|Track||Album / EP / Single|
|In Shreds||CBS/Epic EPC A2210|
|Up The Down Escalator||Statik TAK 11|
|Second Skin||John Peel Sessions|
|Monkeyland||Script Of The Bridge|
|View From A Hill||Script Of The Bridge|
|Singing Rule Britannia|
(While The Walls Close In)
|What Does Anything Mean? Basically|
|P.S. Goodbye||What Does Anything Mean? Basically|
|Is It Any Wonder||Tony Fletcher Walked On Water...|
|Soul In Isolation||Strip|
The Chameleons (l to r): Dave Fielding, Reg Smithies, Mark Burgess, John Lever
Contributor: Al Brookes
Oh John Peel, so much to answer for. Peel looms large in this Toppermost and in the story of the Chameleons. My own introduction to the group was due to him, even if it was several years after the fact.
They may be the best band you’ve never heard, but once you’re in on the secret there’s a treasure trove to be found in a catalogue spread across four albums, a handful of singles and some radiant radio sessions and demos recorded in their original 1980s lifetime, appended by further recordings in the early 2000s.
Their story is one of shining promise ensnared in unhappy alliances with record companies, ultimately brought crashing in by internal pressures – the differences seemingly personal rather than musical. But for a few short years between 1982 and 1986, they made some breathtaking music. Even though they recorded less than seventy songs during their two existences, getting down to a list of ten for this piece has proved to be a challenge.
Mark Burgess (bass, vocals), Dave Fielding (guitar) and Reg Smithies (guitar) were friends from schooldays at Hollin High in Middleton, Greater Manchester, which also gave the world David Gedge and Pete Solowka of the Wedding Present. Indeed Burgess’ accent is a distant cousin to Gedge’s. I’m a sucker for singers who let their natural accent out in their delivery. For me this is part of the Chameleons appeal; a real person singing from the heart.
The Chameleons’ story really begins with their first Peel session, broadcast on 17th June 1981. They hadn’t made a record at this point, but the exposure of a Peel session introduced them to a wide audience from the off. Their sound is not yet fully formed, but they performed four strong songs, the pick of which is Here Today, an extraordinary first person point of view account of the murder of Mark Burgess’ childhood hero, John Lennon, six months earlier.
Better was to follow. The Peel session brought them to the attention of record company suitors and before long they had signed a deal with CBS, major label home of U2. At the same time they searched for a permanent drummer. Enter John Lever.
They were installed in the studio with U2’s producer, Steve Lillywhite, and although the sessions didn’t go particularly well, they produced the first classic Chameleons record and the first in my Toppermost Top 10 …
In Shreds – CBS/Epic 7″ single EPC A2210 (1982)
A misleadingly quiet passage of a few seconds’ plucked guitar is swept away in a torrent of pounding drums and a driving riff from Reg, overlaid with a glistening guitar figure from Dave as the Chameleons’ sound coalesces brilliantly. The song’s lyric was inspired by Mark’s unease at signing to a major label, the “whore in my bed”. A propulsive four minute rush, never letting up its relentless pace, concluding with the rising worry of “becoming part of the machinery” and a staggered dismount of instruments that fits the song’s messy tension. The production’s as rough as anything – ironically the single released was a rough mix, not Lillywhite’s choice but the band’s – and it’s a great introduction to the group.
Up The Down Escalator – Statik 7″ single TAK 11 (1983)
Things with CBS soured quickly, although In Shreds made Peel’s Festive 50 for 1982. By the time the band were ready to record their debut album, a deal with the (sort of) independent Statik label was struck, on the face of it a better home for their music.
Taking up the muscular mantle of In Shreds, the first Statik single, Up The Down Escalator, was released in January 1983. It was a strong month for the guitar-orientated groups that had emerged from post-punk, delivering Top 10 hits for both U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen. The Chameleons’ music should have been an ideal fit in this climate, but despite Peel’s support they were largely unchampioned in the music press and frustratingly they remained excluded from the indie charts due to Statik’s distribution arrangements with Virgin. The single came and went without much notice being paid.
A shame, as Up The Down Escalator is another grand statement of intent. Serrated guitars lead in the drums, phrases leap out: “They tell me tomorrow will never arrive, but I’ve seen it end a million times”. The lyrics express frustration at a life lived on scraps, threatened by those with the power to end your life with the flick of a switch, a sobering glimpse of Britain in the grip of Thatcherism at the fag end of the Cold War – “you either swim or you drown”.
Second Skin – Peel Session (14th June 1983)
A second Peel session followed in June, providing an early public airing for what is, for me, their greatest song. This was the first Chameleons’ song I heard, on a Strange Fruit compilation of Peel Session tracks of bands from the Manchester area, entitled Manchester, So Much To Answer For. Among strong tracks by The Fall, A Certain Ratio, The Smiths, New FADs and many others, one song stood out like a glittering jewel.
