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Black Sky Thinking

Why A Heart Attack Must Not Arrest The Cardiacs
The Quietus , May 4th, 2010 06:05

With friends like Napalm Death, Israel and Eastender’s Phil Mitchell, who really cares what your enemies think of you. Graham Bendel explores the appeal of a band that many love to hate.

You might have heard the terribly sad news that Tim Smith, founder of Cardiacs, suffered a serious heart attack at a My Bloody Valentine concert not so long ago. (The irony did not go unnoticed.) Also distressing was the accompanying news that Cardiacs would not be playing for a long time. If ever again. It got me thinking about the band and what made them previously tick.

Hailing from Kingston upon Thames in Surrey, the Cardiacs could easily have come from outer space – so different were they to anybody else.

The last time I received any correspondence from the group was 1986, when I wrote to the band asking them what their influences were. The responding letter, now lost, was from the saxophone player Sarah Smith – and in it she extensively explained how the unhinged sound of the Cardiacs came to be. Influences cited were Van Der Graaf Generator, Deaf School, Wire, Gentle Giant, Y Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, and others. The letter served as a syllabus, essentially, for years of future listening. A play-list that I tortured my friends with. Suffice to say, I went through an intense period of unpopularity, and was later banned from playing my music in other people’s houses or cars (including my own).

It’s not too hard to understand why Cardiacs provoke such reactions in people.

For starters, we have the fairground tease of the keyboards, the spoilt-boy schizophrenia of Tim Smith’s vocals, sing-song choruses as if from a football match or nursery rhyme; and the fact that some songs stop then start, stop-start, and so on – in a series of differing time signatures. It’s a musically bewildering and perplexing cut of cloth, interweaving colours and textures that many would consider unthinkable put together. Despite the influences they have worn so clearly on their sleeves, they are like no other band on earth. However, a few notable bands have ended up sounding quite like them. Famously, Radiohead and Blur’s respective OK Computer and Modern Life Is Rubbish are full of melodic nods and discordant winks to the trademark sound of Cardiacs. Faith No More and Supergrass have also gone on record to acknowledge the Cardiacs’ muse. Writers Cathi Unsworth and Steve Aylett have confessed a predilection for them. As have Radio’s Marc Riley, Napalm Death and, according to rumour, ‘Phil Mitchell’ from Eastenders.

Despite impressive line-up changes, their most celebrated squad was the one from mid-late 80s. Back then, they dressed in shabby lift attendant costumes (with badly-applied clown make-up), were incredibly rehearsed and tight, and starred in what seemed like their own therapeutic, surrealist pantomime. Their audience (hippies, punks, misfits and students) would plead with their lead singer not to hit unsmiling bassist Jim Smith (because he was “fat and was to die soon anyway”). Their hardcore fans, with their automated, jerky style of dancing would become a strange tableau to behold – turning the moshpit into a sweltering sea of something-near-to-performance art. At the conclusion to the night, a well-dressed man and his female assistant would come on stage with champagne and flowers. This would all happen to a euphoric sweep of saxophone and keyboards that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 70s cigar advert.

It was childish, psychotic, thrilling and unlike any other gig I’d ever attended. It all seemed to ‘mean’ something, but I couldn’t exactly grasp what. The end of innocence?

Metaphysical, existential anguish? Something to do with clowns?

Although they were very much industry outsiders, The Sunday Sport – in 1987 –ran a piece on how Tim and Sarah Smith were actually brother and sister…which made the French-kissing and groping on stage seem somewhat suspect. You could almost have believed the rumours. You see, there was ‘something’ in the music that was palpably disturbing – so why not, through osmosis, had this element not contaminated their lives? (This was years before Jake and Meg White tried their similar tack.)

Even stranger than the accusations of incest was the never-before-considered-prospect of them selling-out. Their Single ‘Is This The Life’ actually entered the charts in 1988, meaning that an innocent public could glimpse (on TV) this very disturbing collective. Championed by Radio DJ Gary Davies and being voted as ‘best newcomers’ in a SMASH HITS poll was a testament to actually how enjoyable and accessible the band could be once you scratched the unsettling and ridiculous surface. As Tim Smith has always maintained: Cardiacs were never punk or prog (or ‘pronk’) – they had always been a ‘pop’ band. A ‘pop’ band who played ‘psychedelia’.

