Cardiacs’ Tim Smith: An Appreciation

❉ Huw Thomas pays tribute to the late musician who remains worthy of laudation.

“Cardiacs is our life and everything we do, and everything we have ever done. We play a kind of music that we are very very proud of and love more than life. A kind of music that apparently makes people hate us with a terrifying vengeance, or love us so dearly and passionately that it becomes a worry. No in-betweens. But to us it’s just tunes. Lovely tunes.” – Tim Smith, 2005

Tim Smith was the leader of Cardiacs, the Kingston upon Thames rock outfit who spent 30 years ploughing their own furrow. From the pirouetting R.E.S. and the obscenely dynamic Tarred and Feathered to the hymnal Lilly White’s Party and the anthemic Dirty Boy, Tim Smith wrote songs that were complex, joyful, intense, magical, difficult… and bangers.

Smith formed the band with his brother Jim in 1977 under the name Cardiac Arrest. From the start they eschewed any cliques and scenes, the swotty vocals and musical complexity offsetting their punky ferocity. It wasn’t prog and it wasn’t punk, but it was sure of itself whatever it was. Tim would say he formed the band merely as revenge for his brother’s cruelty to him as an infant, a revenge that backfired when people actually enjoyed the unpalatable music they made. It doesn’t matter what percentage of truth there is in this fanciful origin story; it’s only part of the unique presentation Tim created for his band.

By the early 1980s, Cardiacs were releasing self-produced albums ostensibly at the behest of The Alphabet Business Concern, a stringent institution who managed every inch of their affairs. In the sinister “Consultant” who appeared on stage to scold them, Cardiacs had their own Fat Controller. The band’s 1984 release The Seaside still stinks of originality. From Gina Lollobrigida (“You laugh and I can never hear you / Never before did I know”) to A Little Man and A House (“There’s voices inside me / They’re screaming and telling me; ‘That’s the way we all go’”), Tim’s music was an imaginative riposte to the perversity of modern life. They might sound like musical and lyrical streams of consciousness at first, but these songs swerve inside your brain. The Seaside was followed by a VHS release, the bizarre and brilliant Seaside Treats. This was a band who’d created a unique world by themselves while nobody was watching.

By 1985, Cardiacs had settled on a six-piece “classic” lineup. They performed in scruffy lift attendant uniforms and poorly applied white and red makeup which made each of them resemble Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Arnold Toht at different stages of face-melt. Their concerts were full of chaotic theatrics. Tim Smith would often snog vocalist/saxophonist Sarah Smith (his then-wife) on stage. In 1987, the two convinced Sunday Sport they were brother and sister and the paper ran with it; “In their bizarre world of music … anything goes – even INCEST”. When not frolicking with Sarah on stage, Tim was subjecting his brother Jim to a torrent of physical abuse. “Jim, a big fat boy, was bullied into playing the Bass Electric Guitar for Cardiacs by Tim Smith because Tim Smith said ‘Big Fat Boy equals Big Fat Notes’” read the band’s press kit.

The band’s mythology and stage hijinks never acted as a crutch. What was most novel about Cardiacs was just how good the records were. 1988’s A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window and 1989’s On Land and in the Sea are among the most individual and rewarding albums released in the 1980s. 1996’s Sing to God is Tim Smith’s greatest achievement – an astonishing double album of twisted Britpop that demands adoration.  Tim’s songs were always packed with melody, with structures ever-shifting and chord sequences a musical firework display for those interested.

In spite of this proficiency, Smith’s songs were warm, never calculated. More like a particularly giddy strain of British psychedelia than something forced or self-conscious. His lyrics could be often cryptic and impressionistic but fans may recognise themselves in the clearest, in songs like “To Go Off and Things” (“Squalor is at large in tidy suburbia / Filth and dirt abound in every corner yes / to go off and things”) and “Tarred and Feathered” (“I find I understand the rules but cannot find the reasons… …cursed with the awareness of my own existence”).

Other lyrics follow the dream logic of his music – “Jim parades a toy that he won on a rifle range / Holds him up high, it’s a plaster statue of Peter Glaze” sings Smith on Stoneage Dinosaurs
 while the catchy Insect Hoofs on Lassie sees the fictional hero dog customised (“Insect hoofs on Lassie instead of his feet (HE Lassie not SHE) / But I don’t mind all she is blessed with the mane of a horse and wings of a bee / carrying a cluster of bee eggies in the centre of she”). These songs are glorious statements from a man making his own sense of the absurdity of life.

