Originally published in Sounds, 20 November 1975
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, I give you the record of the year. Or the record of 1976, since it won't be released here until January.
Quite simply, this is one of the most stunning, commanding, engrossing platters to come down the turnpike since John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, and for the same reasons.
Like Lennon on that album, Ms Smith is concerned with finding the truth within herself, with seeing how deep she can travel in search of what makes her tick (and if Patti's really into Rimbaud, to discover whether she's worthy of being a poet). If you want to hook in for the ride, fine. If not, you won't be around for long.
You cannot put this record on and ignore it. On the office Dansette it got midway through 'Birdland' (side one, track three), to where Patti starts interminably moaning "up" with ever increasing madness and speed, before three people started screaming to take it off. It's that kind of record. John Cale has produced a stark, austere sound, much like the rock songs on his own albums. The band concentrate on overall effect, sounding like the Velvets in the way the music just sits there, and seemingly will for all eternity. Their music is skeletal, concentrating on Richard Sohl's piano and Lenny Kaye's guitar — in a dozen listenings I'm still not that aware of bassist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Daugherty.
Over this Patti swoops and sings and hollers and talks, her voice looping through a dozen styles and emotions — whatever seems right at the time — at one point she even thumps her chest while singing. Usually she sounds brash and appealingly harsh — when she breaks into a breathy soar in 'Birdland' and 'Elegie', the contrast is almost enough to make you cry. She uses lyrics as launching pads, taking off in wild, surreal improvisations, poring over dreams and images like aural cut-up. Verses and themes surface in later verses in disturbing juxtapositions, and her subject matter is invariably exotic. One dip in her universe and it's easy to see her sphinx-like attraction: what does "I fell on my knees and pressed you against me, Your skull was like a network of spittle, Like glass balls moving in light cold streams of logic and update is that lightning, The type that some will make it go crack" mean?
There is no one phenomenal song on this record they all are. The theme is set immediately as Patti creates herself as the young rebel — "Words are just rules and regulations" — bored by everything until she looks out the window and there, leaning against a parking meter, is 'Gloria' — a demolition version ensues.
'Redondo Beach': Soap opera over a dinky tune. Hit single.
'Birdland': Based on a dream described by Peter Reich (son of psychiatrist Wilhelm) about incessantly wandering in a field hoping his dead father would pick him up in a UFO. The first launching pad, it imples a huge epic of which we only see a splinter, Patti babbling about being un-human, vivisection, and eyes like white opals, the music shifting from grindingly harsh to quietly lyrical.
'Free Money': Short, sweet, and rocks like hell.
'Kimberly': To her younger sister. Lines like "The stars will shift and the sky will split, The jade will drop and existence will stop" over music that sounds like an offspring of the Ohio Express and Mickey and Sylvia.
'Break It Up': From a dream where Patti saw Jim Morrison lying on a marble slab trying to take off, but his wings were made of stone. She kept screaming the title until the wings broke and he ascended.
'Land': First prize for weirdness. Johnny slips in and out of realities, taking knife to throat, pulling out his vocal chords, seeing horses, floating in the Sea of Possibilities. For some reason, 'Land of A Thousand Dances' ties it together. A totally unbelievable song.
'Elegie': To Jimi Hendrix. Piano dominated, haunting. "It's much too bad and much too sad our friends can't be with us today."
On the basis of this record, Patti Smith reveals herself to be the most compelling primal exhibitionist since Jim Morrison, the saviour of all voyeurs who need rock and roll to stay alive. The queue begins on the left.
© Jonh Ingham, 1975