Front and centre of the stage is Tim Smith, the frontman of Cardiacs – a man who looks like an eccentric middle-aged public school headmaster who rummaged a little too deeply in the staff-room confiscations cupboard and found an electric guitar with some mysterious perforated sheets of paper which were impounded back in the early seventies.
To his left, playing a Rickenbacker bass almost as long as he is tall, is a rather grumpy looking bald fellow who has the caricature air of taxman who knows there’s been a serious evasion but who can’t locate it in the books. Stage right is a gangling guitarist who looks like a Hammer Horror version of Moss from The I.T. Crowd, with a scraggly white-man afro and a habit of bugging out his eyes and mugging at people in the front row in a manner that is in equal parts hilarious and disturbing.
All three of them are dressed in suits and sashes that make them look like a rogue clade of Freemasons who hived off from the central group because the rituals just weren’t weird enough.
Make no mistake: Cardiacs score big points on the odd scale before you even hear a note of their music.
The above deployment is supplemented by a drummer whose kit is on a raised plinth at east five feet above the stage (which, given the size and shape of The Wedgewood Rooms, puts his head on a level with the lighting rig). His kit is flanked by two marching-band bass drums aligned with his kick, and a pair of gong cymbals suspended to face out at the audience.
Stood in front of these two totems of percussion (but behind the terrifying threesome up front) are two girls who wouldn’t look entirely out of place at a village cricket club cream-tea event, dressed in matching print dresses and dead-pan Stepford Wives expressions, the latter of which are only hidden when they calmly stand and turn to bludgeon the aforementioned drums and gongs at the appointed moments.
A Cardiacs show is as much theatre as it is music, partaking of a straight-faced surrealism that is distinctly and uniquely English in character, and more than a trifle reminiscent of Monty Python. The music, believe it or not, is even more odd than the stage show.
A little background is in order, perhaps. I’d never so much as heard a single song by Cardiacs until attending this show; it’s one of those gigs where, over the preceding months, you hear an increasing number of friends whose musical tastes you respect saying how much they’re looking forward to it. “There’s got to be something to it, then,” I thought, and chiselled out a slot in my diary.
So here I am, watching a band who’ve been gigging for as long as I’ve been alive, and who started off as relentlessly idiosyncratic as they are today. They’ve had enough musicians pass through their ranks to repopulate the band three times over; they’ve toured with bands as diverse as Marillion and The Wildhearts. And they make music that is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone categorise.
It’s a hopelessly inaccurate shorthand, but try to imagine a three way car-crash between late seventies new wave post-punk, high-grade British prog rock and classic psychedelia. Now imagine that car crash taking place in some slowly decaying seaside town fun-fair, flanked by shadowy figures gleefully hosing down everyone in sight with Eau de Albert Hofmann.
OK, let’s try it a different way. Take a multitude of fragmented time signatures, guitars that sound like keyboards, and backing tracks that sound like guitars, Wurlitzer organs and hell knows what else. Have them play all sorts of riffs, from almost atonal percussive bludgeon-fests to whimsical twee melodies, via pseudo-metal rock-outs and jagged punky chord sequences. Make the songs almost invariably over five minutes long, some of them closer to ten; pack them with time changes, dramatic dynamic reversals and upheavals, and sixteen-bar long choruses which – despite running frantically around every corner of the scale and key at hand, seemingly at random – are irresistibly poppy, catchy like flu in a care home, epic and complicated and just plain odd.
Now stand, and watch. And shake your head, mouth open in dumbstruck astonishment at a carnival of sound that you’ve never heard the likes of again, and never will before. Unique is a word used so often by marketers and politicians that it has almost lost the power of its dictionary definition; Cardiacs are a quixotic musical quest to wrest back that word and reclaim it in the name of itself.
Now, the caveat here is that not everyone is going to get it. In fact, I expect a greater number of people will be repelled by this torrent of weird than are hypnotised by it. And it’s also plain, once you give it some thought as you try to clear your head on the walk home after the show, that an awful lot of what you heard came from backing tracks or Midi kit.
But no one ever knocks composers for not being able to perform their symphonies single-handedly. It’s a game of vision – a game that Cardiacs play in a league that is entirely their own, with a set of rules handwritten on the back of their hands and the insides of torn cigarette packets. I’ve had dreams that sounded like this – the sort of dreams from which you wake up sweating, wondering where the hell you are, and how much cheese you’ll have to eat after midnight to get the same effect again.
At the end of one of the lengthier tunes of the set, a slightly manic Tim Smith gleefully informs the audience that “we just stole seven minutes of your life with that one; seven minutes you’ll never get back!” Looking round the room at fellow new converts and long-standing disciples alike, I want to reply that it’s OK, we don’t want those seven minutes back. It’s like an inoculation, I want to tell him; because when post-modern culture finally collapses into a tight bright singularity of four-dimensional multi-layered hyper-pop, it will sound exactly like this … and we’ll be ready for it.
[Image sourced from a previous incarnation of cardiacs.com via Wikipedia; copyright assumed to be under possession of Cardiacs and used here under Fair Use terms in absence of other available images. Please contact if takedown required.]