AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #294 : THE CHAMELEONS

A GUEST POSTING by ECHORICH

ICA OF THE CHAMELEONS – BUT IS THIS THE STUFF DREAMS ARE MADE OF?

There is a set of Post Punk bands that came out of the North of England which are among my most treasured artists. Many of them flirted with the charts, gained radio acceptability, to a point, and managed to release a number of amazing albums. But there are some bands that I love from this area that really never got the radio airplay, or the attention of the buying public, that they deserved.

This is an ICA, with a bonus, of possibly the most underrated of all those Post Punk artists, The Chameleons.

The Chameleons gained the admiration of John Peel from a cassette of three songs the band sent him, which led to a lot of gigs and a deal with CBS/Epic. A single was recorded with Steve Lillywhite but when they saw that the label wanted to repackage the band and change their sound they rebelled, were dropped and were once again, on their own. Virgin picked up The Chameleons through their “Northern” sub-label Statik where they would release their first two albums and a number of singles.

But being on Virgin didn’t really result in the exposure The Chameleons deserved. Releases on Virgin/Statik didn’t qualify for Independent Charts listing which impacted Music Press coverage at the time. Virgin didn’t really push The Chameleons towards radio either.

Touring ended up being the band’s real weapon. The Chameleons gained a loyal fanbase early on at home, while College and Alternative Rock Radio airplay began opening the band up to a growing audience in the US. This radio exposure made it possible to tour in 1983 and later a fuller tour in 1987.

It was on one of these tours that I really fell hard for The Chameleons. They were on the bill as opening act for a feature night of the annual New Music Seminar in NYC in August 83. They opened for two other young and hungry bands Danse Society and Sisters Of Mercy. I had purchased Up The Down Escalator earlier in the year and Don’t Fall got a good deal of College Radio Airplay, but they hadn’t made a huge impression on me prior to that night. When they opened the evening’s show I was caught completely off guard and was down the front before halfway through their opener. It was a short set, but I was hooked. Mark Burgess sang with a passion I wasn’t really prepared for. The twin guitars of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding were massive and John Lever’s drumming cut through everything. To this day I only remember that Danse Society’s singer did a lot of hip gyrating and The Sisters drum machine kept failing at the opening of their songs to the point of being a joke. But there was a vibe and the connection was made with The Chameleons – I wanted more. I learned they would play Danceteria a few nights later and I made sure I was there, front and center.

I quickly caught up with all that the band released to that point and their debut Script Of The Bridge became one of those albums that was always leaning up against a speaker waiting to be played again and again. It seemed like ages before the band released new music in the summer of 1985.

What Does Anything Mean? Basically saw the band expand their sound. Like so many bands of their time, synthesizers were brought onboard to provide mood and an expansion of their sound. But where some of their contemporaries work was diluted by synths, The Chameleons seemed to understand the power they had to nuance their established sound. Interestingly, the word synthesizer appears nowhere on the album credits, instead it is listed as “strings”… WDAM?B was dense and heavy in comparison to Script Of the Bridge, making it less immediate for me, but it actually contains two of my very favorite Chameleons songs. It did grow on me, of course, and became as vital as their debut. A year later they were on US giant Geffen with, what is for me, The Chameleon’s masterpiece. That album, Strange Times is emotionally charged, musically poetic, attention commanding and at times devastatingly beautiful. I would get to see them live one last time, promoting Strange Times in 1987 at The Ritz, in NYC and it’s a concert that has stuck with me ever since.

Being on Geffen should have been the band’s “chance.” Geffen signed them after their A&R scout from The States saw them play at The Haçienda. Years later it came out that said record company flack was actually in Manchester to secure The Stone Roses to a contract – something that would still take a few years to accomplish. Strange Time did reasonably well in Europe and on College and Modern Rock radio in the US. The relationship with Geffen was a good one and it was made possible by their “fifth member” manager Tony Fletcher. But fate was not to allow the band to grab that brass ring. Fletcher died suddenly in 1987 and the band never emotionally came back from it as a unit. They broke up acrimoniously before year’s end.

Band members would break into separate units, Mark Burgess and John Lever became The Sun And The Moon. Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding became The Reegs. Both units presented music that hinted at what it was that made The Chameleons so great, but there wasn’t the same spark.

