The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. (technically just ‘Cardiacs’ for those in the know).  Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond,  Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

seaside seaside2

My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. (Update 2016: the Seaside cassette is currently on sale from the band in its original form as a 2lp vinyl version, a cd version, and a deluxe version of LP, CD, cassette and raft of memorabilia in a box. Get it now, it won’t last.) Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

sing to god

But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

stoenhenge

My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…

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24 thoughts on “The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

  1. Hi, congratulations for this blog. I was touched by Cardiacs music in 1984 or 1985 when a french radio broadcasted “Is this the life ?” live in 1984 Stonehenge festival, the one you saw. And it’s been years i’m searching for a bootleg of this performance, especially this track.
    I wrote a letter to them when i was a teenager and they sent me a long answer very fast. I found it fair. After that, i bought “The Seaside” CD, Peel Sessions and the 12″ “Is this the life ?”.
    “Is this life ?” sounds like The Cure before 1983 and i was totally surprised listening to that strange music. I was expecting for something else. I learned to listen to it because, as you said : “they planted a seed in me”. Bye !

    1. Thank you for the response! I also have been looking for a bootleg of the show. I believe there are two clips on Youtube from Stonehenge 1984, but if I find the whole thing, I will email you!

  2. I’m a Yank who was fortunate enough to meet English CARDIACS fans while hitchhiking in France in the summer of 1986. A visit with these friends at Kingston-upon-Thames that autumn brought me face-to-face with CARDIACS several nights in a row until I finally got to see them play live for the first time in a place called Leatherneck. Talk about being completely blown away! Returning to the USA later in 1986, I stayed in touch and followed their progress through the Alphabet Business Concern, their “YousLetter” fan letters, and several lovely handwritten letters from Sarah Smith. Sarah also sent me copies of their Seaside Treats video cassette and their early vinyl — Big Ship EP (Alph 004), Rude Bootleg (Alph 005), There’s Too Many Irons In the Fire 12-inch (Alph 006), and “A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window” LP (Alph 007). Amazingly, in a small town mom-and-pop record shop in downstate Illinois circa late 1986, i also stumbled across a single copy of CARDIACS’ “Seaside Treats” 12-inch (Alph 002). [So yes, confirming that their d.i.y. Alphabet Business Concern label did have distribution of vinyl to record shops in the USA]. All of this vinyl became the source of about 100 hand-made CARDIACS unofficial U.S. cassette tapes that were deposited with Americans who “got it” from Chicago, New York, Seattle; Eugene, Oregon; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Atlanta, and downstate Illinois….. like a little Johnny Appleseed planting CARDIACS seeds across the USA in the late 1980s. Point is, there was indeed a small number of Americans who were listening to CARDIACS music in the USA in the 1980s…. and loving it. It’s great to see that the internet is doing a more efficient job of spreading CARDIACS flowers than real-time cassettes made from vinyl and face-to-face distribution could do back in the 1980s. Also, I met at least two Americans wearing Cardiacs flower T-shirts in the late 1980s… one in Chicago and one in Portland, Oregon. So in an ocean of music fans in the USA in the 1980s, there were probably enough American CARDIACS fans to fill a pond. 😉

  3. Thank you for this. I also loved your Fripp post. The Cardiacs are truly amazing. Well, i see my potatoes are getting warm. Off i go. Bye.

  4. Great article! I’m from Kingston upon Thames and went to the same high school as Tim & Jim but missed them by a year. However, some of the early band members were people I knew – Derek Tagg, who was later in The Trudy, was someone I used to catch the train with to school! Saw Cardiacs in the Kingston area many a time and at the Marquee in London and the Reading Festival in 1986. I’m now living in the US but have old friends who keep me up to speed on Tim’s rehabilitation. Long live Cardiacs and “that’s the way we all go”.

    1. Hawk Dunc, many apologies for the late response. Your tale makes me think you have many things that you know that others do not know. Growing up around them literally makes me at a losfer words to appropriate a Maiden title (and more than a little jealous). Derek Tagg? Many Cardiacs people probably have never heard of him, yet he is part of the mystique and madness of the early years. If you would care to post any updates on Tim for American (and Brit) fans, I think it would be very very welcomed. Glad to have your input, and shoot me a message if you think it not appropriate to publicly post any updates. Cheers

  5. Only discovered them a couple of years ago after a brief comment by someone at a party claiming local band “Cinema Prague” sounds like a band called “The Cardiacs” (Its actually not a bad comparrison, but speaking with a member of cinema prague [long since broke up] he never heard of them). Either way, I’ve been obsessed ever since, and playing them to anyone unfortunate enough to get within striking range of my home stereo. THEY WILL LEARN TO LOVE.

