The Chameleons - Biography
The Chameleons were a perfect combination of The Cure and Joy Division, fusing the dreamiest pop with dissonant post-punk. They were also as good as both of those bands but have never been universally viewed as having the same importance or influence as either of them. Somehow The Chameleons never found the success they deserved. Maybe it's because they quit after releasing three of the best albums of the ‘80s, or maybe they just didn't go for it hard enough. Either way, The Chameleons remain the best kept secret of the ‘80s underground and perhaps this is why they inspire such devotion and fanaticism in their fans. The heart-on-sleeve lyrics of Mark Burgess mixed with the intense, passionate performances all contribute to a deeply personal experience for the listener. The fact that so many people remain unfamiliar with The Chameleons's work makes it that much more enjoyable for those who know how brilliant it is.
The Chameleons formed in Middleton, Greater Manchester, England, in 1981, out of the ashes of a few other bands. Mark Burgess (vocals, bass) originally played with The Clichés. Guitarists Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding had played in The Years. After founding Chameleons drummer Brian Schofield left the band, John Lever was poached from The Politicians. The Chameleons drummed up an interest in themselves very quickly, playing a few BBC sessions for John Peel that were great for publicity. On the strength of the sessions they were signed to Epic. That year, they put out their first single, “In Shreds,” produced by U2's go-to guy, Steve Lillywhite.
Epic soon dropped the band but they were quickly signed by Statik, an indie that had released albums by The Dead Kennedys. They put out their full-length debut, Script of the Bridge (Statik) in 1983. The album was met with widespread critical acclaim and the two guitarists were praised for their use of delay and their dreamy landscapes. Burgess, meanwhile, was emerging as an artistic force of his own, drawing accolades for his smart, touching lyrics.
Two years later, the group returned with What Does Anything Mean? Basically (1985 Statik), an album that utilized the studio as a valuable instrument. This disappointed some fans who missed the raw post-punk energy of Script. The Chameleons then left Statik for Geffen Records and put out their third album, Strange Times, in 1986. The LP was probably their best (though diehards will usually point to their first album), finding Burgess at the summit of his lyrical powers and containing the signature song by The Chameleons, “Swamp Thing.”
The unexpected death of the group's manager, Tony Fletcher, prompted the band to break up following Strange Times. Members of the band continued working together in different projects. Burgess and Lever formed The Sun and the Moon. Smithies and Fielding formed The Reegs. These projects were not failures, by any means, but they lacked the greatness of The Chameleons. Meanwhile, Burgess' own label, Glass Pyramid, put out a live album by the band, Tripping Dogs (1990). It wasn't so much a live album as a rehearsal session for a live show. The album was re-released in 1993 on Imaginary as Free Trade Hall Rehearsal. A bona fide live album, Live in Toronto (Imaginary), came two years later and finds the band in their last days, giving a near-flawless performance in support of Strange Times.
Burgess released a solo album in 1993 called Zima Junction. He toured America in '94 with his band, The Sons of God. In 1996, yet another live album was issued. Fans of The Chameleons are known to be rabidly fanatical completists who will stop at nothing to get their hands on any piece of music with the Chameleons' name printed on it. This sect of music lovers alone validated the release of 1996's Live at the Gallery Club, Manchester, 1982 (Visionary), a set recorded just after Lever became the group's drummer and the band was only beginning to find its identity.
Because the members of The Chameleons had remained friends and continued to correspond with one another throughout the rest of the ‘90s, many expected a reunion. By 2000, it was finally happening. They were practicing together again, gearing up for three May dates in England. Lever was busy at the time, finishing out his duties with other projects. The other three members of The Chameleons got together anyway, practicing their old songs on acoustic guitars. These rehearsals proved to be so exciting for them that they decided to record them.
The result of these sessions became Strip (2000 Paradiso), a surprisingly good set full of wonderful, stripped-down re-imaginings of the band's old material. It became available for a limited time at their shows. The band toured Europe that summer and America in the fall, playing their first shows there in 15 years. It had also been 15 years since an album of new material and the band put an end to that with the release of Why Call it Anything? (2001 Artful). Again, the band managed to leave their stellar reputation untarnished with a set of songs that stand on their own without relying on the group's legacy to make them valuable. It was a brand new Chameleons, in a way, and to showcase their newness they released a live album, Live at the Academy (Pardiso) in 2002.
Taking a similar approach as they did with Strip, The Chameleons again reworked their old material, this time with a slightly more powerful sound, now that Lever could play drums on the recordings. This Never Ending Now (Artful) came out in 2003, offering further insight into what makes this oft-ignored band so special.