Patti SmithRadio Ethiopia
Released 1976 on Arista
Reviewed by Lawrence, 22/06/2012ce
Of course everyone knows what an unforgettable piece of art Horses was, not only inspiring tons of women-rockers (of course) but with the track "Land" lots of disaffected teenage-soon-to-be-artists of the male variety as well -- anyone from Michael Stipe (REM) to Gary Mundy (Ramleh -- remember his own record label was named after another Patti Smith song) and also yours truly. Although it was also "Birdland" that initially made me think "Wow!"
After hearing Horses for the first time (in '82 I think it was...), right afterwards I found Radio Ethiopia with a sticker on it that said "Factory sealed for your protection" as though I was buying a pack of Tylenol. But upon hearing it, my first impression was disappointment. Maybe it might have been the grainy production value. Or else just that the lengthy liner notes seemed to suggest something much more daring and radical than this record wound up sounding like. (The cover photo even made Patti look like she just hung out with the Baader-Meinhof gang or something to that effect...)
The critics weren't kind to this record from what I hear, maybe for the same reasons. Or maybe just that 1976 wasn't exactly a banner year for music -- rock had become more of a commodity at the time, and less of an artistic statement. It might have been that weary journalists just didn't have time for what seemed on the surface a slightly lackluster album.
But even as I was underwhelmed at first, there were at least two stand-out tracks. Including the title one (of course), still regarded as a masterpiece. It didn't matter that it was gibberish -- the primal musical backing said all that mere words couldn't say, and that was the point.
But also there was "Poppies" -- the main subject is given away by the title, but it's still quite astonishing. Starting out almost innocuously MOR/AOR with ice-cool lounge-y Fender Rhodes, from there it subtly turns into a harrowing ride through drug-induced excess and damaged bodily-functions. I can't help but like a track with such horror packed into it!
But this is the one Patti Smith album that is a slow-burner and probably intended to be. Once you get past the production, the two spirited rockers that open each side, "Ask the Angels" and "Pumping (My Heart)", are quite audacious indeed, especially the latter. "Ain't It Strange" had (of course) that iconic bassline that inspired one Julian Cope to nick for his first song, but it's also as much a vocal tour-d-force as the first two tracks I had mentioned -- Patti really using her voice as an instrument in itself. Sounding like a woman possessed, I wonder if Diamanda Galas also heard this. "Pissing In a River" is as passionate as anything off Horses.
"Distant Fingers" is the only track that still falls a bit flat, though. But it's the last collaboration with Blue Oyster Cult member Allen Lanier, and you can actually pick out Lanier's typical BOC-ish chord progressions within.
So I'd say as far as Patti Smith albums that were pivotal in my life, this stands as number three. It's a bit ironic about her defiance against God here, when she later went back to God after an unfortunate stage accident (or so the legend goes...) If you weren't turned on by Radio Ethiopia before try and listen again -- it's not the kind of record that's easy to like, but is eventually rewarding.