Patti Smith's "Hey Joe" single (1974)

What was the first punk rock song? This is a hard question to answer, because there is much debate about where and when punk rock began. Many people hold the belief that the punk rock movement was born in June of 1976 when the Sex Pistols played a legendary "gig that changed the world" in Manchester. Others will argue that the movement's real beginnings stretch back to the late '60's, when such artists as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and the MC5 paved the way for future innovators and troublemakers who thumbed their noses at fashion. And others will say that punk rock's seeds were planted a few years earlier still, by the '60's garage-rock bands whose songs were compiled on the Nuggets compilations.

In fact, the liner notes written for the original Nuggets double-LP released by Elektra in 1972 contained what is believed to be the first known use of the term "punk-rock". Those notes were written by music-critic-turned-musician Lenny Kaye, who said in those same notes that punk rock was a "name that has been unofficially coined" for the garage rockers, suggesting that he was not the person who originally coined the term.

Still, Kaye has been given credit for coining the term, and at least one school of thought also would argue that Kaye was involved in the recording of the first punk rock song, because Patti Smith's 1974 debut single "Hey Joe" has been given that recognition by some pundits. Of course, given what we know, this view is also questionable, but Smith's version of "Hey Joe" (a song with its own confused history) may have been the first punk rock song that was sung by a woman.

Before becoming a recording artist, Smith had also been a rock journalist, as well as a poetess. Smith performed spoken-word poetry readings in New York in the early '70's, with Kaye providing guitar accompaniment. Their stage act eventually led to the recording of the "Hey Joe" single, on which Smith was backed by Kaye on guitar, and by the late Richard Sohl on piano. The single was recorded 40 years ago today on June 5, 1974, during the year before the release of Smith's 1975 debut album Horses.

Although Smith's version of "Hey Joe" is based more on Jimi Hendrix's most-famous version than on the version by the Leaves that appeared on Nuggets, this is entirely and indisputably Smith's own rendition. The song's then-topical intro is a ribald spoken-word rant about Patty Hearst, and the song returns to that subject at the end, using the abducted heiress as a symbol of youthful revolution. In between those two points, the lyrics tell the song's usual story about a man named Joe who shoots his cheating wife, and then plans to flee to Mexico to escape the law. (In this version, "Joe" has been interpreted as somehow representing Patty Hearst's father, Randolph Apperson Hearst). Smith's proto-punk vocals presaged those of many women who would later carry the alternative rock banner. She begins the song coming on like a improvisational poetess, and then slowly weaves the song's different subjects together with her expressive singing. Tom Verlaine of Television played the lead guitar on this track, and the languid backing by Verlaine, Kaye, and Sohl is alternately reminiscent of Hendrix and of the early, John Cale era of the Velvet Underground. An effective piece of New York performance art.

The B-side, "Piss Factory", is an angry free-flowing rant in which Smith vents about her time working in a toy factory as a teenager, and the determination she felt to move on to New York and to better things. Smith's vocals are unmelodic almost to the point of being spoken-word, but Sohl's creative piano accompaniment helps the song make some musical sense. Smith uses unapologetically crude and obscene imagery (both literal and metaphoric) to describe her miserable experience at that workplace. This song is as good an example as any to illustrate why Smith is called "the godmother of punk".

(Notes: "Piss Factory" is currently available on the compilation CD Land (1975-2002). The "Hey Joe" single was re-released in 1977 on Sire Records, catalogue no. SRE 1009. The single was also reissued on Record Store Day 2017 by Rhino Records, in a 2,250-copy limited edition).

Patti Smith "Hey Joe (Version)" (b/w "Piss Factory") (Mer single 601) 1974

Track Listing:

a. Hey Joe (Version)
b. Piss Factory

This was the "Special Collector's Edition" released by Sire Records in 1977.