Artist: Patti Smith
Released: December 13th, 1975
Highlights: Gloria, Redondo Beach, Free Money, Land
As the 70s reached their midway point, the music scene that had been incubating inside New York City’s legendary club CBGB started to claw its way out of the confines of the East Village. Out of a class that included numerous acts that would write their names in music history, such as Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, Patti Smith was the first one to have a record published. Due to its pioneering nature, and given it was the primary work coming out of a house that would shape both punk rock and its highly varied child, post-punk, “Horses” – Smith’s debut – is sometimes singled out as the recorded birth of the former genre. However, trying to attach the punk label to the album is the same as attempting to adjust facts to fit them inside a preconceived narrative. Where punk was a reaction to the indulgent turns popular music had taken during the preceding decade, “Horses” has two tunes that last for more than nine minutes, not to mention an opening six-minute multi-phased track; where punk was about simple instrumentation, “Horses” leans as much towards guitars as it relies on pianos and keyboards; and where punk had objective lyrics, “Horses” flirts with poetry.
That is not to say Smith lived inside a bubble that protected her from the musical revolution that was boiling around her. She was (and still is), by all means, a punk, whether due to the emotional rawness of her performance or because of how she challenged the social and musical establishment; her free poetic spirit, though, led her to grounds only she could reach. “Horses” carries a rather unique combination of rawness and artistic impulse: Smith sings her lyrics as if she were an actor on a stage or a poet who, in an explosive recital, declaims their work like a fiery preacher reads a bible; her band, meanwhile, sounds reckless; and producer John Cale, of The Velvet Underground fame, makes them strike a perfect balance between a hard rock and roll edge and fine art, an equilibrium he knew quite well as the viola player of a group that merged the rock universe with avant-garde aspirations.
“Horses” opens up with a track that perfectly captures that mixture. “Gloria”, the cover of an anthemic Them song, has the energy of its three-chord construction preserved; Smith, however, preludes it with an original piano segment that slowly builds up to the moment her band kicks in. What follows is a sequence of seven songs that, sometimes within the same track, wildly navigate between a highly artistic spectrum and a realm where confrontational punk rock towers over everything else. In “Birdland”, “Break It Up”, “Land”, and “Elegie, Smith makes one question the limits that separate lyrics and poetry; she evokes powerful clashing images and launches them upwards with great power, creating dream-like explosions where thousands of shards of feelings and meanings float in the air waiting to be captured by attentive listeners. She does it solely by using a piano and the sound of her moving voice (as in the brief “Elegy”; or in the lengthy “Birdland”, that starts out quietly and eventually makes its way to a cathartic gripping climax); by going for sheer rock in “Break It Up”, which features the skilled guitar playing of Television’s Tom Verlaine; or by merging both strands of her sound in the three-part epic that is “Land”.
At the same time, Smith also emerges victorious when a more straightforward pop rock vein takes over. In “Redondo Beach”, she uses a reggae backdrop to tell the story of woman desperately looking for her lover, whose body has appeared on the titular location following suicide by drowning; in the dramatic “Free Money”, she talks about the relentless poverty her family was stuck in during her youth; and in “Kimberly”, written for her baby sister, verses that are guided by bass and drums anticipate the post-punk sound a couple of years before it became mainstream. In just eight tracks, then, “Horses” holds more value, variety, and artistic courage than many bands and songwriters are able to achieve in their entire careers. In slightly more than forty minutes, Patti Smith exposes punk rock to the world, shuns the limitations of the movement, experiments (and succeeds) in an astounding variety of styles, proves that writing lyrics can work as an exercise in poetry given the right amount of talent, and shows her worth both as a rock and roll singer and as a declaimer that makes her voice be heard amidst the urban chaos. It is no wonder “Horses” is often proclaimed to be one of the greatest albums of all time.
Album: Armed Forces
Artist: Elvis Costello
Released: January 5th, 1979
Highlights: Accidents Will Happen, Oliver’s Army, Busy Bodies, Two Little Hitlers
How much sneer and acid rhetoric can the length of a pop record contain? As the trilogy that opens Elvis Costello’s career reveals, that amount is off the charts. In a time when punks decorated lyrics against the system and social norms with garage rock ethos, Costello channeled that same level of anger towards lovers and relationships, adorning his corrosive cannon with new wave elements and rock and roll straightforwardness. The confrontational attitude was the same, but it was expressed in a quite different manner. “Armed Forces” was the third and final leg of that trio of records, and it was also the one in which the pop leanings of new wave were more pronounced. Keyboards and sleek production had already begun to leak into Costello’s sound in the spectacular “This Year’s Model”, but in “Armed Forces” the levee breaks and the tracks are assaulted by smooth organs and synths, making it far removed from the sloppy roughness of the artist’s debut, “My Aim Is True”.
