Remembering Tim Smith of Cardiacs

A crusty old photo from 1999

Today we heard the sad news that Tim Smith passed away.

I was lucky to discover Cardiacs, the band Tim is best known for leading, when I was 18 or so (we’re talking around 1991). A friend told me that I just had to go and see this amazing band he saw recently, so we went off to The Venue in New Cross, London and it was close to a religious experience, despite not knowing any of the songs. Utterly unlike anything I had heard before. I devoured the back catalogue and awaited every new release, though they were fairly infrequent.

I became fairly obsessed, as many Cardiacs fans do, with the band shrouded in a somewhat cultivated mystery. Bizarrely I discovered that the band ran their own label and were based in Kingston-upon-Thames, my home town. Not only that, I recalled seeing Cardiacs posters fly-posted on fencing around an abandoned site at the end of my road when I was many years younger.

Then I found out that for years as I walked to school I was unknowingly walking past Tim and his then-wife Sarah’s house every day.

Many amazing gigs, new friends, two Cardiacs-obsessed girlfriends and musical discoveries later, in the late 90s the web became a thing and I was an early web developer. I contacted the band, insisting that they needed a website to spread the word internationally. Recall that in those days it was hard to get vinyl or CDs from small bands internationally, and Cardiacs had a global following but rarely toured outside the UK. I eventually first met Tim in person to discuss this after one of their shows at The Fleece in Bristol.

So this was how, for several years I ended up working and becoming friends with brothers Tim and Jim. Together we created the original and later re-imaginings of the cardiacs.com website, with me often hamfistedly learning how to manifest their vision for the band’s online presence. We built the label’s own online mail order system before this was really a thing, had a thriving email mailing list before Facebook existed and in the early 2000s I was busy ripping CDs and scanning artwork to upload the majority of the Cardiacs catalogue to the newly popular iTunes Store.

In another odd twist of fate I had moved across the country to Salisbury and Tim soon after relocated a mere 15 minute drive away. This was where I got to help Tim with his computer issues with his Mac at times, an improvement because until that time he had still been using an Atari ST to sequence much of the band’s music, something simultaneously terrifying and admirable in the early 2000s.

As a Mac newbie myself I would complain to him about how annoying it was that nothing seemed to work on his first-gen iMac and that the web browser was so bad. Little did we know that 10 years later I would end up becoming an Apple platform-obsessed iOS developer, but it no doubt played a part in me switching to Macs as an experiment in 2005. A few years later I became too busy with my work and young family to work on the Cardiacs site and iTunes stuff so I handed over the reins to a kind volunteer. For fifteen years or so Cardiacs music was the soundtrack to my life.

It was always frustrating that Tim did not get the attention he and the other band members so deserved. His house literally had piles of handwritten music manuscripts lying around and I once asked him what a pile of it was and he said it was just tunes he’d jotted down but not done anything with yet. We’re talking hundreds of pages. I also asked him how he came up with music and at least some of it he said he could just hear in his head and he’d write it down, without even having an instrument with him. There are not many people in this world who can do that with such a pleasing result.

A crusty old photo from 1999

He cared intensely about every aspect of the art of music, beyond the tunes and the production to the visual representation of covers, t-shirts and live performance, including very precise direction even on spoken word sections of live intros. They did such amazing things with so few resources and the support of so many committed friends.

Once I raved at him about how underrated the band was, and he said “Ahhh it’s just tunes, man” with his famous grin, which I found difficult to take on board as a fan. Tim had to deal with far too much shit in his life, and in hindsight I think that plus all of the fan expectation was sometimes a heavy load to carry.

Tim played a part in a lot of interesting music in the 90s/00s, with involvement and sometimes production with bands like Levitation, Oceansize, Sidi Bou Said, The Monsoon Bassoon and William D. Drake. You should definitely check out not only Cardiacs but The Sea Nymphs and Spratleys Japs for the musical delights he has left us. There is a great musical write-up and links to videos by Mike Vennart formerly of Oceansize, live guitarist for Biffy Clyro that is well worth a read.

You should also listen to Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play” which was a favourite of Tim’s that he put me on to, and some early Gentle Giant though he confessed to me he liked some of their later stuff too… a line I could not cross personally.

Thank you Tim, and thank you to all those around him for looking after him all this time. Your music really did change my life in many ways.

About

Marc Palmer (@marcpalmerdev) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He created the Flint open source framework. He writes native apps like the music practice app Soundproof for iOS devices for his company Montana Floss Co.. He can also do a pretty good job of designing products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's just embarrassing. You can find out more about him here.

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