The group -- which formed as Cardiac Arrest in 1977 with Smith as the guitarist and primary lyricist -- quickly established a reputation for their wild, whip-saw style, which folded in art rock, jazz, psychedelia, metal, prog and punk into a roiling musical stew topped by Smith's anarchic vocals and hard-to-decipher lyrics.
The group's mission was amplified by their theatrical performance style, which often incorporated off-putting makeup, costumes, video displays and seeming on-stage confrontations.
In a 2015 profile of Smith, a writer for The Guardian suggested that those who could not understand the group's approach might see it as, "a ghastly dungheap of quirky self-indulgence and forced weirdness," while those, like him, who delighted in the oddities love them, "with a fervour that makes Southern Baptists in the throes of worship seem like uninterested wallflowers."
Describing their music, the writer said, "Cardiacs sound unhinged, the sound of a manic brain firing off jarring time changes and baffling words. Songs sometimes sound like the players involved are trying to catch each other out, only to suddenly blossom into rapturous, pristine melody. The band reject the most common tag attached to them, that of 'prog punk,' but there’s a certain truth in it, as they deliver jarring, wonky arrangements with thrashy intensity. But then you have to throw in elements like nursery rhymes, sea shanties, sweet psychedelia, vast hymnal shout-alongs and the occasional, incongruously straightforward rock anthem."
Beloved by younger fellow experimental bands such as Radiohead and Faith No More/Mr. Bungle, the group released eight albums during their three-decade run, beginning with 1980's The Obvious Identity (as Cardiac Arrest) through their final full-length, 1999's Guns.
Like fellow progressive art pranksters The Residents' Cryptic Corporation, the Cardiacs established a record label and purported omniscient management company with an ominous name, The Alphabet Business Concern, which they claimed sought to unfairly harness their creative ambitions and which often seemed to be at odds with their own artists.
Smith was born in Surrey, England, in 1961 and originally formed the group with his brother Jim, as well as vocalist Michael Pugh and drummer Peter Tagg; more than a dozen keyboardist, percussionists, vocalists and saxophone players cycled through the group over the years.
Check out some of the Cardiacs music and a few tributes to Smith below.