One of the reasons behind that evolution is quite obvious: the further integration of The Attractions, Costello’s backing band, into his music. First appearing in “This Year’s Model”, by the time of “Armed Forces” the group composed of Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, and Pete Thomas had earned the right to often take over the songs. And, like good punks, they do so. Differently from most ensembles of the era, though, Elvis and The Attractions do not succumb to the keyboards, they are propelled by them, as the instrument is turned into a searing tool that augments their indignation. Ironically, however, even though “Armed Forces” is by far the most pop-sounding record of that initial career arch, it is also the one with the smallest quantity of immediate hooks. It is not that it is lacking in that department, as Elvis – in his paranoia and fast enunciation – is still producing plenty of remarkable moments; it is just that the material here, as a whole, pales in comparison to what came right before it.
In terms of elucidating his rage, though, Costello has not lost a step. His lyrics aim for his usual targets, and he hits them with the accuracy of a man who knows how to use words as weapons. When it comes to relationships, Elvis dissects the banality of infidelity (“Accidents Will Happen”), the harms done by the media via their scrutinizing and misinterpretation of celebrity encounters (“Party Girl”), the struggle for the upper hand (“Two Little Hitlers”), the inevitable failings that happen despite all good intentions involved (“Big Boys”), and pulls off a grand metaphor between chemical phenomena and attraction (“Chemistry Class”). Meanwhile, for politicians and society, he rises against military interventions (“Oliver’s Army”), mocks the emptiness of a career in the army (“Goon Squad” and “Sunday’s Best”), reveals the sociopaths created by the wish to climb the corporate ladder (“Senior Service”), points the finger at brainwashing mechanisms (“Moods for Moderns” and “Green Shirt”), and laughs at the rat race (“Busy Bodies”).
Whether it is in ideas, excellent one-liners, tasteful playing, and catchy songwriting, “Armed Forces” packs content whose size and weight is equivalent to the parade of elephants that seems about to explode out of its cover. With the 80s fast approaching, and the need to look for new inspiration for his compositions, it may be a record that ends up – at least sonically – removing a bit of the edge off Costello’s music. However, as an artist that – from the get go – presented himself as a man who could seamlessly introduce pop stylings into the rebellious aura of punk and rock and roll, the step taken in “Armed Forces” was nothing but natural. While, here, he may occasionally falter in a couple of tracks, he is still able to uncover a stunning number of shining gems.
Album: Hunky Dory
Artist: David Bowie
Released: December 17th, 1971
Highlights: Changes, Oh You Pretty Things, Life on Mars?, Queen Bitch
As a music star that became known, among many reasons, for often metamorphosing into new characters or abruptly embracing unexpected styles, it is not surprising to say that, with “Hunky Dory”, David Bowie turned a corner. Doing so was his trade, and before his fourth record the artist had already undergone a couple of drastic changes, as the whimsical baroque pop weirdo of “David Bowie” had become the folk singer of “Space Oddity”, who – in turn – eventually emerged as an extravagant hard rocker of Black Sabbath inspirations in “The Man Who Sold the World”. The shift presented by “Hunky Dory”, however, feels bigger and more significant than the mutations that preceded it, for while the works that were crafted before it came off as the products of a songwriter tapping into multiple genres as some sort of musical soul-searching, “Hunky Dory” is the eureka moment; the epiphany of a man who suddenly found what he had been looking for whilst fumbling in the darkness.
Therefore, “Hunky Dory” is pivotal. It is not that Bowie had yet to birth any classic tunes; after all, songs like “Space Oddity”, “The Width of a Circle”, and “The Man Who Sold the World” had already been launched into existence. It is just that “Hunky Dory” is more refreshing, original, and consistent than anything else he had done by 1971. The unabashed quirks and soothing orchestration of his debut, the acoustic flavors of his sophomore outing, and the flamboyant guitars of his third effort are still vividly present, sometimes combined in the same track but more frequently serving as the backbones of distinct tunes. The difference is those pieces sound stronger here, not only because they give birth to tunes that are mostly excellent, but also due to how Bowie has found a realm to call his own: an explosion of warm and welcoming pop sensibilities that is unafraid to drag its listeners towards weird turns of psychedelia and experimentation.
