The Chameleons are one of Manchester’s truly enigmatic bands.
The group played a dark and powerful music – a missing link between the post punk Liverpool Psych and the thundering melancholy of Joy Division and were running in parallel with these feted groups and were their musical equals.
In Manchester they were huge. My band the Membranes once supported them in the 1500 capacity Free Trade Hall in Manchester which in 1985 was about as big as it got in gig terms in the city before Madchester shifted the goal posts.
The band then seemed to be on the verge of a big breakthrough with Europe and America beginning to take a big interest and then fell apart leaving a powerful legacy and a fractured history with occasional reformations, falling outs and a patchwork history.
Currently bassist and frontman Mark Burgess fronts Chameleons Vox with an ad hoc line up and a really effective celebration of the band’s legacy which sees two big home town shows this weekend with December 18th seeing them perform The Fan And The Bellows + Early Recordings.
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Ticket Link https://goo.gl/VWlO2W
Then on December 19th they finish with P.S Goodbye an evening of songs selected by the audience.
Facebook Event Page https://goo.gl/0nBSnq
Ticket Link https://goo.gl/zmPxp9
LTW : The Chameleons endearing legacy remains untarnished and the band are still huge especially in Manchester.
MB : Yeah, I mean try not to take any of this for granted. If people want to see me perform then I will perform it as long as people want to see it.
LTW : Do the old songs feel different to play now. Is there an added wisdom of age?
MB : I’m striving to reach a point where I need do it as well as I possibly can and that drives it – the desire to performthe music as well as possible with this line up and I’ve enjoyed it more than even when we were originally doing it.
LTW : Is it very different to play these songs with different people?
MB : When I first started playing the songs again I was not playing the bass and I was just doing the vocals. That was good for a bit because I could focus on the singing. Then going back on the bass as well as the singing shifted it up a gear though and it puts me at the heart of the band again – at the heart of the rhythm section and also the feel of it and that’s another thing entirely.
Playing with different people is interesting. They come and go and there is no animosity with people who leave. It’s one of those things you know. I’m still on great terms with everyone who has played in this band. It’s keeping it fresh and it gives each stage a freshness that I needed to have for me to get to the level where I needed to be and get me to perform this in anything but a perfunctory manner.
LTW : Famously the original line up had a lot of tension…
MB : I know and that will never go. It’s just fucking ridiculous and very immature. Reg (Smithies – guitar) and I are still mates and still good together and that’s all I care about really. Me and Dave (Fielding – guitar) have never seen eye to eye and, if anything, John (Lever -long standing Chameleons drummer) is just a turncoat really. He was living and breathing Chameleons when he was in the band and then went off his head and left and wanted nothing to do with the band and went. I don’t take any of it very seriously to be honest. I don’t waste time dwelling on it.
LTW : Are the plans to do any new stuff?
MB : I don’t know if it’s going to be with this line up. If I do it I just don’t know what kind of record it would be. I did start it but when John split it kind of knocked me back and shocked me. I couldn’t get back on it for a while so I don’t really know what kind of record it would be. The band have said they wanted to play on it and other people want to play on it as well. What I will do if I ever get it done? I will see what kind of record it is and then take it from there.
LTW : I saw you play a few years ago and it was a great gig. Is it important to have new stuff or more important trying to make sense of old songs?
MB : It’s more a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t! if you do new songs you have people saying it’s nothing like the old stuff and if you just do old stuff then people moan that you don’t do new stuff! you are in the middle of it really. This band was really put together to perform and celebrate Chameleons music and the Chameleons are no more – so in a sense writing new Chameleons music is not really an option. I can, and have, written with Reg and will use that stuff maybe but it’s not Chameleons stuff.
I’ve done something with Reg that I really love that is light years away from what I was doing with Reg in the eighties in the Chameleons. If I do it I will do it for myself and not to appease Chameleons fans. I’ve never done that anyway.
When it comes to everything with the Chameleons I please myself – that’s what we did back in the day – we pleased ourselves. The last Chameleons record we got blasted for having a rasta on a track! A lot of people liked it and a lot of people thought that we had gone off our heads but we please ourselves. Anyway I don’t know what defines Chameleons music per se apart from having the Chameleons doing it and it obviously won’t be Chameleons music now as they no longer together. I’ll approach it in the same way I approach everything and please myself – that’s the only way…
LTW : The Chameleons occupy an awkward position in the scheme of Manchester things – you were huge here and your influence is big but you don’t get the credit. Why is this? Why do you fall between the cracks…?
