One of the greatest bands of our time, The Chameleons are a band one can’t easily multi-task while listening to. A powerful, brilliant, searing band of masterful musicianship, listening to The Chameleons is like a religious experience. Moving through heartache and pain, their songs deliver glimmers of light and life, that are at first just out of grasp.
The torrent of sound the Chameleons create is perfectly complemented by the bands deeply poetic lyrics. British singer Mark Burgess’ despairing vocal melodies do at times soar, elevating from gloomy minor bass chords to augmented, and then ascending crescendos at the top of the scale, suggesting that reason and hope may be possible after all on this crazed planet we all share.
Take for example, the mind blowing masterpiece of “Swamp Thing,” below. Close your eyes and play this one loudly and see if you don’t get chills and feel the depth of this genius work of art.
When The Substance music festival was announced later this year in 2022, with The Chameleons as the headliner, along with Jesus and Mary Chain, I knew I had to be there.
Widely influential, fiercely original and innovative, The Chameleons have maintained their integrity and underground punk roots in the so-called darkwave scene before the label even existed. Beyond that, their music simply helped define the term, along with Joy Division, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Jesus and Mary Chain years later, and a small handful of others. Yet unlike any other of their early or later contemporaries, The Chameleons are not quite like any other.
Seemingly effortlessly creating a cascading wall of sound that envelopes the listener, The Chameleons spring forth with each brilliant song–an enchanting waterfall of searing guitar, and darkly romantic melodies that overtake the listener, if one gives in. Seeing them live, I could not help staring at them in awe and thinking, “How in the world do they get that sound?” A question I’ve thought only a few times in my musical history, having seen well over a thousand bands live.
Moments earlier, I was sitting backstage at the Los Angeles Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, in a dressing room, interviewing the legend himself–bassist, co-songwriter, and Chameleons singer, Mark Burgess.
The Chameleons formed in Manchester, England, in 1981 from the remnants of a number of local groups. Vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess began with the Cliches, guitarists Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding arrived from the Years, and drummer John Lever (who quickly replaced founding member Brian Schofield) originated with the Politicians. After establishing themselves with a series of high-profile BBC sessions, the Chameleons signed to Epic, and debuted with the tense, moody single “In Shreds,” produced by Steve Lillywhite and released in March 1982.
The quartet was soon released from its contract with Epic, but then signed to Statik, and returned in 1983 with the band’s first full-length effort, “Script of the Bridge.” The album “What Does Anything Mean? Basically” followed in 1985, and with it came a new reliance on newer, innovative production techniques. Following its release, the Chameleons signed to Geffen and emerged the following year with “Strange Times.” This dark, complex record proved to be the Chameleons’ finale however, when they split up, following the sudden death of their manager Tony Fletcher.
While Mark Burgess and John Lever continued on in the Sun & the Moon, Smithies and Fielding later reunited in the Reegs. In 1993, Burgess surfaced with his proper solo album, “Zima Junction.” He and his band “the Sons of God” toured America the following year.
As the ’90s came and went, the four members of the Chameleons UK continued to work on music and see one another on a personal basis. While their own musical projects kept them busy, a reunion was practically inevitable. The Chameleons reconnected in January 2000 to prepare for three dates in May, in England. The acoustic-based, self-released “Strip” was available by showtime and for a limited time only. Additional European dates followed throughout the summer, and by fall, the Chameleons UK played their first American shows in nearly 15 years. Several live efforts appeared shortly thereafter. “Why Call It Anything?” (2001) marked the Chameleons’ first studio album since 1986’s “Strange Times.” “This Never Ending Now” appeared two years later.
The following music video was shot at a studio near Stockport, England (near Manchester), and was was produced & directed for the band back in 1983 by Director Martin Denning, posted with kind courtesy of the director.
What follows in the link below, is an excusive interview with Mark Burgess for Subnormal Magazine, recorded at the Substance Music Festival on October 21st, 2022. Special thanks to SiouxZ, Mark, and Todd.
Due to sound recording challenges below, play on your stereo headphones at increased volume for optimal listening.