Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.
In June 2008, en route back from a My Bloody Valentine concert, the world fell in for Tim Smith. A sudden heart attack (and in immediate cruel succession, a pair of devastating strokes) failed to kill him, but only just. Now he’s in long-term recuperation, condemned to that long wait in the margins. With his damaged body now his enemy, his brain’s left to flick over the days until something – anything – gets better and his luck turns. This is a sad story. Even sadder, given that many similar stories must shuffle out of hospitals every month.
There’s an extra layer of pain here in that for over four decades Tim Smith was a dedicated, compulsive fount and facilitator of music. As the singer, composer and main player of some of the most eerily intense, unique and cryptic songs ever recorded, he sat at an unmapped musical crossroads where apparently incompatible musics met. In turn, his songs were hymnal, punky and part-classical; shot through with crashing guitars, keyboard trills and mediaeval reeds; festooned with swings and changes. They were sometimes choral, or full of martial pomp or playground squabble. They were sometimes ghostly. They were a damned ecstatic racket, or a parched and meditative whisper. With what’s now become a brutal irony they also frequently fluttered, quizzically, across the distinctions of life and death; sometimes seeing little separation between the two states, sometimes hovering somewhere in between; sometimes seeing as much meaning in the wingbeat of a stray insect as in the scrambling for human significance.
Tim’s rich and puzzled perspective on life and the weave of the world travelled out to a fervent cult following via a sprouting tree of projects – the quaking mind-mash rock of Cardiacs; the psychedelic folk of Sea Nymphs, the tumbledown explorations of Oceanland World or Spratleys Japs. In addition (and belying the manic, infantile mood-swings of his onstage persona) the man was generous of himself. Via sound production, video art or simple encouragement, his influence and peculiar energy spread from feisty indie rock bands right across to New Music performers and bedroom-studio zealots. It spread far wider than his nominally marginal status would suggest. For all of this, Smith never received adequate reward or overground recognition for these years of effort – another sting in the situation (though, having always been a stubborn goat, he’s probably dismissed it).
Yet if he’s been slender of pocket, he’s proved to be rich in love. His praises may not have been sung by the loudest of voices, but they are sung by a scrappy and vigorous mongrel choir, scattered around the houses. The Smith influence haunts cramped edit suites and backwater studios. It lingers in the scuffed shells of old ballrooms, and in the intimate acoustics of a handful of cramped Wren churches in London: it’s soaked into the battered ash-and-beer-stained sound desks of rock pubs. Most particularly, it lives in the memories of thirty years of backroom gigs where people baffled at, laughed at and finally yelled along with the giddy psychological pantomime of a Cardiacs concert; and where they lost their self-consciousness and finally stumbled away with their armour discarded.
And now, all silenced?
In many cases, these same people who yelled and sang from the audience (or, onstage, from beside Tim) would go on to form bands which demonstrated that three chords and a crude truth was far too blunt a brush with which to paint a picture of the world. All of this outgoing wave of energy comes rolling back with a vengeance on ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’. Put together by Bic Hayes (best known for galactic guitar in Levitation and Dark Star, but in his time a Cardiac) and Jo Spratley (Tim’s former foil in Spratleys Japs), it’s an album of Smith cover versions in which every penny of profit going back to raise money for Tim’s care. In effect, it’s swept up many of those people who sang along with Tim Smith over the years (all grown up now, and numbering characters as diverse as The Magic Numbers, Julianne Regan and Max Tundra) and brought them back for visiting hours.
And they sang outside his window, and they sang in the corridors; and from the ponds and rivers, from the windows of tower blocks and from lonely cottages…
Given Tim Smith’s own eclecticism, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ is one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable. Despite the familial feel, the musical treatments on here vary enormously. Lost broadcasts, festooned in unsettling noise, rub up against stately electric folk. Psychedelic grunge balances out colourful playschool techno. Unaccompanied Early Music recreations drift one way, while centipedal Rock-in-Opposition shapes charge off in another. None of this would work if Tim’s songs – seemingly so resistant – didn’t readily adapt. Anyone can get around the shape of a Neil Young song, a Paul McCartney song or even a Morrissey song for a tribute: but these rampant compositions with their peculiar twists are of a different, wilder order. However, every contributor has managed to embrace not only the unorthodox Smith way with a Jacob’s Ladder tumble of chords but also his dense lyrical babble, which grafts nonsense onto insight and the ancient onto the baby-raw. Everyone involved has striven to gently (or vigorously) tease the songs out of cult corner and bring them to light.