Despite their ever-increasing popularity (through digital word-of-mouth, YouTube and blogs, etc), Cardiacs have been the recipients of some very strong criticism. They really wind people up, as Tim Smith and other members of the band know only too well. Detractors have described them as: “Idiotic”, “shit” and “absolute fucking nonsense”. And that was just my friend’s mother.

Others find them “unlistenable”, “embarrassing”, and much worse. Still, their fans love them and that love knows no bounds. Not even geographical ones. Thus, it was certainly odd to learn, recently, that they had been embraced by another lot only marginally less unpopular and condemned than themselves: Israel…

Israel’s left-wing daily, Haaretz, had included a piece about Cardiacs and encouraged fellow countrymen to watch ‘Jibber and Twitch’ on YouTube (“three middle-aged Englishmen, one wearing only underpants, and a younger guitarist”). They described the band as a “wild attack on the senses”, and highlighted the bands global popularity.

So just what is it that draws people to them? And what’s stopping more people from committing to their unique approach? Like with heroin and marmite, some try a little, are sick, and never go back for more. But don’t give up: the initial frog of discontent the debut listener experiences, once swallowed, can be transformed into something far more princely with repeat listens. A world can open up. A challenging, hard-to-decipher world that begs to be explored amidst the empty air and PR-driven disappointment of bands who supposedly push the envelope, but never really do (Vampire Weekend, The Guillemots, Wild Beasts, and so on).

Cardiacs are often lambasted for trying to be ‘wacky’ and ‘quirky’, but Tim Smith is one of the few authentic figures on the British music scene who is truly extraordinary. Is he difficult to work with? A tyrant? I don’t know, but I know he has ‘reinvented the wheel’, and, once having achieved this, has not bothered to put it back on the car he took it from.

Instead, he’s been moving forward on his own terms, and truly advancing modern rock music – but without the brakes-on career safeguarding that stifles all pioneers in the end.

There is something at work and play in the music that is significant and precious. Listen to the melodramatic sweep of ‘Stoneage Dinosaurs’ or the compelling, daunting narrative of ‘Buds and Spawn’. Consider the brain-twisting assemblage of ‘Hope Day’; and mentally crumble at the multi-shaded melancholy of ‘The Everso Closely Guarded Line’. With more notes than an understudy’s memopad and more time signatures than an over-eager traffic warden – Cardiac’s records aren’t everyday tunes, and they are not for your everyman.

Blending intricacy with intimacy, Smith produces convulsively beautiful, fractured, awe-inspiring tracks – with more punk attitude than a Bad Brains’ b-side. Despite those monumental guitar riffs, these twisting, arcane epics have more in common with religious hymns or classical symphonies than rock music.

Often, their work is as ‘English’ as The Kinks, tea and muffins. Cardiacs are something that we should truly be proud of.

To try Chrome Hoof, Rolo Tomassi or any idiosyncratic new collective without having sampled the Cardiacs top-of-their-game innovation is like absorbing yourself in Jimmy Carr at the expense of experiencing Bill Hicks or Peter Cook.

‘NOBODY does this left-of-field thing better’, as Carly Simon might have said.

But, surely, music this unconventional and unique can’t find a very big audience?

They are of the few bands – Crass and Fugazi included - that have taken the punk/DIY paradigm and really lived by it. The Alphabet Business Concern is their label and it’s exactly where you’ll find their impressive back catalogue. Despite interest from other record companies over the years – they’ve stuck to their independent guns and sold thousands upon thousands of records and CDs.

Tim Smith is a rare talent. His loyal fans declare him a genius: a ‘Mozart’ or ‘Beethoven’ of the rock world. An album such as On Land And In The Sea will possibly be recognised as the OK Computer of its time (in twenty or so years). Although that would seriously undermine how complex and fascinating this band are. Uncompromising and singular in their hellish and creative visions, Cardiacs are nothing short of exceptional.

I wish Tim Smith a successful rehabilitation.

Graham Bendel (Billy Childish Is Dead & A Nasty Piece Of Work) is the co-founder of the Fortune Teller Press.