Sound — 9
Well, I go to UG this morning and what do I see but the untimely passing of John Lever - this band's drummer. I got pretty hardcore into The Chameleons, but I never thought I'd ever be seeing their post-punk countenance on Ultimate-Guitar in the news section... usually that's reserved for mainstream ESP clad metal heads.
Anyway, The Chameleons were a Manchester based post-punk group of many from the European countries during that time - they fall in the same sort of area where one would put bands like U2, Simple Minds, The Cure, Joy Division or on the heavier and more punk side, The Sound, or early Southern Death Cult/The Cult (whom I've also been getting into).
Let's take a look at the whose who of The Chameleons...
Mark Burgess - Mark is the tenor voiced lead vocalist of this band. Mark has an extremely good approach, he can push himself to the limits vocally without losing control of the sonic picture. Honestly, I consider Mark one of the most underrated of the Post-Punk vocalists. The guy really stands along side guys like Bono and Jim Kerr. Mark also plays Bass, typically favoring a Olympic White Fender Jazz Bass, though occasionally he also plays a Fender Precision Bass. Not sure what amps he's using. One thing of grand note with Mark's Bass playing is he's not a root-note player, rather, he's very good at carrying the whole tune for awhile (ex. Monkeyland) before Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies take over.
Dave Fielding - Dave Fielding's primary guitar of choice is a Micro Frets Swinger II I believe, a very obscure guitar. He's The Chameleons clean toned wash of reverb/delay/chorus guitar-as-a-synth guy, usually seen stage right. Dave usually runs amok the background creating giant washes of chorus, delay, and reverb that sound more like a synthesizer than a guitar, in stark contrast to his other guitar-wielding bandmate...
Reg Smithies - Reg is the "Dirty" guitar player, stage left, armed with a customized SG copy of some kind with what I surmise are DiMarzio pickups in it. If it sounds distorted, it's most likely Reg.
David Lever - The band's drummer, who passed away recently - very recently. May he rest in peace. Did I mention there is NO arbitrary or otherwise pedestrian element to this band's sound - everything has a purpose, and the drummer is a huge part of the sonic picture too with his reverb washed, digital/acoustic drum hybrid sound that sounds 80's yet timeless at the same time. He does not overdo the digital stuff, and the acoustic stuff is rock solid and keeps time.
Overall, The Chameleons are a very symphonic band. By symphonic, I mean they create a HUGE sound that sounds simple but is far more complex under the hood, and not a single part can be omitted without the rest of the piece falling apart. That said, their production to me always was a bit heavy on the "midrange" side, but I think that's something that kind of runs across most early 80's Post-Punk/New Wave British productions and is kind of a part of the whole vibe. Hence giving it a 9 for atmosphere.
Lyrics — 9
Overall, the lyrics in this band are more of the Cobain/Ocasek level abstract - BUT - it's almost an insult to compare their lyrics to those guys because while Kurt Cobain and Ric Ocasek (The Cars) could be quite cryptic with their lyrics - the Chameleons have something very formal, proper, very... uh... British about their approach to lyric writing. It's like some classic poetry rather than abstract rambling from a rock musician. Something I kind of find endearing about the whole post-punk scene, a very educated lot, like the aforementioned Americans, but totally different vibe.
Song by song play by play, as usual from me...
Don't Fall - The album kicks up with this dangerously, and surprisingly heavy for a Post-Punk song, finding Mark singing about how bad times can come to an end. We start with the dangerous sounding guitar riffs and ominous verses giving a sign of hope by the chorus as things fall into a major key letting us know nightmares do have an end.
Here Today - Here Today sounds almost like the narration of a man who has been either murdered or killed in some kind of freak accident, starting off by talking about how there's blood on his shirt, and ending with his draining away while asking where his wife is. Very dark.
Monkeyland - I read somewhere this is actually about the music business, and I can take a moment here to appreciate how these guys and I share the same sort of point of view of the whole thing. While their view may not have made them as successful as some bigger names in the field, it DOES give them a whole hell of a lot more integrity which to me is worth more than gold.
Second Skin - A song about life after death, your "Second Skin". Here Mark sings a initially sort of stressful yet truthful set before leading us into what sounds like, at least to me, the interpretation of the energy of life or the spirit after death on this plane. Very deep stuff, and I must mention, this album makes you THINK when you pay attention to the lyrics, and not on a regular "I'm gonna go out and have some drinks with my babeee" crap, but real deep stuff. This allows the Chameleons to transcend being just another "cranky teenage band" and have some meaning.
Up The Down Escalator - Yet another deep one, sort of a observation on the world at the time - with the cold war, fear of nuclear missiles (hmm...seems kind of fitting in today's climate as well). Weather it's about Nuclear Warheads wiping us out, or about some new world order wiping out your access to necessities, it's another fine piece of songwriting with some good symbolism and a great soundtrack to boot.
