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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… The Chameleons October 22, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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The other day something a bit unusual happened. There I was whiling away an odd quiet hour on YouTube thinking I’d check out mid-1980s post punk/new wave stalwarts, the Chameleons. And suddenly there was a song I’d never heard before, Is It Any Wonder? And it was pretty damn good. And then there was another, entitled Sally. Now, I’ve always loved the Chameleons, and even purchased long long ago on vinyl a rarities disc of theirs called The Fan & The Bellows, but none of these songs appeared on it. A bit of googling and it transpires that Is it Any Wonder came from an EP they released [then almost immediately deleted] just after they broke up in 1987 and Sally came from a series of early tracks released practically beneath the radar. And I guess I’m not quite completist enough to have bothered checking their back catalogue that forensically. And that’s the thing about that period. If one didn’t manage to get hold of those limited releases that was it, they were gone and once gone gone for – nearly – good. It’s only in the past decade or so that they’ve begun to reappear online in various forms, often where music corporations see an opening for flogging a back catalogue, sometimes where fans want to put music that no corporation will bother re-releasing back into the public domain.

The thing with the Chameleons was that they were sort of the new wave band that got away, never making it anywhere near as big as they should have given both the audience and critical reception to their first three albums. Spoken about in the same breath as early Smiths, and with understandable, if inaccurate, comparisons made with U2’s chiming guitar sound and the emotiveness of their vocals, they should have been the group to lift above Echo and the Bunnymen and others in the popular consciousness.

It never happened, in large part because they disintegrated messily and it would seem some rancour in the wake of the death of their manager, the aforementioned Tony Fletcher. Mark Burgess, their singer, went onto a fairly prolific solo career – as noted here. And indeed is still working with a range of projects including the excellently named Black Swan Lane as well as ChameleonVox, which is essentially him and Chameleons drummer John Lever playing Chameleons material. Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding who were responsible for the guitar sound had a lower profile as the interesting, but never very successful, Reegs [who once tried in addition to Chameleons tinged guitar music, perhaps unwisely – perhaps not, providing dance backing to a John Cooper-Clarke like Mancunian poet].

But they were an odd band in some ways. For all the delicacy of guitar work and keyboard fills it often struck me that they were, of all the new wave outfits during the period, the most traditionally rock like. The guitars were loud, the dynamics in parts unrelenting and the vocals unashamedly Mancunian, hugely emotive and in parts shouty – all to the good. And for all the modish, and in truth innovative, echoing guitars they were clearly influenced by prog rock [a strand of their influences that would be most evident on their last album released in 2000.

This impression wasn’t dispelled by the carefully rendered pencil drawings which accompanied the albums. Surrealist imagery, beautifully done, but their hand-drawn styling speaking, as did the lyrics and music, of a labour of love and curiously 1970s influences.

I’d even argue there was something a bit blokey about them. Perhaps, as with Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In) that was a function of a certain melodrama. But then again… they also had a more nuanced side that rested in no small part on lyrically and musically nostalgic evocations of childhood. Yet all that said they still fitted neatly into a post-punk lineage containing, most obviously, Joy Division, Comsat Angels, The Sound [Adrian Borland and Mark Burgess later collaborated together in Borland’s White Rose Transmission outfit] and, at a stretch, The Church. They were political albeit in a lower case ‘p’ sort of a way. More a cynicism about politics and ideology than a programmatic approach, although that said they had a clear lyrical antipathy towards the Tories.

Each of their three 1980s albums has strengths and weaknesses. Script of the Bridge is perhaps the best loved, and in some ways rightly so, though there was a point where I’ll bet most of us who heard it had overplayed it. Their last album Strange Times squirreled away near hits like the still remarkable Swamp Thing with its ubiquitous introductory guitar and Tears and demonstrated their mastery of the form. But I tend to think that the sequence of songs on their sophomore effort What Does Anything Mean? Basically contains their best sequence of tracks, like On The Beach or Looking Inwardly while also having some of their most reflective slower numbers like Home Is Where the Heart Is. And in a way I like the political thrust of the album, though that was true of all their work, and in particular it’s downbeat approach ‘Working class heroes mean nothing to me, I’m a working class zero, chained to the tree of life’. But to pick one album above the others is pointless.

I never saw them live, I’m not sure they ever visited Ireland. And that’s a pity, because even the underproduced and stripped down body of songs on that EP from 1987 I mentioned earlier, entitled Tony Fletcher Walked on Water La La La La La-La La-La-La are testament to their inability to write a bad track. It makes the absence of a fourth album in that decade all the more poignant because it is so clear just how strong it would have been. I suspect had I heard it twenty four years ago I’d have found it even more fantastic again. The Healer, a mid-paced but melodic number would have sat comfortably on their third album. Free for All and Denim and Curls move along at a speedier pace while Is It Any Wonder has a jaunty feel to it – and starts with a characteristic Chameleons sample of a child counting – that is odd when set against the lyrical contents. And if there are melodic – and lyrical – references to earlier songs, then that seems more appropriate than lazy since their music was always self-referential.

Their influence is unquestionable. Listen to Interpol, or I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness or any of a host of other shoegaze/post punk/new wave influenced bands and you can hear their sound. But they did it first and they did it, mostly, best.

Is it Any Wonder [Tony Fletcher Walked on Water….La La La La La-La La-La-La]

The Healer [Tony Fletcher Walked on Water….La La La La La-La La-La-La]

Swamp Thing 7” Version [Strange Times – 1987]

Soul in Isolation [Strange Times]

In Answer [Strange Times]

Looking Inwardly [What Does Anything Mean? Basically – 1985]

On the Beach What Does Anything Mean? Basically]

Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In) [What Does Anything Mean? Basically]

Second Skin [Script of the Bridge- 1983]

And live…

View From A Hill [Script of the Bridge]

Don’t Fall [Script of the Bridge]

Sally

Comments»

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3. soubresauts - October 25, 2011

What a magnificent band they were!

Looking back now, the 1980s seems like a golden age of quality pop music, particularly in Britain. The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, David Sylvian, and so many more.

You mentioned The Church, WbS, and I had just come across this on Steve Kilbey’s blog: http://thetimebeing.com/2011/10/tv-dinner/
Quite the pen picture of Tom Verlaine, who also was hanging out and recording great music in England in those years.

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WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2011

Thanks a million soubresauts. He’s still going strong is our Mr. Kilbey, and a man and a band who will soon be appearing at a This Weekend… near us! By the way if you’re ever interested in doing a guest This Weekend drop me a line by email.

I think you’re right about the quality pop point. There was a real crossover in a way that doesn’t exist in quite the same way today.

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EamonnCork - October 26, 2011

I agree with you on Verlaine, Postcard from Waterloo and Words From The Front came into my mind immediately and have stayed there. The Church were decent too though to my shame I now discover I’ve been getting The Chameleons and Lori and The Chameleons mixed up for years.

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4. anarchaeologist - October 26, 2011

Missed this post entirely and I must admit I’d never really listened to them before… I was listening again to the Jack Frost lp with Kilbey and Grant McLennan the other day, now there’s a flawed classic if ever there was one.

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5. soubresauts - December 1, 2011

The Chameleons live on… well, the Chameleons Vox — Mark Burgess with a band of ace musicians. Here’s a decent recording of them performing in Washington the other day:

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