Is This the Life? Cardiacs, the Band Every Weirdo Can Love or RIP Tim Smith (1966-2020)

It’s been a year since Tim Smith of Cardiacs passed away. In the chaos and confusion what was then pandemic early-days and a summer of Black Lives Matter protests,

3 years ago

It’s been a year since Tim Smith of Cardiacs passed away. In the chaos and confusion what was then pandemic early-days and a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, the announcement likely got lost in the shuffle somewhat. But since then, the loss of Tim Smith—indeed, the realization that now, for good and all, there is not even the faintest hope of more Cardiacs—has really hit me. It’s in that spirit that I dug up this article which I wrote immediately upon hearing of his passing and duly forgot about. It also contains transcripts of a couple years worth of emails with Shane from Napalm Death about Tim Smith and his favorite band, Cardiacs. So now, on the one year anniversary of Tim shuffling off this mortal coil, I have resurrected the article and interview in hopes that Cardiacs can begin to get some of the recognition I feel that they deserve.

Throughout the history of pop music there have been weirdos…outliers. Zappa. Beefheart. Fripp. Barrett. And there they sat on the margins, but close enough that their music could be interpolated into the mainstream, edging ever closer to the metropolitan center of “pop.” Tom Waits edged some closer—Springsteen covered him. Fripp gets hired by Bowie. The more mainstream Waters & Gilmour fronted version of Pink Floyd writes one of their biggest hits about their former psychedelic, burnout talisman, Syd Barrett. But then, there are those bands and artists that forever remain outsiders: think of Scott Walker, Diamanda Galas, Arto Lindsay, Henry Cow, and yes, think of Cardiacs.

Despite the fact that even amongst the rock intelligentia and completist, nerd cognoscietti Cardiacs remain a marginal band, this does not diminish their genius, their innovation, nor their importance. They represent a particularly important moment of syncretic art in the late 70s and early 80 that for whatever reason—poor luck or personal tragedy—simply never took hold beyond the quirky, the abjectly strange and perversely adventurous. They combined the disparate worlds of Lynchian surrealism, Ken Russell and Barrett’s dark psychedelia, progressive bombast, punk insouciance, and post-punk Romanticism into a package which is not easy for the average listener to wrap their arms around. Hell, it’s not easy for “expert” listeners to either. However, artists as diverse as Radiohead, Blur, Mike Patton, and Napalm Death (a member of whom we’ll hear from later) have cited them as an influence. Tragically overlooked? Yes. Understandably so? Probably. Unless you are simply completely unwilling to accept the reality of “pop” music.

The hip buzzwords and allusions already littered throughout this intro mean nothing to your average consumer. And they only mean something to most “experts” in that they are shibboleths which determine whether their partners in dialogue may be admitted into the inner sanctum of self-important obscurity. Nonetheless, it would be a disservice to Cardiacs because it would imply that they are incapable of drawing on such potent signifiers on their own merits when, in fact, they did so expertly and precociously and with ease, in an era when the best of the music press and opinion-makers within the culture necessarily toiled in obscurity. So it’d be understandable if Cardiacs remained under the radar. But, Cardiacs never achieved the cult fame of the Modern Lovers or underground dap of This Heat or The Pop Group, let alone a group like Gang of Four  or The Birthday Party, whose “success” is monstrous compared to cultiest of cult status afforded Cardiacs. Nowadays, with corporate power even more consolidated, yet distributed ever more widely, a band like Cardiacs might never come into existence. Regardless of the climate and context, it’s something of a miracle that they ever did exist at all, in any era. So, let’s dive into a strange, unpredictable, and volatile world of musical experimentation, hermetic lyrics, and a bunch of drunken, psycho clowns tripping balls and dressed up like elevator attendants and a bellhop.

However, before we do, we must of course acknowledge the death of Tim Smith, lead singer and guitarist for Cardiacs, the brains behind every iteration of the band, the musical genius (literally….he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Royal Conservatorie of Scotland) that could take complicated odd time signatures, and borrow musical modalities from Messiaen, the Modern Lovers, and Marillion (whom the band did an ill-fated opening run for in their early days) with equal aplomb and spit out some the strangest, most wonderful music of the post-punk era. Tim Smith passed away quietly at home on Tuesday, 21 July. The band had been on hiatus since 2008 when Tim suffered a heart attack and two strokes and, as a result of the hypoxic brain injury from his heart having stopped for some time, began suffering from the rare and painful neurological order dystonia which caused sudden painful muscle spasming, delayed neurological response and reflex, and robbed him of his mobility and speech as well.

I’ve read a lot of wonderful tributes to Tim since his passing and rather than offering my own, I remembered I had been sitting on an interview I did last summer (before my parents’ own medical issues forced me to shelve it) with Shane Embury from Napalm Death about his love of and admiration for Cardiacs and Tim Smith. Below, dear reader, you will find that interview, and it provides valuable historical context and a wonderful and enthusiastic tour of the band’s eccentric and exciting universe. But first, I’ll reproduce Shane’s thoughts on the truly lamentable passing of Tim Smith.

