Time 100 Albums",[84] and The Observer listed it as one of 50 albums that changed music history.[85] Three years later, the album was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[86]

For the 30th anniversary of Horses, the album was performed in its entirety by Smith on June 25, 2005 at the Royal Festival Hall during the Meltdown festival, which Smith curated.[87] The performance featured accompaniment by original band members Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, as well as Tony Shanahan on bass guitar and piano, Tom Verlaine on guitar, and Flea on bass guitar and trumpet.[87][88] The performance was released on November 8, 2005 as the second disc of a double CD titled Horses/Horses, with the digitally remastered version of the original 1975 album, along with the bonus track "My Generation", on the first disc.[88] For the release, the live set was recorded by Emery Dobyns and mixed by Dobyns and Shanahan.[89] The original album has also been reissued in remastered form several other times, including on June 18, 1996 (both as a standalone CD and on the CD box set The Patti Smith Masters),[90] and on April 21, 2012 on LP for that year's Record Store Day celebration.[91]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
1."Gloria" (Part I: "In Excelsis Deo" / Part II: "Gloria (Version)")
2."Redondo Beach"3:24
4."Free Money"
  • Smith
  • Kaye
Total length:22:21
Side two
2."Break It Up"4:05
3."Land" (Part I: "Horses" / Part II: "Land of a Thousand Dances" / Part III: "La Mer(de)")
  • Smith
  • Lanier
Total length:20:49
CD reissue bonus track
9."My Generation" (Live at the Agora, Cleveland, Ohio, on January 26, 1976)Pete Townshend3:16
Total length:46:09
Horses/Horses live bonus disc
1."Gloria" (Part I: "In Excelsis Deo" / Part II: "Gloria (Version)")7:00
2."Redondo Beach"4:29
4."Free Money"5:29
6."Break It Up"5:23
7."Land" (Part I: "Horses" / Part II: "Land of a Thousand Dances" / Part III: "La Mer(de)")17:35
9."My Generation"6:59
Total length:67:15


Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.[92]


Chart (1976) Peak
Australian Albums (Kent Music Report)[43] 80
Dutch Albums (Album Top 100)[44] 18
US Billboard 200[42] 47
Chart (2007) Peak
UK Albums (OCC)[93] 157


Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[94] Gold 35,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[95]
sales since 1993
Gold 100,000^

^shipments figures based on certification alone


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Works cited

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]