Somewhere in a parallel universe, The Chameleons would have been one of the biggest bands in the world. As it stands, I can probably count the people I know who have even heard of them on one hand and still have some fingers left.
Though their first record, Script Of the Bridge stacks up favorably as a debut album against, say Boy by U2 (the band they are most often compared to), and in their live shows — usually in small clubs or theaters — they create a noise big enough to fill a stadium, the Chameleons just never really caught on in America. Of all the bands I've ever heard, I would, in fact, have to rate the Chameleons as the single greatest band practically no one has ever heard of.
My discovery of this great eighties band came by way of a record review I read in Rolling Stone. Having worked in a record store at the time, I rarely paid attention to such reviews, mainly because my job gave me access to pretty much anything I ever wanted to hear. But also, because the critics so rarely ever got anything right.
This review, however, caught my eye. It compared The Chameleons to other English bands of the moment I really liked — such as Echo And The Bunnymen and the aforementioned U2. But the writer also used exactly the right buzz words to pique my interest. Words like "dark and desolate," and "layered and textured."
In this particular case, the reviewer nailed it.
Script Of The Bridge is simply an amazing debut album. Script is the sort of record that sounds as though it was recorded by a band that had been making records for years. Released first as a British import in 1983, MCA Records would notoriously screw up the American release later that same year by changing the song sequencing and omitting some tracks altogether.
Since the most popular eighties rock bands of the time were split pretty much three ways — you had your syntho-pop "Flock of Haircuts" type bands; your Clash City proto-punkers; and then you had your standard bearing English guitar bands like U2 — The Chameleons probably best fit into the "guitar" group. That is, if you choose to put a label on them at all.
As stated in that original review, Script is a densely layered work awash in dark sounding minor guitar chords that probably do compare somewhat to U2's The Edge or Echo's Will Sargent. They use the same sort of raga-esque sonic cadence that can be traced clear back to sixties psychedelic bands like Jefferson Airplane. But the comparisons end there.
For my money, what The Chameleons do better than anybody ever has is use a sort of counterpoint in their music. It combines the sort of sense of darkness and foreboding suggested by the often doomy sounding lyrics of their creative mastermind, bassist-vocalist Mark Burgess, with deeper musical layers that often float to the surface in lighter shades.
In the song "Monkeyland" from Script – a song Mark Burgess is said to have written about the music business — the lyrics are sung as an almost agonizing plea for help:
"I shake my head and shiver,
They smile and stab my back as they shake my hand,
Send out an SOS Please.
I'm marooned in Monkeyland."
Amidst a musical backdrop of dark sounding guitars ticking away like a timebomb, there is a marked tension to this music. From there the band explodes into a multiple layered wash of guitars as Burgess wails about it being "just a trick of the light" and the need to know "what is real and what is illusion."
Other songs on the album explore similarly dark territory. On "Second Skin," Burgess wails in typically agonized fashion how he realizes "a miracle is due," before asking the question "but is this the stuff dreams are made of?" The match of Burgess’ vocals to the dark, layered duel guitars of Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies simply cannot be overstated. Burgess sings these songs as though they were personal laments coming from the deepest regions of his soul. There is both a desolate and desperate quality to his deep voice — a quality he would explore to much greater effect on subsequent albums.
In it's original release as a British import (and do steer clear of the botched American release), Script kicks off by bowling you over with the sharp guitar onslaught of the opening track, "Don't Fall."
For their next album, 1985's What Does Anything Mean? Basically, Burgess continued to explore the ever deeper, darker corridors of the human psyche in his lyrics, while the band itself was progressing somewhat musically. Most significantly, the band was using keyboards now. In fact, the album's opening track, "Silence Sea And Sky" is little more than a lush and pastoral sounding hymn played on a keyboard. Interestingly, here is the fact that this short, beautiful piece resurfaces not only on this album, but on the one that would follow.
The best track here, however, finds the band doing its musical balancing act of counterpoint between darker sounds and lighter shades more successfully than ever. On "Home Is Where The Heart Is," another of those gorgeous, pastoral keyboards runs directly against a wash of dark power chords flying up and down the fretboard. On songs like "In Shreds," the same wall of sound is matched by lyrics, which suggest an ever-deepening wall of psychosis.
