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The Strange (Parallel) World of… Tim Smith Of Cardiacs
Sean Kitching , July 3rd, 2022 09:00

Cardiacs’ Tim Smith, who died two years ago, would have been 61 today (July 3). Sean Kitching considers ten alternative points of entry into his discography that emphasise the pop and chamber music side of his songwriting

My friend Tim Smith, the main force behind Cardiacs, Sea Nymphs and Spratleys Japs, passed away on July 21 2020 after spending over a decade suffering from the debilitating condition dystonia. Teaching himself to read and write music while he was a teenager, via digesting an annotated musical score of the Who’s Quadrophenia; learning how to produce and master records; working out how to establish his own record label; learning how to edit and direct film – all with an enormous sense of imagination often absent from those who are simply taught – Tim Smith was a true original. His illness had been incredibly hard on him and those close to him, yet burgeoning appreciation for his highly original (if sometimes bewilderingly so) music had brought him a sense of critical recognition that had been somewhat absent during Cardiacs' existence, when they were something of a whipping boy.

Of course, music critics aren’t obliged to like anyone’s music, but more often than not, however, they were entirely mistaken about Smith’s music, writing things which were demonstrably untrue. That Tim was ‘posh’ for instance, or that they were akin to Marillion or Genesis, or even, according to one bizarre review, that they were “directly comparable to Sigue Sigue Sputnik". That the music was total chaos was another misconception, when in reality it was meticulously composed.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, what matters more than anything else is the originality of Smith’s music and the unique qualities it has to offer. In 2018, he was awarded an Honorary Degree as Doctor of Music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Given how the music press had largely scorned his music for decades, the doctorate felt both extremely welcome and long overdue. Looking back on that period now, it seems the hatred directed towards the band came more from the principal editors of the main music papers, whereas there were still music journalists, like Cathi Unsworth or Push (Christopher Dawes) who were enthusiastic about the band and wanted to write about them. Napalm Death’s Shane Embury, as big a Cardiacs fan as I have ever met, put it like this: “I think Cardiacs above all bands are a band that if you get, you totally get. On millions of levels really, a lot of it’s emotional. The emotion that some of those songs create is quite amazing to me. I mean, how the hell do you put that down?”

Although whoever came up with the label “pronk” (prog + punk = pronk) was probably quite pleased with themselves, Tim always hated it, and preferred to think of his music as “psychedelic pop”. His influences were certainly wider than that label infers. He loved Queen (for the incredible layering of vocals), Sparks, Magazine, Split Enz, Devo, The Incredible String Band. The White Noise’s 1969 masterpiece of tape splicing, An Electric Storm, made a huge impression on him. The orchestral work of Charles Ives and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He also loved noisy stuff like John Zorn’s Naked City, Pixies, MBV, Foetus and Mr Bungle. At the same time, he always had an ear turned towards the pop world. Supergrass’ I Should Coco and Blur’s Parklife and The Great Escape were all favourites at the time of their release. After his ‘accident’ I remember him telling me about a new band he was excited about who had just started out: Everything Everything. Yet for anyone whose only reference point to Cardiacs music is their 1987 TV appearance on The Tube, or such wildly frenetic tunes as ‘To Go Off and Things’ or ‘Burn Your House Brown’, the ‘pronk’ label has perhaps greater purchase than it deserves.

With this in mind and considering all corners of the large body of work that Smith left behind, this feature sets out to establish ten alternative points of entry into his back catalogue which don’t fit into that narrative. There are uncanny noises, mysterious melodies and bemusing timbres aplenty throughout, but nary a ‘pronk’ among them. So please, sit back, get comfortable and open your ears to the Strange (Parallel) world of Tim Smith, psychedelic pop and chamber music maestro.

Mr And Mrs Smith And Mr Drake – ‘Dergo’ from Mr And Mrs Smith And Mr Drake (1984)

Tim Smith and Bill Drake met in 1983, when Drake was a member of Honour Our Trumpet with the musician Little Sue. Smith, who had taught himself to sight read music by the time he was a teenager, undoubtedly sensed a kindred spirit in the classically-trained Drake and was keen to explore the expanded possibilities his involvement might bring. Drake, on the other hand, loved the music that Smith first provided him with, but was initially unaware of Cardiacs' bizarre stage appearance. Shady manager type, the Consultant (James Stevens), recalled how the band would often change their look: “One time, they painted themselves blue all over. Then another time, they all shaved their heads. Bill’s mum thought he’d joined a cult. Which he had of course, only by then it was too late.” ‘Dergo’ is an atypical track for Smith that offers a view into a parallel universe where he was remembered primarily for his psychedelic drone folk and horror soundtracks. An autumnal melancholy witchiness stretches out over its eight-minute duration, transforming from low-key to intensely hypnotic by the time of its cessation.

