Saturday, April 23, 2011

April 23: Patti Smith, "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria"

Artist: Patti Smith
Song: "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria"
Album: Horses
Year: 1975

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For a very select group of performers, using a term like "legend" or "icon" simply does not do justice to the overall importance of their presence within the timeline of music.  These elite musicians helped to shape both the landscape of music, as well as the fabric of culture so significantly, that their name alone demands the utmost respect, and even as the generations pass, their influence and impact never fade in the least.  Furthermore, many of these artists manage to define a certain style of music, and yet simultaneously find themselves placed into a category outside of that same style, and this was perhaps no more evident than when one looks at the two years leading up to the "punk explosion" of 1977.  With the sound that would be termed as "punk" being largely developed in New York City, many contributed to its evolution, but one can easily argue that there was no figure as essential to the birth of punk than the one and only Patti Smith.  Often placed into more of an "art rock" genre, there is no question that in every way, Patti Smith "is" punk rock, and her aggressive, often chaotic musical approach remains one of the largest influences on all vocalists to this day.  Making her mark right out of the gate, her 1975 debut, Horses, stands as a pivotal moment in music history, and few songs better represent her sound, style, and scene than one can find in Patti Smith's masterful reworking of the classic song, "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria."

There is no question that the keys to "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" becoming such an unforgettable moment in music history lives within the mood and intensity that is often overwhelming, and there is no other version of the Van Morrison tune that even comes close to Patti Smith's.  Her band clearly understands just how to build tension, as well as how to give the song an amazing sense of movement, and much of this perfection comes through via the guitar of the great Lenny Kaye.  Following the brief, yet haunting piano opening from Richard Sohl, Kaye drops a pair of ringing power chords, before sliding into a perfectly toned, classic sounding progression.  It is this juxtaposition in tone and mood that instantly set the song far apart from anything else being recorded at the time, and it is the attitude he conveys via his guitar throughout the song that would be the final element in the development of the "punk sound."  Bassist Ivan Kral gives "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" a fantastic sway, and also helps the overall groove of the song to be established, proving that such can exist within a punk structure.  The playing of drummer Jay Dee Daugherty is absolutely perfect, and he manages to give a certain touch to the aggression within his playing that has rarely been matched since.  It is the way in which all of the musicians move as a single unit, building the tension to a feverish level that makes "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" so superb, and after hearing this take, one almost forgets that other artists ever even recorded the song.

However, while the music cannot be overlooked due to its energy, there is nothing that can overshadow the stunning performance of Patti Smith, and with "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" being the first track on Horses, it was this song that served as her introduction to most people.  Though she rarely does more than "speaking with purpose," there is so much going on within Smith's vocal delivery that it becomes understandable why so many later artists cite her as their primary influence.  While earlier artists had made great strides for female empowerment within music, none did so with the same success and drive as Patti Smith, and the aggression and swagger within her voice is second to none.  Smith holds nothing back, letting the music and mood carry her away, and this unrestrained performance never loses its impact, even after repeated listenings.  Yet along with the sheer force in her voice, one cannot deny the fact that Smith was (at the time) making a rather controversial statement by not changing the lyrics at all, and in fact making them even more risqué.  Her iconic opening statement of, "...Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine..." stands as one of the most stirring lyrics ever recorded, and one can easily argue that later punk bands took this as their influence when penning their own words of defiance.  The outright sexual hunger that Smith conveys is also far beyond that of any other version, and in the six minutes that "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" runs, Patti Smith was able to make herself an absolute icon for a wide range of reasons.

It is impossible to downplay or overstate the importance and influence that Patti Smith had on the development of punk, and one can even make the case that her punk attitude was never matched.  Strangely, as the years have passed, many critics have attempted to separate Smith from the punk scene, trying to "force" her into a more "hard rock" or "art rock" genre.  While many would see this as an attempt to lessen the importance of punk rock, one cannot separate the two, as Smith's contributions can still be heard across nearly every style of music.  All across her 1975 debut, Patti Smith proves that there is nothing that cannot be achieved within music, and there has rarely been as perfect a fusion of "performance art," poetry, and unrestrained rock and roll as one can experience on the album.  Yet while the record is filled with magnificent musical achievements, none are on par with Smith's re-working of "Gloria," and the way in which Smith completely rewrote the lyrics (largely retaining only the chorus) can be seen as a song of female empowerment; and one that went far beyond anything that had been done to that point.  In so many ways, Patti Smith completely defied every norm of the music industry, and when one looks at the entire history of music, it is almost impossible to find a figure that was more deserving of the title of "revolutionary."  Encapsulating the New York music scene at the time, as well as serving as a "warning" of the sound which was to come, there is simply no other song in history that can measure up to the musical brilliance that can be experienced on Patti Smith's monumental 1975 song, "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria."

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