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Horses is the debut studio album by American musician Patti Smith, released on November 10, 1975, on Arista Records. Smith, a fixture of the then-burgeoning New York punk rock music scene, began recording Horses with her band in 1975 after being signed to Arista Records, with John Cale being enlisted to produce the album. With its fusion of simplistic rock and roll structures and Smith's freeform, Beat poetry-infused lyrics, Horses was met with widespread critical acclaim upon its initial release. Despite a lack of airplay or a popular single to support the album, it nonetheless experienced modest commercial success, managing a top 50 placing on the US Billboard 200.

Studio album by
ReleasedNovember 10, 1975 (1975-11-10)
StudioElectric Lady Studios (New York, New York)
ProducerJohn Cale
Patti Smith chronology
Radio Ethiopia

Horses has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest and most influential albums not only in the history of the American punk rock movement, but also in the history of all rock and roll. Horses has also been cited as a key influence on a number of succeeding post-punk, and alternative rock acts, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sonic Youth, Hole, The Smiths, R.E.M. and PJ Harvey.

Background and recordingEdit

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

By 1975, Patti Smith and her band had established themselves as favorites in the New York underground club scene. The band eventually caught the attention of industry executive Clive Davis, who was scouting for new talent to sign to his new just-launched label Arista Records and later offered Smith a record deal.[1][2] Recording sessions for Smith's debut album Horses began later that year, with Smith retaining her longtime backing band from a lengthy residency at the New York club CBGBJay Dee Daugherty on drums, Lenny Kaye on guitar, Ivan Kral on bass, and Richard Sohl on keyboards.[1][3] Smith enlisted 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 own albums, such as Fear.[1]

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."[4] Recording sessions for the album were marked by frequent arguments between Smith and Cale, owing in part to their different work ethics.[1] 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.[1] 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.[5]

A cutting card from the studio when Horses was recorded.

Cale would later recall 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."[6] He described their working relationship during recording as "confrontational and a lot like an immutable force meeting an immovable object".[6] Smith herself 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".[6] She expressed gratitude for Cale's persistence in recording and producing the band, noting that he would always leave much of the band's "adolescent and honest flaws" in and ultimately "helped us in the birth of ourselves", calling him "like a brother to me, a brother who gave me a helping hand."[6]

Music and lyricsEdit

In Smith's own words, Horses was conceived as "three-chord rock merged with the power of the word".[7] Steve Huey of AllMusic calls Horses "essentially the first art punk album."[2] Smith and her band's sound, spearheaded by the rudimentary guitar work of Lenny Kaye, drew on the simple aesthetics of garage rock,[8] and the group's use of simplistic chord structures was emblematic of the punk rock scene associated with the band.[9] Smith, however, used such structures as a basis for lyrical and musical improvisation in the album's songs, diverging from other contemporary punk acts who generally shied away from solos.[9] Horses drew on genres such as rock and roll, reggae, and jazz.[10] "Redondo Beach" features a reggae backing track,[1] while "Birdland", which was improvised by the band in Electric Lady Studios, contains jazz and doo-wop elements.[11]

Reflecting Smith's background as a poet, the album's lyrics channel the French Symbolism movement, incorporating influences from the works of Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, and Smith's lifelong idol Arthur Rimbaud,[12] and recall the "revolutionary spirit" of Rimbaud and resonate with the energy of Beat poetry, according to CMJ's Steve Klinge.[13] Several of the album's songs—"Redondo Beach", "Free Money", "Kimberly"—were inspired by moments with members of Smith's family, while others—"Break It Up", "Elegie"—were written about her idols. Smith's sisters provide the lyrical inspirations for "Redondo Beach" and "Kimberly"; the former song, about despairing over a missing lover, was inspired by an incident in which Smith's sister Linda disappeared for the day following an argument with her, and the latter song was named after and dedicated to Smith's sister Kimberly.[14] "Free Money" is a recollection of Smith's childhood in New Jersey.[14]

"Break It Up" was written by Smith about Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, and based on her recollection of her visit of Morrison's grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris,[15] as well as a dream in which she witnessed Morrison stuck to a marble slab, trying and eventually succeeding in breaking free from the stone.[16] "Elegie" was recorded on the death anniversary of rock musician Jimi Hendrix and serves as a requiem to Hendrix, incorporating a line from his song "1983".[1][14] "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.[17] Horses also features two adaptations of songs by other artists: "Gloria", a radical retake on the Them song incorporating verses from Smith's own poem "Oath",[10] and "Land", already a live favorite, which features the first verse of Chris Kenner's "Land of a Thousand Dances".[18] On the latter, Smith fuses the imagery of the Kenner song together with the experiences of the character Johnny, a reference to the homoerotic protagonist of William S. Burroughs' 1971 novel The Wild Boys, while also alluding to Arthur Rimbaud and, less directly, Jimi Hendrix, whom she imagined to be "dreaming a simple rock-and-roll song, and it takes him into all these other realms."[19]


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

Camille Paglia[20]

