As far as I’m concerned, Cardiacs were (and are) the greatest band that ever walked the Earth.
The perfect combination of prog indulgence and complexity, punk energy and subversion and sublime pop melodies, the band led by the towering genius that is Tim Smith completely changed the way I thought about music. And, like virtually Cardiacs fans, I cherish them more than any other band I’ve ever heard.
The obscenely talented Kavus Torabi, leader of the similarly brilliant Knifeworld – whose second album The Unravelling, is out now via Inside Out Records, and who are also nominated for a couple of Prog awards – joined Cardiacs on guitar in 2003 and remained a member until Tim Smith suffered a heart attack and stroke in June 2008 and the band’s activities fizzled to a distinctly tragic (but hopefully temporary) halt. As a result, Kavus is well placed to comment on some glittering highlights from Cardiacs’ unassailable catalogue of musical brilliance. I spoke to him about five of my favourite songs and asked him whether they conjured up any specific memories and, perhaps more importantly for those of us who obsess about such things, exactly how devilishly difficult the songs were to learn and play.
Is This The Life The best-known Cardiacs song of them all, Is This The Life was a permanent fixture in the band’s set lists for over two decades. It was famously played on Radio 1 by an only slightly bewildered Steve Wright and was as close to a hit single as Cardiacs ever got. You can find it on both 1984’s cassette-only release _The Seaside _(since released on CD but fairly hard to track down!) and the classic 1988 album A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window.
Kavus: “The first time I heard it was as part of A Little Man And A House… it had just come out and I’d never heard of the band before and a friend of mine leant it to me and said ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ At the time it didn’t strike me as being particularly different to the other tunes on the album. It was just part of the whole thing. Obviously it’s the one that really gets to you, because it’s so catchy and amazing. Later, speaking to friends and trying to get them into Cardiacs, there’d be people who only liked that one. So I realised that this one that the straights can get! I used to love playing it live. It had one of the few bits where we’d get to improvise. All of the guitar solos, Tim and I would improvise that bit and some nights it would just be magical. You’d think that someone would’ve come up with that chord progression before, wouldn’t you? It dates as far back as 1979, but I’m surprised that no one had thought of it before that. Most Cardiacs songs, no one could ever have come up with that stuff and Tim was the only person who could’ve written them. Is This The Life is just beautiful.”
R.E.S. Another track from A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window, R.E.S. is a glorious example of Tim Smith’s ability to combine razor-sharp pop melodies with sinister, nursery rhyme insanity and mind-bending, prog-fuelled intricacy. Madder than a lorry full of boxes of frogs but still oddly beautiful, it almost certainly does, as Kavus explains, feature the greatest guitar solo of all time.
Kavus: “This song features the greatest guitar solo of all time! When I had to learn how to play that song, it helped that I’d known that song since 1988 and it was just wired into my DNA. It was a case of having to remember where to put my fingers. I just knew all the funny timings without having to think about it. But I once said to Tim that I thought it was the greatest guitar solo of all time and he said ‘Oh, it’s a bit too Canterbury-ish for me…’ Ha ha! It’s an incredible solo. It sounds corny, but I remember getting that record home in 1988 and playing it. My friend had already told me that he was sure I’d like it, and I loved the funny photocopied album cover with the big flower on it, and I remember getting through side one and thinking ‘This is really, really good!’ but when the guitar solo in R.E.S. came in, they’d become my favourite band, before I’d got to the end of side two.”
Jibber And Twitch First released on The Seaside in 1984, this early Cardiacs classic is another dizzying eruption of crazed musical ideas, insidious hooks and twinkly-eyed macabre. Shortly after joining the band in 2003, Kavus had to learn Jibber And Twitch, along with a ludicrous number of other songs from the early Cardiacs years, for three special shows the band performed at The Garage in London in October of the same year. Those shows are captured on The Special Garage Concerts Volumes I and II albums.
