London, the late 80s. Smoky fug and sticky floors at the Astoria. Boisterous crowds and monkey boots. And music. This is largely what I remember from my late teens before I discovered house music and ecstasy; sweating it out over pints of strong lager and men twice my height to see bands that I loved. And probably top of the list for that live experience was Cardiacs.
When The Fall’s Mark E Smith died recently, threaded through the slightly sycophantic grief was the observation that with the music, you either got it, or you didn’t. And actually I think that’s a fair statement. But nothing could be more true of Cardiacs either. If you ‘got it’, the music was a violent funfair ride of extraordinary genius. If you didn’t, it probably sounded like your worst nightmares, performed by insane bullies in romper suits and clown makeup.
If you ‘got it’, the music was a violent funfair ride of extraordinary genius. If you didn’t, it probably sounded like your worst nightmares
If I’m honest, Cardiacs is a bit of both. At the foot of this article are some opportunities to hear some Cardiacs if you haven’t already. Because everyone should. But seeing them live was where the real magic happened. I’m kicking 50 now and I’ve seen a lot of live music, but I don’t think anything has ever come close to the frenetic energy of Cardiacs, smashing through insane chord and tempo changes, wonky basslines, soaring anthemic keyboards, thrashing punk guitars and lilting proggy melodies. There’s no category for their music, and nobody should even try. Far better writers than me have had a go. There’s no point.
The shows would often open with the kind of track that should be the crescendo. No messing around here, or meandering from the bar as the thing started. You were in it from the start or you might as well fuck off. There was always a sensation that you were somehow caught between playful and sinister – the stage might be covered in flowers, the band dressed like children – but singer Tim Smith, with skinhead shorn close, in badly fitting suit, would be maniacal, shrieking into the mic and scowling or grinning darkly.
The gigs always included him savagely bullying bandmate Jim, exhorting the crowd to chant “Jim, Jim, Jim.” I used to feel unhappy for him as Jim’s head would bow sadly, like the fat kid in a playground, trying to hide. Thanks to a misreport in the Sunday Sport, for a long time it was rumoured that bandmate Sarah Smith was Tim’s sister, rather than his wife, and I’m sure he derived great pleasure from the shock it gave audiences to see him kissing her on stage. It was a fairly dark world.
The finale would often finish with confetti canons and balloons raining from the ceiling – a touch of Disney in a world of Dante
I’m probably not painting this in a very good light – writing it down makes it sound brutal, and it was. But it was also uplifting and thrilling, from start to finish. The finale would often finish with confetti canons and balloons raining from the ceiling – a touch of Disney in a world of Dante. And the music – for me – was pure genius. It’s not often one can call a thing absolutely unique but here it is folks. And if you can find anything close, I’ll bet it’s not as good. The only artist I can think of who sits in the same zone in terms of complex musical wizardry might be Zappa. But it doesn’t follow that if you like one, you’ll like the other. And Zappa was a bit of a wanker anyway. Tim seems largely to have generated a lot of love.
The band was formed in 1977 by Smith who enlisted – amongst others – embattled brother Jim on bass (although nobody ever knew if he could actually play it), and by 1984 they had what most fans consider to be their best line-up, which included Tim’s wife Sarah on vocals and sax, William D Drake as keyboardist extraordinaire, Tim Quy on percussion and bass synth, and Dominic Luckman on drums. Their first big gig came in 1984 when they opened for Marillion, but it wasn’t exactly a resounding success – it seems Marillion fans didn’t particularly ‘get it’. But nonetheless, in ’88 Cardiacs released what would be their most successful and enduring album, A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window. What followed in the next 20 years was an extraordinary slew of music and performance with an impressive discography, and the spawning of several other projects.
Their history is lengthy and peppered with insanity. You can read the full backstory on Wiki here. The reason I’m writing about this – other than to enjoy an excuse to trawl through their extensive back catalogue very loudly and scare my own teenager, is because Tim Smith needs help.
It seems an odd phrase to write. But it turns out that this vital, magic puppet master, with his childlike noise and energy and berating; this scornful and humorous jester leading the merry dance is no less fallible than any of us, and in 2008 Tim Smith – ironically – suffered a massive cardiac arrest which has knocked the stuffing out of him somewhat.
Tim Smith – ironically – suffered a massive cardiac arrest which has knocked the stuffing out of him somewhat
The resultant complications and ongoing rehabilitation have been difficult – with many pondies (as fans are called) waiting breathlessly for him to get better and back up on the stage again. But the reality is that this is unlikely. He’s really not very well. In a release from the Alphabet Business Concern management team, we understand that he has “severe brain damage and a condition called dystonia. Mentally he’s as sharp as ever. His ability to move and speak, however, is minimal. Funding shortfalls and bureaucracy have seen his rehabilitation grind to a halt, along with his ability to make music.”
Speaking to The Quietus last year, Tim explained “Some days I can cope with it, if I’m mentally able to. I’ve not even told the kidz which I’m pretty ashamed of and all I can say is that I’m sorry. I had no idea how much I actually meant to all these incredible people and have been trying to know what they mean to me.
“The only way I can try and let you know how I feel at the moment is… imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you with electrical pulses going all the time. This is what my body feels like unless I fall asleep. This I have called my digital pain and bashing my head or something what hurts loads or any sort of normal pain, like toothache, I call analogue. Also, I can’t write or hold a pen or use a computer.”
We’ve lost an awful lot of musical stars over the last two or three years. Tim is still here, but fixing him is complex. He has repeatedly rejected pleas from those close to him to make public exactly what’s wrong, but it seems he’s finally capitulated and allowed his loved ones to ask for the help he actually needs. And the outpouring of love and support has been phenomenal. As has the press coverage and backing of fans and famous faces alike. It’s heart-warming.
I can’t remember how many times I saw Cardiacs, or possibly count the happy hours I’ve spent listening to their music. I’m saddened that it seems possible this might be it for Tim’s creativity but I definitely feel I owe him a thank you, and if there’s even a small chance of fixing at least part of what’s broken, we should have a go. At the very least if it improves his condition, let’s get on with it.
And so there is a crowdfunding campaign. Bless them – they started out asking for a very small amount but it became apparent very quickly that people were happy to donate and so they moved the total, and you can read much more about the treatment on the funding page. Modestly, the request is still only for enough money for a year’s treatment. But it’s a start, and they’re nearly there. If you want to donate, the link is here and also at the foot of this article.
Not much exists in the way of video footage of this band’s early days. It was the 80s after all, so a huge thanks to Stephen ‘Paynie‘ Payne for letting me share this extraordinary film. “Many moons ago, I used to hang out with The Cardiacs. A stranger, more talented bunch I have yet to find. We shot this video in a room about 10ft x 10ft, 6 band members and me. It was hot and crowded, but some full of wonderfulness, I couldn’t sleep that night. It’s a great cover version of an old Kinks song. I edited it on 2 3/4″ decks over the next week. I still love it and would not change a frame.”
I’ve been playing Cardiacs pretty much during the whole writing of this article. Which could mean it’s disjointed, a bit distracted and possibly hard to read. If that’s the case, my work is done.