Heralded by a line of silvery synth, once again John Lever’s powerful drumming kicks the song into action: “One cold damp evening, the world stood still”. The song rises and falls over six minutes, the wash of synth lines supporting Reg’s choppy rhythm guitar in propelling the song forwards, quieter passages augmented by Dave’s lead heightening the impact each time the drums come back in. A brilliant lyrical and vocal performance from Mark, every line resonating. I can listen to this song over and over and never get tired of it.
Like when you fail to make the connection
You know how vital it is
Or when something slips through your fingers
You know how precious it is
When compiling the Top 10 for this piece, I agonised over whether to include the Peel version or the ‘definitive’ version that appeared on the debut album, Script Of The Bridge. In the end I chose the Peel version, the one that hooked me in to their unique sound at the start. For many years the Peel Sessions album was one of the only Chameleons albums that was readily available, so it seems right to include this version here.
Monkeyland – Script Of The Bridge – Statik album STAT LP 17 (1983)
I could’ve picked just about any of the twelve songs that make up Script Of The Bridge. Recorded at Cargo in Rochdale where Joy Division made many of their recordings for Factory, it’s one of the classic debut albums. Clocking in at just under an hour it works terrifically well as a consistent piece, with added atmosphere from the found sounds linking some of the tracks, the most effective one a child’s whirly tube.
It’s this that introduces my first choice from the album. One of the group’s oldest songs, dating back to their initial 1981 demos, Monkeyland deals with one of the recurring themes of Burgess’ lyrics, questioning whether there is some kind of higher being or god (“is there anyone there?”) or whether “it’s just a trick of the light”. Where the U2 of this period declaimed with bombastic certainty, Mark questions and wrestles, finding no answers but still struck by the beauty of the stars above.
View From A Hill – Script Of The Bridge – Statik album STAT LP 17 (1983)
My second choice distills the essence of the album, even as it closes it. View From A Hill was inspired by a band trip – in both senses – to Tandle Hill, between Oldham and Rochdale. It’s this hill that graces the album’s cover.
A beautiful shimmering intro (which may sound a little familiar to fans of Interpol) ushers in a dreamy, pastoral meditation encompassing childhood and longed for opportunities. Life is viewed as a board game, where “you wait until your turn comes round again”.
Three minutes in and the song pivots on its axis, the vocals dispensed with and the remaining three minutes forty taking the form of an extended instrumental outro, luminous interplay between guitars and synth punctuated with distant thunder as the drums drop out then return. A sublime ending to a near-perfect debut.
Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In) – What Does Anything Mean? Basically – Statik album STAT LP 22 (1985)
A third and final Peel session in 1984 presented four of the songs that would appear on the belated second album the following year. By the time it came out, the band was on the verge of imploding, tensions between Mark Burgess and Dave Fielding coming to a head, while relationships with Statik had also worsened. Mishandling of a deal for the US, lead to a truncated release for Script with an unnecessarily retitled Up The Down Escalator, exacerbating a bad situation of poor management and financial uncertainty.
Nevertheless, What Does Anything Mean? Basically is a great sophomore album, dressed in my favourite Reg Smithies sleeve. Songs like Perfume Garden, On The Beach, Intrigue In Tangiers are as strong as those on the debut, continuing to articulately explore now familiar lyrical themes.
My first pick from it was released as the only single. Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In returns to the frustrations of existence in Thatcher’s Britain, more explicitly than ever: “now the baby needs to grow, but the mother is crazy”.
John Lennon makes a reappearance too, in the line, “working class heroes mean nothing to me; I’m a working class zero chained to the tree of life”, while the closing lines semi-quote the Beatles’ She Said, She Said and at various points in the song the guitar mimics a sitar. Incandescent lead guitar from Dave gives the song an ethereal quality despite the typically hard-edged rhythm section.
P.S. Goodbye – What Does Anything Mean? Basically – Statik album STAT LP 22 (1985)
I’ve picked another closer for my second choice from this record. Written by Mark Burgess as he thought the band was ending, P.S. Goodbye is a wistful look back at better times, another reminiscence of childhood. The music builds slowly, a lovely wash of synth and synthetic strings that close the circle opened by the album’s instrumental first track.
You know in retrospect it seems
There’s always danger in your dreams
Like an actor stealing scenes
All the magic moments in your teens
Caution – Strange Times – Geffen album 9 24119-1 (1986)
WDAMB wasn’t to be the end after all. On the back of modestly successful US touring, the band had attracted interest from the major label Geffen. The resulting third album is a step forwards in terms of production, and the complexity of some of the arrangements. Side 2 opens with Swamp Thing, the nearest the Chameleons would ever get to writing an anthem and a popular favourite, just missing out on this list. For me, the picks of the album are on Side 1, two tracks straying into seven minutes plus territory. I’ll come back to the second a little later, but my first choice for this list is Caution.