Shane Embury’s Statement Re: the Death of Cardiacs Vocalist and Guitarist Tim Smith

Wednesday, 22 July, 2020

I awoke this morning after uneasy sleep to see Jim Smith’s text [ed. about the death of his brother, Tim]. I put the phone down and then picked it back up again not quite registering the words – “oh Timmy…” is all I could say!

A little sob ensued followed by smiles at memories that decided to flood thru my brain of years gone passed.

I am happy I managed to at least see him around 18 months ago, as well the Alphabet family [ed. The Alphabet Business Concern has been the Cardiacs DIY label since 1984]—I hadn’t seen him in so long we spent the whole day together. I took my wife and kids it was a lovely day. I was planning on visiting next month … time moves too fast

Tim and his music has traveled the world with me in my heart and soul for the past 30 years! There’s no reason to believe it will be any different for me now. His spirit and the music he created will only grow from strength to strength—especially in the world we have right now—it will be such an ugly pond without Tim’s guiding light to show us the way forward.Shane, Napalm Death

What follows now below is an interview I conducted with Shane two summers ago via email, while Napalm Death were on tour. I was interested in discussing the band with a long-time fan of the band that was himself an important part of the underground music scene but was not a part of the same scene one might expect to contain Cardiacs fans (extreme metal). His fandom and friendship with Tim and the band demonstrate Cardiacs unique ability to influence disparate people and musicians; a testament to Tim’s broad knowledge and limitless creativity.

ML: Shane, thanks for agreeing to speak with me about Cardiacs. My first question is a rather boring one. How did you discover Cardiacs?

SE: They’ve been my favourite band for 30 years now…Cardiacs were a band that back in the day, so to speak, actually played The Mermaid  and the Barrel Organ Pubs in Birmingham as well as Napalm Death in ’86. These local pubs were a host too all of the great UK punk bands at the time.

I remember Nick Napalm telling me about them but I really came into contact with them with their Video “Tarred and Feathered” which was on a show called The Tube on Chanel 4 Tv which played dinner time (UK which is like 6 pm), a show which had all of the current UK alternative bands live every week also.

The first time I saw it I didn’t know what to think but I had recorded it on my VCR and just kept on rewatching the video; it was unlike anything I had ever seen…the old drummer would always say they sounded like Madness but to me they were much more. There was something that appealed to me almost from the get go, their theatrics also and face paint and their use of bandstand uniforms. It was clear to me they had a concept. I was always searching for something different and they flicked a switch in me and I had to find more music from them as soon as I could.

ML: Was there anything else that specifically drew you to them? Did they have a defining characteristic as you saw it?

SE: Mmm well they have so many albums and songs, I think initially I was drawn to their fast quirky arrangements and their complex keyboard riffs. Also Tim’s lyrics, which were abstract and could have meant a thousand things and I like that, as lyrics shouldn’t always be understood straight away and should mean something different to the individual.  I loved that mystery, but as you learned the lyrics you realised that a lot of their songs were linked to a universe which they had created.

Also their image of I guess eccentric school kids who would pick on their bass player [ed. a common feature of Cardiacs videos, banter, and live performance was picking on bass player Jim Smith, Tim’s brother]

ML: If you had to describe the band to someone who’d never heard them before, what would you say?

SE: Cardiacs are a band that you either love or you hate, if you understand them and their music, it touches you. It will never leave your side and their importance to you will only grow as you grow; musically they have the most beautiful songs and progressions but equally they have songs that could punish a weaker mind…there is balance in both…not prog not punk not metal but bits and pieces of everything sprinkles throughout…being English, which is a weird thing to say, I felt familiar with them straight away as if I had grown up in the same town as they did, read the same book and watched the same movies…

ML: How, if at all, did they influence Napalm Death?

SE: Lately over the years some of Tim’s progressions and the band’s riffs have rubbed off on me. I feel in some of what I do there is an influence, though it’s hard to tell— but there is a new song for the next Napalm Death album which for sure has that manic Cardiacs tone and tune but of course done in a Napalm Death way!

ML: So, would you consider Cardiacs “heavy?” Why or why not?

SE: I think at times Cardiacs, especially with some of their later albums, were heavy, but in what context ? Not in a suffocation way but in a way where chords and melodies are colliding in dissonance and at times some of their songs for me are more intense then many a metal band! (example: “The duck and Roger the horse”) Heavy is not always about crunching riffs, but knowing Tim as I had the pleaseure of talking about things like this with him. Many years ago we would talk about each of our bands and in some ways we saw a comraderie in what were trying to achieve; something that wasn’t so conventional, that defied category or description.

ML: Are there any other bands that remind you of Cardiacs now?