Cardiacs – ‘Big Ship’ from Big Ship (1987)

Recorded at Raven Studios in New Cross in 1986, one of Cardiacs' most anthemic tunes was supposedly inspired by the by the chiming of the clock at Waterloo Station. Tim told me that he sometimes noted down a moment of inspiration to return to at some later point, perhaps many years after the fact. Wonderfully transporting in a live context, ‘Big Ship’s combination of overdriven guitar and massive-sounding mellotron was a long-standing crowd favourite. A Tim Smith composition, like everything else on the mini-album with the exception of ‘Tarred and Feathered’ (co-written with Drake), ‘Big Ship’ nevertheless didn’t entirely arrive in the studio in fully formed. Drake recalled: “When we were rehearsing, it wasn’t like it was rigid, or set in stone. Things would develop and would be allowed to expand and improve. Tim gave us the main riff of ‘Big Ship’ and he wasn’t sure about the verses at all, whether they should be there or not. But when he played them to us, we were like ‘Yes!’”

Cardiacs – ‘Plane Plane Against The Grain’ from Big Ship (1987)

At 1:20, this is one of the shortest tracks in Smith’s body of work, and one of his personal favourites. A kind of abbreviated sea shanty apparently sung from child’s perspective, its piano accompanied vocal erupts joyously after the 30 second mark with stuttering martial percussion, maritime keyboard flourishes and triumphant sax. Such sudden sweet flavours contained within a miniature framework lend the track a phantasmagorical air, as if it were a tiny but perfect confection, colours too bright, glimpsed within a dream. One of Smith’s many inspirations may have been the progressive rock of his youth, but his tendency towards condensing such complex ideas within significantly shorter timeframes was a crucial aspect of a creative process which marked him apart from such similarly influenced musicians. For another track, which really was first perceived in a dream, see ‘Horse Head’ from On Land And In The Sea.

The Sea Nymphs – ‘Up In Annie’s Room’ from The Sea Nymphs (1992)

Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake later reconvened as The Sea Nymphs because by that time Tim and Sarah were no longer a married couple. At any rate, The Sea Nymphs is a much better name, not to mention more in line with the wonderful aquatic imagery that adorns their two LPs. As enigmatic as Cardiacs may be, The Sea Nymphs seem even more as though they’ve been beamed in from another dimension. Their two albums taken together, recorded at a similar time but released 24 years apart, offer a truly unique vision of psychedelic songwriting strong enough to stand as a significant legacy alone. Although I could have chosen almost any track on their first LP, ultimately it had to be ‘Up In Annie’s Room’, for its melancholy but irresistible melodic swell of E-mu Proteus derived strings and resonating church organ sound reminiscent of the second side of Popol Vuh’s wonderful In Den Gärten Pharaos. On the basis of this track, it’s clearly a shame Smith never got to perform at a real church organ like Florian Fricke or Charlemagne Palestine.

Cardiacs – ‘Odd Even’ from Sing To God (1996)

In the spring of 1995, Smith moved the recording equipment he had been accumulating to his brother Jim’s place in the countryside. It was a productive time, with Smith being open to creative input from then new guitarist Jon Poole. ‘Odd Even’ is perhaps the most satisfying of Smith’s 60s British pop influenced songs — influences he would move away from when recording Guns, due to their increasing Britpop-derived ubiquity. It’s a wonderfully uplifting tune that barely contains the cheekily complex keyboard refrain that interrupts the proceedings two-thirds of the way in. Jon Poole recalled: “Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh has got this lovely, short-lived bit of music which has a very similar vibe. Tim played me what he had and I just said to him: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got the guitar to find the tune in all these weird notes you’ve got.’ In the end, what we did was we slowed the tape down a tone and a half, enough to make it at least physically possible to play. The killer bit for him that he really loved was the very last note, that very last Les Dawson kind of wrong note. So, what you hear on the record is [programmed] keyboards doing it, but with an additional guitar that has been slightly treated. It gives it that psychedelic, Monkees, Mothers of Invention vibe.”

Cardiacs – ‘Jitterbug (Junior is A) from Guns (1999)

When I first met Tim in 1992, I was hugely into kosmiche music—Can and Faust in particular. Tim wasn’t particularly impressed with Can when I first mentioned them, as someone who wrote all of his tunes down, he had a low opinion of what he considered to be “jam bands”. Over time, however, I know he became very fond of some of Can’s music, especially Future Days and in particular the near twenty-minute masterpiece that closes that album, ‘Bel Air’. I remember saying something like, “the thing about repetition in a piece of music is that it changes your perception of time.” After he’d finished ‘Jitterbug’, he told me he’d made that tune with our conversation in mind and drawn it out far longer than he otherwise would have done. It’s first three minutes deploy a lovely melody, warped a little as if heard bubbling through layers of water before transforming into a one-man sci-fi madrigal, shot through with pulsing synths, some sounds moving backwards and some forwards in time. If you want to truly know how ingenious this piece of music is, try listening to the 180Gs a cappella cover and imagine the effort that must have went into its recording.

