Cardiacs

TrackAlbum
Fiery Gun HandSing To God - Part I
R.E.S.A Little Man And A House
And The Whole World Window
Big ShipSongs For Ships And Irons
Tarred And FeatheredSongs For Ships And Irons
Day Is GoneHeaven Born And Ever Bright
There's Too Many Irons In The FireSongs For Ships And Irons
The Duck And Roger The HorseOn Land And In The Sea
Dog Like SparkySing To God - Part I
To Go Off And ThingsThe Seaside
Dirty BoySing To God - Part II

 

Cardiacs photo 1

 

Contributor: Matt Roberts

 
Cardiacs is our life and everything we do, and everything we have ever done since we were tiny. 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. Tunes are important in life.” Tim Smith (2005)

I have a confession to make.

Although I am a dyed-in-the-wool Cardiacs fan, although I know most of their output well enough to hum (if not sing) along, although I worship everything Tim Smith has touched, although I am enamoured with everything Cardiac to the exclusion of almost anything else – and although all these things are true …

… I actually only heard of Cardiacs for the first time just over a month ago. Even though a good bunch of my favourite bands apparently cite Cardiacs as an influence (Mike Patton, Supergrass etc), they never ever crossed my path. Not once did anyone mention them in passing, recommend them to me as something that might exactly fit within my musical tastes. Not once.

And of course, now they are no more. The lead singer and creator of this madness, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack (yeah, I know) and a stroke in 2008 which has left him unable to put together any more music. At this very moment, he’s probably being tortured by the no doubt multiple albums being created in his head. His official Facebook page explained that “my body is my enemy and my hands are cunts” – so that’s probably that then. I found a band that is already over and it’s changed my life – PRAISE BE!

So alright fellas! I give up. Who’s playing the trick on me? Who concocted my favourite band, retrospectively went back and created multiple albums and a followable career, and hid them in plain site for me to find in my forties? Fess up! I know it was you.

So this will be an odd Toppermost, and an odd one for me – any objective information I can impart is only recently researched, and not the hard-won benefit of many years of fandom. This is a Toppermost through the eye of someone in the first flush of fandom. Having said that, I have spent the last couple of weeks meticulously combing through any information, photos, discographies and lyrics that I can find, trying to get the smallest glimpse into this new, and frankly quite scary collection.

There seems to be something terribly, terribly wrong with the world Cardiacs inhabit. On the surface, it’s a band from London, England who produced six proper albums, a number of live sets and a bunch of self released bootlegs, in a style that some wit has named “pronk” (progressive punk). I suppose that description fits, but there is obviously so much more on offer here. The “pronk” tag defines the first couple of albums, which remind me of early XTC or Wire minus all that calm. But on later albums, Cardiacs have stretched out far further than that term can ever hope to encompass. But their history also includes stories of tours with bands who wanted to give them stage time, only to have audiences pelt them with whatever was at hand.

Now, if we ignore the real world for a second, we have the second layer of Cardiacs mythology. The one that involves the Alphabet Business Concern. I won’t go into the whole thing, but you can read the “official” history from the following link. It’s a sordid tale of musical ‘children’ wandering in a wasteland before being taken under the wing of THE CONSULTANT and being forced to produce music for the Concern. There are whiffs of English Public School humiliation and beatings, Eldritch Horror and good old, straight-down-the-line madness in this telling – and to make it worse, in interviews with Tim or other members, nobody ever takes the mask off. Or if they do, it’s only to peek around the room a little strangely and then put it back on as if not wanting to get caught.

Some bands do “unnerving” well – most don’t. Truly unnerving music usually comes about via an act who knows you don’t need a cowl to do it. Using the rule of “he was always such a quite boy”, most music that is truly scary comes from acts who just look like regular folk or just don’t try and jump-scare you into being frightened. Fantômas and Coil are good at this. A lot of acts try it and fail. And as much as I love it, most metal fails completely at this – it’s not scary, it’s silly, which is why I love it so. Cardiacs, and Tim in particular, seem to have, over time, perfected the art of producing the genuinely disturbing – if only to me! From the spasmodic nature of the music itself and its utter disregard for your feelings or chords that sound “natural”, to the promo shots, to the lyrics.

