Perfect Sound Forever

Cardiacs at the Garage:
it's history

Photo: Whitchurch Festival, August 5th 2000, by Marc Palmer

by Martijn Voorvelt
(April 2004)

In October 2003, Cardiacs played three concerts at the Garage in London, performing songs from their early years (1977-1983), or, in their own words, "tunes ONLY from when we were BLUBBING BABIES". I would classify these concerts as historic in more ways than one, and here's why.

For over a quarter of a century, this band from Kingston-upon-Thames, England, has been building their weird world. There is simply nothing even remotely like the Cardiacs. Their songs are complex constructs of many chords and melodies, often including hymnal choruses, oompah-sections, strange rhythm and tempo changes and guitar acrobatics, with surrealistic lyrics which are both childish and philosophic. As one author has said (in Organ magazine, #47), "one Cardiacs track can contain enough ideas for most other band's careers." Even though Tim and Jim Smith, who form the core of the band, must be in their fifties by now, looking like bank managers rather than rock stars, their live shows still emit an extraordinary energy. To the casual observer they are only a joke. The initiated, however, know every twisted sentence and tricky tempo change by heart, knowing that beneath the clownish surface there is an emotional labyrinth of suburban neuroses and childlike attempts to get to grips with the world.

Back in 1977, when punk created an environment in which some pretty strange bands attracted attention, Cardiac Arrest made its first appearance. Cardiacs, as they were later renamed, quickly secured themselves an extremely loyal cult audience. However, their increasingly untrendy mix of punk and prog-rock, ska and fanfare forced them into the margins of pop. After their early years, some of the songs that had appeared on cassette demos were compiled and released as The Seaside (1984). If they hoped to reach a wide audience with that record, they failed. If they wanted to release some of the funniest and most original music around, they succeeded. By 1986, Cardiacs had reached a stable line-up that included sax player Sarah Smith (then Tim's wife), drummer Dominic Luckman, percussionist Tim Quy and keyboard virtuoso William D. Drake. But the core has always been the Smith brothers: leader Tim, the Tommy Cooper of rock, whose stage persona combines cruelty and cuddliness (he is both bully and cry-baby, dictator and clown), and Jim, the silent, stubby bass player who is ritually ridiculed by both Tim and the fans during live shows. After releasing a few EP's and slowly gaining more recognition, in 1988 Cardiacs released their first ‘proof of genius' and a temporary breakthrough, A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window. At least this album got reviews in major magazines, leaving the critics stammering in their attempts to describe what they heard...

The six-piece band toured extensively. With open mouths we watched the onstage party: the confetti bombs, Tim Smith's fits, the Jim-bashing, all those nerdy characters, the studied, quasi-arrogant off-hand execution of the most complex of patterns, The Consultant and Miss Swift representing the Alphabet Business Concern... afterwards our jaws hurt for hours, having been in the grinning position for so long, as my friend Peter puts it.

I have seen them only twice in this line-up. After the 1989 On Land And In The Sea album (perhaps less surprising than A Little Man..., but more consistent, and containing the innovative "The Duck and Roger, the Horse" which leaves everyone speechless, whether you like it or not), Cardiacs would lose several members, eventually re-emerging in a different form. With guitarist Jon Poole and drummer Bob Leith (both ex-Ad Nauseam), the Smith brothers recorded Heaven Born and Ever Bright. This showcased the new Cardiacs: more streamlined, more mature, extremely loud, less obviously funny, but crazy and melodic as ever.

During the first half of the 1990's, Cardiacs seemed invisible. Nobody seemed to know what they were up to. Until finally Sing To God pt. 1 + 2 came out. Judging by the reviews, I would not be alone in suggesting this double-CD is their ‘second proof of genius.' Sing To God is not easy, containing so many full-blast multi-layered Cardiacs songs that it's almost too much. But with its combination of razor-sharp beats, Beatle-esque melodies and colourful arrangements, it lures the listener into some of the most painful accounts of childhood experience ever recorded. Part one is surrealistic enough, with its fantasies of Super-dogs and cruel tales of angel-like insects. Part two is darker, kicking off with the scarily intense "Dirty Boy" – actually a purgatory Mahlerian symphonic movement cleverly disguised as a rock song.

The last album they released was Guns, which I think is their least rewarding one. But their live shows remain unique experiences.

Back to the Garage, October 2003. Three consecutive nights where Cardiacs played three different shows that included, according to their newsletter, "MORE than 33 songs never heard in the live arena since those formative years and certainly NEVER before played to more than just a very privileged few." After all this time, they go through the trouble of learning all those complex oldies, which must have been particularly hard work for drummer Bob Leith and guitarist Kavus Torabi (replacing Jon Poole) as they were not in the original line-up. How many other bands have performed such a manoeuvre for their fans? Not only are the songs literally historic, the project is historic in its scope, however little attention it attracted.

What was it like?

Old though the songs might be, it was not a regressive or dated event. An element of nostalgia was perhaps inevitable, but the songs were injected with new life and meaning, benefiting from the band's many years of experience. Even though they lacked the original saxophone and trumpet parts, the musicians could easily play the same material on two guitars, bass and drums, supported by playback keyboard sounds, without ever damaging the integrity of the songs. Cardiacs obviously cared for the songs as if they really were their babies. Tim Smith even instructed the audience to help them: "If you catch one of these songs, take it in your arms", he lectured, "and stroke it... stroke it... tenderly... and if nobody is looking... SLAP it, SLAP it really hard, and if people are looking again, pretend nothing happened and stroke it… very… tenderly…" Considering how much of the lyrical contents of the songs are about dark childhood horrors, there seemed to be more to Smiths' instruction than only a joke. It was funny, cruel, childish - and a bit menacing. Cardiacs all over.

"Dirty Boy" was played as an encore, receiving an even more intense performance than on the Sing to God CD. Cardiacs are still capable of exceeding their audience's sky-high expectations. For me, that one encore alone was worth travelling to England for. And then it was over. All this trouble for a one-off project. It's history. What next???

Also see Cardiacs home page

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