2000 saw us enter a millennium and the members of The Chameleons bury the hatchet and record an album of acoustic interpretations of some great Chameleons songs, Strip. They toured the album and it prompted them to get back in the studio for one last album of new music, Why Call It Anything. It showed The Chameleons as they had matured with time but still had much of the DNA of their magical first three albums. A further album of acoustic reworked songs was the last work they would complete as the original unit in 2002, before the members again went their separate ways.

I’ll leave this rather long winded look back at the band by saying that The Chameleons are one of a handful of bands that have stayed quite close to me over time. They represent a genre of Rock and Roll that I hold dear and I hope I am able to convey just why with this ICA.

1. In Shreds – Debut Single Version

I have to start where it all started. Wide-eyed young musicians, working hard and getting the chance with producer of the moment Steve Lillywhite and the backing of a record label. In Shreds is raw, powerful and ridden with angst. It’s the stuff of real teen dreams, real teen reality. In Shreds is uncompromising and Lillywhite must have recognized that this was the magic of the track. If CBS thought it was getting another U2 out of the deal, I don’t think Lillywhite was on board with that anymore that The Chameleons were. JC – Here’s a candidate for Cracking Debut…

2. Up The Down Escalator – from Script Of The Bridge

Script Of The Bridge is such a fully realized album for me. It gives so much, you’d be right in thinking The Chameleons would spend their career chasing after its magic. Thankfully they had much more to offer of equal and possibly more impressive standards. Up The Down Escalator is the track that I heard regularly on college radio station WNYU afternoons after classes at University and when I could force it on my co-workers. The opening guitars are like a herald and John Lever’s drums come racing up to get the proceedings started. It spoke to me with it’s lyrics about not being understood or being under the thumb of other’s expectations – that feeling you are being told how to be, but being taken for granted all the same. Up The Down Escalator was my gateway into the lyrical brilliance of Mark Burgess.

3. Return Of The Roughnecks – from What Does Anything Mean? Basically

If WDAM?B is considered the difficult Sophomore Album, I think The Chameleons gave us exactly what they wanted to. The themes of being disenfranchised, misunderstood, searching for love are all still present and nothing sounds like a retread. Return Of The Roughnecks actually amps up these themes with a more palpable aggression and distain. The sound is big and bold, Fielding and Smithies drive the song from the front with a buzz of guitars that exemplify how well they can weave in and out of each other.

4. Don’t Fall – from Script Of The Bridge

Middle Aged Man included Don’t Fall in his powerful ICA of Opening Tracks back at the end of January and it fit like a glove into his ICA narrative. Don’t Fall, as an opening track, is nothing less than genius. It set the tone – confident and outspoken, lyrically and musically. Rock and Roll is full of axemen playing riffs, but The Chameleons took that riff-ology and slowed it down, gave it gravity and emotion. Lever and Burgess lay down a heavy rhythm bed for the guitars to announce themselves and carry their message. Burgess manages to be heard above the music crying out for the listeners attention. Song one and you are already trying to catch your breath.

5. Soul In Isolation – from Strange Times

I could spend pages talking about how important an album Strange Times is to me. I will boil it down to this…In 1986/87 the rock and roll I loved, Post Punk, was on the wane. Most of the artists I had grown to love and respect over the prior 8 or 9 years were either gone or had sold themselves to the devil to break through in America. Strange Times stands as one of the most uncompromising albums of that era.

Soul In Isolation is poetry, it is prose, it is a universal declaration of life through adversity, both outward and inward. It is a seven and a half minute catharsis of frustrations, sorrow, anger and a desperation to be heard, to be seen, to be recognized. There is a wonderful homage to psychedelia, the reference material certainly being The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows, but they don’t just impose that sound on their own, they take it to another place. When I saw them in 1987, the audience, which had been loud and raucous, stood in awe throughout the song. Favorite Chameleons song…quite possibly.

