In 2011 I was an aspiring music journo writing freelance for Blunt Magazine among others. I was sifting through reviews of various ambient-doom and pop-punk bands… all with the originality and inspiration of a tax return. I needed something fresh. Being into Mr Bungle and the like, I’d been meaning to check out this “crazy” band called Cardiacs (led by singer/songwriter/frontman Tim Smith) on the strength of Mutation’s Error 500 album which featured Cardiacs axeman Jon Poole, not to mention the fervent fan-boying of Mike Patton, Shane Embury and Damon Albarn et al.
Mp3 piracy being de rigueur at the time (I now own physical copies of their entire discography), I downloaded a 1989 album entitled “On Land And In The Sea”. Upon loading the first track “Two Bites Of Cherry”, a bratty, nasal voice instantly shouted at me (in an inimitable British accent) various whimsical non-sequiters over an amphetamine paced punk beat… but there was more: epic psychedelia, church organ, a brass section, quirky time signatures and soaring vocal delivery… this wasn’t run of the mill punk, this was absolutely unique, something I’d never heard before or since. A watershed moment, and they subsequently became my favorite band of all time.
Seamlessly mashing together the previously disparate elements of punk, prog and psychedelia (with liberal doses of pop, metal, sea shanties and corporate anthems), the band managed to chart a unique course. Beginning in the late 70s in Kingston-Upon-Thames they consistently released albums of ever progressing complexity and ambition. They never lost their pop sensibility however, and even the band at their most extreme has undeniable melody and structure. Even Tim himself has stated “We’re a pop band” and ” It’s just tunes innit?”, typical of his self-effacing humility.
The 1990s 7 piece band in a live environment was truly something to behold as exemplified by the magnificent Mare’s Nest live concert. Looking for all the world like a demented fairground attraction, the band dressed like demonic tram conductors and Tim led his troupe with a demeanor somewhere between a despotic dictator and a bawling infant, the constant (staged) torment of his bass-playing brother Jim was a delight to fans in on the joke and an confusing display of bullying to the uninitiated.
During the 1990s, lineup changes saw the band pared down, but they lost none of the creative drive and indeed possibly produced their finest work, a sprawling double lp called “Sing to God”. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to do justice to this album, the construction of the songs is worthy of a Mahler symphony and Smith’s lyrical themes of dogs, mice, angleworms and foundlings give it an otherworldly quality. The album’s zenith is the 9 minute masterpiece “Dirty Boy” which spirals upwards into infinity and has an outro I’ve read described as a “3 minute orgasm”. Featuring disturbingly cryptic lyrical themes, I believe the song was regarded by Tim himself as the finest moment the band achieved, a sentiment I concur with… but there is a plethora of genius tracks fighting for second place!
Unfortunately disaster struck in 2008. As Tim was leaving a My Bloody Valentine concert he was struck down by a series of strokes and a cardiac arrest (an irony surely not lost on fans). This left him with a dystonia for the remainder of his life and he was unable to walk or talk, much less create music, ending the band. Apart from a couple of promo singles and a rumored unfinished double lp, the 1999 album “Guns” effectively served as the band’s epitaph. Despite this, Tim remained of sound mind and was able to periodically do interviews with the aid of a special keyboard. He passed away in his sleep in 2020 aged 59.
Tim and I never met outside Facebook, and I don’t know whether his death is perhaps a blessing given his health in later life but he and the band gave me the most brilliant, dazzling music I ever heard in my life. Genius to some, an unlistenable racket to others, and the vast majority left utterly confused, Cardiacs were a magnificent, triumphant contradiction. I’ve heard their music described as “the madness of a dog having the best day of its life” and “the sound of the universe laughing and crying at the same time”. It’s hard to argue with those sentiments. Indeed, they affected me and countless others in a profoundly positive fashion and I’m eternally grateful to Tim and everyone associated with the band.
The man with the enigmatic smile which seemed to cover his entire face, the leader of the starry skies, has left us.
Goodbye Tim, thank you for everything