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A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window

By Cathi Unsworth.

Two years ago, Cardiacs main man TIM SMITH suffered a severe stroke that has left him in need of constant medical attention. A new album, Leader of The Starry Skies, serves not just to draw attention to an unsung musical genius, but also to raise much-needed funds for him. CATHI UNSWORTH hears the songs of innocence and experience…

“Sometimes I can see why people have a hard time with our music. Other times I can’t. It doesn’t sound that odd to me. I can’t see what the big deal is. I don’t see why music has to be such a little thing. Why can’t it be several big things?” Tim Smith said this to me back in 1992, on the release of Cardiacs’ third ‘proper’ (i.e. released on all formats) album, Heaven Born and Ever Bright. It was the one occasion I was allowed to interview the band for Melody Maker, which came about mainly because the Deputy Editor liked Levitation, to whom guitarist Bic Hayes had just transferred from playing with the Cardiacs. Tim had also just produced Levitation’s Need For Not, an album largely revered at MM Towers, so what most of my peers considered to be my freakish taste was, for once, indulged.

For me, Cardiacs was love on sight — sharing a bill at the old Wardour Street Marquee with John Shuttleworth, the first incarnation I witnessed in 1987 featured Tim on vocals and guitar, his brother Jim (the only other constant in the line-up) on bass, his wife Sarah on saxophone, William D Drake on keyboards, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums. All except Sarah, who wore a ballgown, were dressed in oversized school uniforms, their faces grease-painted deliberately badly. They looked almost scary, a shade of something from a half-remembered folk tale, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were some future members of The League of Gentlemen in the audience that night taking notes too.

The music, though, was quite simply fantastic. I had never heard anything like it before, and I probably never will again. Tim Smith had the ability to take everything that was odd, eccentric, brilliant and true in British music — from music hall to punk, prog rock to pop, sea shanties to psychedelia, folk and even traditional choral music — and wrap it into his own, unique vision that, with his surreal, at times mystical lyrics, always came tinged with the strange feeling that this was somehow very old as well as very new.

So, five years after my initiation into their world, what both Tim and I were struggling with that day, was just why Cardiacs music was widely perceived as being so inaccessible, when to us it was nothing short of total joy.

I think now, looking back, that the main problem, especially for me as a writer, was trying to convey just how beautiful and emotionally charged that music could be without sounding like a Bible-thumping evangelist with foam at the corners of my mouth. Something that I am obviously still struggling with today, especially since Tim was felled by a massive stroke — and with hideous irony, a simultaneous heart attack — just over two years ago.

Communications to the Cardiacs’ fanbase from their Alphabet Business Concern record label on Tim’s condition since have been sparse. News has been limited to the basic facts that, although mentally unchanged, Tim remains physically unable to do most of the things that most of us take for granted. His friends and family have understandably drawn a protective veil across him. But they have also been trying to think of ways to help.

Now, those thoughts have taken a physical form, with the release of an album of Tim’s songs, Leader of the Starry Skies, which serves not just as a tribute to his unsung genius, but, with all tracks being donated free, a way in which money can be raised to help the stricken singer. Unlike many such ventures, every penny of the profits will go directly to the cause the album serves, to Tim himself.

Perhaps this album can also convey what seems so difficult to articulate — the sheer, audacious brilliance of his talent. Compiled and produced by Bic Hayes and Jo Spratley, both old friends and collaborators of Tim’s, the album brings together not just Cardiacs compositions but also songs Tim wrote for the Sea Nymphs, Spratley’s Japs and his solo project OceanLandWorld. Everybody involved chose the track they felt the most drawn to — and all 31 bands’ and artists’ nominees were different.

“The main thing we wanted was to raise money for Tim,” Bic tells me. “But above and beyond that, we wanted to get people to look again at Tim’s work, as in general it has been really underrated or entirely overlooked.”

Performing and reinterpreting these spangled glories is a cast that includes Cardiacs players William D Drake, Sarah Smith, Mark Cawthra, Bic and Kavus Torabi alongside a bunch of perhaps more familiar names — The Magic Numbers, XTC’s Andy Partridge, Oceansize, Sidi Bou Said, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson and former All About Eve chanteuse Julianne Regan.