6. Swamp Thing – from Strange Times

To open side two of Strange Times, The Chameleons chose the album’s other jaw dropping moment. The liquid opening guitar line is unmistakeable and the bass drive of the song is a thing of wonder. Synths are used to enhance the atmosphere rather than take over the sound of this guitar, bass and drums outfit. Swamp Thing is a majestic tale of emotional Jekyll and Hyde. But underlying all that majesty is a darkness, a finality. The mid song coda propels the song into one of the great song endings for me.…Mark Burgess leaves the listener to decide if his protagonist survives the night, the storm of his emotions, into daylight, or meet’s his end at the hands of the monster of his own making.

7. Intrigue In Tangiers – from What Does Anything Mean? Basically

When I create an ICA, I can agonize over the song placement, the programing. But sometimes the songs just fall into place. That’s the case with Intrigue In Tangiers. Following Swamp Thing the next track needed to be able to stand on its own but also keep the music at a similar elevation. Intrigue In Tangiers does all of that. The song is a rollercoaster of emotions and sound. It builds to a great crescendo and then puts the brakes on and takes a well earned breath as it end.

8. Second Skin – from Script Of The Bridge

It would have been easy to begin this ICA with Second Skin. It has opening track written all over it. Yet The Chameleons programmed the track midway through side one. Their debut was that rich with music that they could. Second Skin is the track that audiences couldn’t help but sing along to in unison. It’s dreamy, questioning, vita with themes of growing up and all the fears and joys that brings.

9. One Flesh – from What Does Anything Mean? Basically

One Flesh has breakthrough single written all over it. Polydor France even considered releasing it for Europe (promos go for stupid money). The back and forth from uplifting to dark in the sound makes for a fast paced journey through the track. Burgess’ lyric deal with the false face we put on to get from day to night and the doubts that creep in after dark but must leave in the morning. The final verse, repeated, is a very political observation…ok, maybe it’s not a great choice for a single…just a great song.

10. Lufthansa – from Why Call It Anything

2001 found a reformed Chameleons back in the studio to record a new album with Producer John A. Rivers, Why Call It Anything. The album proves that the band still had the magic when working together but had all grown over the 25 years since they recorded Strange Times. Lufthansa is my favorite example of the melding of that magic with maturity.

11. Mad Jack – from Strange Times

Strange Times’ opener, Mad Jack has always seemed like a love letter to late 60’s Psychedelia. This is The Chameleons almost jamming, almost having fun. The chaos builds and builds and then the realities of The Chameleon’s sound crashed down not the song at the end. Brilliant!

12. Thursday’s Child – from Script Of The Bridge

In college, I took a good deal of English Literature electives (no, looking back, I’m not sure why either) and the theme of Thursday’s Child is one of the child who is destined to take a long journey to development, both spiritually and physically ending in a successful life without limitations. Mark Burgess obviously had issue with this construct and and his Thursday’s Child had to weather obstacles and set backs just to make it to a place of peace. The track opens with spiritual, crystalline guitars but quickly takes on a Motorik sound to reflect the drudgery of living a life. Thursday’s Child is brittle and flows from dense to thin throughout thanks to the interplay of the guitars and bass.

13. In Answer – from Strange Thing

As In Answer begins, it sound like the perfect song to end this ICA with, because it is muted, almost serene, but then…the band comes in full bore and on a mission. Fielding and Smithies switch from lockstep interplay to dueling guitars and Burgess plays his bass to finger bleeding excess. Lever ties everything together like a metronome. In Answer builds and builds into something too big to contain and Burgess frees himself vocally, like a man who has finally snapped. In Answer is all the joys of being a Chameleons fan distilled into 4:55. It is also one song I have always yearned to hear live.

For the following I’m taking a leaf out of The Chameleon’s own playbook. This ICA comes with a…

LIMITED EDITION FREE BONUS ICA

1. Perfumed Garden – from The Peel Sessions

Originally found on What Does Anything Mean? Basically, Perfumed Garden has grown over the years to be one of the essential Chameleons songs for me. This is due to this Peel Sessions version from 1984. This version has a bit more emotional impact for me. I love feeling or reminiscence which is matched by a sort of timeless musical bed which follows and enhances Burgess’ storytelling.

2. Home Is Where The Heart Is – from This Never Ending Now

After the surprise “success” of their collection of acoustic versions in 2000, Strip – and the happy experience of creating Why Call It Anything, The Chameleons got back in the studio for one more go at reinterpreting some more of their canon in a more acoustic vein.