The cover photograph for Horses was taken using natural light by American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a close friend of Smith's, at the Greenwich Village penthouse apartment of his partner Sam Wagstaff.[21][16]

Smith is depicted wearing a plain white shirt which she had purchased at the Salvation Army on the Bowery and slinging a black jacket over her shoulder and her favorite black ribbon around her collar.[16] Embedded on the jacket is a horse pin that Smith's friend Allen Lanier (of hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult) had given her.[16]

Smith has described her pose on the cover as "a mix of Baudelaire and Sinatra."[22] The record company wanted to make various changes to the photo, but Smith overruled such attempts.[21] The black and white treatment and unisex pose were a departure from the typical promotional images of "girl singers" of the time,[23] but Smith maintains that she "wasn't making a big statement. That's just the way I dressed."[22]

Critical receptionEdit

Upon initial release, Horses was met with near-universal acclaim from music critics and publications.[24] In a contemporary review 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", and highlighted Smith's adaptations of rock standards as the most striking songs on the record.[25] 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."[26] Village Voice critic Robert Christgau said, 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."[27]

Horses' mix of philosophical lyrics and rock and roll music did, however, attract some polarizing reactions, particularly from the British music press.[24] A review of Horses from Melody Maker dismissed the album as "precisely what's wrong with rock and roll right now."[24] 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".[28] 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."[29]

Commercially, Horses performed modestly, managing to peak at number 47 on the United States Billboard 200 albums chart despite receiving virtually no airplay.[30] 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 nationwide, published in The Village Voice.[31] NME placed it at number thirteen on its year-end list of 1975's best albums.[32] In 1979, Robert Christgau ranked it at number 38 on his list of the best albums of the 1970s.[33]

Legacy and influenceEdit

Retrospective professional reviews
Review scores
AllMusic     [34]
Chicago Tribune    [35]
Christgau's Record GuideA[36]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music     [37]
Mojo     [38]
Q     [40]
Rolling Stone     [41]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide     [42]
Spin     [43]

Following its release, Horses further cemented Smith's reputation as one of the biggest names of the New York punk rock scene, alongside contemporary acts such as the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads,[44] and it has since been cited as the first significant punk rock album.[45] Horses is considered one of the key recordings of the early punk rock movement[46] and a landmark for punk and new wave music in general, inspiring a "raw, almost amateurish energy for the former and critical, engaging reflexivity for the latter", according to writer Chris Smith in his book 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music.[30] The Observer critic 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."[1] In Variety, David Sprague wrote 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."[47]

Various recording artists have specifically named Horses as an influence on their music.[44] English post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees acknowledged that the song "Carcass" from their 1978 album The Scream was inspired by Horses.[48] Michael Stipe of R.E.M. bought the album as a high school student and says 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.[24] 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", is a reworking of "Kimberly".[49] Courtney Love of Hole stated that Horses helped inspire her to become a rock musician,[50] 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."[3] 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."[51]

Horses has been considered by music critics to be one of the finest albums in recorded music history,[52] attaining high levels of critical success and influence in the years following its release despite modest sales figures.[19] The album has been included in various publications' lists of the greatest albums of the 1970s and of all time.[53] In 1992, NME ranked Horses at first place on its list of "20 Near-as-Damn-It Perfect Initial Efforts".[53] Q magazine included it in its 2002 list of the 100 greatest punk albums.[54] In 2003, the album was ranked number 44 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time,[55] maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list.[56] In 2006, Time named it as one of the All-TIME 100 Albums,[57] and three years later, it was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[58] In 2013, Rolling Stone ranked Horses number 10 on its list of the 100 best debut albums of all time, describing it as "a declaration of committed mutiny, a statement of faith in the transfigurative powers of rock & roll."[59]

30th anniversary editionEdit

For the 30th anniversary of Horses, a live version was recorded by Smith on June 25, 2005 in the Royal Festival Hall at the Meltdown festival, which Smith curated.[60] It followed the same running order as the original release of Horses, and 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.[60][61] The live set 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.[61] The album was recorded and mixed by Emery Dobyns.

Track listingEdit

Side one
1."Gloria" (Part I: "In Excelsis Deo"; Part II: "Gloria (Version)")
2."Redondo Beach"3:26
4."Free Money"
  • Smith
  • Kaye
Side two
2."Break It Up"4:04
3."Land" (Part I: "Horses"; Part II: "Land of a Thousand Dances"; Part III: "La Mer(de)")
  • Smith
  • Lanier



Additional personnel


Chart (1976) Peak
Dutch Albums (Album Top 100)[62] 18
US Billboard 200[63] 47
Chart (2007) Peak
UK Albums (OCC)[64] 157


Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[65] Gold 35,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[66] Gold 100,000^

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

Release historyEdit

Date Label Format Catalog no.
November 10, 1975 Arista LP 4066
June 18, 1996 CD 18827
November 8, 2005 Sony BMG 671445
June 30, 2007 CD, LP 37927
October 8, 2007 Arista LP 15972


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Works cited

External linksEdit