Cardiacs provoked extreme reactions. The press largely savaged them. Their music was “formless and tuneless, punk played backwards” according to Staines & Ashford News, with vocals from “the lisping little twerp from your class at school with hippy parents who wasn’t allowed to watch television when he was little” according to Vox magazine. “Cardiacs are the sound of both feet in the grave” said the NME, who later banned them from their pages. A tour supporting Marillion exposed the band to people who became devoted fans as well as those who became devoted can-hurlers. Tim Smith always remained unrepentant. After they supported Blur in 1995, the band used the coins thrown at them to buy fish and chips.

More important than those who hated them is those who loved them. For many, Cardiacs were spectacular, even life-changing. They have spawned a unique and ever-thriving subculture; not quite goths or punks or hippies or crusties. Famous fans include snooker great Steve Davis and TV presenter Matthew Wright. “Cardiacs were an early inspiration for all of us in Blur” said Damon Albarn in 2011: “I remember one of their gigs at ULU. It was amazing, one of the most magical live performances I’ve ever seen.” Electronic musician Max Tundra has said “Tim Smith’s inventive splendour helped bend my ears to the very limits of what music can do”, while Faith No More’s Mike Patton declared Cardiacs “a huge influence on me as well as my band Mr. Bungle. They did it right, independently and with no apologies.”

Conventions and concerts have been held in celebration of Tim Smith’s work since 2013. His music has spawned an entire family of interconnected bands (Sunday Sport seem to be no longer interested in musical incest stories). For so many, Cardiacs represent surely everything anyone could want in a band. Their appeal has never lied with some small group of budding musicologists as some critics have implied. “To my mind there’s nothing at all elitist about the music we make.” said guitarist Kavus Torabi in 2005: “You don’t have to “get” anything about it, nor does it require any previous knowledge of any genre or “scene”. It’s beautiful music that sounds like it’s been distilled from out of a dream”.

Those who dismissed Smith’s compositions in this way would’ve done well to note his capacity to write simpler songs just as dazzling as his most complicated. The anthemic Is This The Life gave Cardiacs their only chart appearance (no. 80), while delicate songs like Blind in Safety and Leafy in Love, Shaping the River and Bug from Heaven could surely enchant even the dourest detractors. Who could deny the excellence of Dog Like Sparky, an irresistible song which sounds like all of the great and good of British pop, from the Kinks and Syd Barrett to Blur and Madness, rolled up into a napkin and squeezed until their eyes bulge?

Tim Smith branched out into extra-curricular projects alongside Cardiacs, all worth any music lover’s attention. He produced records by Levitation, Sidi Bou Said, Adrian Borland and Ginger Wildheart. 1999’s Pony, the sole album by Smith’s project Spratley’s Japs, is moodier and often more overtly psychedelic than his work in Cardiacs. Solo album Tim Smith’s Extra Special OceanLandWorld sees him recording as a one-man band a la McCartney II, but making music as expansive and lush as any of his larger-scale projects.

Perhaps the greatest of Tim’s diversions is the Sea Nymphs. This band was made up of three Cardiacs members (Tim, Sarah and keyboardist Bill Drake) but the music was more delicate – spellbinding psalms from some garden arcadia. A wonderful 1998 Peel session includes Smith compositions Eating a Heart Out and Lilly White’s Party, both of which recall the sweeping works of Vaughan Williams.

Cardiacs were working on their eighth record LSD in 2008 when Tim Smith suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest, leading to a hypoxic brain injury. This left him in a severely debilitated state, with the rare neurological condition dystonia impairing his muscles and his ability to speak. Smith was able to communicate by pointing at letters on a cushion. “Imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet with electrical pulses going all the time.” Tim said of his condition “this is what my body feels like unless I fall asleep”. The world had been exceptionally cruel to Tim Smith, but still he maintained the world he’d make believed in. Though LSD was put on indefinite hold, Tim continued the Cardiacs mythology.

An official statement from The Alphabet Business Concern condemned “the undignified shenanigans of Tim Smith who ‘fell’ into a pool filled with shit and is still crawling and scratching his way out of it”. He was well enough to return to the studio in 2016 to oversee (assisted by an interpreter) the completion of On the Dry Land, a new Sea Nymphs album which had been left unfinished for over 20 years. A fundraiser, with the objective of raising enough money for a concentrated period of physiotherapy, was launched in 2018. Tim hoped to create music again if he could become well enough use a computer mouse. He never ruled out returning to pilot Cardiacs one day.

When BBC Radio 6’s Marc Riley pinned Cardiacs down as “marrying prog and punk” in an interview, Tim replied “It’s all tunes isn’t it? It’s pop isn’t it?” Clive James once described Paul McCartney as having the “the precious knack” of making the unexpected sound inevitable. Tim Smith made the unexpected sound sacred and didn’t care if you thought it was shit.

TIM SMITH: 1961 – 2020


❉ Tim Smith’s music with Cardiacs, the Sea Nymphs and other projects is available from the Alphabet Business Concern on their online store and Bandcamp.

❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.

 

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