Less Than Human - One of my favorites on the album. Seems on one hand to be about the rules of the church being dehumanizing in a way because you are less than perfect in god's eyes, but then on the other hand, it seems to maybe lean or hint at the highly religious and their ignorance of truth (death in this case - ex. "He's coming after you my friend"). Either way, another song one can pull a thousand meanings from, and while the end is like a prototype of the so-called "Millennial Whoop" (god I hate anything called Millennial this or that) - it actually FITS here instead of sounding like a cheesy Travel Agent commercial to (fail to) fill your middle America Strip Mall in 2017. Kiddos - you could learn a thing or two here from Uncle Mark!
Pleasure and Pain - It seems this one has some meaning on what life is - Pleasure and Pain, no loss, no gain. It is what it is. Another fine example of the guitar interplay between Fielding and Smithies as all the songs on this album are - with Smithie's distorted SG carrying things and Fielding interjecting some heavily delayed and reverbed guitar sounds giving a ghostly, haunting quality to the atmosphere.
Thursday's Child - I think this one deals with the wisdom/knowledge gained through age - pretty well summed up by the chorus "I might have known, years ago". This is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album Or maybe it deals with forgetting what you knew when you were younger....as you get older...or maybe it's both. That's the beauty of The Chameleons body of work, a lot of it can really mean a bunch of things.
As High as You Can Go - Seems to deal with famous people who died, such as Carmen Munroe (though the listener in the US could take this as Marylin Monroe), John Lennon, Gretta Garbo, Grace Kelly....seems to mention the ways fame can mess you up - you could probably toss Hammer, Cobain, Stayley, and so on in there. The music has a very sad yet solid feel.
A Person isn't Safe Anywhere These Days - One of the most, if not the most obvious song on the album. This one is a murder story, a lady is murdered, her husband blames another guy who was not involved, and he becomes the very monster he's fighting attacking a falsely accused person. The "Men of Steel" are the bad guys. The vibe is perfect musically - like a dark British alleyway in 1981, rainy, and dark, whilst getting the shit kicked out of you. Fielding and Smithies trade off carrying the rhythm and being textural on this one.
Paper Tigers - Seems to be about taxes or about documentation of work process on the job. The Paper Tigers are the forms or tax money - you have to pay now, or you have to pay later. The paper tigers always keep themselves clean (make you out to be the bad one).
View From a Hill - Brings it all back home on a melancholy if a bit relaxed note. Seems to either be again about the afterlife, or about coming back to reality... I guess. Very good closer to the album - it's sort of like the end of a movie when the protagonist is found laying in their bed after the drama of the past hour and a half, and now the slate is washed clean (just in time for a sequel) - complete with a hint that this story is not over yet... and it's not, just wait for "What Does Anything Mean, Basically"... hehehehehehe...
Mark Burgess manages to keep a dramatic flare without being over the top or losing control. An art in vocal work long lost. He can still come across as angry, perturbed, or spiritual without coming off as un-genuine or "off" in some way.
Overall, the lyrics on this album are dark - just the way I like them, but meaningful - also just the way I like them. Everything on this album has a purpose, and it plays out like a very broad cinematic piece making it fun to listen to from beginning to end without skipping a single track. Again, another 9.
Overall Impression — 8
One thing I've learned as a fan of grunge and post-punk, is that the bands from their respective scenes are genres in and of themselves. For example, here we have the heavier, darker, more genuine element of post-punk. The Chameleons were just a bunch of regular guys playing music that means something more than about romps at a bar or parties, but is not a huge political campaign, or a huge stab at religion, or rebelling against their parents -
There's not one ounce of heavy British patriotism, or over-bearing focus on world events. This is like... uh... LIFE MUSIC. That's how I always saw The Chameleons. It's that kind of quality that allows a band like this to endure.
This album I find very hard to pick standout tracks because to me, they all stand out - like I said, this album is like a movie, like a story that plays out, and this time each song drifts from one into another to which the album is like an actual "whole" instead of a group of "parts" - one song flows into another.
But if I have to pick, Don't Fall, Here Today, Second Skin, Less than Human, As High as you Can Go, Monkeyland, Pleasure and Pain really standout as tracks, though it's very hard for me to pick fewer than that.
What do I love about it - everything, what do I hate? Well, okay, maybe not everything. I do hate that The Chameleons seem not to have gotten very wide distribution in the United States - thankfully I have a trip to Europe coming up, and part of it in the UK, so maybe I'll be able to visit a record shop and kick up some Chameleons to feed the period-correct Panasonic in my den. I bought the album on Amazon in digital format, but would love it in Vinyl as I feel vinyl records would really do the Stereo Production some real favors - Analog always trumps digital with stereo separation and warmth from my experience.
Kind of hard to steal something if it's on the Cloud. But I will track down a vinyl release at some point. This is on my top list of hard to get stuff along with the 1985 Sequel - What Does anything Mean Basically, and The Fan and the Bellows.
As for Еhe Chameleons, there are currently 2 groups - the original "Chameleons UK" which is what these guys get dubbed, and then the partially American "Chameleons Vox" which is a totally different band fronted by Mark Burgess. They passed through my area around the time that I got into them luckily.
Just darn, other countries have so much great music that never gets heard here.