Mike Vennart – leader of the band Vennart, touring guitarist with Biffy Clyro and member of Empire State Bastard, among other projects – discovered the Cardiacs by accident. In 2015 he explained how the work of the late Tim Smith became a lifelong connection.
I’m Mike Vennart and I play guitar for Biffy Clyro at all their live shows. I just released my first solo record The Demon Joke under the name Vennart, and I’m also a member of British Theatre.
I’m typing this initial sentence in the blind hope that the words will come. In truth, Cardiacs mean so much to me, and their work is so incredible, that the idea of explaining it in any other way than simply forcing you to listen to them is futile. I’ve learned to not do that anymore because I’ve ruined way too many parties over the years.
Nevertheless, the internet won’t fill itself.
I almost discovered Cardiacs against my will. After growing up on a strict diet of heavy metal, I started flirting with the weirder stuff around the age of 14. Faith No More’s Angel Dust showed me that music could express a sort of psychosis and schizophrenia that Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd couldn’t. So a couple of friends started lending me Cardiacs tapes – it was the early ‘90s. I really couldn’t be arsed with them. Like all the greats, they didn’t make sense the first time.
Or, indeed, the second time. It wasn’t until I saw Cardiacs three times that I realised they are the greatest band of them all. I don’t say that lightly. There’s simply no-one like them. As an artist, it’s impossible to tap into ‘Cardiacsisms’. What they do is so niche, so theirs, that such efforts can only smack of half-arsed pastiche. Trust me, I’ve tried.
I’m not going to try and explain which other bands they sound like. They simply don’t. Sure, they’re a ‘rock’ band – guitars/bass/drums/vocals all mixed up with whirling Mellotron, horns, angelic female backing vocals and, and…. oh, fuck it. There are sounds and detailed textures in Cardiacs records you’ll never identify or hear in any other music.
There is only one problem with Cardiacs; once you understand them, and have felt them in your heart, you will struggle to find anything that will ever come so close for the rest of your life. Their catalogue is comprised of some 17 albums, including live albums and side projects, all of which are essential. They existed between 1976 and 2008.
These songs are not really in order of preference, more in order I think a newcomer will be able to digest them. Nor are they Cardiacs’ definitive Greatest Hits. I could’ve listed another 25 songs as good as this. But time is of the essence and I must put up resistance.
The Icing On The World (Cardiacs Live, 1989)
This is basically where I came in. At my first Cardiacs show in Leeds in 1995, on came these four middle-aged men in shirts and ties. They each could easily have passed for my geography teacher. And there they stood, banging on bass drums, ushering in this sinister shanty. ‘There must be truth in what I say seeing as how the sun shines from my arse’, sings Tim probably ironically, but actually entirely accurately.
This tune employs a signature Cardiacs trick to the hilt – where the dynamics are often emphasised by a dramatic ‘rallentando’ – or a shift in tempo. Each section drags so elegantly and wonderfully into the next. Most bands wouldn’t have a fucking clue how to do this. [Starts at 2m 25]
Eat It Up Worms Hero (Sing To God Part 1, 1995)
This is where things get really fucked. At the time I found them 20 years into their career, Cardiacs were about to drop this monumental bomb on my life. I already held them in high regard, but until they released Sing To God, a sprawling 2-CD masterpiece in 1995, I had no fucking idea what they were truly capable of. I’d underestimated them. That tired old cliche people trot out, ‘This song contains more ideas that most band’s careers’, has never been more applicable than this.
Beginning with something approaching speed metal, coming to a cartoon halt ala Roadrunner, there’s a lightning fast atonal run, a musical toilet flush that should really be at the end, followed – finally – by some gentle singing. ‘Make eyes pretty, wear clean dress…’ Some twisted a cappella harmonies enter, which recall Queen, albeit with far less conventional approach to tonality. A comic double take, and we’re off again, into a thrashing world of total dissonance, as the garbled vocals croak insanely about males giving birth in their throats.
Possibly Cardiacs’ most deranged moment. A song so impossible they never played it live, instead instilling that responsibly on my band Oceansize. We were invited to invade their set at the Astoria in 2002 to perform this song, which we attempted and royally fucked up. As usual.