Ahhh, the lyrics. Those glorious words. Those of you who have read my previous posts will be aware that I am a fan of several acts who have a, shall we say, tenuous relationship with linear prose. A lot of the lyrics of my favourite bands tend to the obtuse, the foggy and the downright weird. I can’t say that the lyrics were what drew me to them, but I will say that once I found the words I was hooked. They seem actually mad. Not like, “Oooo, look at me. I’ve got my trousers on wrong and I’m juggling telephones!” This seems like proper, could hurt themselves, danger to others, in need of medication immediately type of lyrics. Proper bonkers. Along with the complexity of the music, I am having trouble figuring out how a mind remembers these lyrics on top all that for live performance. Try these on for size:

Died in earth did brother by the side of sister
No moist just dry fire
Midas feet were ruined
Merry Jesus brew in sent her soul by wire

(Odd Even on “Sing To God – Part II”)

These are normal, run of the mill lyrics for Cardiacs. All of the songs are like that. And it’s not just the words themselves, it’s the way those words are put together. Mostly it’s really hard to parse any of the sentences:

Spiny grip brings all off “Mr. Regal jelly” in hand
Warm feel and suck regal man suck bland
Suck bland away and he a sleepy cow-eyed dog

(Dirty Boy on “Sing To God – Part II”))

Who writes like that? A person who is probably writing those words in faeces on a padded wall, that’s who.

Aside from these interesting conundrums, some of the lyrics are downright disturbing. Like the section in Fairy Mary Mag where an out of breath woman with a child’s timbre (probably sped up) stops the song to declare, “I will tear the secret from your arms” in a sing-song voice.

It’s all a bit Pete Tong isn’t it? Say a friend of yours decides to take up poetry and hands you some of that. You would probably want to have a little sit down with them and make sure everything was alright at home and they didn’t have severed limbs sellotaped to the television or something. To be fair though, the early stuff, whilst definitely disjointed, sometimes made a bit of sense. Tim seemed to get better at being bonkers and staying there for longer the more albums they made. It’s as if the words themselves don’t really matter – it’s the pictures they paint in your head that are the real issue.

Along with the sonic output, there’s the visual. Check out the Tarred And Feathered video above and feast your eyes on the early days of dirty, ripped suits, poorly applied makeup, and a general unkempt demeanour that usually accompanies the deranged homeless or the shouty drunk in the middle of the roundabout. In it you can also catch Tim portraying the loud, bullying leader of the group – kicking the drummer in the head, pulling Jim (bass player and Tim’s brother) Smith’s hair and seemingly sexually harassing the saxophonist (his wife at the time) and smacking himself around the head. The audio on the CD includes this torture, it’s not just for the video. None of this is done with a wink. You’re not told whether it’s a joke or not. Should you take it seriously? I’m not sure. I’m less sure the more I see it.

Later on the dirty suits are ditched and replaced with a slightly more regimented look. Promo shots in the mid 90s had Tim in a greatcoat flanked by musicians in military sash, joined by what seems like a very culty women’s choir lined up behind them.

Tim’s onstage banter and interviews don’t help this situation at all, coming across as spoiled and infantile but highly intelligent, enough to cause serious problems – willing to disseminate bad information for shits and giggles and being vague about actualities. As if all this … didn’t really matter.

Their influence was apparently felt much further that one would expect for such a strange act that demands so very much from the audience (the word “unlistenable” has been found in various places throughout the internet in my travels). Take for example the love affair between the Cardiacs and Napalm Death. That’s right, that Napalm Death. The story goes that both bands had the same management, who decided to save costs by putting both bands on the same bill at the Salisbury Arts Centre on 30 June 1990. They also decided to record both bands for live albums and DVDs. That sounds like a rubbish idea to me – how about we put an extreme metal band on the same bill as a theatrical punk/progressive act and then video the results with a view to releasing it?

As it turns out, had I been in charge I would have been completely wrong. Both gigs are available, and both are brilliant. I have to assume that unless they emptied the venue between gigs, both bands were watched by basically the same audience, who took both in with the same enthusiasm. Napalm Death’s Live Corruption was recorded the same night and you can even see Shane Embury (Napalm Death’s bass player) wearing a Cardiacs shirt on the DVD.

Then I discover that 2014 solidified the bond even further. Napalm Death record and release a cover of Cardiacs To Go Off And Things to raise funds for Tim’s recovery and ongoing costs.

Again … where were these people fifteen fucking years ago? I am having trouble accepting the fact that this is not a new phenomenon – that this is a band that has existed since the 80s.

And so we come to the last couple of proper albums. Guns and Sing To God were released in the mid nineties and solidify (to me) Tim Smith’s stranglehold on his own songwriting prowess. Sing To God on its own has enough brilliance to certify it as classic. This is why I am having trouble coming to terms with Cardiacs. These albums are really that brilliant, really. Well … to me … It’s like they recorded them exactly to my own specifications. I haven’t been blindsided by music like this for years. And it hasn’t lasted a couple of days – it’s been weeks now.

