I was going to write a follow-up list to the post I wrote earlier this year about weird bands, but I realised that while I have been broadening my horizons, none of the artists that I’ve listened to recently can really be described as “weird”. At least, none as weird as the Cardiacs, so while this won’t be a list (sorry), I have about a million thoughts about these guys that will hopefully compensate for any lack of variety.
The band formed in the late ’70s, and, over more than two decades, have built a mammoth back catalogue of over 20 albums, singles, and compilations. Like many acts who have been active for a similar time frame, they have undergone several line up changes, however, Tim Smith (vocals, guitars), and his brother, Jim (bass, backing vocals), have been constant members since the band’s inception. This isn’t to negate the talent of any of the previous members or collaborators of the band, but if I were to list every single person who has worked with the Cardiacs, this post will be about three times longer than necessary.
From a lyrical standpoint, the Cardiacs’ songs seem to be a word salad, but they are actually influenced, at least in part, by the quirks and peculiarities of the Smith brothers’ suburban upbringing (around Kingston upon Thames, in particular- a place close to my heart). Some of the other songs focus on coming of age, death, holidays, and at times just pure gibberish. This abstract way of songwriting can be heard in “Tarred and Feathered“, which, from what I can gather, is about accepting the finite nature of life, but the lyrics are so bizarre that i could be reading it completely wrong.
Your first impression of the band’s sound is probably dependent on where you start in their discography, as their music has evolved from album to album, and with different personnel, comes a different sound and flavour. Personally, I thought that it would be easiest to put them somewhere in the punk category, with hints of Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band thrown in for good measure. However, while the Cardiacs do fit a lot of the punk tropes (Smith’s vocals often being spat out in an Estuary English accent being the most obvious one), I found that there was more to their music than meets the eye (or ear, in this case).
A good example of this is “RES” (the song that introduced me to the Cardiacs, after doing some YouTube trawling)- the track starts off quirky enough, but halfway through, there are several erratic tempo and motif changes, which is par for the course in any self-respecting prog track, but still jarring in this context, nonetheless. The insanity peaks just as the band are about to lose control, before crashing back down to earth to the closest thing that could resemble a sing along chorus.
After exploring some more of their music, I’ve found that the Cardiacs are comfortable with writing unpredictable, unusual songs, but they aren’t afraid to play it straight either; with tracks like the synth-led “Is This The Life?” sounding like it could be a Cure B-side, and an upbeat, foot stomping cover of The Kinks’ “Susannah’s Still Alive“.
Despite the variation in the Cardiacs’ back catalogue, there is always a distinct flavour running through each track, and I think that aside from the intricate, often complex songwriting, there’s always a sense of unhinged intensity, which varies between triumphant defiance, and tranquil disgruntlement. Like a lot of the bands I’ve talked about on this blog, The Cardiacs may not be for everyone, and I’ve gotta admit, on my first listen I found their music irritating- I got the feeling that the band were being strange for the sake of strangeness. But in spite of that, curiosity took me down the rabbit hole, and it’s paid off.
Unfortunately, Tim Smith suffered two strokes and a heart attack in 2008, and has been left in a debilitated state ever since. Here’s hoping that one day he’ll make a full recovery, and can continue making great music. Until that day comes, I’ll be writing an imaginary list of songs that I would like to hear if they ever perform again.
Side note- If I’ve stoked anyone’s interest in the Cardiacs, finding a good place to start with their music is a pretty daunting task, but I would recommend anything from their days as the “classic” line up; a period which spans between about 1984-1990, and really captures the weirdness and theatricality of the band’s performance, songwriting, and storytelling. Pretty much all the videos I’ve provided links to are from this period.