MB : There were elements of the band that some people didn’t take to? Maybe it was the singer! Or the image! It’s not important to me really. The Chameleons gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do in my life and seriously if I want to be somewhere for a while it gives me the freedom to do that. I enrich that and I try and give back by making this as rich an experience to anyone who loves this music as much I can. It’s all about the music – that’s my bread and butter.
LTW : I spotted you on that recent Sex Pistols in Huddersfield documentary where the band played their last ever UK show and there you were! How does a 14 year old kid get to see the Sex Pistols in 1977?
MB : With great difficulty! There were no buses or trains to the gig in Huddersfield on christmas day 1977. I had to hitchhike up the M62 and what happened was that this old gentleman picked me up. My hair was all over the place, it was the depth of winter and snowing and I had this old afghan coat turned inside out against the cold and stiff leather pants on and this guy was convinced that I was in the armed forces on leave. He kept saying are you air force or in the armed forces. Instead of denying it I played along with it hoping this guy got the eyes to drive because he obviously can’t see! He was really nice and dropped me off in the middle of Huddersfield on Christmas morning at 11.
I found a pub that was actually open with the Christmas dinner smell wafting through and I’m thinking I have made this huge mistake here trying to find the gig because I didn’t even know if the gig was even on because the Sex Pistols were getting cancelled left, right and centre.
I can remember how I heard they were doing the gig a couple of days before, I had heard a concrete rumour from somewhere and thought it was going to be the only chance I would get. I had ticket for when they were booked to do the civic hall in Middleton- I still got the ticket, £1.25!. And that got gig got switched to Champness hall in Rochdale on December 22nd and then that got cancelled and I thought for fucks sake.
So when I heard about this gig in Huddersfield I thought I’m going! No-one would go with me so I went on my own, so I’m there and I come out of the pub in the afternoon and I walk up to the venue and saw all the Bollocks posters outside and thought that’s a good sign.
All the kids were piling in from coaches and I though that’s weird but that was for the christmas party the band were throwing for the strikers children. It was now 1.30 in afternoon and I was already three sheets so I walk in and all these kids were getting presents at the door. They were giving them skateboards and they said that you’re too big for that and gave me an Anarchy In The UK handkerchief which I stuck on my head like Steve Jones did for a bit. I walked in the venue and there’s a guy playing records and the kids were dancing like a seventies Top Of The Pops. I thought what the fuck! The Sex Pistols are here and they are going to play because their backline is set up and they then walked in and that is what is on the Julian Temple film of the gig. It was brilliant! The road manager comes up with the cake and pretty soon that is flying about the room. I noticed the cameras and stuff and the road manager said are you coming to the show tonight as well and I said I didn’t have a ticket and he says leave it to me and sure enough he sorted the guest list for me for that night so I got to see them twice.
The gig was phenomenal. You know everybody tells you that the record was all session people and that they can’t pay – people tell you Sid couldn’t play bass live but I don’t know what they are talking about. They were all great really great, a great show, it was a massive celebration but it also felt like something coming to an end. I remember feeling at the time it was like a closing ceremony, know what I mean, I was thinkin that it was my last chance to see them which it was – prophetically true – they went to America a month later and that as the end of it , I just managed to get in and see them.
LTW : Did you get to speak to them at all?
MB : I kind of spoke to them and said hello and whatnot. I was a little bit feared of them to be honest. I was just a kid and they were the epitome of everything I loved about rock n roll music for ever…
LTW : What music where you into then? was it just punk? I detect whiff of petunia oil and Hawkwind to your muse!
BW : I was going to bikers club called Waves on Dantzig Street in Shude Hill in Manchester city centre pretty regularly. That was were I was having my first drug experiences. I was about 15. My best mate at the time, the recently departed David was a big Dylan fan – that was all that he was listening to and he dragged me there. I was also going to the Electric Circus for a bit. The most notable band I saw there was AC/DC in March 1977. I also saw Be Bop Deluxe play there. I had started going to the Electric Circus was when the Alex Harvey band without Alex played there on February 8th 1977.
I went there mainly on Friday and Saturday nights to see pub rock bands and the occasional big hitter. This was before the punk thing hit big. I went to see a band one night – I can’t remember who – and the Damned came on and they lasted for about 15 minutes and got bottled! I loved them – I thought they were fucking brilliant. It was like – what the fuck was that! Waves was more of a kind of hippy thing really but I don’t know where the afghan coat came from! I think I got it in a sale in Oasis. I used to wear it inside out because I liked it with the sheepskin on outside!