There was little movement as far as I can see for quite a while and then they suddenly came back to life and played a few shows in London, celebrating their early catalogue and lumbering into movement again. Tim Smith was writing a new album and had even played snippets over the phone on a radio programme to prove it. An EP was produced (2007’s Ditzy Scene) and then, soon after, Tim attended the last night of My Bloody Valentine’s comeback performances, after which he suffered both a stroke and a heart attack, got taken to hospital, started recovering, and then took another stroke.

Since 2008, Tim has been incapacitated and people don’t seem hopeful of him making a full recovery, although I have seen photos of him looking happy – which honestly bring joy to me. The man was and is a massive talent. In 2011, The Guardian produced a piece entitled ‘Cardiacs tribute album to raise money for paralysed singer Tim Smith’ in which Ian Gittins quotes Levitation guitarist Bic Hayes, “Tim can’t talk except, on his good days, via a letter board, but when I play him these covers of his songs, he wells up. He loves hearing his music given this new lease of life.”

So there we go I suppose. I’ve been left wandering the halls of a large, decaying warehouse. Filled with tantalising, undiscovered musical gems on every shelf, each one better than the next and some that are so good they have actually made me cry. I find myself needing to know everything about them and searching the internet for clues that invariably lead nowhere – or just back to where I was in the first place. And I know an almost complete new Cardiacs album is hiding around somewhere. By all accounts, Tim himself is an extremely nice man (before and after the health issues) and it’s such a horrible fate to have been visited on such a nice and vastly talented bloke. You can take this as a public cry for information, or stories, or whatever. For God’s sake, someone must have heard of them!!

I have a sneaking suspicion this is exactly how Tim would have it – and we may never find out for sure.

Maddening.

 

Cardiacs photo 2

This list is in listening order. Please do as THE CONSULTANT requires.

(there are no tracks on spotify, just click on the links to listen … Ed.)

Fiery Gun Hand (Sing To God – Part 1)
The first thing that hit me with this track was the guitars. The single strokes, delayed and then answered by another guitar in different ways, remind me of Wake Up by XTC (The Big Express, 1984). Then it sets off at a breakneck speed down the hill and never lets up. Tim’s voice is doubled and effected and he’s going on about Jesus shooting himself in the mouth with his “big gun fire hand”. The wall of sound is only broken for the post chorus/bridge where the tone changes entirely and he’s telling you that he has no secrets but they’re in a box. Then a solo where he appears to have contracted every guitarist in the metal world to contribute one bar only to the whole. Keyboard organ covers the whole song and makes the track appear world-sized until – BANG! – it shrinks in size and is suddenly a Zappa-infused nightmare of nasty arpeggios and meter changes. And then, like that … it’s gone. Wipe your brow clean.
“Sacred patience and a short silence, And we will be sure as eggs is eggs that Jesus’ll hold his fiery hand to the gun.”
(watch and listen to Fiery Gun Hand here)

R.E.S. (A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window)
This early one has the whole ‘carnival madness’ thing going on. It’s filled with harpsichord-style keys and stop-start rhythms, relentlessly driving the song along. This has also got a nice example of a trick Tim uses a few times. If a song is in simple time, Tim will sing (yell) a line in compound time for a verse. It works completely, but it does jolt one out of the tracks. The lyrics on the earlier tracks are easier to follow and seem to be a little more linear. I still don’t have the foggiest what he’s on about, but at least I can parse the sentences! This track also has the closest thing I can see to a straight up homage to Zappa in the solo.
“A stitch in time saves nine in time, But that’s the way we all go. The higher the chances the higher the climb, But that’s the way we all go. Is everybody happy?”
(watch and listen to R.E.S. here)

Big Ship (Songs For Ships And Irons)
Probably the first proper Cardiacs anthem in this list. The chorus (that only happens once and only then at the end) is a big, shouty singalong thing. The production is very 80s, very big and allows the track its mountain-sized territory. There’s a small sonic trick being played here that I think is important to point out. Before a large section, the lyrics are pushed way down in the mix and brought up over time until the climactic moment. Interesting. Not something I would do as an engineer, but it works.
“All of the noise takes me to the outside where there’s all creations joining in celebrating happiness and joy all around the world on land and in the sea.”
(listen to Big Ship here)

