It’s difficult to get over to the younger indie kids how important BBC Radio 1’s John Peel Show was during the latter decades of the 20th Century.
But I was hoping Mark Burgess could help, the front-man and bass player of The Chameleons – enjoying a fair amount of fan-base interest all these years on – having told me his band’s sole ambition on forming in 1981 was just to get played by Peely.
He wasn’t alone in that thinking either (a similar conversation with fellow Manc, Inspiral Carpets and Rainkings front-man Stephen Holt a while ago springs to mind), yet Mark also struggles to explain just how influential the late broadcaster – who died 11 years ago – was.
“I suppose you had two polarising drives. On one hand you had the wannabe pop stars who had that thing about Top of the Pops, then on the other there were those of us whose drive was to get on to the John Peel programme.”
As it turned out, The Chameleons’ over-riding ambition was soon achieved, this four-piece from Middleton, Greater Manchester, getting their first Peel Session within months of starting out (not returning for their next until exactly two years later).
At that stage the band comprised of Mark, guitarists Reg Smithies (also responsible for the majority of the band’s distinctive sleeve artwork) and Dave Fielding (along with Reg previously with Years, and before that with writewyattuk favourite David Gedge of The Wedding Present in his first band, Sen), and drummer Brian Schofield (who also has a Gedge link), the latter ‘gun for hire’ in time making way for John Lever.
And according to Mark, that initial radio session on June 8, 1981 – first broadcast nine evenings later – worked out to be be just what they needed.
“It all happened very fast, in fact the day after our session for John Peel went out. And our lives completely changed. We were really surprised how incredulous people were when we later explained how we got on there. We didn’t realise the length others went to get his attention. All we did was go down and hang around outside the BBC, waiting, giving him our tape and talking to John for about 10 minutes.
“That was on the Friday, then on Monday morning he phoned me at our house. I thought someone was winding me up, doing an impression. He had to convince me. I think he was really impressed, but when we approached him, I think he thought he was being attacked!
“I only met him two or three times altogether, but Peel was such a cool bloke and just to be on his show … well, we weren’t thinking beyond that … at all.”
Shortly after, a deal was done with CBS/Epic Records, and it seemed like the band had truly hit the big time, with the powerful debut single In Shreds (which went on to make that year’s Festive 50 on the Peel Show) the first fruit of their subsequent studio time with respected producer Steve Lillywhite. But from that promising beginning, The Chameleons’ machine seemed to grind to a halt, in what proved to be a frustrating period for the Mancunian quartet.
I’ll start before all that though, revisiting Mark’s first outfit, having reminded myself this last week of a few recordings he made with The Cliches, like 1980’s Leaving Town and Whole Wide World, which carry more of the spirit of The Clash and fellow Manc outfit Buzzcocks than the sound of his next band. Were they big influences?
“Massive, yeah! But The Cliches were kind of tongue-in-cheek with it, sending up what punk had become. We only did a few gigs, and I’m not sure that people got that. The songs were quite strong, but we were looking at each other a bit bemused that the send-up aspect wasn’t really coming across.”
There also seems to be a Teardrop Explodes influence with both The Cliches and the early Chameleons, something those who might mistakenly tar the band with a more Goth-like brush seem not to hear.
“Yeah, and in the immediate wake of punk, out of all the Liverpool bands, the best of the crop were The Teardrop Explodes and The Wild Swans.”
For me, that first Chameleons single and those early recordings offer elements of Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure and The Psychedelic Furs too, while that distinctive guitar sound was arguably something later associated on a larger commercial scale with The Cult, a band formed over the other side of the Pennines (in Bradford) at around the same time (first as Southern Death Cult). How soon does Mark reckon The Chameleons had what they were looking for, sound-wise?
“That was relatively quick as well, in terms of the guitars. Reg was always there with it really. His sound is in his playing. Most of the evolution came from Dave, I’d say, and we benefitted from working with Steve Lillywhite really early. We learned a lot in that period.”
“It became obvious how our opinion of what constituted a great recording was very different from the more commercial interests CBS and even Steve Lillywhite had.
