Published on 25th July 2020
Dr. Timothy Charles Smith
(3rd July 1961 – 22nd July 2020)
I feel something of an imposter writing this, as I never got to see Cardiacs, and I never knew Tim Smith, but such is the impact his music has made on me in the relatively short time I have allowed it to mess with my synapses, that I feel I must say something now that The Leader of the Starry Skies has left us.
I have been to a few gigs where his presence in the audience created a palpable air of mutual goodwill, such is the impact he had on the lives of those who knew him and followed his band obsessively. I say obsessively as you cannot be a casual Cardiacs fan, you either get it totally or it goes way over your head. For years since I first became aware of this odd group, probably some time in the mid ’80s, I was in that latter category. I knew I should like the band, as they ticked more than a few of my odd musical boxes, so over the years I kept trying. My “penny drop” moment came soon after my good friend Jez persuaded me to dip my toe in to the broiling seas of The Pond one more time. Fittingly, I was in the bath at the time, I can’t remember exactly when, 6, 7 years ago maybe, when Jon Poole’s gravity defying insane guitar break in Fiery Gun Hand flicked a switch in my noggin, and that was it. I was reeled in.
Sadly, this all took place long after the band had played live the for the last time, so as I say, I never got to see them, but I am forever grateful for the wonderful spangly world of musical mayhem that unfolded before me. Tim’s songs use structures no-one else in (un)popular music has used or even thought of. I am sure that fully qualified musicologists could trace links in Tim’s music to obscure classical musicians, what with its use of impossible time signatures and symphonic structures, but all I know is that, to me, it is a curious and unique collision of several genres that rides above classification, and leaves you breathless, and grinning like a loon.
As I type, I am listening to the album Sing To God, that some class as “the best album ever made”. They are probably right. Anyway, take this as an example:
The title alone makes you grin, does it not? Tim’s lyrics let us in to a fantastical land where the sky is below and above you all at once, and the ground just won’t keep still. There’s a lot of muck, and nautical references. What it all means I have no idea, but shining out of the craziness is an overarching feeling of optimism. The glass is always half full.
Sing To God is a superb double album, and is full of insanity like Insect Hoofs on Lassie, but the climax to many gigs, and a simply staggering piece of work, is the Escher staircase in sound that is Dirty Boy, positioned halfway into the album, opening CD 2. I was lucky enough to witness this moment of greatness performed a year and half ago, on my birthday no less, by the massed ranks of ex-Cardiacs and others, all clad in white, in front of the faithful. This euphoric, full-on, ever building anthem was one of very few serendipitous collisions of musical circumstance I have seen and heard that can only be described as a religious experience.
Tim Smith’s musical legacy is huge, and the now extended Cardiac family has and is producing some fantastic music, all of it inspired in some way by the great man, and I am privileged to have been around to see and hear it. Writing about music is not easy, as everyone hears it in their own way, but it has been said that music helps one find a place, a reason for being. Tim Smith’s music tells me that place is crazy, but great fun, and that is more than enough reason to be, is it not?
RIP Dr. Tim Smith. We will praise him…
It’s 1984. I’m 17 and recently set sail on my musical voyage of discovery – so dry land is most definitely still in sight.
I’d been to about half a dozen gigs to date and this is my second Marillion show, at Cardiff University’s Great Hall on the Real to Reel tour. Cardiacs are the support, and I know nothing of them. They appear in the shabby bandsmen garb they favoured at that time and, almost as soon as they start playing, the bottling begins. It remains the only indoor bottling I’ve ever witnessed – it was quite something – and I’m ashamed to say that I found it hilarious. This band with their jerky movements and quirky, otherworldly songs were shown no mercy, and, in my callow know-nothing youthful ignorance, it’s all they deserved.
That gig made an impression on me for all the wrong reasons and in the ensuing years, whenever the name of Cardiacs came up in conversation, I would brand them as the worst band I ever saw.
I am an idiot.
Fast-forward to 2007. Through the intervening 23 years my brain had been treated to all kinds of strange and beguiling music; tricksy, funky, battering, twiddly, and numerous points between. I was a regular visitor to the hugely entertaining message board community of a favourite band of mine, Canuck-Punk legends NoMeansNo, and much to my surprise, Cardiacs were repeatedly mentioned, and in revered tones. I told my Cardiacs tale and how I thought they were the worst band ever. I was STRONGLY advised to listen again, and one saintly individual (Bless you Mr Philip Filth!) offered to send me a bunch of CDRs.