Home Is Where The Heart Is was a track from Script Of The Bridge which was both a critics and fan favorite. Acoustically, the song amps up the mysterious and unknown. They might not be “plugged in” but Fielding and Smithies still perform with razor sharp precision, making acoustic guitars sound dense.

3. Is It Any Wonder? – from Tony Fletcher Walked On Water, La La La, La La La

This is part of the collection of songs that The Chameleons had worked up beyond the demo stage for the follow up to Strange Times before the sudden death of their “fifth member,” manager Tony Fletcher. The band never recovered from the grief and were basically adrift as a unit. Without Fletcher to hold them together, acrimony set in and The Chameleons called it a day just as Geffen was ready to put energy into getting The Chameleons the recognition they deserved. Is It Any Wonder? shows a confident band ready for what was next. There’s a constancy as well as a maturing of their sound, but not in a way that breaks from their past. These days, the songs from this EP can be found on the compilation Return Of The Roughnecks which was released on Dead Dead Good Records in 1997.

4. Tears – from This Never Ending Now

Yes, not as “acoustic” in parts as say an “unplugged” performance, but there is a gentle brittle nuance to this version from 2002. If any Chameleons song could be considered pastoral, it’s this version of Tears. Reg Smithies guitar takes on an almost Flamenco style at the end.

5. Nostalgia – from The Peel Sessions

Nostalgia can be found on the reissued version of In Shreds as well as the expanded CD of What Does It Mean? Basically. It doesn’t necessarily hail from as far back as the debut single as it was recorded for a mid 1983 Peel Session. This Peel session version was the first time I ever heard Nostalgia and it has always held up as my preferred version.

6. Fan And The Bellows – from The Peel Sessions

Now here we have a nugget from the earliest recordings of The Chameleons. Fan And The Bellows is a great song about how love can trip you up. There’s a youthful exuberance on the song. It’s uncluttered Post Punk with minor chord hooks and angst ridden lyrics.

7. Paradiso – Strange Times Free Bonus Album

Paradiso shows just how rich and deep the song selection for Strange Times was and at the same time hints at what could have come next for the band. It was played regularly on their US Tour in 1987 and is a song that would get the audience moving in as one to its infectious beat. When I saw Mark Burgess and his current line up for a ChameleonVox performance in a tiny bar in Tampa in November 2019 – the last show I saw pre Pandemic – Paradiso was still an audience grabber and you could tell Burgess and his band was having a ball playing it.

ECHORICH

22 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #294 : THE CHAMELEONS

  1. Brilliant selection, would agree that ‘Soul In Isolation’ is the band’s pinnacle. And remember to Turn it Up.

  2. Superb ICA, Echorich… at first, I couldn’t believe it was The Chameleons’ first appearance in this series. What an entrance, though. I only have the three albums (I lost my vinyl compilation The Fan And The Bellows along the way), so the 21st century choices are very welcome. What Does Anything Mean? Basically was the first album of theirs that I bought and it will always hold a special place for me, but what a band. Fantastic writing too, who cares how long the intro is when it’s this good?!

  3. A magnificent ICA and I totally agree that the band are criminally under-rated. I would have struggled to keep it to ten tracks – and clearly you did too, Echorich. All the more stuff to discover for anyone unfamiliar with their recordings!

  4. I always get regretful when i think of the albums I traded in the mid-80s to get CDs with the intention of rebuying the albums later on the silver disc, when they were available on the new format. “Script Of The Bridge” and “Strange Times” were two such albums! And I still need them on the silver disc, much to my chagrin. At least with “Bridge” I had the severely pruned eight track US edition that Burgess hated, and rightfully so. At the time I was excited to get the band who I’d heard on college radio with “Don’t Fall” and “Up The Down Escalator!” But I had no idea at the time that MCA sliced off a third of that album for The States! If I did, I would have held out for the UK edition. But when albums were released domestically, they could be scarce as imports here.

  5. Excellent post. Was just telling a high school friend how we really missed the boat (in California) on The Chameleons. “The Fan And The Bellows” is my favorite, and would have made a great single.

