Prog reflects on the influence that Cardiacs’ “brilliant ringleader” Tim Smith has had on progressive music.
Looking at the impact the late Cardiacs singer had on the music world.
When the news broke on July 22 that Tim Smith, legendary founder and leader of Cardiacs, had passed away, social media of a certain persuasion was awash with single white flowers and expressions of undying love. He would have rather liked that. Tim Smith’s music was about joy. Despite being a bit hazy on exactly when it happened, I will never forget the greatest gig I have ever witnessed: Cardiacs, at Glastonbury, in some godforsaken tent at the top of a giant hill. Virtually no one knew that the band were playing when we all arrived at the festival site, but thanks to the fact that every giant crowd has a small number of secret and not-so-secret Cardiacs fans lurking in it, news swiftly spread about the show. By the time Tim Smith and his unhinged henchfolk hit the stage, the tent was beyond packed, with hundreds standing outside to catch a glimpse. I was in there somewhere, a bit pissed and stoned and beside myself with excitement. And, of course, it was a spectacular show, because Cardiacs gigs were never anything but. My abiding memory of the whole experience is of the entire crowd, not just singing but bellowing along with the triumphant crescendo at the end of Big Ship. Everywhere I looked, there were tear-streaked but beatific faces: the faces of Cardiacs fans, firmly in The Pond (the official name for a gathering of Cardiacs fans) where they belonged, and utterly consumed by wonderful, sizzling, spiralling, kaleidoscopic joy. As ever, Tim Smith surveyed the bouncing rapture before him and grinned, like a mischievous schoolboy.
If one thing sums up the impact of Tim Smith, it’s the fact that every single one of his devout admirers would cite his music – and particularly that of his band, Cardiacs – as their absolute favourite music of all time. As they emerged from the somewhat artificial battle between moribund prog and pugilistic punk, at the end of the 70s, Cardiacs were avowedly, proudly and joyously not for everyone. Even in their primitive early days, the band’s mixture of multi-tempo prog sensibilities, quirky art rock and furious punk was palpably out of step with just about everything else that was happening in music, but that didn’t stop them from steadily building a ferociously loyal and countrywide following. By the mid-80s, Cardiacs were heroically out of step with what was considered cool or relevant at the time: the mainstream music press hated them, scorning the band’s theatrical stagecraft and overt prog inclinations. It didn’t matter, though, because Cardiacs’ popularity grew and grew. As they began to release “proper” albums – as opposed to the multiple DIY cassette releases they issued during their first decade or so – like 1988’s magnificent A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window, featuring the timeless Is This The Life, and its flawless follow-up, 1989’s On Land And In The Sea, they were simultaneously packing out big venues, including London’s Astoria. Anyone who saw the band during that period will recall what’s arguably the finest Cardiacs line-up: seven strong, with percussionist, saxophonist and iconic keyboard player William D Drake contributing to a mind-bending carnival of sound, they brought Tim Smith’s extraordinary songs to life with superhuman vigour. Meanwhile, Tim would loudly berate his brother Jim, Cardiacs’ bassist, for having the audacity to smile at the audience, before shrieking “Fuck off!” at The Pond. Tim was a brilliant ringleader, always revelling in the anarchy of the moment and visibly thrilled by the mad brilliance of his own band. Cardiacs were, for what it’s worth, the greatest live band this writer has ever seen. On multiple occasions.
Beyond the gleefully subversive greatness of Cardiacs, the most important thing to know about Tim Smith was that he was a musical genius who lovingly spread his magic far and wide. Later Cardiacs albums, like the monumental, double-disc Sing To God (1996) and the
“The most IMPORTANT thing to know about TIM SMITH was that he was a musical GENIUS who lovingly spread
his MAGIC far and wide.”
flawed but still wonderful Guns (1999), kept the band’s admirers happy, and the live shows kept coming too, despite numerous line-up changes along the way. Right up until Smith’s widely reported stroke and heart attack in 2008, which denied him both movement and speech, Cardiacs were very much a going concern, with occasional whispers of a new album, known as LSD, whistling through the grapevine. That his creativity was thwarted in such a brutal way was a tragedy in itself, and the response to his plight spoke volumes about the depth and breadth of his support base. Fundraiser gigs were arranged, tribute albums were recorded (check out the superb Leader Of The Starry Skies, featuring Steven Wilson’s version of the Cardiacs classic Stoneage Dinosaurs) and, despite widespread sadness at the situation, Smith’s music continued (and continues) to scatter big clumps of happiness wherever it is listened to.
Smith and Cardiacs’ influence on music is routinely understated, perhaps because the band’s music was never accepted or even acknowledged by the mainstream. But the list of notable Cardiacs fans is long. From Mike Patton (Faith No More/Mr Bungle), Devin Townsend and Voivod through to newer prog protagonists Gösta Berlings Saga and Wilderun, Smith’s music has found a way to seep into the broader consciousness of the rock, metal and prog worlds. Cardiacs even supported Britpop heavyweights Blur at a one-off show at Mile End Stadium in east London in June 1995. Admittedly, they were pelted with plastic glasses (and possibly worse), but an endorsement is still an endorsement.
Although the story of Tim Smith is, to a great extent, the story of Cardiacs, he also recorded a large quantity of music away from the mothership, all of which was every bit as dazzling and askew as his best-known work. Side-projects The Sea Nymphs and Spratleys Japs were particularly memorable; the latter’s sole album, Pony, is a great, lost masterpiece that deserves a proper re-release, but it was seemingly integral to Tim’s approach to making music that many of his low-key endeavours were aimed squarely and only at the faithful. Then, as now, you either knew and loved his music, knew it and hated it or, as was most likely, didn’t know it existed at all. Therein was where the magic happened. Smith certainly shared that magic, too: although spiky and peculiar onstage, Tim was adored and praised by everyone that knew him, both personally and professionally. A hugely generous and kind-hearted man, he was notorious for turning up at friends’ bands’ shows, often standing at the front, with a big grin on his face. Meanwhile, as a prolific producer, he worked with all manner of bands and artists, sprinkling a little bit of that aforementioned magic on records by Levitation, Oceansize and Stars In Battledress: all bands that owed a subtle but unmistakable debt to Smith’s own songwriting vision.
Tim Smith leaves a colossal legacy behind. Cardiacs may have always been a cult band, but they were and are loved in a way that most bands will never experience. It’s not wise to analyse magic, but perhaps one key to Smith’s genius is the fact that his songs owed everything and nothing to everyone and nobody, straddling progressive rock and angular punk, whimsical psychedelia and churning dissonance, often within the same song or even the same few bars. Smith and Cardiacs invited those of an open-minded persuasion to enter a brand new and endlessly nourishing musical world, where the sparkly thrill of childhood permeates every wonky time signature and surging, pompous crescendo. A place where big, shiny melodies come at you from all angles and the English language is rendered rubbery and pliant in the hands of a masterful but demented poet. A place where joy
– a special kind of joy that only Tim Smith knew how to create – is forever unconfined. As someone close to the late, great man noted recently, “That was a life lived.” The Pond loves and misses you, Tim. Kiss the big ugly shark for us, won’t you?