Then Trex did their last tour with the Damned supporting in March 77 and I remembered them from the Electric Circus a few weeks before so they were the first punk band I really got very into.
The Electric Circus then became the punk place, so that’s where I got exposed to lots of the other bands like the Clash, the Jam, Buzzcocks.
I went to Buzzcocks on a local bands night. It was 35p to see them and I recognised the guy from the Ranch in them ‘cos he hit on me in the Ranch. I didn’t know who it was until I went to the local band night at the Electric Circus just after Devoto had left them. I thought I had got the night wrong because I went to see the Stranglers and they said a local band – Buzzcocks are playing for 35p and I thought whatever, I’m here! I recognised him right away and I thought that’s that twerp from the Ranch who is always hitting on me (laughs). They came on and they blew me away. It was phenomenal. Buzzcocks! I loved them. Fucking great.
The Pistols were the only ones I hadn’t caught and something inside of me said that this gig in Huddersfield will be last chance do it and I had to get up there on Christmas day and see them but no one would come with me. I came back from the Pistols with signed posters because this guy, this road manager, came up to me and gave me loads of shit, he gave me loads of stuff – posters and everything and there was a derelict van outside the venue and I hid them under the van during the gig and I came back with loads of shit!
LTW: Was it at this point that you decided to play music?
MB : No it wasn’t. I wasn’t even thinking about it. But I blagged it. I think I fibbed to the guys in a band called the Hoax that I had hitched back with after the Sex Pistols and told them I played. I might have been thinking about it then. I told them I was a bass player. It was compete bullshit or I might might have bought my first bass just then and had it for two weeks.
LTW: The bass is the easiest thing to play!
MB : Yes and also I fell in love with Gaye Advert – that was what it was! I had a big thing for Gaye Advert. I loved the Adverts. Her bass lines were just wooooargh! I loved it. I decided to be a bass player then. I was also really into JJ Burnel’s bass as well. I used to set my turntable to play Goodbye Toulouse by the Stranglers at 78 rpm and play along to it. I thought being fast was really important and I had to be really fast. I learned to play it fast! and I used to learn the Adverts as well. It was in the spirit of punk that that I bought the bass and I was a bass player even though I could barely fret a note!
LTW : You got your bass – How do you get to get from there to the Chameleons?
MB : I’m playing with a couple of musos that live round here, they said you have a bass ? so I bring it round there and they found out how crap I was and that lasted a couple of weeks and then they got rid of me.
Then my best pal at the time, Kenny, got a band together – we were skitting what punk had become by 1978. We started sending it up when I formed this group with him called the Cliches where we sent up all these things that punk had become but no-one got it because they liked the songs too much!. We sent a tape to Rochdale Alternative Press and it got a 5 star review!
We went to see the Fall at Rochdale college – I was a student there and when we were coming back we bumped into Dave and Reg who I had not seen since school and a few gigs. We were on the bus and they said we have a band and nowhere to rehearse and we said we had somewhere to rehearse but no gear! So we came to an arrangement where they would bring their gear and rehearse and we used their gear and they used our space in an amicable arrangement but when they saw me playing they said can you join our band. I said why the fuck would I do that! they were like a prog rock band but they said we will do something new. I couldn’t stand their drummer to be honest – he was chauvinistic, ugh! I had known him a long time, a lot of years but I couldn’t stand the guy so I said no I’m sorry I can’t be in a band with him. I don’t want to be around him so they fired him and asked me again. My mate in my band was going to Oxford University and I was going to do drama – I was looking to go to Manchester Poly to do drama that was my plan. Then I started hanging out with Dave and Reg so in the end I said yes.
I was doing a summer job with Reg to buy a new amp, it was at a vinegar factory packing vinegar at British vinegars. We were there every day talking and it was a case of why not join the band – fuck it! it’s better than this. Dave was very driven. He was really going for it. I wasn’t really like that you know. I thought it would be nice to make a real record – that would be cool. I wasn’t looking beyond that but Dave was really driven, very committed and that worried me a little bit. But then I thought fuck it you need to be like this. For me this was a good time with my mates and all that happens when you are 18.
