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Patti Smith Group

Arista 4171
Released: March 1978
Chart Peak: #20
Weeks Charted: 23

Patti SmithEaster makes good on Patti Smith's biggest boast -- that she is one of the great figures of Seventies rock & roll. More importantly perhaps, it focuses her mystical and musical visions in a way that makes her the most profoundly religious American popular performer since Jim Morrison. Clearly, there are bothersome contradictions between Smith's arrogance and her preachings, between her utter belief in the power of her own will and her absolute certainty that society's only salvation lies in a return to ecstatic ritual surrender. But Easter, like the rite on which it is based, can't be apprehended rationally: you either take it on faith or not at all.

Smith's last album, Radio Ethiopia, was a disaster for the noblest of reasons. By trying to create an egalitarian framework for the band, the singer buried herself, and the lyrics disappeared into the murk of a mediocre heavy-metal mix. (It is typical of Smith that this remarkable act of self-effacement was transparently willful.) On Easter, she steps out front again, and the band responds by playing with as much purpose, drive and conviction as anyone could ask. "25th Floor" makes the Patti Smith Group the most logical heir to the Velvet Underground, while "Space Monkey" suggests both the Doors (in the organ intro) and the New York Dolls (at the song's simian conclusion).

Patti Smith Group - Easter
Original album advertising art.
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This band isn't virtuosic, mostly because it's not a group that's interested in virtuosity. It isn't punk or New Wave either; drummer Jay Dee Daugherty gives the sound a much more solid rhythmic footing than any of the bands lumped under those rubrics. (Daughtery's emergence is a key to the band's growth.) The new keyboard player, Bruce Brody, fleshes out the melodies, which are often sketchy, and gives the guitars something to grind against. Though the arrangements aren't credited, producer Jimmy Iovine must have had a lot to do with them; their interplay of tightness and spaciousness, plus a fresh sense of dynamics, are reflective of what Iovine has learned as an engineer for John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. In its way, Easter is the kind of collaborative rock & roll the Who makes with Glyn Johns, the kind the Rolling Stones once put together with Jimmy Miller. But it is far more raw than either.

Rock & roll like this creates a perfect context for Smith, who has reduced but not abandoned the ranting that too often characterizes her live shows and all but ruined much of Radio Ethiopia. The band is now the ideal instrument of her vision: the bells of "Easter" are an invocation of both the church and a Phil Spector production. Within such a structure, Patti Smith can growl like Jim Morrison ("Space Monkey"), practice her initiatory chanting ("Ghost Dance") or purr like Darlene Love ("We Three"). On the LP's best track, "Because the Night," written with Bruce Springsteen, Smith stakes out her own turf as the first female rock & roller: she doesn't owe anything to folk music, and very little to blues. Her vocal here is as big and brutal as the music; even its sweetness is nasty, its crudity lovely.

Most importantly, Easter's clear-headed approach finally allows its creator to be something more than the great female hope of rock & roll. Smith has usually been damned or praised on the terms of what people thought she represented. Now we can at least approach an understanding of her on the grounds of what she is, and what she is trying to say. She's really a visionary, Easter tells us, and these songs are the most coherent expression of that vision; they're more sensible than most of her poetry or any of her earlier songs.

Patti Smith's entire career has been a heroic adventure, a modern quest, which perhaps explains why it has often seemed so dangerously self-destructive. (There is no resurrection without death, and Smith is thinking of a particularly religious kind of heroism, more like that of Christ of the the Babylonian Gilgamesh than that of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.) While other artists merely talk about apocalypse and chaos, Smith does her damndest to create, not just represent, the actual events.

This has led her into some egregious traps, especially when her autodidacticism runs head-on into her messianic streak. Though Smith's contention that Jackson Pollock was a "nigger" (presumably his dealings with wealthy art patrons) is amusing, her attempt to make the work respectable is foredoomed. "Rock n Roll Nigger" is an unpalatable chant because Smith doesn't understand the word's connotation, which is not outlawry but a particularly vicious kind of subjugation and humiliation that's antithetical to her motive.

