By: Stuart Benjamin
Cardics | website |
“The press in this country do not like us at all.”
- Tim Smith, 2000
Sleep them well all them dry bones,
After we shot to his death,
The horse and the rocking boy,
Folded up like a dead balloon.
- from Signs by Cardiacs
For fans of Cardiacs, one of the most divisive bands/cults ever spewed out by the UK, it’s hard not see these obscure words as prophetic, or at least ironic, for Guns did indeed turn out to be the highest point the Cardiacs balloon would reach before it was suddenly and unexpectedly burst by the untimely series of strokes suffered by Tim Smith in 2008.
The follow up LP to Guns, LSD, was never released. Many tales, some true, some apocryphal, surround the legend of LSD – it was recorded but not mixed, it was lost in a laptop crash, it was buried like a bone by the dog, it was swallowed by a fiery fish, it was stolen by bees (the only glimpse we have of it was Faster than Snakes with A Ball and A Chain on 2002’s Greatest Hits). The truth, less exotically, more mundane, was simply that Smith would never be well enough to complete it. So it is that by default Guns remains effectively the last word on Cardiacs (certainly their last recorded album of original material). Freshly reissued on 180gsm vinyl in 2015, the time is right for us to travel, wibbly-wobbly time-wise, back to 1999 and to re-appraise this record once again.
“Jon and myself are responsible for the ‘solos’ if you can call them that. Jon does the ones that sound like a thousand tiny birds pecking and pecking at an eye, while I am responsible for the ones that sound like a worm that can’t be stretched any longer.”
– Tim Smith, interview, Harmonie Magazine. France. May 2000
Cardiacs always had a revolving door policy on band members, but by this time they had coalesced into a four piece. Joining Tim were “Random” Jon Poole (guitars), Bob Leith (on drumming duty), Jim Smith (Bass), additional vocals were added to the album from Tim’s ex-wife Sarah Smith, alongside the wonderful Jo Spratley and Sharron Saddington. Horns & Strings from Rob Deschamps, Chris Brierly, Catherine Morgan, Mark Pharaoh. This was Cardiacs phase two. For the uninitiated, phase one Cardiacs was from the 1980s through to the mid-1990s a six-piece featuring percussion, saxophone, and keyboards (Tim Quy, the aforementioned Sarah Smith, and William Drake respectively).
Any doubts that the band could create the same mayhem with less people was effectively put to bed four years earlier following the epic double album Sing to God, arguably the strongest entry in the band’s canon, and for many their greatest album.
Expectations were high, the bar had been raised.
Perhaps it was inevitable that some were underwhelmed with Guns when it finally reached their sweaty, shaking, hands. Where were the explosions? The fire? The burning crucible of sound and surrealist imagery that made Sing to God exceptional? In all honesty Sing to God was always going to be a tough act to follow, but time, I believe, has been kind to Guns and listening to it today, it just seems to go from strength to strength.
To find pointers to the Guns sound we needn’t look too much further than a band called Spratley’s Japs and their album Pony. Pony, also released in 1999 (recorded autumn 1998) shares much of the DNA of Guns. Spratley’s Japs hailed from the New Forest and featured, coincidently, Tim Smith and Jo Spratley, Tim playing a large hand in the writing and production of Pony – the only album that Spratley’s ever made. It’s well worth seeking out on it’s own merits and like Guns, it has a very intimate feel. This intimacy seems to have been carried over into the Guns sessions, and both albums seem to talk to you directly – if such a thing is possible in the usual amalgam of oblique images and sounds that mark Tim’s oeuvre.
“The songs that I come up with are thought up first in my head. I used to score it all out on reams and reams of paper like a twat, but nowadays I limit myself to one bit of paper just as reminders (as my memory is crap). Although one song on the ‘Guns’ album had me doing the ‘reams and reams of paper’ thing, it had to be done, there was no other way.”
– Tim Smith, interview, Harmonie Magazine. France. May 2000
The cover to Guns is all black clouds in a sepia greeny-grey background, Cardiacs in large letters sprawled across the front – and in case we thought this was too dark, too gothic, a mirror image of the face of a big friendly dog occupies the top left and right corners. Big dogs are one of the Cardiacs’ lyrical obsessions, along with dirtiness (of all kinds), the sea (and its contents), and how the world looks through the eyes of a child, or an innocent (sometimes both, but not necessarily so) all sleekly melded together with trademark pathos/bathos. Received wisdom suggests that this is the Cardiacs album that sounds least like the Cardiacs – but that’s nonsense – all Cardiacs albums sound like the Cardiacs, there’s nothing else they could sound like. The difference here is their musical influences are well to the fore.
