A terrible beauty was born when the first official full-length Cardiacs album arrived in 1988. Still sounding arrestingly weird and gloriously wonky 35 years later, A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window remains an attention-grabbing explosion of crazy-paving mania, avant-punk surrealism and wildly promiscuous stylistic overload. There are so many ideas stuffed in here that famous fans like Blur, Radiohead, Napalm Death, Faith No More and neo-prog luminary Steven Wilson could all later cite Cardiacs as an inspiration without sounding remotely like each other.
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Formed in London’s leafy southwest fringes by visionary perfectionist frontman Tim Smith, Cardiacs had already spent a decade shaping themselves into a kind of living artwork before making A Little Man…. With their strikingly theatrical image and a pan-dimensional sound that combined punk aggression with prog-rock virtuosity, free-jazz skronk with brass-band pomp, orchestral psychedelia with warped sea shanties, the Kingston band were heroically unfashionable and critically derided in the late 1980s.
Decades later, Cardiacs’ reputation as cult originals has mostly outlasted their naysayers. Although this album is still a bracing listen in places, its mannered eccentricity no longer sounds quite so jarring, while Smith’s keen ear for catchy pop melody shines through even the most obtuse tempo-twisting numbers. This vivid remastered version was one of Smith’s final projects before his untimely death in 2020.
Around the recording of A Little Man…, Cardiacs enjoyed playing mischievous games with the media. In 1987, Tim and his wife Sarah played along with lurid tabloid reports that they were incestuous siblings. This performance-art provocation also coloured the band’s bleakly funny conceptual backstory as captive clowns controlled by a malign management company, the Alphabet Business Concern. In their soiled, crumpled uniforms they resembled “a Salvation Army of the Damned”, as music writer Cathi Unsworth memorably puts it in her background essay for this boxset.
A Little Man… was recorded sporadically, between 1985 and 1987, mostly during cheaper overnight sessions at veteran blues-rocker Manfred Mann’s Workhouse studio in South London. The band’s new six-piece “classic” lineup of Tim Smith on guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass, wife Sarah on saxophone and woodwind, plus William D Drake (keyboards), Tim Quy (percussion, marimba and synthesisiser) and Dominic Luckman (drums) gave Cardiacs their most expansive baroque’n’roll sound to date.
A loose recurring theme in Smith’s opaque, profane, macabre lyrics here is the psychosis and despair lurking behind suburbia’s placid facade. That certainly informs opening track “A Little Man And A House”, a roaringly sinister nursery rhyme whose anguished narrator is reluctantly leaving home for a job he hates. The grimly cheery folk-horror refrain “That’s the way we all go!” later resurfaces in “RES”, a commendably ambitious Dadaist collage whose title reportedly pays oblique homage to legendary US art-rock collective The Residents.
Notably, for all its discordant extremes, A Little Man… also showcases Smith’s flair for accessible melody and crisp studio production. It even features the band’s most successful semi-hit, “Is This The Life”, a thunderous juggernaut of jangly post-punk guitars and plaintive, sobbing vocals that sounds like a great lost collaboration between The Cure and U2. Dating back almost a decade, the song had already appeared in embryonic form on two previous ‘demo’ albums, but this anthemic take became the definitive version and a modest chart smash, climbing to Number 80. Similarly, the album’s closing number, “A Whole Wide Window”, dials down the avant-prog mania for a sweeping, crashing, romantic power ballad with a proto-Blur feel.
Three additional discs in this lavish boxset feature radio and studio sessions and a 1987 live show. Most have a pleasingly messy work-in-progress feel compared to their more polished studio takes, but there are some fine non-album tracks here too including “All Spectacular”, a pomp-metal banshee howl with a whiff of mid-period PiL, and a surprisingly dainty “There’s Too Many Irons In The Fire”. The sole previously unreleased inclusion is a version of “Gina Lollabrigida” featuring Smith counting in the players, a pleasant but inessential footnote.
Revisited in 2023, A Little Man… still sounds thrillingly weird. It also inescapably feels like a memorial, not just to Smith but to Tim Quy too, following his death in February this year. The most electrifying bonus material is the live concert, recorded at London’s Town & Country Club (now The Forum), which captures the confrontational majesty of Cardiacs at their peak, roaringly alive, exploding with rude humour and raw humanity. “When you come to die,” Smith implores the audience, “please try and remember me.” It was stylised rock theatre back then, of course. But today, these tiny details pack an extra emotional punch.
Read a Q&A with Cardiacs’ William D Drake in the October 2023 issue of Uncut, on sale now