The Chameleons Live In London ’84
Looking back at that blissful escape in shreds.
Manchester in the 1980s was a great place to be if you were a musician. The city had a vibrant music scene including Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, James, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Charlatans and Inspiral Carpets. And not to forget The Chameleons, who were originally formed in Middleton, Greater Manchester in 1981.
The band was a quartet of Mark Burgess on vocals and bass, Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding playing guitars and John Lever behind the drum kit. Smithies also created all the artwork for their releases, which in the 1980s were Script of the Bridge (1983), What Does Anything Mean? Basically (1985) and Strange Times (1986). Unfortunately, the sudden death of their manager caused them to disband in 1987. All the members went on to form other bands before reforming in 2000 to release three more albums: Strip (2000), Why Call It Anything (2001) and This Never Ending Now (2002). However, the group broke up again in 2003 but Burgess and Smithies reformed The Chameleons in 2021 with two members of their other project ChameleonsVox.
The Chameleons are often seen as underrated. Veterans of several record labels, they have more of a cult following than major commercial success. They missed out on indie chart placings because the label they were signed to when they released their first album was a subsidiary of Virgin Records. The band’s guitar-based sound, strong vocals and limited use of synthesizers particularly appealed to the US college circuit when Script of the Bridge was released there, and the band enjoyed a US tour on the back of that success.
The Camden Palace gig in 1984 shows them early in their career, playing songs from their first two albums. The version of “Monkeyland” in particular, is a total barnstormer, including shimmering guitars winding up to a howl as Burgess’ lyrics become ever more impassioned. Mark Burgess on lead vocals combines the pointed lyrics of Bono or Dylan with a strong voice that easily rises above the solid guitar melodies and John Lever’s drumming. With footage originally being recorded for a satellite TV broadcast, the concert clearly showcases The Chameleons’ atmospheric sound and solid rhythms.
The Chameleons may not be the best-known band, but they have a unique sound and were highly influential on other Manchester bands of the era. The band has been cited as influences on Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Killers, Smashing Pumpkins, The Verve or The Flaming Lips, among others. Tim Burgess of the Charlatans and Moby are also known to be fans.
What’s clear is that the band definitely had some very devoted fans in the 80s, and judging by the comments on this video, some of them have clearly enjoyed watching the footage again after all these years. Others are only now discovering the band and commenting on the stand-out moments, including Burgess handing out free drinks and the fact that on “Splitting in Two” Lever and Smithies swapped places, with Lever playing guitar and Smithies taking on the drums.
Mark Burgess has since given some revealing interviews about how the group was perceived in Britain. He explained that the record companies seemed not to get behind them, their music was not seen as radio-friendly and their attitude was disliked by the music press of the time. However, their concerts were always successful, as shown by this particular gig. Initially available on DVD and later on vinyl, it is now on YouTube to enjoy in all its glory.
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Featured Image by David Hilowitz