  6. Wonderful post 🙂 Great that you’re sharing you enthusiasm for what us most definitely one of the greatest bands that has ever existed 🙂 Just wondering where the information came from re: Tim Smith being mugged?

    1. Hello John-That story came from one of their close mates that I met on My Bloody Valentine tour in the states, he was their guitar tech (oddly Tim was supposedly coming from a MBV show when the incident happened). Bic was also a tech for the band, so the tale likely was a combination of both of their knowledge of the event. Many thanks for reading, and I agree, this is one of the greatest bands that has ever existed!

  7. Great article for a truly great band. The Stonehenge ’84 recording was done by me on a tinny little cassette recorder and I have just posted a little bit more of it plus some pictures which might take you back to 1984 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOtVnfueXJ0 It was a very memorable evening except that legend has it that if you remember it then you weren’t really there!
    I do have an audio copy of the whole concert which I may get round to posting at some point although others seem to have already got hold of bits of it somehow.
    Well done for planting so many seeds in the US. I too was surprised by the mugging story. It is a fact that has never been mentioned before here in the UK (certainly not on the many Cardiacs forums) so your telling of it has piqued the interest of quite a few of us on this side of the pond. We knew that Tim had been to a MBV concert but none of the mugging facts.

    1. Paddywack, you are a national treasure for being the source of that recording!. How anyone could have it together enough to make a recording under those circumstances beggars belief. To be fair, tho’ I remember the show, it does seem like some surreal mystical vision more than any particular memory (damn red hearts ;-). But the snippet that is up for downloading is something I guard on CDr as if it were some rare combination of the Hope Diamond and the Holy Grail-the secrets of the universe are contained in the grooves. On my first listen I fell down the rabbit hole instantly, wood smoke hovering over the ground, suspicious cow pats you had to avoid sitting in, drunken revelry, coleman lanterns turned up to super nova settings scarring the retina, and a joyous level of serious detachment from reality. Cardiacs certainly did NOT help bring any sense of reality or safety to the equation.
      I have a very clean original master recording of Hawkwind’s sunrise set that I recorded without Huw at dawn of the solstice, something I’ve never traded or digitized. That is something I should probably get together to post, as it is a very high end audience recording with pro stereo microphones of a very mystical Hawkwind set (Alan Davey’s first show to boot!).
      I hope the mugging story doesn’t step over any privacy lines for any of the parties involved, but I was literally stunned to hear this whole story (I hadn’t heard any of the tales around this event ever before), and felt this part of the story needed to be shared with those that love the band as dearly as I do. A bit of investigative inquiry that led to a fascinating and heartbreaking tidbit from those who definitely knew the story led to a part of the story that I assumed was common knowledge among Cardiacs fanatics.
      One thing that is for sure, I owe you a pint or two (or twelve), mate!
      Cheers, carwreck

      1. Don’t worry, your article is overwhelmingly positive in spreading the love of Cardiacs throughout the USA and beyond. The mugging revelations have come as a bit of a shock to all over this side with much debate over whether they are true or not. Nobody doubts that you heard what you heard and maybe it is something Tim and family wanted to keep quiet to the extent that even his current partner doesn’t seem to know about it. I take some of the responsibility myself for posting your article to the Cardiacs FB page and opening that particular can of worms. However, if your article succeeds in getting even one more person to listen to the genius that is Cardiacs then it is a thing of great enlightenment. Nice one!

    2. I’ve read some of the conversation about this on the FB site, and can only add for clarity that Bic Hayes was standing there while the other chap was relaying the story to me. The details were quite specific, and Bic was nodding while listening, so could have contradicted things at any point had he disagreed. But beyond that I have no knowledge other than what I was told. I’d honestly assumed everyone in the UK fanbase knew this part of the tale. As someone there pointed out ‘the mythology just got weirder’.
      Very sad as well.
      Cheers, from the other side of the pond

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