I have no idea how big the Chameleons were, or how far their music spread. Let’s not panic, i’ll look it up before I finish writing this, and I have my suspicions, but they could have been the biggest band in the world or just a tiny little secret that occasionally leaked out of the North West. I suspect they were somewhere between the two, and retained the possibility of being both at the same time, like some sort of musical quantum uncertainty.
They certainly never seemed to fit comfortably within the world around them, ironic when you consider their name. They were too grandiose to be successors to Joy Division, too artful to beat U2 to the stadium doors, too long-form and serious to grab radio time from The Smiths and too rocking to divert attention from Talk Talk.
Yet for those of us who grew up around Temptation at the Hacienda, the Ritz on a Wednesday night, DeVille’s on a Saturday, the Chameleons were part of our musical lives. No record threaded so mysteriously through the DNA of Manchester indie clubs more than 1986’s ‘Strange Times’, their third album and the last of their first incarnation.
‘Soul In Isolation’ would drag the extrovert introverts out onto the empty floor to share their inner turmoil through a common language of shuffling moves and fringe flicks. Later in the evening ‘Mad Jack’ would pull everyone else in to shake their heads around and at the end of the night ‘Swamp Thing’ would have them all howling to the dripping rafters.
And yet even then they felt like a secret. These songs, along with ‘Tears’, the earlier ‘In Shreds’ and ‘Up The Down Escalator’ could be heard on local late-night radio (shout out to Tony the Greek), and those nagging, un-put-downable melodies would snake their way into your head and yet always their was the sense that half the youngsters bellowing “Not too many hours from this hour/ so long/ a storm comes/ or is it just another shower?” as a note of defiance against the encroaching night would actually struggle to name the band they were feeling so emotive about.
They weren’t exactly ahead of their time, their slanted post punk approach had been done in detail by the time they started in 1981, instead they seemed more to be between times. The pantheon of post ’77 Manchester bands trips of the tongue of any music fan. Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and onwards to Oasis and the end. If you’re lucky they might thrown in The Fall, Magazine, 808 State and a few other choice names. If they mention Northside it’s time to sidle away.
The Chameleons never get a look in, despite operating in a relatively open space between scenes, post Joy Division, pre-Madchester and despite trading in an enthralling rock music, which weaved epic ambition around beguiling instrumentation and a singer with a voice, half Marc Almond, half Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, strong enough to drag his own searching melodies all the way from heaven down to earth and back.
‘Strange Times’ captures them at their confident best. ‘Mad Jack’ kicks off with driving energy and then we’re into what comes over now like a greatest hits home straight. ‘Caution’, a rolling, queasy piece of jangle with a sharp undertone. Then ’Tears’, featured here in a slower, more meditative alternate take from the version released as a single. The vocal melody is beautiful and strong enough to carry both versions. ’Soul in Isolation’ tends towards clattering industrial rock but plays its hand just enough to stay the right side of the line between epic and overblown. Then ‘Swamp Thing’ with it’s eastern inflected introduction, jackboot drums and perfectly pitched growth from snaking intimacy to bellowing catharsis.
The remaining five songs are fine examples of mid-80s post-punk rock, as strong as anyone else was putting out. They retain just the faintest whiff of the sixth form, but the honesty and heart which underpins the writing is more than sufficient to get them by.
Plus, Mark Burgess’s facility with a vocal hook really is something remarkable, his ability to segue between hooks within a single song is transcendent and by this point it had been developed to its most intoxicatingly powerful. ’Tears’ for example contains at least three vocal melodies so elementally unforgettable that lesser bands could have hung careers off any one of them (for reference: 1: “And I wasn’t worried at all”, 2: “Can you tell me how will it be now, how will it be?” and 3: “Will the ghosts just stop following me?”).
They deserved better at the time. ‘Strange Times’ was their major label debut (on Geffen – one of the theories as to why they never made the splash they might have is that their first label, Statik, obscure but an offshoot of Virgin and thus the band never featured in independent charts and so evaded the music press fairly effectively) and it failed to trouble the charts. There’s no mention of it in the end of year lists.
They deserve better now. To my ears they are still the equal of any of the bands plying their trade in the space between punk, goth and rock in the mid-80s and at their best they do things few others were ever capable of.
Tom listened: Already familiar with The Script Of The Bridge, The Chamelons’ debut album, I knew what to expect from Strange Times but, in much the same way as a cliched old game of English football (on at the moment…but I’ve found something better to do, Graham and Ed!), this was very much a game of two halves, one of which exceeded expectations! Which is to say that I adored the first few songs here. They were bright and brisk and sharp and melodious and reminded me a little of a slightly more earnest and darker (read: gothier?) That Petrol Emotion. The second half of the record I found to be less captivating but I imagine this was as much to do with it being the end of the evening and a first listen as opposed to any significant drop off in quality.
So, on reflection, The Chameleons’ third album was a hit with me…but on points only. Curiously, however, I didn’t come away from the listen feeling compelled to acquire any Chameleons’ stuff – in much the same way as Script Of The Bridge, I enjoyed Strange Times as it played but because the sound and aesthetic is very much of its time and, for me, it’s not a time (or sound) that particularly resonates, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling compelled to pull it off the shelf to explore what it has to offer. That’s my loss I suppose!
Graham Listened: Stuff from this period generally hits my ‘sweet spot’ and Rob definitely delivered with this one. Not sure if it is rose-tinted ears falling for simpler times but this was great to listen to. I’m sure a C90 of this and some other Chameleons’ offerings are knocking about in box somewhere. Just one of those bands that were ‘classy’ at the time and had a sound that you wanted to hear. I never picked up their albums but that was mainly down with me aligning my self with the darker side of the ‘force’, as I toyed with the Sisters and The Mission. My loss ultimately.
Nick listened: People have been telling me to listen to The Chameleons for years; apparently Embrace sound(ed) like them (in the early days). Well, as we’ve discovered, I think I hear Embrace differently to most people, and I didn’t quite get the lineage here that’s been suggested to me, even though I could hear similarities to the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, who I can hear as precedent for that Yorkshire band.
Being that bit younger than most of the other guys, this didn’t trigger any Pavlovian responses in me. I quite enjoyed it, but something in Burgess’ voice didn’t appeal, and the melodies felt a little gauche and unsophisticated at times; I wonder if those were two of the things that prevented them crossing over beyond their home territory?