One of a handful of books we'll be publishing in the series in April is Phil Shaw's study of Patti Smith's Horses album. Here's an excerpt from the book...
The trio wound up 1974 with a brief tour of California, playing shows to small but committed crowds in Berkeley and Los Angeles. Since their residency at Max’s Kansas City the previous summer, several new songs had been added to the repertoire: “Break It Up,” “Birdland,” “Distant Fingers,” “Free Money,” “Space Monkey,” “Redondo Beach,” “Snowball,” and a version of Them’s “Gloria” (1964). With the addition of these songs, the cabaret elements that had defined their earlier performances began to recede. Although Smith continued to preface the performances with poetry readings, the trio were becoming, almost despite themselves, a rock ’n’ roll act. This shift in emphasis necessitated a reconsideration of their live sound. On at least one occasion during their Californian tour, the trio had played with a drummer (reputedly Jonathan Richman, of the Modern Lovers), but more pressing, from Kaye’s point of view at least, was the wish to add a second guitar player. Following auditions, a young Czechoslovakian émigré named Ivan Kral was recruited. Although not technically gifted, Kral impressed the trio with his ability to sustain a rhythmic “field,” enabling Kaye to focus on lead lines. Smith, meanwhile, was garnering notice as a poet once again, following a triumphant performance at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project New Year Extravaganza. The event, which included readings by Yoko Ono, John Giorno, and Allen Ginsburg, was hailed by the Village Voice as a cultural landmark, with Patti Smith singled out as a name to watch. By the close of 1975, this prediction would, of course, come true. But it would be rock ’n’ roll, not poetry, that would establish her fame.
Following performances at CBGBs, the band began to attract some serious record company interest, even going so far as to record a demo tape for RCA in February 1975. To date, only two tracks from this session have merited official release, but “Redondo Beach” and “Distant Fingers,” both included on the second disk of the 2002 LAND compilation, mark a noticeable advance, in terms of performance and production values, on the two tracks recorded at Electric Lady the previous summer (though how much of this is down to the 2002 digital remix is uncertain). And yet, while the vocals on “Redondo Beach” sound fresh and intimate, the players, in the absence of a drummer, are clearly struggling to sustain the song’s reggae rhythm. Despite Sohl’s best efforts, the lack of hi-hat and snare renders the performance somewhat flat. In live shows, this deficiency could be masked by Smith’s charisma and the sheer gung-ho attitude of the band, but on tape the lack of a solid rhythmic base is acutely apparent. It would be several months before the band would recruit a permanent drummer.
Yet despite such gaps, interest in the band would continue to grow. From the late 60s onward, Clive Davis had a reputation for nurturing strong female talent. As president of Columbia records, he had signed Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin; now, as president of the newly created Arista records, he had Patti Smith in his sights. Back in 1971, following the St. Mark’s show, Davis had tried to secure Smith for CBS. Smith, wisely it seems, turned this offer down. Four years later, noting RCA’s interest, and encouraged by Lou Reed, Davis sprang once again into action, reputedly offering her a $750,000 contract by way of incentive. The deal was apparently clinched mid set at a CBGBs gig in March. Despite the stringent terms of the contract, which called for seven records of new material within a four-year period, Smith was eager to sign, reportedly informing Davis, at one of their first meetings, “I’m not getting any younger [Smith was twenty-eight]. I have to be in a rush—I don’t have the strength to take too long becoming a star” (Hiss and McClelland, 1975). This attitude chimed well with the fledgling company’s aggressive demands. As Bob Feiden, Davis’s second in command stated, “If artists are not willing to kill themselves selling themselves, why sign them? It’s not worth it” (ibid.). But while Smith was willing to work, she was also careful to maintain artistic control, even to the point of dictating the terms of her own marketing campaigns. As Bokris notes, it was Smith who came up with the line “three-chord rock merged with the power of the word” and who pushed for the “beyond gender” tag (1998). The singer also ensured that the contract recognize her right to exercise control over the production of her records. This clause, as we shall see, would prove decisive during the recording of Horses. Smith’s deal with Arista was announced by John Rockwell in The New York Times on Friday, March 28, 1975. Reviewing one of the CBGBs shows, Rockwell predicted a glittering future for Davis’s new star: “Miss Smith has it in her to be as significant an artist as American pop music has produced.” Sensing a change in the air, the esteemed critic urged “that anyone who wants to see Miss Smith in the ambi¬ence in which she has heretofore flourished—the seedy little club—had better hurry on down to CBGB.” Protected, for now, from the grosser aspects of record company interference, throughout the following month Smith and her band continued to play sets in the Bowery, appearing, as always, alongside Television. Still without a drummer, the three instrumentalists continued, in Rockwell’s words, to supply a “compensating percussiveness.”