The Chameleons, Atari Doll: Middlesbrough – live review

Photo by Mel Butler 

The Chameleons 

Membranes

Atari Doll 

Middlesbrough Westgarth Club
Feb 13th 2022

Something is going on out here.

Something remarkable.

After decades of being on the fringes of the big breakout and then often grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, The Chameleons have decided to get their shit together. Not that they were ever hit or miss musically.  Business and bust ups and the million other factors that conspire against bands were always in the mix but the music lived on.

They had arrived fully formed with a distinctive sound and mood in the earliest of days in the post punk war zone of Manchester. The then twin guitar weaving of Reg Smithies and Davie Fielding created a unique new psychedelia for Mark Burgess to bind together with his bass and emotion laced vocals. They had a unique sound that perfectly captured the times and were on the fast forward slipstream for U2 style stadium success.

The band were always a Mancunian institution. They could sell out 2000 tickets for the Manchester Free Hall in 1985 when most indie bands were lucky to get 300 to a show. They had the sounds, the songs, that stunning weaving two-guitar interplay and the anthems and their logo and idiosyncratic artwork was on an army of leather jackets in the city.

Somehow even then they were outside the narrative and the Hacienda would offer them fifty quid for a spot on the local band night even they would sell out the venue out when no one else could.  The more snooty end of the city didn’t even seem to know they existed and they were beyond the narrative for most correspondents who were not part of the gig hustle and bustle in the city. Despite this they were soon on Geffen Records and somehow, despite a series of great and much loved albums, they became the stadium band who would never play stadiums. The great lost band of post punk whose influence is everywhere in bands who embrace the form from early Roses, Verve, Flaming Lips, The Killers, Interpol, The Charlatans and many many more bands including the raft of new moody young bands popping up worldwide. They were seen as the next band to break big and then it all imploded and resurrected over and over again.

They lost members, lost direction but the heart and soul was always there and those songs full of sensitivity and sonic sensuality were secret treasures. 

In 2022 after various incarnations and name tweaks they are on a roll and a sell out tour playing their classic second album, the 1985 released What Does Anything Mean? Basically. the band have become the finest of the fine wine bands – groups who somehow kept the intensity that made their music urgent in the first place, kept the melodic perfume, kept the emotional raw power and couched it with a tight band who embellish these much loved anthems with their own flourishes. 

These days only singer/bassist Mark Burgess and guitar player Reg Smithies remain from the volatile early line up but the whole band make these songs come alive and fill the rooms with guitars player Neil Dwerryhouse helping to bring the guitar meshing with Reg back to life. Burgess is still the charismatic shamanic frontman with a voice closer to the west coast melodies of the then contemporary post punk Liverpool bands than his home city droogs. 

The songs are still engulfed with an emotional rush and that big yearning that makes them more than mere indie anthems. These are big songs waiting to get the chance to find their full audience. Everyone in the room knows this and the deeply personal connection with the band and their music is vital. You can feel the power of the music and the intensity of devotion – it’s not like any other show. The packed house is immersed in their beautiful muse – the audience know they are onto something special and they will the band to get what they deserve. This music is too powerful and too emotive to be shared between the knowing few and when delivered as well as this it steps up onto another plateau.

The album is played out in its entirety and in order which is always interesting as many albums are not constructed as live sets but the ebb and flow of the hallowed work and the audience devotion to an album that has meant so much to their lives make for a spellbinding evening. 

Of course In Shreds still captivates as the classic cuts like Home Is Where The Heart Is and Second Skin are the live standouts with exquisite chord changes and waves of sorrow and pools of joy melody lines that pull you deep into the songs.  Second Skin brings the house down at the end of the set with Mark handing the bass to keyboard player Danny Ashberry to emote uninhabited like a wild-eyed preacher man conducting the symphony of emotion in the room in a stark and powerful reminder of not only how devotional and powerful live music is after the 18 months of plague times but also how rare bands like the Chameleons up the ante to something truly extraordinary.

This is less a rolling back of the years, less of a warm embrace of a glorious past but a platform for a new future. Oddly post punk has never dated. So many modern bands have made careers out of this sound – from the Killers to a whole plethora of moody modern melancholic indie who have often been described as having a Joy Division influence when the Chameleons have also been massively in the mix.

Where the band go next is fascinating – a new album? A step up to even bigger venues, the future is theirs, all bets are off and the rule book never existed in post punk anyway. 

Support comes from Atari Doll – a young local band with an alt rock sound, big dynamics and a big voiced vocalist who can really sing. They have some aching choruses and a bold sound that makes them stand out from the over populated genre. Their bold sound promises a big future and these local gigs and supports are honing them down to their own big future. 

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The Chameleons were a very good band, but this is not The Chameleons. They made two outstanding albums a very long time ago (plus a couple of decidedly patchy ones) and the version you see today, minus Dave Fielding and the late John Lever, is effectively a tribute band. You suggest that they’re on the edge of some sort of breakthrough, but how is that even a remote possibilty when they’re still playing stuff that is at least 20 years old, and most of it twice that? Their time has been and gone and I suspect Mark Burgess is happy enough making a few quid on the nostalgia circuit which is fair enough – after all there are plenty of others out there in the same game, and not doing it as well as he does!

    Oh and, John, no offence but please get someone to proof read your articles before you publish them. Stuff like this with basic factual errors and sentences that simply don’t make sense are beneath a decent writer like your good self.

    • Oh dear, someone is a bit grumpy! This IS The Chameleons, plenty of bands out there only have two or even one original member, but they are still playing as THE band they started out as, The Chameleons have got even better, Neil Dwerryhouse does an excellent job in place of Dave Fielding (personally, I think better, many would disagree). I’d like to know if you think Iron Maiden (with just Harris and Murray from the original line up) or Echo and The Bunneymen (with McCulloch and Sergeant from the original line up) are ‘tribute’ bands, as examples of many other bands in a similar situations. How many bands can say they still have the same line up for 30 years or more….maybe U2, can’t immediately think of many others…..I think your replay is a bit harsh. Great piece John.

      • I would like to add The Damned ( Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible ), what about Ultravox ( original vocalist John Foxx, now Midge Ure ), are they “tribute” acts ?

        • Unlike what remains of The Chameleons, playing the same old songs ad nauseam, the different versions of The Damned have continued writing and recording new material down the years, which sets them apart somewhat. The albums Ultravox made with John Foxx were great, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t pay to see Midge Ure singing those songs, or any of the cheese they recorded with him later for that matter.

          @Britannia – I neither liked or cared about either Iron Maiden or Echo and the Bunnymen so I can’t answer that, sorry. But I will say that The Stranglers minus Hugh Cornwell is not, and never will be The Stranglers for me. There seem to be plenty of people who disagree with me on that, and all the best to them. I might be more interested in this incarnation of the Chameleons if there was a sniff of a new song or two, rather than this trotting-out-old-albums-on-their-birthday lark that seems to be the go to these days.

  2. I have seen great bands with the wrong replacement parts become bad tribute bands, but this version is as good as the original -perhaps even better. It can happen, as with the Noel Burke era Bunnymen! I saw them at the Wedgewood Rooms and they were more powerful than early Echo & the Bunnymen, The Doors, The Velvet Underground ,Radiohead and Joy Division combined. Johnrobb analyses this triumph brilliantly. Like the Bunnymen, lockdown has rejuvenated them. This version of the band is younger then yesterday.

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