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Primer playlist: a 15-track introduction to Patti Smith

Our member-only guide to the inspirational work of poet and punk trailblazer, Patti Smith

Patti Smith: godmother of punk, gifted poet and an avid fan of British detective series. Born Patricia Lee Smith in 1946 in Chicago, Smith moved to New York in 1967 where she quickly inserted herself into the city’s thriving bohemian arts scenes.

Patti Smith’s start in music began with her sense of herself as a poet and writer; her first album Horses is notable for its raw lyricality. With Smith’s snarling vocals and the whirling near-improvised instrumentals, it pioneered a heart-on-sleeve punk style that would become Smith’s calling card. It now stands out as a seminal album of the era. 

She went on to release Radio Ethiopia the following year – a harsher album still laden with Patti’s sense of punk elegy – and Easter in 1978, which featured her most commercially successful track ‘Because The Night’, co-written by Bruce Springsteen. Outside of its commercial success, Easter is brimming with the anger and energy of a more overt social commentary, and it sees Patti turning her punk confessional style on the powers that be.

Patti was absent from the music scene for much of the 1980s; she met her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of MC5, and left New York for Michigan to raise a family. She returned briefly in 1988 with Dream Of Life, an instrumentally softer album that succumbed to the slightly naffer musical techniques of the ’80s. In spite of that, it’s still a beautifully lyrical album, mixing both her personal life and political beliefs as inspirations; it features ‘People Have The Power’, which went on to be a staple of Smith’s live sets, and ‘The Jackson Song’, written for her young son.

In the mid-’90s, after the deaths of both her husband and brother in quick succession, Smith moved back to New York and released three albums — Gone Again, Peace & Noise and Gung Ho — in four years. All three are tinged with the effects that these personal tragedies had on her and are markedly darker than her earlier work. 

Patti’s 2007 album Twelve is the covers album that no one asked for, but strangely enough it works supremely well. She puts her downtempo, desperate, growling spin on tracks as diverse as ‘Boy In The Bubble’, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Pastime Paradise’, reminding anyone who’d forgotten exactly why she’s the godmother of punk. 

As well as being a musical figure and icon for many, Patti Smith’s way into music was through her words. Her 2010 memoir Just Kids told her story through the lens of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe and won widespread critical acclaim for her poetic prose. Her two following books, M Train and Year of the Monkey, are more contemporary, fragmented accounts of Patti’s life and travels while on tour over the past few years.

More recently, Patti released 2012’s Banga, her first original release since 2004, that showed she’d lost none of her attitude or spirituality and her refusal to compromise on either. She’s also been collaborating with Soundwalk Collective, a group who, since their inception in 2000, have been experimenting with reaching a divine state, forgetting themselves entirely through improvisation. Over three albums – The Peyote Dance, Mummer Love and 2020’s Peradam – Smith’s spoken word alternates between biting and soothing, coaxing the listener into a meditative reverie that, if it doesn’t bring you closer to your god, will bring you closer to her.

Now well into her 70s, Patti Smith is still performing, writing, giving lectures, playing gigs, making music, signing books. She has a ceaseless energy for life and art in all its forms that has allowed her to have a lengthy career while always remaining true to her own sense of things. This short playlist is only a glimpse into her wonderful world – I implore you to dive into her back catalogue head-first after listening.

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