Classic Music Review: Radio Ethiopia by Patti Smith

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Too bad it wasn’t an EP, but click to buy anyway.

Critical darling one minute, sloppy seconds the next.

The musical press transformed Patti Smith from artistic genius to dump job in their collective outrage over Radio Ethiopia. Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone (who else?) sounded positively apoplectic: “”Her band is basically just another loud punk-rock gang of primitives, riff-based and redundant. The rhythm is disjointed, the guitar chording trite and elementary.” Others attacked her for equally silly reasons: that she collaborated with fellow band members on songwriting duties; that she had turned into another self-indulgent prima donna; and, of course, that she had sold out.

Sold out? Pretty haughty talk from critics working for music media outlets who accept millions in advertising dollars from the recording industry. Patti Smith fully admitted that she wanted Radio Ethiopia to be a more commercial record. Other than William Blake and Emily Dickinson, there have been very few artists in any field who didn’t want to make a few bucks doing what they loved to do. The Beatles “sold out” when Brian Epstein bought them tailored suits and made them stop smoking and eating on stage. Why is Please, Please Me #37 in Rolling Stone’s best albums of all-time list and not branded the “sell-out” that it was?

The music business is a filthy business, and no one comes out of it smelling like a rose, including and especially music critics who sold themselves out when they took their fucking jobs.

While no music critic can entirely avoid introducing their biases into their work, there are certain ethical fundamentals that all critics should observe, and number one is never compare this album to the last one. That stance makes the critic a prisoner of expectations and places the critic in the position of arrogantly deciding what the artist is permitted to do and what they are not. Each work should be evaluated on its own merits or lack thereof. You don’t need to compare Oasis’ Be Here Now to Morning Glory to know that the former is a piece of shit, so why even go there?

Horses was a unique experience that could never have been replicated anyway. If it had come out after Radio Ethiopia, critics would have probably slammed Patti for getting away from her rock-and-roll roots.

Harrumph!

The fact that things had changed for Patti Smith is clearly indicated on the album cover. This is the Patti Smith Group, not plain ol’ Patti Smith. She’s still the star of the show but Radio Ethiopia is a more collaborative effort. As far as it being a more commercial effort, that might be true, but since it didn’t sell particularly well, there’s no hard evidence to support that assertion, and many of the songs (especially the title track) distinctly lack commercial appeal. In its best moments, Radio Ethiopia is a hard-rocking album with strong attitude and more experimentation than the critics would have you believe. Patti Smith’s vocals are frequently characterized by power and energy, and she had one hell of a band backing her up.

Radio Ethiopia opens with a brilliant lesson of simplicity and tension in rock ‘n’ roll with “Ask the Angels”. The sharp electric guitar chords that open the song alternate between F# and D, hinting at the root key of A but refusing to go there. Drums and bass come in to fill some space and Patti’s right behind with some terribly sexy cooing on the word “mo–ooove” that tells you right then and there that she’s got the feeling. She then launches into a high-energy vocal while leaving the listener aching for the resolution that finally comes when the chords shift to the root in the chorus. Patti never lets up, motivating the band to keep this sucker moving. Lenny Kaye gets in a few good licks in his solos, Jay Dee Daugherty supplies a no-nonsense beat and Ivan Kral seals his reputation as one of the best bass players in the decade. While there are intermittent peaks in the “Wild! Wild! Wild! Wild” choruses, the track accelerates on Patti’s key line: “And rock and roll is what I’m born to be.” From there the band leaves us in exquisite tension by staying on the V chord of the chorus for several measures, where Patti Smith proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she can be one hell of a rock ‘n’ roll singer when she chooses to be:

Ask the angels if they’re startin’ to move
Comin’ in droves in from L.A.
Ask the angels if they’re starting to groove
Lightning as armor and it’s today, it’s wild, wild, wild, wild
Wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild wild wild wild

The song ends in tension, never resolving back to the root. It makes you want to scream for more or reach for a cigarette if your fingers are resting close to your sweet spot as mine often do when listening to rock ‘n’ roll. What a kick-ass song! No wonder Brody Armstrong (Dalle) and The Distillers had to cover it—it’s a perfect vehicle for Brody’s rough, rich growl and unflagging energy. The lyrics deal with the common thread between the wildness that makes us want to fuck and the wildness that makes want to kill—our less civilized instincts, so to speak. When I listen to “Ask the Angels,” though, I don’t give a damn about the lyrics. This baby rocks!