Both lyrical obsessions and musical influences are present and correct on this record. By their own admission the band have stated that they were influenced, or more accurately, inspired by Zappa-Gentle Giant-The Sex Pistols-The Residents, but in addition on Guns, we have a large wall-of-sound glam-rock influence which makes the record extremely accessible, musically. But if the music is ‘straight’ (it’s often anything but), then lyrically, Guns is as dense, wilfully confusing, and obscure as Sing to God or any other Cardiacs recording. As Tim’s querulous voice squawks and shrieks through each number, the songs unfold like puzzles, offering no answers or points of navigation for those who journey with them. Perhaps the biggest puzzle is how they shoehorn those ungainly sentences and verses to fit the meter of the music, but somehow they always do.
She’ll only go if I address her coffin
As the ship whereon she must launch
Out into eternity
And renounce all dancing
Renounce loose living
- from Song of a Dead Pest by Cardiacs
Tim himself, described Cardiacs as a pop band, I wouldn’t call Guns pop as such, but it’s certainly Rock’n’Roll with more than a touch of the baroque. Spell With a Shell is a glam-rock Bolan-esque stomp, as is Cry Wet Smile Dry, and the searing Sleep All Eyes Open with it’s repeated ecstatic yelps of “Hooray! Yeah!” – is very much cut of the same cloth. There’s Good Cud is an electric, shouty sing-along, Wind and Rains Is Cold manages, against all odds to merge ska with something approaching a medieval plainsong. This experiment is taken further on Jitterbug (junior is a) one of the more extraordinary moments on the record is when the Phil Spector style pop breaks down into a choral chant punctuated by some of the squelchiest, proggiest, keyboards this side of Rick Wakeman’s front room.
There’s not just fireworks here, some of the tenderest moments come in songs like Ain’t He Messy Though – “What’s up with eyes? / What’s up with everyone’s sad leaky / Wet and wincey eyes? / All a-drippin’ in time…”, sings Tim forlornly. Perhaps the most sublime song on the record is Signs a song of dead balloons and rocking boys, perhaps a signifier of all that passes in life. Rarely has Tim’s voice been sweeter than on this track which explodes through the loud/quiet dynamics – it’s been compared to that of The Pixies – but exceeds them totally.
For my money Come Back Clammy Lammy is probably the weakest song here, and continues to confound and infuriate me – but then perhaps that’s the point, Cardiacs were never beyond doing things archly just for the sake of it. Clean That Evil Mud out Your Soul has a title and lyrics that make it sound like it should be at the root of some Gothic-horror or religious polemic, but wrong foots us with the immediacy of its melody and the innocent sounding backing singing.
The penultimate track, Song of a Dead Pest, sounds like something of a cautionary nursery rhyme that – in some parallel universe – mothers use to instruct and warn children. Will Bleed Amen closes the album with a piece of music that goes to the core of what Cardiacs are – frantic, disorienting, compulsive, an ever-twirling multi-coloured maniacal musical spinning top.
Finally, on CD version of Guns we’re treated to a bonus track As Secret as Swans where it sounds as if Tim has suddenly come over all Butthole Surfers, it’s a song you could imagine sitting happily in the sessions for Independent Worm Saloon. It often makes me think what a double-header concert of Buttholes and Cardiacs would have been like – I like to think it might have been something at once both monstrous and wonderful.
Whether Guns is a weaker entry in the Cardiacs discography is still open to debate, I’m quite willing to defend the record as it’s an evolution of sorts. Cardiacs, however, could never be accused of standing still – even when the gaps between records became longer – each track on Guns is a treat and has more ideas in each of the songs than many bands pack into an entire lifetime. Worthy of laudation? Almost certainly, and if you’re not already down with the Cardiacs, swan-song Guns is as good a place as any to start.
What followed Guns – even without Tim’s illness – was something which had the appearance of a hiatus but the band returned in the mid-2000s with a slight change of personnel and the epic Garage Concerts which revisited much of their old material that had never been widely released or was otherwise unavailable. But we must count our blessings – Tim is still with us, on the long, long road to recovery and perhaps in time more of the Cardiacs material may see the light of day. We can only hope that the Cardiacs record label, the ever so caring and not-at-all-sinister Alphabet Business Concern reveal more Cardiacs material in future.
For copies of Guns and other Cardiacs records and merchandise visit www.cardiacs.com – it’s useful to know as Cardiacs records on Amazon and elsewhere are hyper-inflated, you won’t get ripped-off on the band’s website and the money, I’m sure, helps go towards Tim’s ongoing medical care. The Harmoine Magazine interview with Tim Smith quoted here can also be read in full on the Cardiacs website.