Take, for instance, what The Magic Numbers have done with A Little Man and a House. This anguished Cardiacs ode to the 9-to-5 misfit has never seemed quite so universal, slowly pulling out from one man’s chafing frustration for a panoramic view of a worldful of human cogs. (“And there’s voices inside me, they’re screaming and telling me ‘that’s the way we all go.’ / There’s thousands of people just like me all over, but that’s the way we all go.”) The original’s pained South London squawk and huffing machinery noises are replaced by Romeo Stodart’s soft American lilt, while massed weeping clouds of piano and drums summon up an exhausted twilight in the Monday suburbs. Likewise, when Steven Wilson (stepping out of Porcupine Tree for a moment) sighs his way through a marvelously intuitive and wounded solo version of Stoneage Dinosaurs, he takes Tim’s hazy memories of childhood fairgrounds and incipient loss and makes them glisten like rain on a car mirror while sounding like the saddest thing in the world. Even with Wilson’s own formidable reputation behind him, this is immediately one of the finest things he’s ever done – an eerie ripple through innocence; a sudden, stricken look of grief flitting for a moment across a child’s face.
Three of the covers have added poignancy from being connected to ends, to new beginnings, or to particular paybacks. When Oceansize abruptly split up at the peak of their powers, their final word as a band turned out to be Fear (this album’s loving cover of an obscure Spratleys Japs track). Rather than their usual muscular and careening psychedelic brain-metal, they render this song as a soft-hued exit, a fuzzed-up tangle of fairy lights which wanders hopefully down pathways as they gently peter out. Conversely, glammy Britpop anti-heroes Ultrasound set an acrimonious decade-old split behind them and reformed especially to record for this project. Their whirling clockwork version of the Cardiacs anthem Big Ship is all boxed-in and wide-eyed. It bobs along like a toy theatre while the band fire off first pain (“the tool, the tool, forever falling down / planes against the grain of the wood / for the box, for my soul / and my aching heart,”) and ultimately burst into the kind of incoherent, hymnal inclusiveness which was always a Cardiacs trademark – “All of the noise / takes me to the outside where there’s all /creations, joining in / celebrating happiness and joy; /all around the world, / on land and in the sea.” It seems to have worked for them – they sound truly renewed.
Some of Tim Smith’s songs have a strangely mediaeval tone or texture to them, and some have a twist of eerie folk music. These attract different interpretations. Foundling was once a particularly bereft and fragile Cardiacs moment: an orphaned, seasick love-song trawled up onto the beach. Accompanied by elegant touches of piano and guitar, the genteel art-rockers Stars in Battledress transform it into a heartfelt, change-ringing English bell-round. North Sea Radio Orchestra travel even further down this particular line – their bright tinkling chamber music sweeps up the hammering rock parade of March and turns it into a sprightly, blossoming cortege. Packing the tune with bells, bassoon and string quartet, they dab it with minimalism and a flourishing Purcell verve: Sharron Fortnam’s frank and childlike soprano clambers over the darker lyrics and spins them round the maypole.
Deeper into folk, Katherine Blake (of Mediaeval Baebes) and Julianne Regan (the shape-shifting frontwoman for All About Eve and Mice) each take an eerie acoustic Sea Nymphs fragment and rework it on their own. Julianne’s version of the children’s dam-building song Shaping the River adds rattling tambourine, drowsy slide guitar and a warm murmur of voice: it’s as if the faded lines of the song had washed up like a dead leaf at her feet, ready to be reconstructed at folk club. (“Pile some sticks and pile some mud and some sand. / Leave the ends wide, / three against the side, / plug the heart of flow.”) Katherine’s narcotic a-cappella version of Up in Annie’s Room might have shown up at the same concert. A world away from the pealing cathedral organ of the original, it slips away into empty space in between its gusts of eerie deadened harmonizing and Tim’s sleepy, suggestive cats-cradle of words (“Fleets catch your hair on fire. / The fleet’s all lit up – flags, flame on fire…”)
Max Tundra, in contrast, sounds very much alive and fizzing. His pranktronica version of the brutal Will Bleed Amen re-invents it as delightfully warm and loopy Zappa-tinted techno. Its abrupt air-pocketed melody opens out like a sped-up clown car: when a convoluted cone of lyrics punches his voice up and sticks it helpless to the ceiling, former Monsooon Bassoon-er Sarah Measures is on hand to provide a cool clear vocal balance, as well as to build a little open cage of woodwind at the heart of the rush. It’s a terrific reinvention, but perhaps not the album’s oddest turnaround. That would be courtesy of Rose Kemp and Rarg – one a striving indie-rock singer and blood-heir to the Steeleye Span legacy, the other the laptop-abusing keyboard player with Smokehand. Rose is a Cardiacs interpreter with previous form: this time she’s fronting a forbidding glitch-electronica version of Wind And Rains Is Cold with all of the cute reggae bounce and innocence pummeled out of it. While Rarg flattens and moves the scenery around in baleful planes, Rose delivers the nursery-rhyme lyric with a mixture of English folk stridency and icy Germanic hauteur, uncorking its elliptical menace as she does – “Now you remember, children, how blessed are the pure in heart – / want me to take ‘em up and wash ‘em good?… / Hide your hair, it’s waving all lazy and soft, / like meadow grass under the flood.”
