Chameleons (UK)

  • Chameleons (UK)
  • Script of the Bridge (MCA) 1983 
  • What Does Anything Mean? Basically? (UK Statik) 1985 
  • Strange Times (Geffen) 1986 
  • The Fan and the Bellows (Caroline) 1989 
  • The Peel Sessions (UK Strange Fruit) 1990  (Strange Fruit/Dutch East India) 1991 
  • Tony Fletcher Walked on Water (UK Glass Pyramid) 1990 
  • Tripping Dogs (UK Glass Pyramid) 1990 
  • Sun and the Moon
  • Alive; Not Dead EP (UK Midnight Music) 1988 
  • The Sun and the Moon (Geffen) 1988 

This stylish Manchester pop quartet somehow managed to bring something of its own to much-traveled terrain, making songs like the melodic “Up the Down Escalator” and the far denser “Don’t Fall” moody and memorable. Bassist Mark Burgess recalls Psychedelic Fur Richard Butler’s world- weariness in his singing; the band’s playing is, however, generally lighter in tone and simpler in design than that band’s. Script of the Bridge isn’t a great album, but it has very appealing moments. (US and UK editions differ.)

What Does Anything Mean? Basically? is even better, with much stronger production underscoring both the band’s direct power and the ghostly atmospherics of its icy church keyboards and delay-ridden guitars. More than just songs, the Chameleons build meticulous puzzles, forests of sound with heartfelt melodies. “Intrigue in Tangiers” and “On the Beach” show the muscle beneath the beauty, while “Perfume Garden” and “One Flesh” spring with such fresh life they’re instantly enveloping.

Strange Times was produced by Dave Allen, who instills a dark edge in the normally bright sound. The dreamy undercurrents add a luster to the three epic tracks, “Caution,” with its odd 6/8 time swing, “Soul in Isolation,” an emotional piece of knowing loneliness, and “Swamp Thing,” a delicious, building mini- masterpiece. “Time” and “In Answer” are aggressive, no- holds barred post-punk rockers that such sound architects as these are supposed to be neither capable of or inclined towards, and they add a breathless whoosh to the proceedings. (Early US copies came with a not-to-be-missed six-song bonus 12-inch containing such covers as the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing.”)

After the Chameleons split up in the summer of ’87, Burgess and drummer John Lever joined with a pair of guitarists to form a new quartet, the Sun and the Moon, which debuted in mid-’88 with an eponymous album that sounds a lot like the Chameleons. Burgess evinces even more imploring emotionality than in the past, and it’s a very solid LP, if no challenge to the Chameleons’ general brilliance (inventive guitarists Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies are greatly missed).

The Sun and the Moon followed that record with the much- improved Alive; Not Dead EP, which sounds like a new group rather than a second-rate Chameleons. More acoustic and dreamy, three of the four songs are gently soothing, and almost submerge Burgess’ sophisticated melodies. A raucous, madcap bluster through Alice Cooper’s “Elected” (peppered with speeches from The Prisoner and updated anti-Tory lyrics) closes out the record.

Despite this promising relaunch, the Sun and the Moon fell apart in April ’89. The group has since reassembled (without Burgess) as Weaveworld; Burgess has staked out a solo career. Fielding and Smithies have formed the Reegs (with a drum machine) and have released two singles, including a stunning rendition of the Kinks’ “See My Friends.”

Meanwhile, archival Chameleons material continues to leak out. The Fan and the Bellows is a set of ’82 demos, mostly produced by Steve Lillywhite. Statik had attempted to release the album as early as ’86, but the Chameleons went to court and blocked it. With no band left to maintain the legal challenge, the LP finally appeared in 1989. Though the primitive post-punk doesn’t sit comfortably with the three real Chameleons LPs, The Fan and the Bellows nevertheless documents a stage in the group’s creative development.

Burgess then formed Glass Pyramid Records and began (against Fielding’s objections) releasing old Chameleons material in ’90. Tripping Dogs is a live rehearsal from ’85; not terribly earthshaking in light of better- known studio versions, but interesting for its early versions of two songs that later appeared on Strange Times.

Far more exciting is Tony Fletcher Walked on Water (named in tribute of the band’s late manager, not the Trouser Press-contributing journalist ), which collects the original group’s last tracks: four long songs that are among the Chameleons’ best. The epic sweep of “The Healer” and the chaotic “Free for All” pick up from Strange Times, and capture the band peaking as it shattered.

No controversy surrounds The Peel Sessions LP, a collection of three appearances (’81, ’83 and ’84) in a special sleeve by Smithies, artist for all of the band’s covers. This mix of primal Fan and the Bellows-era material and full-bloom incandescence is well worth hearing.

[Ira Robbins / Jack Rabid]

See also: Mark Burgess and the Sons of God