That journey starts with four immaculate and immediately classic piano-led tunes: “Changes”, with its introspective mediation accompanied by horns and strings; “Oh You Pretty Things”, which quickly goes from quiet ballad to glam rock swagger when it reaches its chorus; “Eight Line Poem”, where a tasteful slide guitar enhances the beauty of a testament to musical simplicity; and “Life On Mars?”, an orchestrated epic that seamlessly integrates a simple trip to the cinema and deep existential questions. Following that sequence, and having soothed his listeners into the experience, Bowie dares to open the doors to an absolute madhouse of styles and experiments: he adds British traits to a Neil Young inspired folk country sing-along (“Kooks”); goes operatic in a beautiful multi-phased ballad that rises from an acoustic strum to an orchestrated piece filled with harmonies and layers of sound (“Quicksand”); and pays homage to some of his idols either by covering their songs (“Fill Your Heart”, originally performed by Biff Rose), name-dropping them (“Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan”), or tackling the same themes in which they thrived (“Queen Bitch”, a hard-rocking tune that nods to The Velvet Underground by being centered around a transvestite).
Bowie wraps the trip up with “The Bewlay Brothers”, a psychedelic ballad whose unpredictability and stream-of-consciousness lyrics mirror the schizophrenia that affected his brother. Although the more experimental side of “Hunky Dory” does not pack the undeniable greatness of its opening tracks, as it alternates great moments with a few songs that are slightly lacking, it reveals Bowie as an artist that would – through the length of his career – challenge his listeners in surprising ways, throwing odd curveballs at them amidst all the remarkable hits. Therefore, even though Bowie’s artistic character was nearly unidentifiable due to its mercurial nature, “Hunky Dory” established the general framework he would follow: that of a man who knew how to explore music in both its most accessible and daring facets.
Album: Boys Don’t Cry
Artist: The Cure
Released: February 5th, 1980
Highlights: Boys Don’t Cry, Jumping Someone Else’s Train, Fire in Cairo, Three Imaginary Boys
Through the long and excellent arch of their career, The Cure became kings of all existing musical tones of sadness, melancholy, and depression. They did it through the dark jangle of “Seventeen Seconds”, the lethargic hopelessness of “Faith”, the violent sorrow of “Pornography”, the accessible pop rock of “The Head on the Door”, the kaleidoscopic variety of “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me”, and layered beauty of “Disintegration”. However, before throwing themselves into the dark pit they have inhabited until nowadays, only occasionally coming out of it to deliver joyful sugar-coated hits, The Cure was a lot like The Beatles. No, it is not that Robert Smith and his crew were employing immaculate harmonies to sing about girls, dates, and teenage love; The Cure has never had the vocal assets to pull that off, and Smith’s emotional crises tend to swing to far more disturbing themes. What the band was doing, instead, was delivering a barrage of short songs with immediate choruses, catchy hooks, and straightforward structures.
The Cure stood within that musical spectrum for long enough to produce an album’s worth of material and a handful of great singles, and these tunes were compiled under the title “Boys Don’t Cry” – which was the name of the best of their 7-inch releases – for what would be their American full-length debut. “Boys Don’t Cry” is far stronger than its British counterpart, called “Three Imaginary Boys”, because it drops some of its least interesting tracks and replaces them with a trio of strong singles: “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Killing an Arab”, and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”, therefore capturing the very best of what Robert Smith, Michael Dempsey, and Lol Tolhurst wrote and performed during those early years.
Despite the comparisons to The Beatles that “Boys Don’t Cry” tends to evoke due to its delightful simplicity, the album is firmly grounded in the ethos of the genre that dominated its context: post-punk. Consequently, “Boys Don’t Cry” does have a rough do-it-yourself aura, some tinges of restrained anger, and a careless demeanor (which is constantly at odds with a relatively foggy production). Contrarily to what most of their post-punk counterparts were doing, though, The Cure does not abandon the rejected musical and sociological idealism of punk to explore the shades that exist outside of rock music; what they do, instead, is ride loud drums and a melodic bass that stand in the forefront of most tracks, as well as a distinctive guitar tone and strum that fill the empty corners of the tunes, towards fantastic melodies that are delivered by Smith’s usual and lovable awkwardness.
Save for the odd experimentation of “Subway Song”, “Boys Don’t Cry” is an album where all tracks are as sticky (in a good way) as bubblegum; remembering the core hook or the chorus of every song long after one has listened to the album is not hard. Some of its moodier and more monotonic tunes – namely, the very good duo of “Another Day” and “Three Imaginary Boys” – strongly point in the direction of the dark alleys and forests into which the band would soon walk; still, for the most part “Boys Don’t Cry” is made up of brief energetic explosions that are as quick to capture listeners as they are to reach the end of their run, as just a couple of tracks here last for over three minutes. “Boys Don’t Cry” is, as such, The Cure’s most accessible work, even if – in hindsight – it is not representative of the band, making it work as an interesting curiosity for fans that have stuck with Robert Smith for the long run, and as an approachable and well-done look into the rock of the early 80s for everyone else.