The Chameleons live review – by John Robb

Wow, this is intense.

The Chameleons, or Chameleons Vox as they are currently known have lifted off.

Even without the proper original line up and featuring only two original members, frontman Mark Burgess and drummer and Blackpool FC fan Jon Lever, they are totally capable of a rare intensity.

The Band On The Wall, the venerable Mancunian institution is packed and the devotion is making the walls sweat.

The Chameleons are also a venerable institution in Manchester. In the eighties they were one of the biggest bands in town, capable of selling out the Hacienda by word of mouth- that was the Hacienda that initially offered them fifty quid to play there because, like most of the music biz, they didn’t have a clue how big this band was.

The Chameleons were the best-kept secret but a key band in the city. In 1985 they sold out the Free Trade Hal a big feat in those pre Madchester days when indie bands were very much fringe bands. I should know, my then band the Membranes opened up that night.

Their emotive and atmospheric sound, coupled with great songs and Mark Burgess’s powerful voice and Dave Fielding’s ground breaking guitar sound that intertwined with Reg Smithies powerful really meant something in the city.
They should have been massive, they were better than U2- their songs were better for a start and they had all that canyon filling emotion that is loved in the States- instead they had to settle for becoming a big cult band and a Mancunian religion.

In many ways they are the archetype Manc band- if you stripped away the E’s the fashion, the Hacienda, the fashion etc this is arguably the true sound of the city. You can hear their influence on the early Roses in their atmospheric layered sound, surely when the Roses wrote ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ in 1985 they must have been thinking of the Chameleons? Even by the time the Roses released their first album and took it through another rush of musical influences that melancholic rush of the Chameleons is still present in their sound.

It’s an influence that has been edited out of history. The Chameleons only crime was to have an army of fans who were postmen and not music journalists, they were the ultimate north Manchester band, they came from the wrong side of the city and were never hip with the fashion types who have re-carved the musical history of the city and removed them from it.

But, the people that know, KNOW.

They are sound of the rainy days and the beauty that leaks out of the most unlikely places in the post industrial city. They had that emotional power and the same deep, dark, brutal honesty of Joy Division.

In the USA, where they are a fierce cult, you can hear their music in so many American bands. bands like Interpol or modern UK bands like the Editors who are quoted as being Joy Division fans but have spread their palate further.
In 2011 the feeling has intensified and this gig is something else.

Of course, they play all the classics, but it’s the way that they play them that counts. It sounds like these songs were written yesterday the way they are played with a freshness and dark power.

Mark Burgess pours it out, his face crunched in rapt concentration. He feels the power of his music, it’s rare to see anyone that emotionally naked on stage and its really affecting. He must know that his band should have been huge, they had the power to touch people and they have never lost that power but there is no justice in rock n roll, just nights like this, packed rooms and people who know and feel the truth.


Still very special.

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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.


  1. Thanks John,absolutely true about Chameleons being better than U2 in their day. By about STRANGE TIMES,with the likes of TEARS and SWAMP THING,there was no one to touch them. Nice one mate!

  2. Excellent John – Was at the 02 islington gig on Saturday which was packed to the rafters with those who know how good this band still are. Yes it was nostalgic, but as you say everything sounds very fresh. Mark has an abundance of post Chameleons tracks to draw on at other times, but with ChameleonsVox they are giving the punters what they want. It does surprise me how Manchester centric the fanbase is and I for one think its never to late to change that. Maybe a festival in Devon could help remedy the situation :)

  3. Another amazing night of songs that I will cherish forever – I’ve bumps and bruises everywhere…..I was the guy down the front with the brown scarf, great to be amongst so many brilliant people there, who genuinely love their music like I do.

  4. Yes better than u2. Boths sets got the hairs on the back of your neck standing up right. Thanks to The Chameleons (vox) for a brill night with beautiful tunes. much respect.


  6. Hi John

    Superb review, I was at the Islington gig on the 12th and it was like stepping back in time. I met you, with my son Callum from Bipolar Empire, at the Music Show at the RDS in Dublin last year and a lot of our chat that day was about The Chams and Blackpool FC. Such a small world to see this review a few months later. Similar to The Chameleons and The Velvet Underground before them we have a band here in Dublin called House of Dolls who are possibly ahead of their time and destined to inspire others in the future.

  7. Definitely, still very special. Jan in Madrid was so special that we jumped on a plane to Man to do it again. Best decision ever made. Will always be special – just keep on playing, PLEASE!!!

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