“Ain’t It Strange” is more of a heavy rock dirge, marked by Jay Dee’s thumping drums and Lenny Kaye’s clever guitar picking that opens the song and serves as a counterpoint throughout the verses, progressing to greater distortion and intensity. Patti’s vocal is somewhere between mumbling and running off at the mouth, like a speed freak who’s desperately trying to hear the sound of her own voice to convince her that she’s real in a weird, weird world. The scenes depicted in the lyrics continue the pattern of dichotomy of “Ask the Angels;” here the two polar opposites are crack house (or heroin den) and place of worship (temple or pagoda). The mood of the song is what makes it work: the contrast between Patti’s suspended vocals and the ritualistic jungle beat creates a feeling of wooziness, like the song is moving to the uncertain steps you take when you’re flying high or shit-faced drunk.

Not everything works on Radio Ethiopia, and “Poppies” is Exhibit 1 for the prosecution. The shift from rock to slow funk is itself rather refreshing, but the poetry and Patti’s slurry method of delivering the lines, while consistent with the story of a female heroin addict, turn promising into tedious pretty fast. If you search for the song’s tabs on the Net, you’ll find only Ivan Kral’s bass lines, easily the best contribution to a pretty weak and very long track. “Poppies” contains a few lines towards the end of the song about the act of excreting waste, which I suppose serves as a lead-in for the next track, “Pissing in a River.” The image is a rather strong metaphor for lost love and the wasted energy spent trying to save a doomed relationship:

My bowels are empty, excreting your soul
What more can I give you? Baby, I don’t know
What more can I give you to make this thing grow?
Don’t turn your back now, I’m talking to you

Ivan Kral’s processional music slowly builds from a piano-driven lament to a no-holds barred power arrangement that mirrors the rising outrage in Patti’s vocals, in turn reflected in the poem’s rising river imagery. The references to the classic torch song “Cry Me a River” hint at a desire for revenge or at least equal opportunity suffering on the part of the ex. Although I appreciate the performance, I have a hard time relating to the “look what I’ve done for you” orientation, which is a really pointless argument to make to someone who has chosen not to continue the relationship. While Patti does show some signs of self-reflection (“Should I pursue a path so twisted?/Should I crawl defeated and gifted?”), she never comes to the realization that a relationship is worthless unless both parties choose it, and comes across as the poor victim, a rather conventional and self-defeating stance for a woman to take.

Patti is a thousand times stronger in “Pumping (My Heart),” a take-no-prisoners rocker that lives up to its repeated theme of “total abandon.” Once again proving she can be a great rock ‘n’ roll singer, Patti is on a high fever on this piece, bending the blue notes like a pro and adding a deliciously sexy sneer to the entire performance. The band is as tight as a deep fuck, mixing screaming guitar, pumping bass and get-the-fuck-on-with-it drumming that must have given Patti plenty of reason to “free the hurricane” and deliver big time. That sweet phrase—“free the hurricane”—is exactly the way I feel when I haven’t gotten any for a day or two and I’m ready to explode. Patti also does a masterful job of linking the sex-violence dynamic, this time in a more positive and less destructive way than she did in “Ask the Angels”:

Oh, I go into the center of the airplane
Baby gotta go to the center of my brain
And my heart starts pumping, my fists start pumping
Got no recollection of my past reflection

So I’m free to move in the resurrection
And my heart starts pumping and my fists start pumping

My heart pumping
My heart pumping
My heart pumping

Coming in the airport, coming in the sea
Coming in the garden, got a conscious stream
Coming in a washroom, coming in a plane
Coming in a force field, coming in my brain

And my heart, my heart
Total abandon, total abandon, total abandon
Total abandon, total abandon, total abandon
Total abandon

Hmm. I’ve come in an airport, come on a boat, shot in a garden, jacked off in a washroom, had several orgasms on planes (I highly recommend masturbation to relieve the dreariness of a transatlantic flight) and I’m forever coming in my brain. That leaves force fields. Anybody got a spare force field they can lend me?