  6. Great post about a superb band! Heard ‘Don’t Fall’ & ‘Up The Down Escalator’ on a Peel BFBS programme many miles from civilisation & once able I bought every bit of vinyl I could get my hands on at the time. Boring side note- I actually heard them a few years before via R1 Peel show & “illegally” taped ‘Fan & Bellows’ as I loved the tune & lyrics but had 0 idea who the band was at the time. To my shame it took me until the internet age to finally discover it was actually a fave band I already knew* – Which was nice!
    (*Just never made the connection for some reason)
    p.s. I highly rate the acoustic version of ‘Soul In Isolation’ from the ‘Strip’ LP fwiw.

  7. If you go out drinking in Manchester you will inevitably meet middle aged men who will tell you about The Chameleons and who will brook no argument that any other band was The Best Band In The World.

  8. Brilliant post. A band whose name – and it’s a great name – frequently
    pops up, yet one I know nothing of.

    I chose to try Up the Down Escalator because I really like the title – and
    I think I’m going to love this band. What a song – thank you.

  9. Excellent stuff and a great ICA. I love their first two albums and work since a few month on an ICA. But you’ve done it in a way that I can’t beat, Echorich.

  10. After listening to this ICA several times today, I had to come back to say how much I’ve enjoyed it. It’s far too long since I last heard The Fan And The Bellows and the Peel Session version of Nostalgia is excellent. The updated versions of Tears and Home Is Where The Heart Is are outstanding. I always look forward to the latest ICA but this is a standout, Echorich… and well done on managing to whittle it down to 20 tracks!

  11. Thanks everyone. This really was a labor of love, my sort of tribute to one of the few bands who managed to stay on the pedestal I put them on 30+ years ago.
    I can’t emphasize how much I think everyone should take as deep a dive into The Chameleons as they can manage.

    Thank you especially to JC for not freaking out at my bold flaunting of the ICA rules. I always feel inspired when I am writing to contribute to T(n)VV. It really means a lot.

    And SA/JTFL, I am so down for a Manchester pub crawl. It will be 31 years in September, since I last walked through Affleck’s Palace, had a drink at Dry Bar, walked the back alleys of Sackville Street trying to find a photographer’s studio, blagged my way into the DJ booth at Hacienda…

  12. Fantastic ICA! I absolutely treasure this band – was familiar with them back in the day when a few of their tracks got a run on KROQ in Los Angeles. But it wasn’t until later on in life when I really came around – thanks to the dawn of music blogs (which also introduced/re-introduced me to a wonderful array of criminally underrated bands of the time such as Sad Lovers And Giants, The Sound & Comsat Angels)

    There was/is a magic that sets The Chameleons apart from other more popular bands of the time and it’s a reminder that radio & record labels didn’t always get it right on who & what songs to promote.

    I personally also love such songs as As High As You Can Go; Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In); Paper Tigers; Pleasure And Pain & Looking Inwardly and so glad you included the gloriously epic Intrigue In Tangiers – a song that never fails to bring chills from open to end.

    I’ve only had the privilege of once seeing ChameleonsVox – back in Nov 2019 in Montreal while on a business trip from Melbourne Australia (I was on holidays overseas the one and only time Burgess brought Chameleons Vox Down Under to sold out shows in Melbourne & Sydney) and I was finally able to see just how entrancing he is live! Was a great bill too – openers Jay Aston (Gene Love Jezebel) & Theatre Of Hate were also great – and I got a chance to meet Mark after the show – very personable & chatty who was happy to take pictures, sign CDs and sign my set-list the crew gave me!

    Thanks again for shining the light on this much loved band.

  13. RobC – I had much the same experience at the Tampa show on that tour. Mark was out by the merch table in between band sets – we had the same touring line up. I reminded him that decades ago he responded to the one and only fan letter I ever wrote to him when he and John Lever had formed The Sun And The Moon. He laughed and asked if I still had it. I advised that I did, along with the A5 promo card he got the entire band to sign for me. He then went on to mention how much he missed the late John Lever.

  14. Most excellent ICA Echorich. You mention that The Ritz in NYC was where you last saw them live and has special memories. For me, fond memories of student nights at The Ritz in Manchester in the late 80s where the highlight was always Chameleons tracks and a packed out dance floor.

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