So perhaps it could be Regan’s delicate, shimmering version of ‘Shaping the River’, Ultrasound’s massive sonic rush at ‘Big Ship’, Rose Kemp Vs Rarg’s spooked out take on ‘Wind and Rains is Cold’, or ‘Lilly White’s Party’ by Andy Partridge with Robert White that serve to convince, inspire and delight, drawing the uninitiated into the rich and wondrous kingdom of Tim’s imagination.

Some of the songs on the two compilations sail fairly close to the wind of the originals, but it’s where they deviate the most that the sheer skill of Tim’s songwriting can be most clearly discerned. Sterbus has stripped ‘Dirty Boy’ — one of the Cardiacs most dramatic and orchestrated pieces — into a sparse, folkish ballad that nonetheless still retains the epic swell of the original. This approach also works magic for the North Sea Radio Orchestra on ‘March’, which channels the briney lash of sea shanty that Tim is so fond of, and Steven Wilson’s lip-tremblingly empathetic version of ‘Stone Age Dinosaurs’, which draws attention to the childlike wonder of the lyrics.

Tim often referred to his songs simply as “pop”, and the truth of this can be heard clearly as The Magic Numbers harmonise blissfully on ‘A Little Man And A House’ and The Trudy spring through the cascading melodies of ‘Day Is Gone’. While the visceral rush of the Cardiacs’ live show is evoked by the aforementioned ‘Big Ship’, Oceansize’s ‘Fear’ and Knifeworld’s ‘The Stench of Honey’; with the band’s best-known single, ‘Is This The Life’ rendered with an intense, crackling industrial electrosphere by Mikrokosmos, Bic vocalising like a ghost in the machine.

“What is unusual is that listening to all these tracks together as an album did actually convey that live feeling for me,” Bic reflects. “Maybe it’s to do with the fact that so many of the people were so deeply involved. Everyone who was ever in the band was in it together for the love of it.

“Following on from that, the reason that so many people wanted to contribute to this album was not just because they loved the music but because Tim did so many things like that, producing people’s records, helping people on with their careers, that he was part of all of our journeys. So it’s instinctual, it’s all part of our lot, helping each other out and sharing that experience.”

William D Drake, whose Würlitzer-style keyboard cascades formed such an integral part of the Cardiacs’ sound, opens Leader… with one of the album’s most beautifully rendered dreamscapes, his version of ‘Savour’ crystallising how, under Tim’s direction, all the disparate elements of the Cardiacs influences fused to such a perfect, moving, stained glass whole. “Well, Tim has a very open mind and he really genuinely loves all music,” Bic reflects. “He hates anyone to say, ‘Oh I don’t really like this kind of music’. He’ll see the beauty in the oddest thing, and he’ll find a way to make you see it too.” “Tim has always touched people’s lives in a very deep, profound way, both creatively and personally,” adds Jo. “To meet Tim and get to know him always sets in motion some huge shift in consciousness, really. He is really good at recognizing the unique power, strength and originality in each and every person, whatever their thing. And this isn’t an effort for him. It’s just what he does. He puts people in touch with their own unique stuff. That’s not to say this is always a pleasant experience! But probably always necessary…!

“You can feel the gratitude on the album for this, I think. As the tracks were coming in, the tears were often falling as you could hear the very personal and precious ways in which people were connecting with the music… such diversity and bravery, which reflects Tim’s attitude and approach to music – his outlook in many ways. We’re all lucky to know him, and each other. And producing this album has helped us, those personally connected to Tim. It’s a painful, difficult journey all this, but it’s a two-way street, full of beauty and love. Always has been.”

‘Beauty’ and ‘Love’ are words that surround Tim Smith, the musicians he has worked with and inspired, and of course, his loyal fans. And if there was any greater reason to celebrate the arrival of Leader of the Starry Skies than his genius, then it’s the hope that the release offers for the man himself. “We always also hoped that, on some subtler level, doing this would have a beneficial effect on Tim’s health,” says Bic. “And I believe it has done. I mean, he is in a very difficult place, but his spirit has really been lifted by it all. ” Several big things, then, Tim. Several big things.

Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, published by Serpent’s Tail. She lives and works in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 21st, 2011.