Raw and uncompromising, Patti Smith’s mid-70s’ albums, Horses and Radio Ethiopia, earned her the titles of ‘Godmother of Punk’, ‘Punk Poetess’ and ‘High Priestess of Punk’. The iconic black and white image of Ms. Smith on the album cover of Horses, wearing a white shirt with jacket hitched over shoulder, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, served only to bolster her reputation.
During 1978, she again found herself a central figure in one of rock’s defining moments. Punk didn’t enter the equation this time round and legend has it that events unfurled something like this…
Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen were booked into adjacent recording booths. Springsteen had lately been working on a love ballad – Because the Night – but had not yet committed the song to disc. As a few tones filtered through to him from the next-door booth, it suddenly struck Bruce – this new number he’d been playing around with was just perfect for Patti. He offered her the song, she gladly accepted, making a few additional touches of her own before releasing it as a single. The rest is part of rock history.
Passionate, joyous and powerful, the Chicago-born, New York-based Patti Smith enjoyed her first UK singles hit, Because the Night, which peaked at number 5 in April ’78. Anne Nightingale, Britain’s top female disc jockey, named it as her ‘Record of the Year’. Many would agree.
It wasn’t until December 1986 that Springsteen released his version of Because the Night, and then it was a concert take on the mighty five LP box set, Live 1977-1985.
And no one present when Bruce played the old Alvalade Stadium in Lisbon on May Day 1993 will forget his astounding delivery of the song that night – a highlight of the four-hour show. A further exceptional live performance comes from Natalie Merchant, who sings Because the Night on the acoustic album her former group 10,000 Maniacs recorded, as part of the MTV Unplugged series.
The studio version of Because the Night was included on Patti Smith’s 1978 chart album Easter, following which she wrote two new songs about MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, whom she was to marry in 1980. Dancing Barefoot and Frederick were both included on her 1979 album Wave.
Since then, it’s fair to say, album releases have been pretty spread out – a total of five in 25 years. She took time out in the 1980s to start a family and raise two children, only returning to the studio in 1988 for Dream of Life, on which every number was co-written with husband Fred. The uplifting, rallying-call of a track, People Have the Power, was the obvious choice of single to coincide with the album’s release.
Tragedy struck during late 1994, when both Fred Smith and Patti’s brother Todd died of heart failure within a month of each other. She took to the road, playing smaller venues as a form of therapy, and then released two albums in two years. Gone Again (1996) was closely followed by Peace and Noise (1997), which included the Grammy nominated track 1959. Another single, Glitter In Their Eyes, from Gung Ho, a 2000 album that saw Smith tackling social issues head-on, earned her a second Grammy short-listing.
Never let it be said that Patti Smith doesn’t speak her mind – ‘Mother Courage’ runs the Mojo headline over the magazine’s five-star review of her latest album Trampin’. During Uncut’s accompanying interview when appraising the same album, Smith is asked: “Do you feel uncomfortable as an American at the moment?” Her vehement reply is: “Our present administration has put our country in a very rough position financially, environmentally and, I think, psychologically. I am very opposed to all its policies – it doesn’t speak for me.”
The spring 2004 album Trampin’ is named after a gospel song popularised by Marian Anderson during the 1950s. On Smith’s version, accompanied solely on piano by daughter Jesse, the number becomes a touching lullaby and suitable closing song for an accomplished album, clocking in at a most respectable 63 minutes.
If Patti Smith’s rousing single Because The Night represents the spring of ’78 for many music listeners, then the summer of ’79 will be recalled for the deliciously sleepy number Chuck E’s In Love, from a new girl singer in a red beret, Rickie Lee Jones. Some 11 albums and 25 years on from her eponymously titled debut, from which Chuck E’s in Love was taken, Rickie Lee has returned with the delightfully named The Evening of My Best Day.
But it’s far from complete delight in the Jones camp, ‘cos boy is she angry! Angry enough to include protest songs – like Ugly Man and Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act) – on an album for the first time. And, like Patti Smith before her, Rickie Lee is railing against the Bush administration and the President in particular!
“George W. Bush…,” she informed The Guardian newspaper, venting her spleen directly at the President: “…does everything for political gain and nothing for the well-being of the people. You should not be in office… we’re done with you.”
Bush is the undoubted target on Ugly Man, an opening track bearing a distinctly jazz feel, as do Second Chance and Bitchenostrophy. The impressive use of wind instruments throughout the album variously includes trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, saxophone, flute, harmonica and English horn. Quite what category of instrument ‘Duke the dog chewing rubber toy’, as credited on Little Mysteries comes under, I’m not altogether sure!