Spratleys Japs – ‘Vine’ from Pony (1999)

According to Tim, the note for the project that became Spratleys Japs read: “Record something really quickly, make the drums sound shit.” For Smith, adding his own dirty thumbprint was an essential part of the creative process. Jon Poole recalled: “He had a really great attitude towards getting his heart into the song, so that you could really feel it. Sometimes that would involve doing things that weren’t completely accurate. He wanted to fuck with it a little bit.” Fuzzed up guitars and high, precise vocals arrive abruptly at a different sonic juncture — the sound of whirring, jangling gears, wheels and tiny spinning rotor blades. It’s as if a door has been opened and a room full of automated player pianos burst forth in chorus, belting out the tune’s joyous final minute and a half. This bit is like Gentle Giant by way of Philip Glass, performed as ecstatic pagan dance music. Tim believed that music was “much too cosmic a thing to be just a fashion accessory.” He also often downplayed how much he liked Gentle Giant. Yet Bill Drake recalled: “I remember one night at a party, it was like four in the morning and Tim and someone else were singing Gentle Giant songs one after the other, keeping everyone awake all night. I was thinking ‘fuck off’ but it was great. That’s how much he loved them, he knew all the melodies.”

Spratley's Japs – ‘Hazel’ from Pony (1999)

‘Hazel’ is such a stunner, one of only two truly unique takes on ambient music (the other being The Sea Nymphs’ ‘Lilly White’s Party’) in Smith’s catalogue, that it was in fact the first track that came to mind when compiling this list. Admittedly, ambient is a little misleading. The piece has ambience alright, but it’s an atmosphere that is powerfully sprung upon the listener, fading in swiftly and effortlessly filling what feels like an enormous space with light. Celestial strings twinkle and you can almost hear an implied sound of singing birds and running water, flowers might be ready to spring up at any moment. Yet a touch of something sinister, in the treated vocal that sounds as if it’s beaming in from somewhere very far away, prevents the mood from becoming too sickly sweet. A gorgeous and very psychedelic piece of music that manages to imply space on an almost cosmic scale, defining that vastness by emphasising next to it, the fragility of the human voice singing into the void.

The Sea Nymphs – ‘Wanky’ from On The Dry Land (2016)

Appearing initially as incidental music in the fantastic Cardiacs concert film All That Glitters Is A Mare’s Nest, ‘Wanky’ is an otherworldly music-box melody so complete within itself that it sounds as if it could keep on running forever. A close sibling to ‘Sarah On A Worm’ from the first Sea Nymphs album, there is something about the way these tunes unfold that is endlessly compelling and filled with an intense, hopeful beauty. Tim always said that for him personally, music was about the “chords and tunes that made your tummy feel funny”. This does that and then some, and I know I’m not the only one it makes feel like that. Chris Reeves, who records as The Gasman, put it this way: “I think of it as soul music. He hits on a chord progression that gives you goosebumps and all the rest of it, but it gives you an emotion that you’d never be able to describe, that’s what makes it so special.”

Cardiacs – ‘Vermin Mangle’ (2020)

Although all of these tracks carry a lot of emotional resonance for me personally, this one has an extra special place in my heart. Whilst I was still getting to know Tim but before I actually started thinking of him as a friend, I asked him if I were to buy him an album for his forthcoming birthday, what album would he most like? He told me not to buy him anything but I persisted and in the end he said Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones — an album I also loved. Many years later, I had this unreleased Cardiacs track on a cassette that Tim had given me. It reminded me of Waits’ ‘In The Neighborhood’ and also a little of the funeral hymn ‘Morning Has Broken’. It’s also totally Tim Smith though, from the opening lyric of “Think of a way, then always go your own way”, to the myriad little sonic details that make up the vivid picture that it conjures in the listener’s mind — the sound of cars going by, what sounds like a brass band out in the street. Only ever played live during Smith’s few solo performances, and perhaps only remembered as ‘Vermin Mangle’ because I remembered that’s what Tim’s working title was, the track made a fitting epitaph for a musician whose remarkable work meant so much to so many people. It is a track that is suffused with sadness certainly, but also one that leaves behind something massively uplifting and beautiful in the wake of that passing sorrow — a parting ‘Treat From Mr Smith’.