Kavus: “I had to learn all the early Cardiacs stuff for the shows we did at The Garage. It was a really interesting experience! I found out a lot about myself during those couple of months. I knew two thirds of the songs because they were on The Seaside and Archive Cardiacs, but there were bits I’d never heard before. There was so much to learn, about 35 songs including the encores, but Tim’s attitude was ‘You know what to do, just get on with it!’ He gave me and Bob, who also wasn’t around in the early days, a free rein to do what we wanted with the songs. The weird thing about that is that I’ve never been one of those people who works out other people’s songs. I never did that, so it was the first time I’d ever really sat down and committed to learning such a big body of stuff. I really liked it! It became my life. I’d go to work each day and then come home and spend two or three hours learning it all. I’d learn maybe one new tune each night and then run through the rest of what I’d learned previously, until three or four weeks before the gigs I was just coming in and running through both sets. The weird thing was that it takes up so much of your brain! It was like revising for an exam. Even two weeks after those gigs I’d forgotten how to play half those tunes. We had a party afterwards and it felt like my mind was slowly coming back to me.”
Dirty Boy In 1996, Cardiacs released a double album entitled Sing To God. An audacious and ambitious 90 minutes of pure Tim Smith genius, it is an album that encapsulates the overwhelming magic and majesty of the band’s sound, with a wonderfully vivid and powerful production that Cardiacs never quite equalled on their other recordings. The greatest song on an album full of great songs, Dirty Boy is nine-minutes of dark, monumental and lavish psychedelia. There is nothing else quite like it.
Kavus: “The funny thing with Dirty Boy was… I remember when I was a kid, maybe ten or 11, and into rock music, and you’d always hear older people talking about how Stairway To Heaven was the best song ever written. It had an alluring title, but I wasn’t really into Led Zeppelin at the time, I was into Maiden and stuff. I started to imagine what this song must be like, but when I heard it a couple of years later – and I do really like Zeppelin now – and I was so disappointed! I thought ‘Is that all it is? Is this supposed to be the greatest song ever?’ Let’s face it, it’s not even the best Led Zeppelin song! So when I heard Dirty Boy it sounded like what I imagined Stairway To Heaven would be like. Surely it’s the greatest psychedelic rock song ever recorded, by a long way! It was great to do live, but one of the hardest to play because of the amount of chords. Tim’s attitude was that some of the punky songs, if you fucked them up it didn’t matter because ‘It’s fuckin’ punk, isn’t it?’ but with Dirty Boy you were not allowed to play even one chord wrong and there are so many, going from major to minor and then back… it was so hard to learn, but you really owe it to that song to play it properly because it’s so amazing. It makes you want to believe in God! It makes the whole God thing seem plausible! Ha ha!”
Ditzy Scene Recorded shortly before the last tour Cardiacs did before Tim became ill, Ditzy Scene was the first song to be committed to tape by the Kavus-era line-up. It was released as a limited edition single by those splendid people at Org Records and offers a tantalising glimpse of what the band’s proposed next album, tentatively known as LSD, might have had in store for Cardiacs’ army of devotees. Vocals aside, Tim Smith had recorded most of the album when he fell foul of ill health but, as yet, the songs remain hidden in some dusty but magical vault somewhere. We can only hope that Tim recovers and completes the job very soon.
Kavus: “I wrote the words for that song! It was weird one to record, because we felt a bit pressured to get it recorded before the tour. The plan would’ve been… I’m not mad on the mix of it, so the plan would’ve been to remix it for the LSD album that never happened. I love the tune. It was the first thing that we did with that new line-up and it was a new thing. When we started recording it was like ‘Fucking hell… here we go!’ When those girl vocals came in at the start, going ‘Aaah aaah!’ it was a real goosebump moment and I thought ‘Okay, we’ve really got something here…’ It’s just brilliant. We only played it right maybe once or twice on that tour. It was so frustrating! It became one of things, like when so much pressure is put on and it just makes things worse. That intro was so hard to play. It was extremely hard and we’d have to completely concentrate for it. Once you got lost, it was all over, particularly doing stuff with tapes. You had to be in with the tape, so the minute you dropped a beat we had to stop. We did it right in Leeds! I remember that, because when we did it Mel threw a tambourine into the audience! After the gig, I remember Tim saying ‘I hope that wasn’t one of the good tambourines…’ Ha ha ha!”