SE: In places Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum , “Cloud becomes your hand,” the first Mr Bungle album & “Bubble math”

ML: Favorite album? Song?

SE: My favourite album is On Land and In the Sea. The classic line up I guess; like they would have confetti blow into the air and there was such a bond live between band and audience it was a pleasure to watch.

My favourite song is tricky but I would say “Mare’s Nest.”

ML: So, are they prog, punk, psychedelic, or what?

SE: All of those and so much more…I think they are hard to totally pin down musically…I hear echoes of Gentle Giant in their music, but at the same time the ferociousness of punk…but I never really wanted to categorise them.

ML: What’s the weirdest thing about Cardiacs do you think?

SE: To me they are not weird. What I find weird is how under appreciated the band were when there’s so much shit out there in the world thats nowhere near as good…or you can tell some of the bands that have struck gold  have clearly taken bits from Cardiacs…Cardiacs refused to play the game I suppose.

ML: As you mentioned to me earlier, Tim has actually won an honorary doctorate in music. What I’ve always wondered is are the references to classical or experimental music intentional, so to speak, or do you think they’re just a result of Tim and the band doing whatever the fuck they wanted?

SE:  I think it’s coincidental. As other musicians/critics from other genres of music or art are going to interpret what Cardiacs do differently.

Their music and structures are an amalgamation of probably so many things and also a wanton abandon for convention which is why they would get compared to a composer who themselves were trying to break the rules maybe ?

ML: Do you think that Cardiacs unwillingness to “play the game” is what really and truly unites them with the punk & metal scene? Musically, they’re so different—but starting their own label, being so non-conformist…I sometimes wonder if instead of trying to think of them as like a “post-punk band” along the lines of Wire or as a new wave band or what have you, if they’re not, spiritually, an anarcho-punk band like Crass or Flux of Pink Indians…

SE: Possibly so…they did things their own way and created a whole identity…they certainly crossed over to a lot of the old school punk guys I knew who would say never listen to early Genesis or something. Their attitude was one of a free and easy time at shows and wanting us all to become one in search of something better. I guess at least that’s one perception.

ML: I guess my next question relates to the heaviness question from earlier—I really liked your previous answer because I think sometimes people think of heavy as a stereotype…as barking vocals or drop D riffs or head-banging and miss out on heaviness from an emotional perspective or a complexity perspective…like is Cardiacs’ music actually INCREDIBLY heavy in the sense that there’s so much going on, so much to consider, to sift through, and try to wrap your head around (both musically and lyrically), that people can’t or don’t want to carry all that weight?\

SE: A lot of my friends can’t wrap their heads around Cardiacs or why I love them so much. To me they were far more inventive then a ton of metal bands and even the so called prog metal bands don’t touch the emotion and beauty that Cardiacs songs fill me with.

Cardiacs always feel so sincere to me and that’s in itself  a heavy concept.. I can watch a million “HEAVY” bands but is there sincerity behind it? Do the notes really pull strings in your heart ?

Lyrically on something like “A little man and a house…” reads to me anyway like Tim is talking about the day to day hum drum of waking up going to work. And sharing the day with people perhaps you don’t feel like you connect with! We are all part of this world yet most of the time feel very disconnected from it and one another.

ML: Which leads me to another question—is it just insulting to think of Cardiacs as a “quirky” band? Like they’re the musical equivalent of a B-movie or pulp novel or something? Sometimes B-movies or pulp novels are great fucking art, right? So is the “quirky” or even “weird” label just dismissive, because they’re difficult to understand?

SE: I remember being invited to John Peels’ house to pick out records from a box of his many records and one of the things they told me about John Peel was that if he didn’t like the band at first he felt there was something wrong with himself and he would go back and listen and listen.

Now I don’t know totally about that, but to dismiss Cardiacs as being quirky is not taking in what they offer and the time it must take to construct this song pieces.

Some people are safe with only going so far…I have always wanted more and more form music and more suprises so, Cardiacs are, for me, the answer…but I see fear in some friends eyes; but hey some things are better not shared.

ML: And I guess that leads me to my final question: Is it actually important for Cardiacs or any band to be understood? Like, that’s not why I make music or play in bands. It’s just something I have to do. So why do people demand that bands like Cardiacs or Napalm Death or any other band be “understood?” Is that actually important? Should it be important?

SE: In some of my earlier years making music with Napalm we didn’t care what people thought and then perhaps we did but of late for me, music has been my life…it’s part of my DNA. I think about riffs all day long and I suspect Tim is the same. Every Cardiacs record was a growth or an extension of another arm and if you’re privileged to see and feel what Cardiacs feel then that’s the point. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine, otherwise the world works maybe in a boring and too predictable way.

ML:  Thanks so much for your time Shane, especially while you are out on the road. I appreciate the time and thought you put into your answers.

Matthew Landis

Published 3 years ago