One mark of a truly great band is the ability to inspire overwhelming adoration. Very few bands really achieve it. But Cardiacs did. If you’re a fan, there is a very high likelihood that Cardiacs are your absolute favourite band of all.
On the other hand, their wild, intricate and gleefully deranged music might also make others want to run screaming from the room. They were that kind of band.
Formed in 1977 (initially as Cardiac Arrest) and led by the unparalleled wonky genius of the late, great Tim Smith, Cardiacs were the ultimate underground band: zealously supported and loved by their hard-core fan base, and completely ignored by everyone else. The music press absolutely loathed them, but that didn’t stop Smith and his ragbag of eccentrics from building up a formidable reputation as a dazzling, life-affirming live band.
Defying the notion that prog and punk were somehow incompatible, Cardiacs’ music sounded like everything happening at once. An often frenzied eruption of mad ideas and skewed time signatures, it always arrived over-endowed with exquisite melodies and moments of spine-tingling grandeur.
After numerous DIY tape releases, Cardiacs’ recorded legacy began in earnest with 1987’s Big Ship EP, on which Smith’s songwriting reached a new peak of bewildering efficacy. That was followed by a series of studio albums that meticulously forged an entirely new and enchanting musical world, where blistering aggression, lush harmonies, crackpot fairground music and all manner of warped prog and art-rock influences collided.
From 1989’s still startling On Land And In The Sea to the twinkling squall of Guns a decade later, Smith matched his band’s on-stage prowess with records to cherish. Despite numerous pauses in activity and unexpected line-up changes along the way, Cardiacs never seemed to completely disappear from view, and were still touring right up until the winter of 2007.
A perfectionist but also a generous collaborator, Smith was supposedly working on a new Cardiacs album when he collapsed from a cardiopulmonary arrest on his way home in June 2008, and suffered brain damage as a result.
He sadly passed away on July 21, 2020, a beloved genius with a much bigger (and utterly adoring) fan base than you might imagine. For the lucky few, Cardiacs will always be the greatest band that ever walked the earth.
For Cardiacs CDs and vinyl, buy direct from the Alphabet Business Concern (opens in new tab).
On Land And In The Sea (The Alphabet Business Concern, 1989) (opens in new tab)
A magnificent creative peak from the classic six-piece Cardiacs line-up of the late 80s, On Land And In The Sea shines bright, kaleidoscopic light on Tim Smith’s musical manifesto.
From razor-sharp but fiendishly complex melodic gems like Baby Heart Dirt, Mare’s Nest and Fast Robert, to the berserk prog-punk of The Duck And Roger The Horse and absurdly grandiose closing epic The Everso Closely Guarded Line, it’s an unrelenting rollercoaster ride of melody, madness and joy. Gently psychedelic and steeped in British eccentricity, On Land And In The Sea is Cardiacs’ most affecting masterpiece.
Sing To God (Alphabet, 1996) (opens in new tab)
Cardiacs fans are split on whether Sing To God or On Land And In The Sea is the band’s greatest work. Both make a strong case, but there’s no denying that the former is, at the very least, Tim Smith’s magnum opus.
Recorded in 1995, it’s an opulent, sprawling double album, and includes many of the best songs the band have ever done. Easily the biggest and best-sounding Cardiacs album, it veers from immaculate, quirky pop like Manhoo and Bellyeye to ferocious, skronky punk like FieryGun Hand and Bell Clinks, stopping off at towering psychedelic monolith Dirty Boy along the way. Another masterpiece, then.
Heaven Born And Ever Bright (Alphabet, 1992) (opens in new tab)
Preceded by irresistibly melodic single Day Is Gone, the third Cardiacs full-lengther showcased a new, four-man line-up and an ever-so-slightly refined approach from the ever-inventive Smith.
Mostly comprising precise and exuberant singalongs like For Good And All, She Is Hiding Behind The Shed and Anything I Can’t Eat, it also provided Cardiacs fans with their very own hymn: the impossibly stirring The Alphabet Business Concern (Home Of Fadeless Splendour). Meanwhile, Snakes-A-Sleeping is swivel-eyed prog at its finest – although the final fade-out is absolutely not be trusted (spoiler: you will jump).
Big Ship (Alphabet, 1987 (opens in new tab))
Technically not an album, but more than significant enough to warrant its inclusion here, Big Ship was the first ‘proper’ Cardiacs release, at a time when bands simply didn’t sound like this. Not, of course, that they ever have.
Only a handful of songs deep but perfect in every way, it begins with the rousing pomp of its title track, rattles through the electrified prog-punk of Tarred And Feathered, and plunges into oddly reassuring melancholy for Stoneage Dinosaurs (later covered by Steven Wilson, no less). You can find the whole thing on the compilation Songs For Ships And Irons, along with some more shiny non-album treats.
Guns (Alphabet, 1999) (opens in new tab)
Although Tim Smith was reportedly not happy with the sound of Guns, Cardiacs’ final studio album, it still sparkles and delights with tons of their customary cracked charm. Ignoring the fact that album opener Spell With A Shell is without doubt the finest song about a snail ever written, these are some of Smith’s most beguiling creations.
There’s Good Cud sounds like a bomb going off in a clown-shoe factory; Cry Wet Smile Dry uses key changes as a weapon of wonder; Jitterbug (Junior Is A) is woozy, meandering and just plain weird. Smith even mastered reggae on Wind And Rains Is Cold, the clever sod.
The Special Garage Concerts Vol I & II (Alphabet, 2005) (opens in new tab)
Not a studio album, but rather a sonically dazzling live set full of material that isn’t included on Cardiacs’ regular albums, The Special Garage Concerts was recorded over three nights at London’s The Garage in the autumn of 2003, and proved to be Cardiacs’ last grand gesture as a live band.
Delving into their early material for an explosion of musical madness, a new line-up featuring guitarist Kavus Torabi brought Tim Smith’s songs vividly to life in front of a hysterical audience of devotees, and joy was definitely unconfined. Essential listening for the Cardiacs completist.
The Seaside (Alphabet, 1984) (opens in new tab)
Cardiacs released a handful of tape-only albums during their first decade, and The Seaside was undoubtedly the pinnacle of that rise to compositional glory. Although sonically primitive compared to later, ‘proper’ albums, there is something magical about this eruption of youthful imagination.
Some of the band’s most iconic songs are on this record, too, such as Gina Lollobrigida, To Go Off And Things (later covered by Napalm Death!) and early versions of A Little Man A House, R.E.S. and Is This The Life, all of which are all cherished cornerstones of Cardiacs’ legacy. There was a lot more happening in 1984 than Tina Turner and U2, you know.