Tarred And Feathered (Songs For Ships And Irons)
A completely potty, Mad Hatter of a track, dancing a mad jig in your ears. One of the few tracks that is almost lyrically followable and, of course, it seems to be about perceived madness and awareness of your own existence. Of course it is! Tarred And Feathered is also a good example of a strong vein of English panto running through the entire catalogue. Listen to the end of the track where the lights are off except for a single spot shone on Tim, who sings a lone lament about … well, something … sighs heavily, and then skulks off into the darkness. This is followed by a very soft exchange where we hear that Bill has had a wash and smells very nice, before Tim smashes in and yells at Bill, “Don’t knob on your own face you filthy dog!”
“Time tends to pass by quicker than the nail, that boxes me together forever it forms the seal. Is the knowledge of my own existence real?”
(watch and listen to Tarred & Feathered here)

Day Is Gone (Heaven Born And Ever Bright)
Aside from Is This The Life? this little number is about as straight forward as you are going to get from the Cardiacs. It’s a driving, 5/4 rocker with but one purpose – goosebumps. It does this via a very clever method – building up a vocally delivered chord, harmony by harmony until breaking point, then entering the chorus line with the full harmony in place like a choir, breaking over you like a wave. It really is as spectacular as that. It has a very 80s feel in the production and reminds me of similar stuff from the Flying Nun label in New Zealand (maybe Heavenly Pop Hit by The Chills?). Tim laments the loss of a day whilst blathering on about something else entirely.
“Telling familiar stories, invited us to our home for some soup. Bothered by steam, we clipped our wing, so we can’t fly.”
(listen to Day Is Gone here)

There’s Too Many Irons In The Fire (Songs For Ships And Irons)
No idea lyrically, so I’m not even going to try – but it does start out as a story about someone and then just ignores that and goes off to lament there being too many irons in the fire (too many jobs to do?). It’s a beautiful, complex chord progression hiding under a layer of driving pop, pretending to be toy-town music. Another live ‘anthem’ as far as I can tell.
“But everything turns out nicely in the summertime.”
(listen to Too Many Irons here)

The Duck And Roger The Horse (On Land And In The Sea)
A scream, breaking glass, scrapes, hellish noise. This alarming 4 minutes is an utterly bonkers combination of classical structure, studio trickery and pure metal, performed by madmen with no regard for your (or their) aural health. This is, of course, punctuated by sequences of crotchet smashing single notes that lull you into a trance before pounding you senseless with the next section – completely ignoring where you thought the first note of the first bar was. Fuck you and your conventions anyway! This is The Joker’s theme tune.
“Duck tells me I must look a treat. I look my best so I tell him. Scrub me head and feet, make me nice and neat. I’m a different man so they say. Ha ha ha ha!”
(listen to The Duck … here)

Dog Like Sparky (Sing To God – Part I)
A carnival-style boom-pap rhythm starts straight in, no intro here. I get the feeling this is some kind of homage to a dog, or someone Tim is comparing to a dog somewhat in the manner of Mr Bungle’s Stubb A Dubb? Or maybe Tim is comparing himself to a dog? Whatever, we’ll never know. A twisted, riveting song that seems to advocate a number of filthy things without actually naming them. Or is that just me? “Suck red upon my belly” anyone? And how exactly does one parse a sentence like “Never mind as crawling is my in my world?” No, you didn’t read it wrong. That’s how it’s said. Whatever, it’s a killer track.
“Stay alive with or without praising him off his pins that glisten wheel-like in their shining wheely tins.
Never mind as crawling is my in my world with everything alive. Stick and suck dribble in my dirty shoes and crown me everything alive.”

(watch and listen to Dog Like Sparky here)

To Go Off And Things (The Seaside)
This is the one covered by Napalm Death and, if you really listen, you can see why. It’s a punk masterpiece, ticking all the boxes. About 2 minutes in length? Check. Snotty, spitting delivery? Check. Slashing guitars and smashing drums? Check. Wailing keyboards, saxophone solo and anything other than 4/4 meter? Che … Hang on! Although … this is an early track, so it’s fairly clear what Tim is trying to get across. It’s an ode to student living conditions. Someone’s “casting aspersions on my lifestyle” and he’s not having it at all! Or is he?
“Squalor is at large in tidy suburbia. Filth and dirt abound in every corner yes. Things left on the floor.
Abandoned foodstuffs and things left on the floor. Piles of dirty stuff left to go off and things”

(Hear it here)

