By 1975 the New Musical Express, the NME, had taken up residence in my life where it would remain lodged for the next five years. My Mum, bless her, has always been keen to indulge my reading, at one point in the 60’s I would receive 4 comics a week although by the time the 70’s emerged I would be down to just the one publication, delivered to our house without fail by the local newsagent. Prior to the NME my drug of choice had been ‘Fur and Feather’ the journal of choice for rabbit breeders and pigeon fanciers. The times they were a changing.
I don’t know whether I chose the NME or it chose me. The main alternatives where Melody Maker which still had a loyal following of dance band musicians or Sounds which was a sort of compromise between the two. The NME was by far the most radical, it didn’t like progressive rock much, it didn’t like McCartney but it liked Lennon.,The Stones were still a potentially interesting band etc. etc., it took a while to learn the rules but I was a dedicated scholar. Most significant of the NME’s diktats was the power of USA East Coast Rock. This largely meant New York which had become more interesting now that Lennon had come to live and die there. The kings of New York NME style were the Velvet Underground who, of course never got played on the British Radio and The New York Dolls who got as far as a ‘mock rock’ appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test (an appearance I only got to see about 30 years later).
In July Charles Shaar Murray who along with Nick Kent was the most distinctive of the NME’s writers, returned from an expedition to The Big Apple (as no one called it) with reports of the burgeoning underground scene that was developing around a club called CBGBs. It looked great, however bad Britain seemed in 1975 New York was worse. The city was bankrupt and struggling to even function as a city. It was dirty, cheap and dangerous, getting mugged was regarded as an occupational hazard and huge sections around CBGBs had been taken over by the homeless. The positives of this was the fact that anybody who was a bit arty and penniless could afford to be arty and penniless in the middle of one of the greatest cities of the world as long as you could avoid becoming addicted to heroin.
The whole CBGB’s scene just looked amazing. It was like an exotic version of our pub rock scene in that it was real musicians with crummy guitars and amps playing inches away from the punters. On the plus side you were unlikely to have to listen to ‘Route 66’ but you might get ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ or ‘Psycho Killer’ or ‘Marquee Moon’ or…………….
One of the many people who impressed Murray so much was Patti Smith who had been around the scene for most of the decade firstly as a poet who had gradually increased her musical output to the point that by the time Murray had made his visit she was heading what resembled a proper rock band.
In November she released her first Album ‘Horses’ which Murray reviewed in what must surely be one of the most memorable record reviews ever, so much so that I can remember it to this day. He compared the record to those of the rock gods, Beatles, Stones Who ect and pointed out that here was a fully formed work of art superior to much of what had gone before.
The Melody Maker didn’t like like it of course pointing out that she sang out of tune and the musicians weren’t that great but by now these things were not important anymore. As Murray recognised this was something more significant than mere music.
Which is why 40 years later I’m on the train to London with my grey hair and my wife of 24 years and my iPhone and my collection of all the music in the world on Spotify. And thanks to the wonders of technology and the fact that vinyl albums were quite short means I can listen to all of Horses before I get to Kings Cross Station. The record has been part of my life for nearly 40 years, even on Charles Shaar Murray’s recommendation I wasn’t going to buy it new but I snapped it up in a second hand shop a couple of years later . For me, and most of Britain, 1975 was the year of Bohemian Rhapsody not the dawning of a new era.
And so the record sounds old but good old not dated old. Apparently the band resisted producer John Cale doing too much to actually produce it and so it sounds live and crisp and exciting.And I know every chord and guitar lick, I’ve jammed along with Patti many times, the best tracks are about the groove and that’s best with only a couple of chords. Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty was the last to join which meant the rest of the band had had to play without a steady beat which means that when they hit a groove its unstoppable.
If you read my first ever blog post (which I can guarantee you did not) you will remember the compilation album of mid 60’s ‘punk’ called ‘Nuggets’. Well the person who compiled that was Lenny Kaye who is playing guitar and bass here. Kaye and Smith go back a long way to the early poetry readings and they continue 40 years into the future. Kaye knows the value of rhythm guitar no one on this record is showing off with the possible exception of Smith… but that’s her job.
I’m a little shocked that despite having lived with this record for most of my life I still don’t know what she is singing about some of the time but the sound of her voice is amazing. There is a few bars in Elgie where, to my amazement, she actually sounds like Kate Bush but the rest of the time she sounds like no one else but Patti Smith.
