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The Chameleons

Filling a huge gap left by the demise of early 80s indie stars The TEARDROP EXPLODES, The CHAMELEONS championed a distinctive brand of melodic alt-rock characterised by subtle shadings of mood and atmosphere. Oft sighted by many as one of the most criminally ignored bands in Manchester’s chequered musical history (the other being CRISPY AMBULANCE), their acclaimed debut album `Script Of The Bridge’ went largely unnoticed despite glowing reviews for the near hour-long set. An album that everyone should have in their collection, the record contained `Second Skin’, the best song JULIAN COPE never wrote. High praise indeed!
Formed Middleton, Greater Manchester, England, early in 1981, three original members had past indie connections: singer/bassist Mark Burgess with The Cliches (no releases), guitarists Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies with Years (one 45 `Come Dancing’). The CHAMELEONS’ sticksman Brian Schofield was involved enough to complete a demo and a 4-song session that August for impressed Radio One DJ John Peel, before John Lever (from The Politicians) duly occupied the drum-kit.
Epic Records’ decision not to offer an extended contract – after the band’s March ‘82 debut single `In Shreds’ flopped chart-wise – was the label’s loss and Statik Record’s gain. Run by former ALLEGED/CUBAN HEELS guitarist Ali Mackenzie from a studio in Glasgow, Statik thanked the heavens for The CHAMELEONS. With MAGAZINE’s Martin Jackson briefly deputising for Lever, follow-up 45s `As High As You Could Go’ and `A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days’ (aka “Man Of Steel”) led to a further Peel session and a Colin Richardson-produced parent set, SCRIPT OF THE BRIDGE (1983) {*9/*8}. Sacrilegiously cut from 12 to 8 tracks when released as The CHAMELEONS U.K. in America by the mighty M.C.A. (removing LENNON tribute `Here Today’, `Less Than Human’, `Paper Tigers’ and `View From A Hill’), the essence and delicate balance of the “Script” was somewhat lost. Note too that touring keyboardist Alistair Lewthwaite appeared almost throughout.
Not thought worthy of an American release, follow-up WHAT DOES ANYTHING MEAN? BASICALLY (1985) {*8} was almost as strong – just a tad over-produced, although understandable at a time when 80s excess equalled plenty success. Coming into Burgess’s waxing lyrical firing-line was the Thatcher government-baiting, a la `Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In)’, although it was in the twin-riff-tastic interplay of Fielding and Smithers on `Looking Inwardly’ (a wee gem!), `Perfume Garden’ and the searing `Return Of The Roughnecks’, that gave the set its edge.
Competing against the similar ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN, JULIAN COPE, COMSAT ANGELS et al, a fresh manager was needed to extol the values and virtues of a band still frustrated that things could’ve been better. In Tony Fletcher (who’d superseded Tony Skinkiss in the aftermath of their sophomore set), The CHAMELEONS saw light at the end of a darkened tunnel. When their “5th member” extracted a contract from Geffen Records, the light had now been fully turned on.
Nevertheless, even a major US muscle couldn’t help the band quite break the Top 40; singles `Swamp Thing’ and `Tears’ highlights of an album, STRANGE TIMES (1986) {*7}, that could well’ve done with another “Second Skin”. Produced and engineered by David M. Allen and Mark Saunders respectively (the men on the button(s) for The CURE), the complexities and perfection built around character-driven tracks such as `Mad Jack’, `Soul In Isolation’ and `Paradiso’ were obvious. Alternate versions of the album in all its forms had the bonus of Burgess idols: JOHN LENNON (for The BEATLES’ `Tomorrow Never Knows’) and BOWIE (`John, I’m Only Dancing’).
Just when The CHAMELEONS could do with some Lady Luck, grief was to follow when Fletcher suddenly died of a heart attack in ’87, forcing their hand to consequently throw in the towel. Too soon for most fans. Subsequent spin-off projects, including Burgess and Lever’s The SUN AND THE MOON, and Fielding and Smithies’ The REEGS, met with only a modicum of comparative success.
Sustaining support in the States through the filtering of CHAMELEONS collections and so on, their main man (with help from Lever) formed MARK BURGESS AND THE SONS OF GOD for one set, `Zima Junction’ (1994). A joint effort with guitarist Yves Altana, `Paradyning’ (1995) was BURGESS again in fine fettle, but after his INVINCIBLE bubble burst (one set `Venus’ in 1999), it was almost inevitable that The CHAMELEONS (without Lever, initially) would finally reconvene to bring in the millennium.
Not quite in the “Unplugged” formula but as close as one could imagine, the almost live-in-the-studio and acoustic STRIP (2000) {*6} seized the chance to bring back melancholy memories to their many disparate disciples. While leaving out obvious big guns, the 8-minutes of `Soul In Isolation’ (and others like `Less Than Human’ and `Caution’), sounded as if Mark and Co had been listening to NIRVANA’s “MTV” set or LED ZEPPELIN “III”. No bad examples.
Again teaming up with producer Dave Allen (not the GANG OF FOUR geezer), the quartet released their first batch of fresh tracks in 15 years by way of WHY CALL IT ANYTHING (2001) {*7}. Brooding and biting with an insulated introspective one had come to expect from Burgess, Fielding, Smithies and Lever, there was almost a calmness and smooth serenity in folky songs such as `Anyone Alive?’, `Dangerous Land’ and `Truth Isn’t Truth Anymore’, while `Miracles And Wonders’ roped in rapper Kwasi Asante.
Fans missing classic CHAMELEONS cuts from the 80s, mixed in with cherry-pickings from the quartet’s recent reformation, their homecoming concert double-set LIVE AT THE ACADEMY (2002) {*7} – recorded a year earlier – was just the ticket to remind one of a great act; throw in a cocky cover of ALTERNATIVE TV’s `Splitting In Two’ (intro’d by Kwasi and interpolating snatches of JOY DIVISION’s `Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and The FALL’s `Rowche Rumble’), and it must’ve been one hell of a night.
Not another acoustic re-workings set one may have asked with the release of 2002’s THIS NEVER ENDING NOW {*6} – and only a couple of years since they’d peeled off “Strip”. Well not quite, as this time around The CHAMELEONS attempted to re-address the balance courtesy of re-takes of classic, career-spanning tracks (see above), plus a concluding cover of BOWIE’s `Moonage Daydream’.
Sadly, the quartet split for a final time; Burgess briefly formed Music People and Bird respectively, before he and former Music For Aborigines alumni helped form BLACK SWAN LANE alongside Americans Jack Sobel and John Kolbeck of The MESSENGERS; several albums have come from this cosmopolitan ensemble, from 2007’s `A Long Way From Home’ to 2014’s `A Moment Of Happiness’. Meanwhile, Burgess had succumbed to briefly reprising The SUN AND THE MOON, plus his original band as CHAMELEONS VOX (pulling in Lever).
Lever and fielding were back in contention in 2014/15 when the Red-Sided Garter Snakes issued the album, Endless Sea, a record augmented by singer James Mudriczki (of Puressence) and Andy Clegg; sadly, Lever passed away on 13 March 2017.
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2015-Mar2017

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