But these are errors made by a true believer, perhaps the last one. Patti Smith is convinced that the music can set you free; it has certainly done so for her. Consequently, Easter's most significant song may be "Privilege (Set Me Free)," from the movie Privilege. In that film, Paul Jones (Manfred Mann's first lead singer) is seen as a caged rock star, manipulated by a totalitarian establishment, the pawn of both church and state. This is a perfect allegory for the current condition of rock & roll as it becomes just another adjunct of show business; if this is how Smith sees the dilemma of the contemporary rock star, she really is the mother of punk rock.

And, of course, that's just how she sees it. Like all heroes, this woman may have misidentified the qualities by which she earned her grace. I doubt that any mortal is capable of understanding such mysteries completely. Nonetheless, the magic of Easter is unidentifiable. It is transcendent and fulfilled, and its radiance must be honored. No one else could have made this record -- something that can't be said of most LPs -- and for a special reason: no one else in rock & roll would have the nerve to connect Lou Reed, the Bible, Rimbaud, the Paiutes, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and the MC5. I don't suppose Patti Smith can walk on water. But I'd like to see her try.

- Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone, 4/20/78.

Bonus Reviews!

With the release of Easter, Patti Smith's newest, she has come a lot closer to achieving her goals than one would have thought possible. Granted, she's self-taught, a primitive, but she's also a quick study. The experience she's gained in the years since she became an above-ground star has not been wasted on her, and she seems to have realized that, yes, she can stay true to herself and still make a record to please the folks who have not connected with her apocalyptic vision of rock-and-roll in the past -- in other words, some kind of mass public. Certainly, Easter gives the impression that a conscious effort has been expended in that direction. While I'm not suggesting that she's done a Fleetwood Mac, I think by and large the effort has succeeded; the album, overall, is very fine indeed, the first of her recorded works to induce the gooseflesh of her most moving concert appearances.

If you doubt me, then listen to "Because the Night," the album's major surprise (co-written with Bruce Springsteen!), which, if there is a God of Vinyl in heaven, will be an AM radio hit by the time you read these words. Patti gives this adult revamping of the Phil Spector teen-romance tradition everything she's got vocally (she sounds -- no kidding -- like a streetcorner Stevie Nicks), and her band, which has often been rather hit or miss, backs her to the hilt, crashing drums and all. The effect is incredibly sexy -- not the mature, womanly sensuality of Christine McVie or the winsome vulnerability of Linda Ronstadt, but sheer unadulterated lust It's the most commercial-sounding thing she's ever done, and, not coincidentally, the horniest; fevered sexuality has always been her long suit.

But almost everything else does, and wonderfully well. "Till Victory," the opener, is precisely the sort of surging attention grabber the Rolling Stones are so good at, tinged with a bit of Patti's trademark brand of martial rock fervor; "Space Monkey" is an evocative sketch of the jarringly alienated burnt-out cases that inhabit our urban cesspools, framed by a stinging riff; "Easter" is a haunting, beautifully sung excursion into Procol Harum musical territory that effectively deals with the flip side of the spiritual issues inherent in "Privilege"; and, best of all, "Rock n Roll Nigger" (the album's original title) manages to validate one of Patti's most persistently troubling and naïve preoccupations -- her idea that the Artist-as-Outsider concept enables her truly to identify with such real Third World outsiders as Jamaica's Rastafarians -- in the most direct and forceful way possible: quite simply, it rocks like mad. Lenny Kaye, Patti's collaborator and stage foil (her Keith Richard, if you will), gets a verse of his own on this one, and he does his mentor proud. He should, in fact, sing more often -- this is the Patti Smith Group, remember. At any rate, "Nigger" should be devastating as the centerpiece of her stage act.

