‘More key changes and time signatures in a single song than you’ll find in an entire Jethro Tull album. For the brave and taste-free only.’ That was the final line of a tiny little review, less than a column inch, of Cardiacs’ On Land And In The Sea in 1988. I can’t remember exactly where it was, but I think it was the Guardian or the Independent, and something about it caught my eye, so I went out and bought the album on cassette and this was the first Cardiacs song I ever heard and my heart was lost.
It was harder, back then, to find out stuff about ‘obscure’ bands than it is now, so it took me a while to appreciate just how important the band and Tim Smith were, as I picked up their albums, cassette by cassette, and later CD by CD. They made a noise quite unlike any other band I’d ever heard, a thoroughly English noise, I thought. They were capable of moments of great delicacy and they produced songs that even those of us who loved them found a bit of a struggle. They were utterly unique.
I gradually became aware that the band sat at the heart of a sort of loose network – you couldn’t call it a ‘movement’ – of other bands. You could draw a line from the North Sea Radio Orchestra, through William D Drake’s exquisite solo work, through Cardiacs, to Levitation and Spratley’s Japs and beyond. Tim made a staggering amount of music of his own, both with Cardiacs and on solo albums, but he also did a lot of production work, and his involvement in a project always made it worth a listen.
I never did see them live. By all accounts a Cardiacs gig could be either exultant or terrifying, sometimes both in the course of the same evening, and I never quite worked up the courage to go, so I guess I can’t call myself a real fan. But I loved their music.
It was only when Tim fell ill a few years ago that I appreciated just how well-regarded they were. Bands spoke up and said how influential Cardiacs had been for them, and I felt kind of sad that they hadn’t had that kind of attention when he was well.
And now he’s gone. It was not unexpected, but I think all of us hoped that there would be some small miracle and he would be able to make music again.
It’s a sad day. I’m going to be listening to a lot of Cardiacs music. RIP, Tim.