rock n’ roll nigger – patti smith group

This ones a bit of a twofer because one of the things I love about this song is the way it tumbles into view from the song before it.

The into track (Babelouge) is a piece of angry spoken word political righteousness (the refrain At heart I am American, at heart I am a Muslim would still provoke some today)over a slow building riff that cuts loose just as Rock & Roll Nigger the song proper kicks in.

This track is at odds with the acceptable norm possibly more so now than when it was recorded. I can’t speak for how things were at the time as I was too young to hear it in context. But I know Patti is a feminist, a humanist, a bleeding heart liberal and all round good egg so I know she’s not purposefully taking ‘that’ word and using it to offend another creed of human. But I also know this is meant to be an uncomfortable and challenging listen. It’s proper protest music. It’s elementary in it’s technique and all the more effective for it.

The song itself sounds like it was recorded live. The energy and buzz the band are slopping all over the notes is infectious. As Patti rattles through a reference list including Shakespeare, Jesus, Allah, Grandma and Jackson Pollock it sound laser focussed in subject but stream of consciousness in delivery.

There’s also one of the coolest handovers in rock history. When Patti throws over to Lenny Kaye for his turn on lead vocals he cuts one of the greatest moments in the history of punk rock in two lines of lyrics.

The most contentious element of the song is thrashed around with even more abandon towards the climax of the track. The build up from ‘Jimi Hendrix’ to ‘Nigger Nigger Nigger Nigger Nigger Nigger’ goading the boundaries of of good taste and acceptablity from ‘outside of society’.

If there were protest music like this in the 21st century the powers that be would consider pop music dangerous again.

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