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.
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.
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.
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.
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…