Mark Burgess: View From a Hill – book review

Mark Burgess – View From a Hill (Mittens On Publishing)

Edited by Jaz Long and Karen Ablaze

Available now

John Robb has called this “the last great untold story of the Manchester post-punk era”, and what a narrative that particular topic is. Mark Burgess’s story, first published in 2007, has been revised and republished, including a comprehensive discography, Chameleons family tree and an introduction by Karen Ablaze, and brilliantly captures the essence of one of rock’s great free spirits.

Growing up in Middleton, Manchester, one of the defining moments of Mark’s life seems to come very early when, after the comprehensive system was introduced to try end middle class educational advantages, he found himself being streamed into a new school that was designed to prepare him for a career in engineering. Large scale truancy and an early departure followed, largely as a result of systematic bullying by a teacher he calls ‘The Ogre’, a violent sadist who took great delight in telling Mark he would amount to nothing and end up in Cromer Mill (where 16 year old boys went from school and became old men within weeks). Experiences like this are likely to be formative for anyone, but to such an obviously creative soul as Mark Burgess the impact was probably huge.

Manchester City provided an outlet and some great descriptions of the pre-sanitised era of football are to be found where Burgess, never a hooligan, gains much close experience of terrace violence and the unforgettable atmosphere of the Kippax at Maine Road. Working in Denbigh in North Wales seems to be memorable for the collection of pubs and excellent darts teams (it’s got a supermarket now) but Mark was also developing his interest in creative arts from Monty Python to the burgeoning Punk scene with the Sex Pistols and seeing The Damned live in The Electric Circus.

View From a Hill superbly evokes a world that, while still very much alive in memory, is now long gone. Nothing evidences this better than the story of how the band came to be on the John Peel Show. Travelling down to London with cassettes of their first demo, Mark and guitarist Dave Fielding drop them off at various label HQs, before sitting down outside the BBC in Portland Place to wait for John Peel. When he eventually arrives, he asks them to leave it with him for half an hour before returning to declare how impressed he is with the as yet unnamed band. No PR campaign by a label, just a train ride to London and a few hours on a cold step to wait for the most important man in Britain, then and now, for new music, unbelievable today!

Obviously any book that covers this vital period in British music will be full of anecdotes that will have most readers fascinated. Some favourites include The Edge from U2 quietly asking if anyone minds him eating the last sandwich at an after-show party. Then there is the lacklustre live performances from Altered Images followed by a savage and personal review in Melody Maker that focused on Claire Grogan’s physical appearance. Finally there is a run-in with Killing Joke who have arrived exceptionally late for a show (surely not) and prevent The Chameleons from sound-checking. An attempt by Jaz Coleman to stare him out sees Burgess charge at him and his bandmates swinging his bass, sending them scuttling for the safety of their dressing room.

As well as being an engaging storyteller, Mark Burgess is also a spiritual searcher and nowhere is this better represented than when he relates the tale of an ‘angel’ that reveals itself to the band at Loch Ness even though some of those present choose to deny seeing it. Furthermore, after suffering psychological trauma brought on by constant touring and collapsing onstage in Amsterdam, Mark decides to quit The Chameleons due to a perceived lack of support from his bandmates. Instead of dwelling on the demise of the band, Mark decides to head for Jerusalem as it just seems the right thing to do. A diary entry from the time, chillingly predicts the potential for conflict between Islam and the West but it’s not too long before he is back on the road touring America with the band.

The legacy of The Chameleons is secure, as is Mark Burgess’s place in the pantheon of rock. However, one final anecdote serves as an appropriate conclusion. In 1984, as a reaction to the black T-shirt dominated post-punk goth movement, the band designed a brightly coloured, ‘mad-hippy’ Chameleons shirt to sell at a festival in York. The vendor refused to sell them because, you’ve guessed, they weren’t black, so the band ended up dishing them out among friends. Years later, Mark was walking through Manchester when he spotted someone wearing one and asked where he’d got it was directed to a stall in Affleck’s Palace where they were selling like hot cakes to the acid-house generation. The Chameleons – way ahead of their time and still appreciated and this book is a great testament to their legacy.


Mark still tours as Chameleons Vox, visit their Facebook page here

All words by Dave Jennings, find his Louder Than War archive here. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham

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