Easter makes it clear that Patti's strength as an artist and as a woman is considerably greater than I earlier gave her credit for. She won't pander to her audience, but she will meet them halfway, and, as knowingly as she comes on, for all her overreaching, she really is an innocent and open spirit. With this album, she is on the verge of a real breakthrough, and more and more it seems reasonable to talk about her in the same terms as the rock heroes that have meant so much to both us and her. That being the case, I find I can hardly wait for the next installment.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 6/78.

Smith's third album is probably her boldest, most adventurous statement yet. Her stark lyrics, which flow like poetry, are filled with both colorful and livid imagery and blunt vocabulary, but it's her delivery which appears to have gained in strength. A primitive, sometimes uncontrolled vocal quality enforces and heightens the raw emotions within the context of her songs. Smith's backing four-piece band shines with its tight rhythms and reinforces the group's rock'n'roll identity. With the exception of a few tunes, this album contains a more fluid pop/rock feel with some moving ballads and rockers, particularly the Smith/Springsteen collaboration "Because The Night." Best cuts: "Because The Night," "Easter," "Privilege (Set Me Free)," "Rock'n'Roll Nigger."

- Billboard, 1978.

As basic as ever in its instrumentation and rhythmic thrust, but grander, more martial. That's what she gets for starting an army and hanging out with Bruce Springsteen (not to mention lusting after Ronnie Spector), and she could have done a lot worse: the miracle is that most of these songs are rousing in the way they're meant to be. Meanwhile, for bullshit -- would it be a Patti Smith album without bullshit? -- there's the stuff about "niggers" and "transformation of waste," and as if to exemplify the latter there's a great song from Privilege, a movie I've always considered one of the worst ever. Guess I'll have to look at it again. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Although it contained a hit cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night," Smith's writing was weaker on this third album. The group burns though. * * * *

- Jeff Tamarkin, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Patti Smith came back from the year-and-a-half break caused by her fall from a stage in January 1977 without having resolved the arts vs. commerce argument that had marred her second album, Radio Ethiopia. In fact, that argument was in some ways the theme of her third. Easter, produced by Bruce Springsteen associate Jimmy Iovine, was Smith's most commercial-sounding effort yet and, due to the inclusion of Springsteen's "Because the Night" (with Smith's revised lyrics), a Top Ten hit, it became her biggest seller, staying in the charts more than five months and getting into the Top 20 LPs. But Smith hadn't so much sold out as she had learned to use her poetic gifts within an album-rock context. Certainly, a song that proclaimed, "Love is an angel disguised as lust/Here in our bed until the morning comes," was pushing the limits of pop radio, and on "Babelogue," Smith returned to her days of declaiming poetry on New York's Lower East Side. That rant (significantly ending, "I have not sold my soul to God") led into the provocative "Rock N Roll Nigger," a charged rocker with a chorus that went, "Outside of society/Is where I want to be." Smith made the theme from the '60s British rock movie Privilege her own and even got into the U.K. charts with it. And on songs like "25th Floor," Iovine, Smith and her group were able to accommodate both the urge to rock out and the need to expound. So, Easter turned out to be the best compromise Smith achieved between her artistic and commercial aspirations.

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The union of Patti Smith Group and rock producer Jimmy Iovine resulted in Easter, a swaggering rock album that only begins to border on strident overconfidence. Although songs such as "Till Victory," "Ghost Dance" and "We Three" rehash some of the group's earlier (and better) efforts, the album earns high points for the gorgeous Top 20 hit "Because the Night" (co-written with Bruce Springsteen). * * *

- Christopher Scapelliti, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

The poetess of punk is at her peak in every way on this emotionally taut and driving classic that shows why she was such a cult figure. It's a masterful undertaking, melding raw energy into accessible, melodic tones, and with the help of Springsteen producer Jimmy Iovine, it leaned toward a more commercial sound and reaped this true artist her hit "Because the Night," co-written by the Boss himself. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

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