By now the band had got the knack of slowly building a track up from restrained beginnings and on Caution they nail it. Slow-paced, boasting a nagging, repetitive riff before Mark’s vocal comes in: “We have no future, we have no past / We’re just drifting ghosts of glass”. The lyrical theme seems to be loosely based around Mark’s perception of being in the band, endless touring and little measurable success. The music drops away to leave the swirling noise of the same whirly tube toy that featured so prominently on Script, then the drums make their return as the tension mounts. Around six minutes in Mark starts to shout something that sounds like “Six days – Six! Six! Six!” (he had an obsession with the number 666 at this time, but the lyric sheet is silent on this part), then the band start to apply real pressure, the whole thing coming to a crescendo that threatens to take the roof off. Just brilliant.
Is It Any Wonder – Tony Fletcher Walked On Water… EP – Glass Pyramid 12″ / CD single EMC 1 (1990)
It all went wrong(er) after the release of Strange Times. Geffen had no real interest in the band. Sort-of manager Tony Fletcher died suddenly and the tensions between Mark and Dave finally became too much. The Chameleons dissolved, but not before they recorded four last songs together.
Released three or four years later on a label Mark Burgess set up for that purpose, the four tracks made a very decent EP before being suppressed by the other band members. Is It Any Wonder includes some of the best lyrics Burgess wrote, over a delicate backing with striking melody. It opens with a couplet from the traditional nursery rhyme Soldier Soldier before describing the song’s protagonist: “On the surface he seems sensible, but underneath the logic is crazy”.
There’s a brilliant verse that often comes into my head about “knuckle walking animals”, but the song’s denouement must be about the band, and it seems that the subject of mental fragility is not a third person after all, but the singer himself.
Is this really where the story ends
For all those so called friends
Is it any wonder that they think I’ve lost my mind?
And it really was where the story ended, at least for the next dozen years or so. The next adventures of the group’s members – in The Sun and the Moon, The Reegs and Burgess’ solo albums – easily include a Toppermost’s worth of fine material.
The years after the band’s split brought renewed interest. They were the subject of one of the first Strange Fruit Peel Sessions albums to be released (around the same time as the Manchester, So Much To Answer For compilation that brought me here). A slew of archival releases of demos and live shows followed, before their two Statik albums finally got a long-overdue reissue.
Soul In Isolation – Strip – Paradiso album PARADISOCD01 (2000)
But I’ve still got a song left, and we had to wait until the year 2000 to hear this version of it. At the end of the 90s, the stars aligned sufficiently for the four members to reconvene for some shows and to make Strip, an acoustic re-tread of numbers from the catalogue, together with a couple of new tracks.
They would go on to make a proper album and another acoustic one, before the curtain really did come down. I was lucky enough to see them twice during this resurrection. The second occasion, at Fibbers in York, was plagued by technical difficulties and increasing unhappiness from Dave, before being cut short. In the face of obvious tensions, their final split was perhaps unsurprising if very sad.
As with Second Skin, I had to agonise over which version of this song to have in my Top 10; both are brilliant. I’ve gone for the Strip version mainly because it brings us to the band’s rejuvenation and final conclusion, and also because you get to appreciate the closing coda in full, which really does bring the story full circle.
Back in 1981 in their formative period, they wrote a song called Dear Dead Days. It was never fully developed, but its lyrics provided an ending for the epic Soul In Isolation from Strange Times. When the song was re-recorded for Strip, the earlier fade-out was replaced with the full verse and it’s become one of my very favourite Chameleons moments.
The story of the Chameleons is filled with frustrations, bad decisions, tragedies and some spectacular music. The theme of looking back to happier times fills the band’s work, but so does a sense of curiosity about the big questions of life, the universe and everything – I think this verse sums them up perfectly.
We’re always searching for something
Dear, dear dead days I’m longing
For those of you yet to hear this wonderful band, I hope you might be inspired to check out these tracks and maybe go further into the catalogue, now available again through Blue Apple Music. For those of you who already know them, it’s time we passed this secret on.
As I was writing this piece, the shocking news came in of the death of John Lever. Synchronicity can be a strange and terrible thing, but I dedicate these words and melodies to him.
– with details of European April/May/June 2017 Tour
Interview and clips from the 1987 north American tour
“We won’t pursue a hit record to the detriment of everything else… and prostitute other areas of what we do for the sake of having a record in the top ten… the whole idea is totally abhorrent…”
The writer of this post can be followed on Twitter @thesweetcheat