We were playing these fucking awful shows and got a temporary drummer – a session drummer who played for different people – he was 60 quid to play with anyone – and we were doing these shows that were fucking dreadful pub shows. It was an awful experience and everyone was telling us that’s what we needed to do. We went ‘nah’ We said lets concentrate on writing you know. We will concentrate and focus on that and it paid off for us. We got a tape to John Peel and he picked up on it, and to cut a very long story short this had ended up with us waiting for John Peel outside the BBC. We had sent him a rehearsal tape and he had written to us and said do a studio tape so we sold Dave’s sister (laughs) and we got in the studio during the day with John Brierley at Cargo and then we went to London and waited outside the BBC and sat there waiting for John Peel.
We couldn’t know this at the time but we gave him the cassette in a Cargo studios box and as soon he saw that that it must have struck a chord. He was a big mate of John Brierley wasn’t he but we didn’t know that. John Brierley never mentioned that to us either. He never said he’s a mate of mine, nothing and he knew the plan we had to go down to London. We gave the tape to Peel on the Friday and on the Monday he phones me up and that was basically it. My life completely changed. He had said leave the tape with me and went away and listened to it and he really loved it and played it to his producer. We were every excited and went home and on the Monday morning at quarter past ten we got the phone call from John Peel and my life changed,
LTW : Musically it was like dark northern pysch post punk and in a sense it sounded parallel with Joy Division. Where was this atmosphere coming from? was it very northern? this thing with melancholy and euphoria at same time?
MB : For the Peel session Dave was using his phlange on the guitar and no-one else was doing that at the time. The only other band I could think of using phlanges at that time was the Police and that was very different. It didn’t last long as we started to evolve he started to use his Roland chorus space echo – I can’t remember which one. Reg is Reg in the way he plays it doesn’t matter what he plays through it sounds great- he didn’t use effects, it was just the way he played and that what great about it. Interestingly I don’t get Joy Division, obviously I was aware of the band and went to see them numerous times in Manchester. I saw them as the shows got bigger and bigger and saw them in Leeds at a big festival. The only time I really loved them was the last time I saw them at the Derby Hall in Bury where they couldn’t get Ian Curtis on the stage and I was having this argument with this guy and I was saying that’s not Ian and the guy was calling me a dick and saying what you talking about…! and then he came out he did some songs off Closer which wasn’t out at the time and I don’t think many people had heard it then and I was blown away. Then they played the Russell club about a week later, I was kind of aware of them but they were not an influence on me.
LTW : I guess it’s more a case of that I am interested why your music has a darker edge to it . Is this a northern thing?
MB : I think it was a very Manchester thing. Manchester coupled with the kind drugs you were doing at the time which made you a bit paranoid as well. It was mushrooms and I did a lot of whizz which was really rooted in the punk thing. I was about 16 when I dropped some acid and that was interesting and then I got with Dave and Reg and they told me about Deeply Vale. Mushrooms were big at the time and that was probably the staple drug because they were free and easier to find! We were doing them at the rehearsals and my girlfriend’s job was to take the bugs out them! she would have them in a big wrap of newspaper and she would be debugging the mushrooms whilst we were playing – taking the maggots out.
LTW : So the Chameleons were a northern psychedelia?
MB : I would say so yes, coincidently we were getting into that and the lads over in Liverpool were as well – bands like Teardrop Explodes, Bunnymen – they were all doing the same thing. I would say I didn’t really kind of like the Bunnymen until the second album – I quite liked first one but the second album for me made me go wooooagh that is brilliant! Dave was more into them than I was at the beginning but Heaven Up Here was the one that did it for me. I was more Wild Swans and Teardrop Explodes when they were with Michael Finkler before he got sacked. Once he was gone I lost interest because I loved his guitar playing. What he brought in terms of style and sound – basically he was as important to them as Reg was to us.
LTW: He was the foil?
MB: And pure originality in what he played. Nobody else played like him. The parts he came up with no one else would come up with. Up til then they were the band for me from Liverpool – it was that post punk psychedelia thing, that was our place as well and that’s probably why I wasn’t gaga with Joy Division. I was probably taking the wrong drugs! I was coming off the back of the high energy stuff like Buzzcocks and I was kind of like Teardrop are great and Joy Division are interesting and I don’t really understand why everyone going was ga ga until I saw them perform the songs from Closer and then I changed my mind. Beautiful songs awesomely beautiful.
LTW : The only band in town that could match this was the Chameleons and that was why their legacy is so powerful in Manchester and that’s why thirty years later Chameleons Vox can still sell out venues with their fervent following. These nights will be a magical celebration of something very Mancunian.