Feature: CARDIACS – A Backseat Mafia top ten playlist in memory of Tim Smith

A personal selection from Backseat Mafia contributors Richard Farnell and Briandroid

TO CHOOSE just ten tracks from Cardiacs’ impressive body of work is a near-impossible task. You might think they didn’t do that many albums compared to some, but they often crammed an album’s worth of ideas into just one song. Had circumstances been different surely more amazing music would have followed, but alas we will just have to cherish what we have.

Every Cardiacs fan will have their moments, but these are ours, and they are just the tip of a massive musical iceberg. If you’re new to Cardiacs and want to explore further, this could be a good place to start.

Richard – Gina Lollabridgida

One of many standout tracks from the magnificent The Seaside album, (1984) this one belts along at a frantic pace. 
The complex bass flourishes from unsung hero of the band Jim Smith, really drive the whole song forward. By Cardiacs standards this is a fairly straightforward song but the nagging intensity of the riffs are totally infectious. 
Like many of Tim’s songs it’s jam-packed with little hooks and once heard it’ll rattle around in your head for days, (was the title presumably misspelled to avoid the remote possibility of legal action from the famous Italian film star of the same name?). 

Tim somewhat prophetically opens with the words “Here’s me hidden in the underground …” and there he would remain for many years to come. Perhaps Cardiacs’ greatest achievement, aside from the music itself is their dogged persistence in remaining truly independent throughout their whole existence. 

Where to find it – The Seaside

Brian – Big Ship

Reading Festival 1986 was my introduction to Cardiacs. They were first band on on the Sunday morning so expectations and energy levels were low. 

They wandered on in their maroon cinema uniforms to a cacophony of strange clanks and sounds, all smudged facepaint and gormless expressions. What followed was quite frankly extraordinary and thankfully recorded and later released.

This was fifth in their set, so we’d already been bombarded and pummelled with musical acrobatics that defied logic and belief. But this song: this is where something cracked in my heart and I suddenly knew I was in the presence of genius.

Where to find it – Rude Bootleg

Richard – Tarred and Feathered

The song which started it all for me. Sometime in 1987, I was watching The Tube and suddenly my eyes were assaulted by the video for “Tarred & Feathered”. My initial thought was “Ha! This is weird and funny – wait ‘til I show my mates” (like most 17-year-olds I’d discovered absurd comedy like Monty Python and this fitted the bill) …cand yet by the time of Tim’s “YES!!!” and the confetti cannons going off at the “Breathing at home” section, I could see there was musical genius at work here. Luckily I was recording it so after a few more viewings I was hooked.

Within days I’d ventured into town and purchased the Big Ship EP ( featuring this track ) and it opened my ears to Cardiacs’ strange new world. 

The video for this song still frightens many folk away from appreciating the band, as it’s one of their most manic, but it was my entry point and therefore must be included in my list. 

Where to find it – Big Ship EP

Brian – The Everso Closely Guarded Line

This begins with a distant ominous drum and light sprinkle of school-assembly piano, before bursting into a cacophonous waltz, albeit a creepy fairy-tale pagan one. A sinister fairground motif then leads us into what can only be described as a giant heavenly rupture in the sky wherein lies your past, present and future, a hall of mirrors, a salvation army band, a school choir and the baby from Eraserhead.

So many moods are traversed in this song, it’s like a musical version of that pre-death “whole life flashing before you” scene. Biblical in scope, epic, uplifting and transformative.

Where to find it – On Land and In the Sea

Richard – Is This the Life

The closest the band ever came to having an actual hit (even receiving airplay on daytime Radio 1), this song is a good place to start for the beginner. 

This version is the 1988 single from their faultless album, A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window, a re-recording of an earlier ‘Seaside’ track; but this version packs a bigger punch.

Opening with Dominic Luckman’s huge snare drum whack, you’re thrown straight into the insistent, swirling guitar riff and swept along for over five minutes in a whirlwind of noise. 

In layman’s terms we’re looking at a superior blend of The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and it’s perhaps this relative accessibility that helped the song get the attention it deserved. However, it’s still defiantly odd in its own way. The almost endless guitar solo is stunning and a great showcase of Tim’s unique style. Over the years I’ve heard some Cardiacs fans be a little dismissive of “Is This The Life” as being too “normal” sounding or too straightforward structurewise, but it’s still very much one of the band’s true anthems. An epic song. 

Where to find it – A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window

Brian – Dirty Boy

As Nigel Tufnell famously said – “You’re on 10 on your amp, you’re on 10 on your guitar, where can you go from there?” 

Seen by many fans as an evolutionary high-point in their canon, “Dirty Boy” comes out swinging from the word go, all guns blazing with a massive guitar riff and wall-of-sound production. That could be a schoolboy error in less-skilled hands and result in peaking far too early. Not so with Cardiacs: they manage to crank up the intensity notch by notch for almost nine minutes until by the finale it has reached superhuman dizzy heights.

Where to find it – Sing To God

Richard – Blind in Safety and Leafy in Love

The quieter interludes in the band’s catalogue often get overshadowed by the heavier or more intense manic songs. 
This one (a b-side to their stunning cover version of The Kinks “Susannah’s Still Alive”) is a beautiful little tune with William D. Drake’s impeccable piano playing to the fore. It’s also an excellent example of Tim Smith’s lyrics, which often read like fairy tales or the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carol. 
There’s a particularly quaint English psychedelic feel to many of his words. 
Of all the hundreds of ear worms that wriggle through Cardiacs songs it’s this one which pops up in my head most often. 

Where to find it – Songs For Ships And Irons

Brian – Stoneage Dinosaurs

To reiterate Richard’s comments above, Cardiacs are capable of songs of haunting beauty, alongside the frantic stop-start numbers. Songs that unleash poignant feelings drenched in wistful childhood nostalgia. 

“Stoneage Dinosaurs” is of that ilk, a restrained little beauty from deep inside a dusty forgotten toy-box, that carries you to a bittersweet place on lush strings and Sarah Smith’s mesmerising saxophone.

Where to find it – Big Ship EP

Richard – There’s Too Many Irons In the Fire

If push comes to shove this is my all-time-favourite Cardiacs song, primarily because I bought it whilst in the full grip of my burgeoning obsession so I played it to death. Once again it’s a relatively direct song by their standards, built around rhythmic keyboard stabs and tight pounding drums, but like many of their songs it builds in intensity as the riff almost nags you into submission. More excellent ‘slightly-delic’ lyrics are to be found here, “She-lived among hubbering flies and sparks, she breathed them in, they nested in her ears”. Surely a top ten hit in an imaginary, alternative and better enlightened universe?

Where to find it – Songs For Ships And Irons

Brian – R.E.S.

This track could be an introduction to Cardiacs all by itself. It’s bursting with all their trademark motifs – jerky time-signatures, demented circus organ, frantic percussion, singalong riffs, and a cheeky rock solo thrown in the middle just for kicks.

The playful but insanely complex interplay between Tim Quy’s percussion/marimba and William D Drake’s keyboard flourishes is enough to make your head spin. More than a mere song, it’s a non-stop rollercoaster ride, a master class in virtuosity masquerading as slapstick high-jinks.

Where to find it – The Seaside

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  1. Jef Van Aalst
    July 26, 2020

    Very good selection of tunes from an amazing band!

    • Frank L Camiola
      July 16, 2021

      Love your picks! I would add Home of Fadeless Splendour and Dive! 🙂

      RIP Timmy

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