On “Distant Fingers,” Patti borrows Peter Reich’s wish for alien rescue in “Land” on Horses and makes it her own. The hard reggae beat is given a sexier treatment with a heavier bass line, stronger drum punch and hot electric guitar from Lenny Kaye, inspiring movement that combines swaying and grinding in a very mood-enhancing fashion. The lyrics, though, have little to do with sex (sniff), instead focusing on Patti’s sense of disconnection from the Earth and its inhabitants and an almost childlike desire for the aliens to come and take her away:

Deep in the forest I whirl like I did as a little girl
Let my eyes rise in the sky looking for you
Oh, you know, I would go anywhere at all
‘Cause no star is too far with you, with you

La, la, la, la, la, la, landing
Please, oh, oh, won’t you return?
Feel, feel my heart expanding
You and your alien arms

All my earthly dreams are shattered
I’m so tired, I quit
Take me forever, it doesn’t matter
Deep inside of your ship

Though the song may seem silly to ET-skeptics and sci-fi loathers, Patti makes a full commitment to her performance, just as The Shangri-Las did with their allegedly melodramatic pieces. I find this one of her most charming and delightful songs because of the sincere delight and fervent hope she expresses in describing her fantasy. Compared to David Bowie’s muddled sci-fi meanderings of the time, “Distant Voices” expresses the very common wish for rescue from our fucked-up world, its apparently insolvable problems and the existential isolation we ironically feel on an overcrowded planet.

The last twelve minutes of Radio Ethiopia are bloody fucking awful, as bad or worse than any of the pointless jams of the psychedelic period. From the irritating siren-like noises that open the track to the deliberate guitar squeaks to Patti’s unintelligible gibberish, there is very little in “Radio Ethiopia” or “Abyssinia” to engage even the most charitable listener. Patti loved the piece and has spoken of its references to Rimbaud’s dying wishes and the sculpture of Brancusi, but I don’t read any connection to the ramblings of a man suffering from cancer desperately trying to make up for a lifetime of blasphemy by cuddling up to the angels, nor do I hear any reflection of Brancusi’s sleek and simple curves in the horrible music. You can file these last two tracks in the “Self-Indulgent Crap” file and lift the needle at the end of “Distant Fingers.”

Radio Ethiopia would have been a much better album with more consistency, but it’s hardly the Titanic the critics would have you believe. When Patti and the band are rocking, they’re on fire; when her poetry and vocal approach are in sync, Patti intensifies the meaning of a song as well as anyone. Getting rid of the longer tracks makes for a damned fine EP, and any EP with “Ask the Angels” and “Pumping (My Heart)” is an automatic classic.

The critics may not have felt that way, but what happened after Radio Ethiopia is quite enlightening about the nature of music criticism in a commercially-oriented world. After a horrible fall from a stage during a performance, Patti took some time to recuperate and then came back with Easter, her most pop-oriented and commercial recording of all. Given the accusations of sell-out occasioned by the much less commercial Radio Ethiopia, one might naively think that the critics would have dismissed her completely and unceremoniously dumped her from future coverage.

Au contraire! The critics loved Easter! They went especially gaga over Patti’s collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on “Because the Night.” Our old friend Dave Marsh wrote in Rolling Stone that the Easter was “transcendent and fulfilled.”

Of course he did. Bruce Springsteen was Jann Wenner’s boy. Classic cross-marketing strategy.

Assholes.

2 responses

  1. I always found the accusation of commercialism here puzzling: while Radio Ethiopia, while being more riff heavy in places, seems to me, with Patti’s speed-freak mumbling on most the tracks, and the desultory nature of most the second side, less inaccessible than Horses, which comparatively is more melodic for the most part in its framework.

    I feel about Easter the same way you do about this record. I’ll take about half of it. And I’ll leave Because the Night, Space Monkey and Jimmy Iovine for someone else.

    (Side note: Springsteen made a cameo on Lou Reed’s Street Hassle the same year as his Patti Smith collaboration. There must have been some serious PR work going on in the Springsteen camp. There was also his token championing of Suicide….)

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  2. […] Patti Smith Radio Ethiopia […]

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