March of the Giants
(originally written 1993)
How ironic that the punk rocker who, to this day, remains truest of all to the ideology of the movement ends up embracing a form that punk was originally rebelling against. TV (Tim) Smith, whose seventies punk aggregate The Adverts released several of the genre's all-time great singles (“One Chord Wonders,” "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," “Safety In Numbers,” “No Time to be 21”), stayed the course well after that band--and punk--were relegated to the history texts. Weathering through the early eighties with the Explorers (whose sole album is a wonderful amalgam of punk- and synth-based pop), he carried on through the rarely-heard Channel Five, then the back-to-basics Cheap, finally emerging as a modern-day Phil Ochs on 1992's "March of the Giants"; a wisened, despairing gadfly whose strident anti-capitalist obsessions are offset by an overriding humanism, and set in a beguiling melange of energized acoustic guitar and third world percussion.
Smith's songwriting here is simply outstanding. Never succombing to sloganeering, Smith's stirring melodicism and impassioned vocals nonetheless evoke an anthemic power; rarely if ever have anger and pathos been so effectively combined in popular song (Zimmerman and Hillström aside). Smith pushes his rather limited vocal range and his husky timbre to their breaking points, which ultimately adds to the air of desperation pervading each song.
But unlike the late, lamented, Phil Ochs, or, say, Robert Wyatt, Smith does not stupidly seek answers to the evils of capitalism in exotic disasters such as Maoist or Stalinist totalitarianism. Rather, Smith's unbridled frustrations assail the very human consequences of corporate culture. Like De Sica's "Bicycle Thief," Smith explores a world inhabited by poor, well-intentioned people, overwhelmed by social and economic circumstances beyond their control, sometimes sliding down the slippery slope into petty crime. "Some can't get a drop to drink/some are overflowing...The gap's growing/Between the haves and the have-nots," he sings in "The Haves and the Have-Nots". In "Empty Wallet he sings of capitalism's empty promises: "Show me what it's like/I set my heart on it/But I can't buy it with the contents/Of an empty wallet." In "Free World," which was originally given a fully electric treatment by The Cheap, again, corporate technology soars out of control at any expense: "You got your garden of Eden/with a test-tube instead of a plough/Once this was a Promised Land/Where are the promises now?/.../It's not a free world/You have to pay...You can't just use it up and throw it away." Only on "Borderline," March of Giants' last track, does a glimmer of hope enter Smith's struggle as he concludes, "There's still something pure that's mine."
The cover of March of the Giants shows Smith desperately swinging an acoustic guitar at a tower block looming immense above him. In the grand Joe Hill tradition then, Smith sees his music as a potential battle weapon, however ineffective he knows that weapon to be. With its sense of inclusion as opposed to an us-versus-them mentality, with its humanistic compassion instead of a dismissive cynicism, and with its gentle yet seething acoustic underpinnings in place of an electric ferocity, March of the Giants is perhaps the definitive document of what happens when a punk grows up.
The 1996 follow-up to March of the Giants, the stateside-released Immortal Rich, is immediately noteworthy for its reintroduction of some rock noise into the data (drums and electric guitar, to be precise), and for the quiet disappearance of longtime Smith associate Tim Cross. Neither change serves the album well, as neither the songwriting nor the performances are up to the impeccable standards established by its predecessor; only "Thin Green Line" is cut from the same cloth, while other tracks forfeit a portion of their impact to some unnecessary rock muscle, which might be an attempt to cover up their somewhat underdeveloped feel. Its follow-up, "Generation Y" rights the wrongs, and features another great collection of songs--including a collaboration with Tom Robinson--which might only have benefited from a little less digital embellishment. The Explorers, Channel Five, and The Cheap were all subsequently released on cd. All are wonderful collections, although Channel Five suffers from a simply awful digital transfer, and nearly illiterate liner notes.
Smith next released "Not A Bad Day", a fine collection, its standout track being the searing acoustic anti-Bush rant, "Not in My Name." Ironically, an electric version of that amazing track is the weakest entry on Smith's 2006 release, "Misinformation Overload" an overwhelmingly strong electric punk album featuring some of the best performances of Smith's long career, though with flaring, distorted production. 2008 saw the release of "In The Arms Of My Enemy", while in 2011 he released "Coming In To Land," reassuring his fanbase that ol' Mr. Smith continues to fire on all pistons.
Keep 'em comin', Tim!