Dirty Boy (Sing To God – Part II)
Described by writer Martijn Voorvelt as “a purgatory Mahlerian symphonic movement cleverly disguised as a rock song”. For me, this is the big one. A nine minute epic that is built like a hymn, played like a majestic dirge and sung by crucified angels – all the while cranking up to a mind blowing final note that lasts well over two minutes. One, very, very high note. Now, I know it’s studio trickery. No person can sing that high for that long, I understand that. But when I hear it, I picture wide eyed adherents to some fucked up cult praising their dirty god as they preside over some vast Universe-sized apocalypse. Again, no idea what he’s on about, it just gives me mind pictures of such grandeur that there is almost no words and I end up questioning my own ability as a musician. Should I go on creating new music? Why, when Dirty Boy already exists? If you are going to listen to it, you must listen to the whole thing, all the way to the end. Like a good boy.
“All is worth kiss not how to cleanse and fowl. Preserver of sick somehow. Don’t worry now. Hold his mouth and stop him breathing. Over and out.”
(listen to Dirty Boy here in its 9 minute glory)

Something is very wrong in Cardiacs universe.

And I hope to see you all there soon.

 

Cardiacs official site

Cardiacs information & discography

Cardiacs Museum (includes Discography & Memorabilia)

The Cardiacs Lyrics Organ

The Alphabet Business Convention Facebook

Cardiacs – Full Marc Riley Radio Session June 28th 2007

Cardiacs biography (iTunes)

Matt Roberts is a musician, audio engineer and graphic artist from Sydney, Australia with a blinding love of all things sound. His tastes are catholic, ranging from Esperanza Spalding to Slayer and everywhere in between. He writes angular pop and rock, crafts and remixes many varieties of electronic music, and fronts a Frank Zappa tribute act called Petulant Frenzy. More about Matt here and catch up with Petulant Frenzy here.

TopperPost #462

13 Comments

  1. Jason
    Aug 3, 2015

    Welcome to the pond, it’s a place unlike any other in which to share a swim and to hold the goose’s gash of life in our hands.

  2. Marc
    Aug 3, 2015

    Welcome to The Pond Matt

  3. Adam Heggie
    Aug 3, 2015

    Loved your description of Fiery Gun Hand, which has become one of my favourite songs of all time, times infinity … the pace and the changes and that guitar solo then chaotic zappaesque ending, such beautiful madness.

  4. Paul Carey
    Aug 3, 2015

    Oh to be again where you are now.

  5. Tony Allen
    Aug 3, 2015

    Nice piece. You’ll love them forever, they never leave you. I caught them live many times throughout the 80s and 90s, it got a bit obsessive for a while.

  6. Jon Scargill
    Aug 4, 2015

    Great article. I love your enthusiasm for our well kept secret.

  7. Matt Roberts
    Aug 5, 2015

    Thanks for the comments guys, and for reading. I wrote that a couple of weeks ago and you may be interested to know that I still can’t listen to anything else!
    I wonder where the whole Pond thing came from?

  8. Keith Shackleton
    Aug 17, 2015

    Neat. Know next to nothing about them but thanks, I will dig in. I see a bunch of official streams here too.

  9. Andrew Shields
    Aug 18, 2015

    Was interested to see the links between Cardiacs and Adrian Borland’s great group, The Sound. Max Mayers, the keyboard player with the Sound was in an early version of the Cardiacs, while Tim Smith co-produced Borland’s excellent solo album, 5:00AM. Smith also played keyboards and drums on that record. Smith and Borland also apparently formed a band together which played a few concerts in 76-77.

  10. John Tait
    Aug 27, 2015

    Check out Panixphere, the Sea Nymphs and Spratley’s Japs to get a further idea of Tim’s range. I saw Cardiacs (as a four piece) loads of times. I can assure you that Cardiacs fans love Cardiacs as much as teenage girls love One Direction.

  11. Barry Jones
    Mar 21, 2016

    Loosefish Scapegrace is the one for me…

  12. David Jewitt
    Mar 21, 2016

    I notice you mentioned Bic Hayes in the same sentence as Levitation there. As you’ll know, Bic actually left Cardiacs for Levitation, which says something about how much he believed in the latter as a going concern. I wondered – were you a Levitation fan yourself during their short time walking among mortals (über Levs fan here, haha)? Recently they finally released ‘Meanwhile Gardens’, the legendary second, shelved-for-decades LP from 1992, as well as an EP – ‘Never Odd Or Even’. You can find them here:
    Secondly, are you aware of the Cardiacs group on facebook (assuming, that is, you use facebook)? It’s the official Pond gathering as far as I’m aware, very friendly, and very active, with close to four thousand members. You may well be a member; I haven’t checked the register of late! Great piece anyway – thanks 🙂 Oh, btw here it is (Facebook Pond)… oh, and the Levitation fb group

  13. Bik
    Mar 21, 2016

    Wow

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