Patti Smith’s protest anthem “People Have the Power” was a poetic exhortation of positiveness

By on March 21, 2018

“Rock n’ roll lyrics are the poetry of the masses,” Night Flight’s Pat Prescott says in our “Poets of Rock” special — which originally aired on July 15, 1988 — before telling us how, since the Sixties, rock songs have “matured into musical anthems which capture and reflect the experiences, hopes and dreams of generation after generation.”

One of the highlights here is the inclusion of iconic punk-poet heroine Patti Smith‘s “People Have the Power,” a tune written as a protest anthem and a poetic exhortation of positiveness, an affirmation encouraging people everywhere to unite together and raise up their voices in unison to fight for what they believe in.

Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!


In some circles, “People Have the Power” is seen as an ’80s successor to John Lennon‘s “Power to the People,” which Patti once called “a network of communication.”

The original concept for the song’s title came from Patti’s husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, former guitarist for the MC5, who — according to Patti’s own recollection for NME’s Song Stories in 2014 —  had come into their kitchen in their suburban Detroit home one day to tell her an idea he had for a new song:

“Patricia,” Fred told her, “People have the power. Write it.”


Patti says she was actually peeling dinner potatoes at the time, and jokes that she was “standing there with a potato peeler thinking I’d like to have the power to make him peel these potatoes, that’s what I’d like…”

Patti says that she and Fred wanted to write an anthem about “speaking truth to power,” no matter what the consequences are for the individual speaker, a song that would “inspire people to come together.”

“We had both protested the Vietnam War when we were young, we had been part of the ’60s, where our cultural voice was very strong, and we were trying to write a song that would reintroduce that energy.”


What they wanted to do, she says, was “remind the listener of the individual’s power, but also the collective power of the people, how we can do anything. That’s why at the end it goes, ‘I believe everything we dream can come to pass/Through our union, we can turn the world around/We can turn the Earth’s revolution.'”

The song’s powerful last stanza concludes with a litany of a few of the many ways “power” can be harnessed and used for good: “The power to dream, to rule/ To wrestle the Earth from fools.”


Patti Smith and her sister Linda

They spent the next few weeks writing the song, immersing themselves in the recorded speeches of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Patti went over passages in the Bible with her sister Linda.

They also watched CNN, who at the time were airing news reports about the bloody war going on in Afghanistan, who were invaded by the Russians.


Patti has also said that the catalyst for her song’s lyrics — a writer for Spin magazine wrote “it might be a pure pop pamphlet of crypto-Marxist sloganeering” — came from her personal reflection of getting older (she was in her early forties in 1988).

She also realized she was reacting to all of the pain in the world, later saying: “Human beings are incredibly strong. The human race has survived world wars and plagues. If we’re not all gifted with good situations in life, we are all gifted with personal strength. I refuse not to be optimistic.”


“People Have the Power” — the lead-off single from her 1988 Arista album Dream of Life, her first new album in nine years — made it all the way into the Top Twenty of Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Charts (#19).

Read more about “People Have the Power” below.


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The video — lensed by Irish director Meiert Avis — contains numerous music video tropes, including shots of Smith penning what we presume to be the song’s lyrics, and images of her face in close-up, focusing particularly of her eyes.

We are shown lots of images of famous works of art, including sculptures, murals, paintings and photos of Patti’s heroes, people like Albert Einstein, Williams S. Burroughs and French writer Jean Genet.


“It’s sad for me, but really quite beautiful,” Patti told NME’s Song Stories, “It was really Fred’s song, even though I wrote the words. He wrote the music, the concept was his and he wanted it to be a song that people sang all over the world, to inspire them for different causes, and he didn’t live to see that happen, but I have.”

Fred Smith died in 1994.


Patti Smith continues to perform the song to this day, and often it’s played — while accompanying various progressive political points of view — at protest marches, speeches, rallies and other public political events.

It’s also been performed live by a range of mostly American rock artists, including Bruce Springsteen (at the “Vote For Change” concert tour in 2004), Jackson Browne, Pearl Jam, and U2, among many, many others.

“I have walked in marches all over the world, where people spontaneously started singing, you know, whether it’s been in Paris, or with the Palestinians, or in Spain, or in New York City, Washington D.C., and it’s so moving to me to see his dream realized.”


Watch Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” video in Night Flight’s 1988 special “Poets of Rock” — which also features videos by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, 10,000 Maniacs and more — on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.