This song was written by Patti Smith and her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith. Patti told NME how they tried to infuse the spirit of the '60s into a modern protest song: "We had both protested the Vietnam War when we were young. We had been part of the '60s, where our cultural voice was really strong, and we were trying to write a song that would reintroduce that kind of energy. It's sad for me but quite beautiful. 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. I've seen people. I've walked in marches all over the world where people spontaneously started singing it, you know, whether it's been in Paris or with the Palestinians or, you know, in Spain or New York City, Washington D.C. - and it's so moving for me to see his dream realized."
Patti remembers the moment Fred burst into their kitchen with the idea for this song: "It was around 1986. I was in the kitchen. My late husband was writing music, and he was a great songwriter, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and we were writing some songs together. And I was peeling potatoes, and I remember I was in a bad mood because I had, you know, I was making dinner and washing the clothes and peeling potatoes. And in the middle of it, Fred came in and said, 'Tricia, people have the power, write it.' And I 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... but I kept him.
So for the next few nights, I really contemplated - because Fred was very political, and we talked about it, what we wanted to do with this line, which was Fred's. And what we wanted to do was remind the listener of their individual power but also of 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.' We wrote it consciously together to inspire people, to inspire people to come together."
This song hit #19 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
"People Have the Power" was largely ignored when it came out on Dream of Life, but it has since become one of Patti Smith's best known songs. She told Mojo in a 2018 interview:
"Fred wanted it to be sung by people all over the world. He didn't live to see it performed live. But I've been on marches where people who didn't know me sang it with banners held high. I've seen it in the Greek elections. I've seen Palestinians with signs that said 'people have the power.' It's beautiful because it's exactly what he wanted."
The song was later employed by U2 as the entrance theme to their Innocence+Experience tour.