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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Cardiacs: The Obvious Identity


1) The Obvious Identity; 2) Visiting Hours; 3) Pip As Uncle Dick But Peter Spoilt It; 4) To Go Off And Things; 5) Rock Around The Clock; 6) Leaf Scrapings; 7) Unknown; 8) A Game For Bertie's Party; 9) Cameras; 10) Bite 3/a; 11) Piff; 12) Let Alone My Plastic Doll; 13) A Balloon For Bertie's Party.

Technically, this is not yet proper «Cardiacs» — in 1980, the band was still called Cardiac Arrest; and also technically, this is not a properly available debut album — it was recorded in a tiny ama­teur studio, located in some crappy basement in Kingston upon Thames, then copied onto 1000 old tapes and sold at the band's concerts. In the analog era, laying one's hands on this rarity would be a stroke of collector's luck; in the digital era, scooping up a bunch of MP3 files becomes little problem, but, of course, the awful sound quality is inescapable. And it is pretty awful, even way too awful for something that was copied and re-copied several times on magnetic tape; I'm gues­sing that the original recording equipment was no great shakes, either.

Nevertheless, this is a complete long-playing record, in some way, and most importantly, it pre­sents Cardiac Arrest, soon to be simply Cardiacs, as a band that has already worked out its per­sonal style and a clear understanding of what it wants to do — subsequent recordings would ob­viously kill it in terms of pure listenability, but not necessarily in terms of revolutionary ideas. At the same time, although many of these songs would later be included on various compilations, only one (ʻTo Go Off And Thingsʼ) would be properly re-recorded in the studio; however, the band never really disowned the material, sometimes performing it live, so for the sake of com­pleteness it does deserve at least some mention.

For the record, the players here are listed as «Philip Pilf» (band leader Tim Smith on guitar, synthesizer, and vocals), «Patty Pilf» (his sister brother Jim Smith on bass), «Duncan Doilet» (Colvin Mayers on keyboards and vocals), «Little Bobby Shattocks» (Mark Cawthra on drums), and «Peter "Zip" Boker» on vocals (the band's original singer Michael Pugh, although by the time they got around to recording these tracks, he was already on the way out, and so his lead vocals are featured only on two of the tracks). This is the first clue you get as to the Cardiacs' penchant for absurdism, theatricality, and unpredictability, but then there are plenty more within the music itself, which is fairly unique for 1980 even despite the abysmal sound quality.

One thing that Tim Smith abhorred was pigeonholing; when somebody coined the term "pronk" (a condensed "progressive punk", that is) to define the band's music, he violently refused it, pre­ferring instead older diffuse terms like "psychedelia" or "pop". But "psychedelia" would pro­bably obscure from our view the inevitable influence of punk and New Wave bands, and using the exact same term to describe the music of Cardiacs and the music of, say, the Knack would be a termi­nological disgrace. Anyway, to hell with terminology. Some things deserve lengthy descriptions to be understood rather than short terms.

The Cardiacs play loud, brash music here that makes equal use of crunchy distorted guitars, played in chainsaw buzz mode or in more traditional rock mode, alternating at will, and of pip-squeaky synthesizers that usually like to be playful (as in a Sparks song) rather than cruel and robotic. But sometimes these synthesizers are used instead in Mellotron mode, providing lush (well, as lush as you could get in a dirty basement) orchestrated backgrounds, which sounds par­ticularly strange when you combine these «progressive keyboards» with punky guitar chords: see ʻA Game For Bernie's Partyʼ, which for a couple of minutes sounds as if your local punk band has invaded your local Catholic cathedral during a Mass service. Oh, and did I mention that at any given time the band can erupt into (a) ska, (b) Zappa-like crazyass structural changes every few bars, (c) hysterical Rock God guitar solos, the likes of which seem to have gone out of style with the passing of the early Seventies' glam icons, but make revenant guest appearances here (ʻLet Alone My Plastic Dollʼ) just for some good ol' times' sakes?

If this all sounds like a recipe for the best damn album of 1980 (too bad it had to be limited to 1000 old tapes), I must state, for balance, that the actual songs sound too much like overdone brain products of people who had too much talent to burn — there's too much of a desire to show off here for the tunes to make real good sense. The lyrics certainly do not make much sense, even if you manage to decode them, which is hard to do given the circumstances — loud, brash songs sung in Estuary English on muffled tape; but that is nothing compared to the confusion of the music, which really does try to integrate elements of punk rock with elements of progressive (even, dare I say it, «symphonic») rock. Listen to ʻLeaf Scrapingsʼ — one minute they sound like Yes, with a tricky time signature outlining a mystical world populated with astral noises, and then the next minute they sound like the Adverts or the Damned. I can't even say if I like this or not: the best I can say is that they make a brave effort to synthesize something thought to be unsyn­thesizable, even if the effort carries more of a symbolic than a proper meaning.

In any case, no judgement can be pronounced on an album that sounds this much like shit; I do believe that it is essential listening for any Cardiacs fan, but in this world of free-flowing music, any attempt to make it your proper introduction into the bizarre world of Tim Smith may lead to unfortunate consequences.


  1. Incredibly excited for you to be reviewing Cardiacs, big fan of the band and Tim Smith in general. Regardless of what your ultimate judgements are, considering how thoroughly off-the-radar they've remained, I'm always happy just to see them given proper attention at all!

  2. I too am also excited that you're covering The Cardiacs, George. A part of me hopes some people might go on to discovering them as a result. Incredible band, though personally I don't think they "topped" Seaside. (I hope you'll be reviewing that!)

    1. There's a definite argument to be made for Sing to God as well, but we'll get to all of it eventually I'm sure.

      Excited for the 70's "timeline" to get to Captain Beyond soon!

  3. Fortuitous! I was wondering only last weekend whether Cardiacs would be included in this review stream. Such an under-rated outfit .... so cool this has become a reality!

    On the same tack of under-appreciated cult bands, one wonders whether an in-depth analysis of Australia's The Church is just around the corner? ... hint, hint ?