In a rare series of candid interviews in 1971, the young and — at the time, virtually unknown — New York rock-poet Patti Smith discussed her bittersweet love affair with the Big Apple and the impressions it continues to make on her as a young artist. Recorded for a BBC documentary titled West Side Stories: Two Journeys into New York City, Smith told the crew of cameramen, with a casual albeit abnormal degree of discernment for a 24-year-old, “The city [of New York] reshapes itself all the time. It changes everyday. One day, there’s a romantic little back-street. The next day, it becomes a death yard for tractors and that kind of stuff. You have to be able to accept that. You can’t be destroyed by change here, and you can’t get destroyed with the changes inside yourself.”
It’s a basic truism that an artist has their entire life to create a great, first record, yet less than a year to make their second. I would presume that it’s especially difficult when your debut record is one of the greatest rock albums ever made. It makes sense to then think that in order to top a record like Horses and maintain a desired standard of artistic integrity, one may have to break a bit from certain conventions to effectively push the bar. Like New York City itself, the city that literally made Smith into the kind of artist that gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Radio Ethiopia marked a pivotal time for Patti and her ride-or-die band of punks to continue to progress with the tides of their own lofty ambitions. Somewhat overshadowed by their two breakout hits, Horses (1975) and Easter (1978), Radio Ethiopia has become an important footnote in most discussions concerning Patti as an artist and her deliberately primitive, experimental follow-up.
“Everybody thought we sold out”, Smith confides with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore during a 1995 BOMB Magazine interview. Radio Ethiopia was ultimately received with enough deflated expectation and scathing criticisms by publications, critics, and rock snobs to make it a significant flop of a record. It was considered trashy and overly self-indulgent – sloppy seconds compared to their previous 1975 release. With songs like “Ask the Angels” and “Pumping (My Heart)”, along with the knowledge that producer Jack Douglas had been billed to help mix the album, much of the public perception was that the band was aiming for a hard rock radio sound. In a 1976 Rolling Stone review, Dave Marsh writes,“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”. Marsh then ends his savage review of the record with a particularly haughty, personal attack: “The most disturbing image on Radio Ethiopia is the picture on the liner notes of Smith gazing reverently at Harry Crosby’s opium pipe: the false artist worshiped by the real”.
I’ll admit that there are moments on the record that do seem to meander, although its these very attributes that also makes the album feel satisfyingly transgressive and alive. Its provocative means of delivering a metaphor, whether its “pissing in a river” or monologues of excreting a lover’s soul out of lovesick anguish, brings about a sense of unhinged mysticism to the lyrics and instrumentation.
In the sonically chaotic and schizophrenic world that is Radio Ethiopia, our principal finds herself within the throes of an unraveling Armageddon. Images of crack houses, battlefields, and falling angels are just some of the apocalyptic romanticism that’s continuously explored on the record. In “Ain’t It Strange”, Smith speaks of psychedelic experiences at a clubhouse down in “Vineland” where people “shoot white stuff” – beckoning her to do the same as they fall to the floor. She repeats such lines as “I’ll never end transcend transcend”, and uses images of other dimensions to posture herself as some sort of illuminated apprentice of eastern theologies. In her merging of poetry and punk rock, other tracks like “Ask The Angels” and “Poppies” exudes that same sort of spiritual, anarchistic energy.
The record opens with “Ask the Angels”, a bluesy, hard rock guitar riff that sets the tone for one of the few conventional, polished tracks off the album. The first few lines helps to illustrate the call-to-arms broadcasting of a burgeoning, unwinnable war: “Ask the angels who they’re calling / Go ask the angels if they’re calling to thee / Ask the angels while they’re falling / Who that person could possibly be.” Other standouts “Distant Fingers” and “Pumping (My Heart)”, speaks, in a crudely romantic fashion, to the yearning of love on the cusp of either falling apart or becoming whole. Many of these tracks lyrically concerns itself with the tension of losing something significant, like the affections of a significant other or admirer, in a manner that puts the singer as well as the listener as the hero of one’s own story.
Coming closer to the end of the record, things become ever more esoteric and chaotic – like static noise that over time builds up on an old, rusted radio system. The final twelve minutes of the track slows down and mostly meanders lazily through a haze of feedback and cerebral gibberish. The track “Radio Ethiopia”, is almost like the intro to a song that maybe never got made. Like finding yourself suspended in mid-air waiting for the gravity to let loose.
Even with its problems, Radio Ethiopia is a unique and compelling Patti Smith album in that it, in effect, is the record of a group of hungry artists that was still learning to play. A band feeling its way through untethered terrain – only to leave behind a grimy, sweaty residual of their own experimentation. If you are a Patti Smith fan, you will see this record as just part of the story of how she had become one of the living legends of punk and women’s liberation throughout the ’70s and beyond. It’s enjoyable in retrospect.