While most of the musicians on ‘Leader…’ could cite Tim Smith as an influence, Andy Partridge was a influence on Tim himself, way back in his XTC days. Three-and-a-half decades later he repays the appreciation by guesting on the dusky autumnal spin which The Milk & Honey Band‘s Robert White gives to a Sea Nymphs song, Lilly White’s Party. Redolent with regret (for more innocent times, before a fall), it covers its eyes and turns away from the shadows falling across the hillside. Partridge’s deep backing vocals add an extra thrum of sympathy: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s not open that can of worms, / Let’s not say what we did, and play by ear. / Back to square one…”
The backbone of ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ however, comes from the contributions of former Cardiacs players reconnecting with the family songbook. As with any family over time, they’re scattered. One of the earliest members, Pete Tagg, now drums for The Trudy, who take the bucketing psychedelic charge of Day is Gone and offer a more down-to-earth spin on it for the indie disco, keeping that heady chromatic slide of chorus but adding a suspiciously blues-rock guitar solo and Melissa Jo Heathcote’s honeyed vocals. One of the more recent Cardiacs additions, Kavus Torabi, brings his band Knifeworld to the party. He hauls a particularly involved and proggy Cardiacs epic – The Stench of Honey – back through a 1970s Henry Cow filter of humpbacked rhythms, woodwind honks, baby squeaks and rattletrap percussion. Double-strength art rock, it could have been a precious step too far. Instead, it’s triumphant, its skeletal circular chamber music salad-tossed by stomping bursts and twitches of joy.
Onetime Cardiacs keyboard player William D. Drake offers a gentler, kinder tribute, taking the shanty-rhythms of Savour and spinning them out into soft Edwardiana with harmonium, ukulele and a gently bobbing piano finale. Drake’s predecessor Mark Cawthra brings an eerie sense of pain to his own cover version: back in the earliest days, he was Tim Smith’s main foil, playing lively keyboards and drums as well as sharing the bumper-car vocals. Now he sounds like the head mourner, taking on the heavy tread of Let Alone My Plastic Doll and sousing it with Vanilla Fudge-slow organ, doubled guitar solos and sigh-to-wail vocals. The twitchy, baby-logic lyrics are slowly overwhelmed by an undercurrent of grief, but the kind of grief that can only come from a older, wiser man.
Under his Mikrokosmos alias, Bic Hayes takes on Cardiacs’ biggest near-hit (Is This The Life) and subjects it to startling psychedelic noise-storms and industrial drum twirling. In the process, he shakes out and enhances its original pathos. Blown splay-limbed into a corner by a tornado of white noise, plug-in spatters and buzzing malfunctions, Bic’s voice is nasal, lost and forlorn. It sings of split and rootless identity against a wall of forbidding harmonium: “Looking so hard for a cause, and it don’t care what it is; / and never really ever seeing eye to eye / though it doesn’t really mind. / Perhaps that’s why / it never really saw.” Although Jo Spratley coos reassurance under ululations of alto feedback, Bic still ends up cowering like a damaged crane-fly under showers of distorted harpsichords and Gothic synths. Bewitchingly damaged.
The last word goes to The Scaramanga Six, the swaggering Yorkshire theatricalists who were the main beneficiaries of Smith production work before the accident. By their usual meaty standards, the Six’s take on The Alphabet Business Concern (Cardiacs’ tongue-in-cheek corporate anthem, packed to the gunwales with flowery salutes) initially seems cowed, as if flattened by dismay and sympathy at Tim’s misfortune. But it doesn’t end there. Starting tremulous and hushed, with nothing but the embers of faith to keep it up, it builds gradually from tentative acoustic guitars and hiding vocals up through a gradual build of electric instruments, feeding in and gaining strength: “and now the night of weeping shall be / the morn of song…” Over the course of the anthem the Six go from crumpled to straightened to proud cheat-beating life. By the end, the recording can hardly contain their vigorous Peter Hammill bellows, as they sweep out in a grand procession with rolling guitars, pianos and extended Cardiacs choirs. It’s a stirring, defiant finale to an album that’s done everything it could to blow away the ghosts of helplessness and to charge up not just an armful of Smith songs but, in its way, a vivid sense of Smith. He might have taken a bad, bad fall; but the humming and rustling vitality of the music, the way that it’s become a spray of vivid lively tendrils reaching far and wide, is an enormous reassurance.
Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.
Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1′
Believer’s Roast, BR003 (5060243820372)
Released: 13th December 2010