Two Bites Of Cherry (All That Glitters Is a Mares Nest, 1995)
Here’s an example of Cardiacs’ live capabilities. Once again, in classic Cardiacs style, here’s a huge, rousing burst of melody with several motifs and ideas coming at you all at once. It’s often said that Cardiacs don’t have melody, but only by fucking morons. Cardiacs exude nothing but melody, it’s just that usually there’s multiple melodies scrambling for your attention, often at breakneck speed. ‘World’s too big for danger, jeopardy and risk is ten miles high’. Fucking heart-stopping.
Let Alone My Plastic Doll (The Special Garage Concerts Vol 1)
An early example of Cardiacs more dramatic, epic moments; a style they’d eventually master to full effect with Dirty Boy, but more on that later… This song is originally from a crusty demo cassette, written when Tim Smith was only 16 years old or thereabouts. These demos songs were all exhumed in 2003 for three live shows at the Garage in London, where they were rightly dusted off and given the sheen, verve and volume they deserved. [Starts at 54m 25]
A Game For Bertie's Party (The Special Garage Concerts Vol 2, 2005)
Another ancient song from the late 70’s demos. Once again, possessed of a magical and queasy dissonance and the unusual chord patterns that Cardiacs have made entirely their own. Presented here is the original demo, although the superior (but non-YouTubeable) re-recorded live version is partially sung by drummer Bob Leith in a deranged, most-likely drunk and haunting manner, giving way to more changeable prog runs and whimsical ska, punk sections sung by Tim. It’s all good, but it’s inclusion here is solely for the initial verse’s otherworldly aura.
Jitterbug (Junior Is A) (Guns, 1999)
This is an epic odyssey from the surprisingly mild-mannered Guns album, which was to be their last studio album. Guns is more muted, soulful and sombre than all other Cardiacs albums, perhaps leaning more into the sci-fi folksy lullabies of Tim’s side-project, The Sea Nymphs. Nevertheless, it’s immensely rich in timbre and ideas.
The section from 2 mins 53 seconds is quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard. To appreciate this bewildering mesh of synth and hypnotic ghostly vocals to the fullest, one should seek out the lyrics, at the end of which the author effectively thanks you for sticking with it. It pays off in sonic gold.
Home Of Fadeless Splendour (Heaven Born And Ever Bright, 1991)
A hymn for Cardiacs’ mysterious keepers/record label. Seemingly sung by a stadium full of people – most likely millions of overdubbed Cardiacs – this was frequently their opening song in a live setting. An exhausting, exhilarating and beautiful song of praise, Home Of Fadeless Splendour is a prime example of Cardiacs’ ability to overwhelm without a guitar in ear-shot. ‘One drop in the winter sea, no more to rise forever… We are those whose thunder shakes the skies’….. Damn right they are.
Dog Like Sparky (Sing To God Part 1, 1995)
A classic Cardiacs oom-pah pop stomp, each section is more melodic and exciting than the last. Key change after key change. Those fucking tempo changes again. ‘Put your hand on the holy bible and scream ‘WANK’.
Signs (Guns, 1999)
Another from the darker and more human Guns album. One of Cardiacs’ straighter, overt rock numbers, but again with the same ‘hairdryer to the face’ drama and power as the likes of Is This The Life? and Dirty Boy. ‘Oh my saviour create me to die alone’. One of the most painful and mortal songs i’ve ever heard.
Dirty Boy (Sing To God Part 2, 1995)
Good god. How many times have I listened to this song? How many times have I blubbed with joy? This is a prime example of just how powerful music itself can actually be. I think the first 10 or 20 times I heard it, I couldn’t grasp the pattern or the melody or the form (verse/chorus/bridge etc) anywhere, but when it clicked, oh my God. Dirty Boy is my most favourite song of all time. It is all at once grandiose, relentless, loud, beautiful, sensitive and ridiculous.
The use of the signature Cardiacs trick of never-ending key changes has never been more perfectly utilised than here. The mid section employs a chord sequence that, somehow, manages to repeat itself whilst moving steadily upwards in key with each rotation. The tension and drama this creates is absolutely agonising. I’ve heard this song fucking countless times and I still don’t understand how this is possible. When you get to the end of this song, ask yourself what could have done to make it any more spectacular.
Where do you go from this? It’s the last fucking word. ’My arms are chancing and you will no way live long enough to repay me, I’ll praise you anyway.’ It is truly the sound of the world ending.