I think I went with A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window first. My jaw hit the floor. This band that I had derided for decades turned out to be glorious purveyors of genius, the like of which I’d never heard before, taking elements from here, there and everywhere and smashing them together into Gawd knows what. It was exhilarating. At 17 I was not ready for this, at 41, after a meandering course through a lifetime of listening delights, I finally was. This was breathtaking, energetic, intoxicating – and always, ALWAYS uplifting. I couldn’t explain it – I still can’t (and I know I never will), but it moved me in a more intense way than just about anything else. And it was wonder after wonder, pearls of unexpected brilliance, every track, every album, every style they worked with, all from the pen and feverishly unusual head of Tim Smith.
Thankfully, I got to see Cardiacs again, on what turned out to be their last tour. What struck me was the intensity and the sense of community. Everyone there was being very civil to each other and they all knew all the words. It was a breathtaking show of fun and blissfully perfect music, all led by the fake-scowling master of ceremonies, Tim. And that sense of community follows through into the wider universe created by Tim’s music, via side-projects, solo works, Cardiacs alumni, friends and devotees. It’s set apart, but it’s where the really experimental stuff lives. It’s not Prog. It just… is. And there seem to be a million other bands and artists to discover, so even though Tim’s presence was largely lost to us after the cruelty of his striking down in 2008, his spirit was carried aloft by an army of those who were touched by his music and inspired by him, and so it continues, a world apart, populated by lovely people for whom Tim’s muse has been a major spark.
A typically underappreciated national treasure, Tim received some small acknowledgement for his talents in 2018, receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire. He suffered greatly in his later years, but I’m sure he was comforted by the genuine care and warmth from all those whose life he enhanced by his singular vision of what music could be. His passing is rightly mourned, and many are deeply saddened, myself included, but there is succour that he is now at peace.
He made my life better.
May Tim’s wonderful music live on and on and on.
The Cardiacs have got to be one of the most personally influential bands in my musical world. I missed my first opportunity to see them in 1984 as I was in the bar when they supported Marillion during the Real to Reel tour. Six years later, I attended a free festival in Cambridge. The day before, I was introduced to Cardiacs when someone played me A Little Man, A House and the Whole World Window. I was immediately intrigued and entertained, as I had never heard anything like them before. In common with many Cardiacs aficionados however, it was only when I saw them live that the full force of Tim Smith’s creative vision struck me with its enormity. It was so huge it was undeniable in its significance, unbridled talent, and sheer unique entertainment value. There, in a marquee, surrounded by a multitude of half ecstatic and half confused individuals, blunted by a day’s free entertainment and boozing and whatever, we were all wowed by the utter force of nature that was Cardiacs. I was hooked.
Over the next seventeen years, I saw the Cardiacs a further 18 times. Nothing compared to some fans, who probably saw them hundreds of times, such was the utter devotion Tim and his band produced. I recall prior to one of the Astoria gigs in London in the early 2000s, I was sitting in a nearby pub with some friends, all of us wearing Cardiacs shirts, when Tim wandered past. He saw we were wearing Cardiacs shirts and stopped and sat down with us and chatted for a while. This was the only real time I met him and he struck me as a warm, engaging man with real love for his fans, as I know many have observed. On stage Tim adopted a unique persona, probably quite far removed from his real self, yet somehow compelling to all, even those clearly far from convinced that they actually liked what Cardiacs were doing. I remember at the Whitchurch Festival in 2001, held in a school hall in Hampshire, Tim observed the nature of the surroundings and then somehow managed to persuade the entire crowd to lie on the floor and pretend to be asleep “just like we used to do at primary school”. I, of course, was delighted to comply, but amazed when everyone else did as well, and Tim himself was clearly massively entertained by this spectacle.
In 2008, when Tim was struck down through tragic illness following a heart attack, many hoped beyond hope that he may be able to produce music in some shape or form somehow some day, and the Pond inhabitants kept the waterside flame alive, but now that vain hope has been dashed forever. I and many others are feeling this loss as a personal bereavement, as the music meant so very much to us, because of all the heart and soul Tim poured into it. He has left an incredible legacy, the likes of which few ever achieve in their lifetimes. I hope more than anything that many others continue to discover this legacy and get as much out of it as I have, and continue to do so, over many years to come. Because everything turns out nicely in the Summertime.