And what is most amazing about Patti Smith is her bravery. In 1975 if you were a woman fronting a band you were expected to do something to please the boys, if you weren’t particularly pretty you had, at least, be able to sing like Bessie Smith. Smith makes no concessions, the closest role model is Yoko Ono and knowing how she was treated makes Smith’s stance all the more admirable. This might be the reason why apart from my chums Michael Stipe and Morrisey the only people I know who really really like Patti Smith are women. Even the saintly John Peel was pretty critical of her.
And tonight Patti is playing the Roundhouse London. A place steeped in rock history and somewhere I has always wanted to go, in fact I assumed that it had been closed and probably bulldozed to make way for luxury flats but no, it’s been renovated and its rather nice. Not only is she playing what looks like a medium sized venue but the tickets are what we might call ‘competitively priced’ and that’s when I start to realise that this is a massive deal for me but not for the rest of humanity. There’s simply not that many people who want to see Patti Smith perform ‘Horses’. I had naturally assumed that I would be rubbing shoulders with famous people after all she’s what I consider to be a famous person with an extensive following but even the members bar is lacking in celebrities. I do not see one person I recognise all night (apart from my wife I hasten to add)
For someone who loves music I am fairly ambivalent about gigs, usually the gigs I have in my head are a lot more impressive than reality but tonight there’s a good vibe, no one is spending an excessive amount of time texting their friends or shouting at their friends or taking an excessive number of photo’s on their phone. We are treated to a selection of period songs which are almost inaudible and I have plenty of time to marvel on the number of times a microphone needs to be tested by a variety of roadies.
And then they are on. Jay Dee still on drums and Lenny Kaye on guitar. Tony Shanahan is the bass player who has been with her for years and relative new boy Jack Petruzzelli should be the guitarist but for most of Horses seems to get the bits that no one else wants to play so Shanahan gets to introduce the opening chords on piano while Patti launches into what must be the best ever opening to an album. Gloria is as fantastic as ever. The original band were at their best when cranking out two chords, compared with the original its a bit light on guitar but basically Gloria,Free Money, Kimberley and Land are variations on the same two or three chords, in fact as if almost to emphasise the similarities Land segues back into Gloria at the end. So that leaves Redondo beach which always seemed a little suspect with the reggae rhythms, that that seemed at least plausible under John Cale’s production, a bit more cruelly exposed . On break it Up Petruzzelli gets to play the slightly more difficult guitar parts originally provided by Tom Verlaine, Birdland is a bit more rocky but really it can be whatever it wants to be. Finally on Elgie Patti reads out a partial roll call of the departed which now, of course, includes all of the Ramones. Strangely she omits Richard Sohl the original keyboard player who dies in 1990 but if her list had been too comprehensive we’d probably still be there now.
With Horses dispatched I get a sense that the band can get on with enjoying themselves. In the past she had apparently taken to inviting her son up to do a version of ‘Smoke on the Water’ so there’s no telling where the quality bar will be set. What I hadn’t anticipated is at one point Patti leaves the stage for a chamomile tea and the rest of the band do a medley (yes a medley !) of Velvet Underground Numbers. Kaye and Shanahan are pretty good singers actually, Petruzzelli tends to look a bit distracted but judging by the speed with which he left the stage at the end he was probably in need of a comfort break. My main observation was that whatever Kaye has been doing over the last 40 years taking guitar lessons was not one of them, he is quite happy to strum away in the background while Petruzzelli does all the heavy lifting, when he does have to take a solo in ‘ Because the Night’ he almost fluffs it and settles for a sort of lead guitar noise in place of the iconic original. More entertainment is provided by an over attentive roadie. Rather like one of those waiters who insists on pouring your wine and unfolding the serviette, over attentive roadie appears whenever the stage gets stage gets a bit untidy. Patti tosses off her jacket and over attentive roadie immediately picks it up and whisks it away backstage where no doubt he has an iron ready.
So in many ways new Patti and Horses Patti are quite similar, you get the impression she never really got over Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison dying although there’s a new, rather slight, song dedicated to Amy Winehouse. For all the poetry and the artiness her roots are firmly in the 60’s which is why the encore tonight, just as it was in 1976 is ‘My Generation’. There are some songs (‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is another) which I could quite happily never hear again and this of course is a reinvention of the original, a sign that she was taking the baton from the old guard to take it somewhere else. But tonight she holding on to it and taking us back to 1976 so its an almost note for note version of the live recording that used to appear on the CD version of Horses. At the end she gets her hands on an electric guitar (like Kaye she’s avoided lessons) and manages to pull all the strings off which is quite a feat, just try it sometime if you don’t believe me.
And then its over. I was quite happy to sing ‘People have the Power’ and raise my hands in the air but I know when the lights go on you aint getting an encore.