For the Chameleons’ next record, 1986's Strange Times, Geffen Records, their new American label, seemed determined to right the notoriously botched release of Script. So they put it out as a specially priced double album of sorts (this was, of course, back when vinyl albums were still the dominant format for music). The American release of Strange Times contained not only the complete new album, but a bonus EP with covers of David Bowie's "John I'm Only Dancing" and John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows" (a perfect choice for a band whose lyrical specialty was exploring consciousness). The EP also contained an acoustically stripped down version of the album track "Tears", as well as a great new song called "Paradiso."
While many of the Chameleons’ most hardcore fans will tell you that Strange Times is the band's best record, I find myself more divided between that album and Script. Still, Strange Times is certainly their most ambitious and exploratory work.
In its original vinyl release, an entire side of Strange Times is made up of a seamless suite of songs beginning with "Swamp Thing" and its doomy warnings of "the storm comes, or is it just another shower?" and ending with "Childhood." In between, Burgess lyrically pontificates on the significance of such themes as "Time" and "Seriocity." That gorgeous keyboard piece from the second album is back, too, as the prelude to "In Answer," which finds the ever seeking Burgess turning to more spiritual avenues in his search for truth.
The best track on Strange Times, however, is "Souls In Isolation." Here, Burgess goes deeper than ever in what amounts to a musical psycho therapy session. The vocals here are appropriately as anguished as ever, as Burgess howls away about being "alive in here" as the ever darkly strummed minor chords frame this haunting picture of musical psychosis.
The Chameleons finally toured America the next year and I was able to see them in a 1987 show at Seattle's Moore Theatre. Unfortunately, the show was something of a disappointment. The band got detained at the border coming from the previous night's gig in Vancouver, British Columbia, and didn't take the stage until well after midnight. This, of course, gave the crowd little to do in the meantime but get either liquored or smoked up. Much of the crowd was as tired as the band — no doubt — was by the time the show finally got underway.
And that was basically it for the Chameleons.
The band would not make another record or play another show for nearly twenty years following its final tour in 1987, after making three great, but largely under-appreciated records. There would, however, be a flood of "official" bootlegs of outtakes and live performances over the years, as the band's cult following grew in its absence. These "bootlegs" were released under titles like Tripping Dogs and Singing Rule Brittanica Live. Burgess himself would briefly front a band called The Sun And The Moon, making one record with them before settling into solo artist obscurity with projects like Mark Burgess And The Sons of God.
I did get another chance to see Burgess in 1993 while working for a record label in Los Angeles. He was doing a solo "showcase" performance at what I want to say was the Whiskey, in the hopes of scoring a record label deal. This show unfortunately turned out to be strike two in my quest to see a good Chameleons' (or Chameleons-related) live show. Burgess himself didn't sound half bad performing alone with an acoustic guitar that night.
But that's when you could actually hear him. The audience — made up mostly of record company A&R guys and other assorted L.A. scenesters — ignored Burgess’ performance completely for the most part, and talked so loud throughout the show that the din actually overpowered whatever was happening onstage that night. The friend I went with — as "professional" a bootleg "taper" as it gets — walked out disgusted halfway through when he couldn't even get a proper level to record.
Fortunately, the story didn't end that night at the Whiskey.
Late in 2001, with the Chameleons about as far off of my musical map as somebody like The Strawberry Alarm Clock, I was stunned to find an ad for a Chameleons concert in the local music rag. I later found out they even had a new record out, their first in 15 years, called Why Call It Anything?.
The show was everything I had ever hoped for in my twenty some years of waiting to see a good live Chameleons' show. There is a somewhat rare DVD document of the 2001 tour called Ascension worth getting if you can find it. But basically the Chameleons sounded as though they'd never left, even after 15 years away. They played nearly three hours, and from Script to Strange Times, all the best stuff was there.
The new album, which I picked up soon after seeing this 2001 show, is also really good. Burgess is still ever the truthseeker, as evidenced by tracks like "Anyone Alive" and "Music In The Womb." He is also continuing to ask the deepest spiritual questions — even putting them to a somewhat reggae beat on the track "Miracles And Wonders."
At this late stage of the game, it's probably too much to ask that the Chameleons might find the sort of mass success that eluded them the first time around. Here's hoping that they decide to stick around anyway.