Jon Mueller makes long-form, repetitive, percussion-based structures that inspire meditative listening. He’s performed throughout North America, Europe, Japan, and United Kingdom, and can be heard on over 100 recordings, both solo and with groups such as Mind Over Mirrors, Mamiffer, Volcano Choir, Collections of Colonies of Bees, and Pele. He is also co-owner of Within Things — a shop of uncommon goods in Door County, WI. More info at rhythmplex.com.
Mere weeks ago, at the age of 53, a random social media post caught my attention. It was made by someone I don’t even follow — the kind of anonymous post that one generally passes by — but this one was different. It contained a video link showing a group of people in messy, smeared, clown-like makeup and suits, along with a caption that said something like, “This is still the greatest thing ever.” The screen shot of the video looked like it was filmed in the ‘70s or early ‘80s. I had no idea what or who it was, but was compelled to click. Little did I know the impact that click would have.
The video was from 1984 by the British group Cardiacs for their song, “To Go Off and Things.” The song was unfamiliar to me, but instantly reminded me of a cross between Renaldo and the Loaf and Devo, played with relentless energy and precision. Even lead member Tim Smith’s subtle movements were choreographed with the music; moving his eyeglasses and twitching his fingers in exact timing with various musical accents far too difficult to predict or follow on first listen, which made it quite intense. The video was a vintage-looking, nightmarish scene of characters who seemed both scared and excited as they sloppily ate and made a general mess of things while playing their frenzied song, but the complexity and extreme tightness implied that this music wasn’t just a shocking novelty. It came from deep within.
For days, I couldn’t get the song or the image of the group out of my head. I felt haunted by it, by Tim Smith and by the feeling they created in me.
I searched to find out what record the song was from and quickly ordered it. When The Seaside arrived, a double LP collection of songs released by the band’s label, The Alphabet Business Concern, it was like a portal into another world. Extremely taut art rock melding hints of circus-like music, occasional ska, and progressive rock, distilled into a sort of manic and aggressive punk rock. It’s uplifting and powerful, intellectual and technical. The music never gets dark or ugly, yet it boils with a sense of general dissatisfaction.
A stitch in time saves nine in time but
That’s the way we all go
The higher the chances the higher the climb
But that’s the way we all go
Is everybody happy?
(lyrics from the song “RES”)
Musically, I found myself obsessed with to trying to understand it all. The baffling parts and fluid melodies, both of which challenged time signatures, were like a puzzle I felt compelled to solve. Yet, I couldn’t, and I still can’t, and it’s beautiful.
I posted a picture of the record jacket’s gatefold interior on social media with the caption, “Better late than never,” being intentionally ambiguous to see how many people would recognize the picture. One friend commented, “Mares Nest to this day is moderately unparalleled as a concert film.” Few others reacted. I quickly searched for Maresnest, a concert from 1990, and watched it twice over the weekend, totally captivated. The band’s complexity became even more apparent seeing them perform live. How could a group of people remember all the parts of these songs let alone play them with such confidence and ferocity? For the entire set, the energy never relents. There are no ballads here. Every song is played with maximal effort and the full house responds accordingly, jumping and yelling throughout. Near the end of the film, my wife commented, “It’s all starting to sound like one giant song.” Yes, I thought, and it’s the best song. The most vibrant, full of life yet hopeless, angry yet friendly, ecstatic song I can imagine.
Musical chops aside, something clearly seemed off with the members. Between the stage banter and video interludes between some of the tracks, they came across as troubled at best. Potentially fearsome. There’s a clip of their manager describing them as, “a pile of shit.” Later, backstage, Tim punches his brother, bassist Jim Smith, in the face multiple times and then ridicules him in front of the packed audience, who begin chanting, “Jim, Jim, Jim.” Tim’s wife, saxophonist Sarah Smith and guitarist Christian Hayes both get angry shoves to the face during the show. At one point, Tim hostilely demands that everyone in the audience kiss each other. Oddly, it felt at times like watching a strange variation of certain scenes from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Clearly theatrics, but unsettling enough to raise questions. Like, why do this?
I can only theorize that it’s part of creating another world with music. That sound is but one part of the scenery, and many things can be used to create an overall experience. The world of Cardiacs, to me, is like a pool of emotional colors, of positives and negatives, of dominance and submission, punishment and reward, and more and more. Violence and giddiness. Joy and terror. Uncontrollable sobbing and laughter. Total psychedelia. The nuances and complicated details of the best novels therein. Ultimately, they’ve created a long, complex story for all of us to feel and experience. But first, we need to discover it.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was listening to all kinds of music on the periphery of Cardiacs. High energy stuff with crazy time signatures, jagged riffs, and psychotic lyrics. Reportedly, Cardiacs influenced a number of popular groups of the time, including Radiohead, Faith No More, and Blur. Even the metal group Napalm Death covered them. So, how is it possible that I never heard of them before? Even with a life spent listening to and seeking out various breadcrumb trails of music, they eluded me all these years. I am still totally baffled by this, but it’s a profound reminder that there is always more.
However, I have accepted the idea that my not hearing of them until now is not an issue of marketing or awareness. I believe there is a reason that now is the time that I’m hearing about them. I’m not sure how I would have responded to them when I was 20, or even 30, but hearing them now and absorbing their complete body of work has been a life-changing experience for me. I am simply thrilled listening to them, inspired by their aggressiveness, pleased to be taken along on their soaring heights and comforted by their acknowledgment of a great sadness in almost every song. And it’s all here, now. No waiting for the next record or tour, no wondering if the next thing will be as good as the last thing. The complete story, a lifetime of Cardiacs, exists for all of us, right now.
In 2008, Tim Smith suffered a heart attack (yes, that’s right) that led to other serious health conditions which kept him from performing, putting Cardiacs on an indefinite hiatus. In 2020, he had a second heart attack and passed away at the age of 59, leaving behind a legacy of intense creativity, as well as an unfinished album, the band’s sixth, which was to be titled, LSD. A few tracks that were finished while Tim was still able to sing and play have been released as the single, Ditzy Scene. It’s a brief but powerful and anthemic collection that could inspire a fight as much as it can tears. These songs reach a pinnacle for the group, maximizing the emotional impact of their melodic sense and relentless pounding to heights previously unmatched, which is quite a feat, considering their discography. These songs might be everything I’ll ever need from rock music.
Now multiply a ten-strong baying million
All charred, all hearts full of hurting
Testifying in me
(lyrics from “Ditzy Scene”)
I recently sent an email to The Alphabet Business Concern, telling them how I just discovered the band’s music and the effect it’s had on me. “Well done for finding Cardiacs! Your life will be so much improved as a result,” was the reply. And indeed, my life has been improved. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about them and their songs, and it makes me very happy. As I’ve said, better late than never.
Looking to improve your life? Now is the time for Cardiacs.