“When we recorded our first session it was so obvious what a great recording it was, so we were perplexed as to why they didn’t feel the same way. We were naïve and not thinking about chart placing and all that.
“For me it was a fantastic debut record and I had no doubt people would have been excited by it. We wanted to be a band to be discovered, not sold to people.”
Instead, the first two albums came out on Statik Records (although the fact that Virgin dealt with the label’s distribution ruled out any indie chart placings, and therefore arguably a little critical kudos). Were you free agents by then?
“Steve Lillywhite decided to pass on the album and do the third U2 album, so we needed a new producer and were introduced to various options which we weren’t impressed by. In the end we said we’d much rather do it ourselves with our regular engineer at Cargo Studios in Rochdale.
“After six months dancing around we were eager to record our songs and make our LP, and the next day we were off the label. They compensated us quite handsomely though, so we then had the luxury – and the arrogance, if you like – to do it ourselves.
“The Statik link came about because the very first thing we ever had released was on a compilation album a journalist put together for that label. A couple of the guys went to see them and were reasonably impressed. They gave us complete freedom to put out whatever we wanted, so that’s the direction we went in.”
The first sign that the band were up and running was the stirring Up the Down Escalator single at the beginning of 1983, followed a month later by As High As You Can Go and that June’s A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days, the latter two with hints of Julian Cope for this scribe (that’s a good thing, by the way, as far as I’m concerned). And then two months later we had the eventual release of defining debut album Script of the Bridge.
The Chameleons were truly up and running now, and were at Maida Vale for their third (and final) Peel Session in May 1984. And they were back in the studio again, this time north of the border, in Inverness at the beginning of 1985 for their second album, pre-empted by the mighty Singing Rule Britannia single – including its run-off tribute to The Beatles’ She Said She Said – in August 1985.
What Does Everything Mean? Basically then saw the light of day two months later, and was also largely well-received. And – skipping forward a little – then came the move to Geffen Records for the third album. So I’m guessing Mark felt they’d learned a lot from all those experiences by then.
“We had learned a lot, but it had been tough. The first album did well abroad – especially in the United States – but the label did a few naughty things we weren’t happy about. So financially we’d struggled. We were in that quagmire, shall we say, for six to eight months, but then switched management and got clear of all that, and got word that Geffen wanted to sign us. We met them and decided to go with that.”
Again we got a taster first, this time through the beguiling single Tears, followed – on the same day as second single, fans’ favourite Swamp Thing – by the release of the Strange Times album at the beginning of September, 1986. And it’s an LP that Mark remains particularly proud of.
“I am, and personally – based on my contributions – it’s the best work I’d done by far. Creatively I was very happy with it. It was a very strong record and the writing of the band was evolving, and maturing. Yes, I was extremely proud of it.”
In time, Tony Fletcher – widely seen as a calming influence on the band at a time when differing opinions were coming to the fore – agreed to manage the outfit, but it was a short-lived affair, the new boss’s sudden death after a heart attack ultimately leading to 1987’s split.
“Tony worked for the management company, coming in at their behest to help us, and we developed a very close relationship from there. We wanted him to be our official manager, but for ethical reasons he couldn’t do it, as he was employed by the company managing us. In the end he decided that was what he was going to do, and we were very excited about that, not least as there were a lot of acts he had said no to. He was very much admired in the business.
“But about three weeks after that, he died. That knocked us completely for six. I think it was more things coming to a head, tensions within the group he held in check. Without his influence it kind of erupted. I was very keen to get us back to America, where we were more respected, and Tony was of the opinion we should go out there for a couple of years.
“I was pushing for that, even without Tony, but they were probably right in resisting. Dave, in particular, said without Tony he wasn’t going. It ended up with me and John on one side and Dave on the other, with Reg backing him. It was actually John who left first.”
As it turned out, Mark worked with the band’s drummer soon after, on The Sun and The Moon album project, released on Geffen in 1988.
“Yes, that was a bit strange. He started phoning me up in the weeks after that, saying, ‘Let’s put something new together’. I was very unsure, but when I met with John and the guys he was working with the idea became attractive – getting together with a few mates and writing tunes. It was all very uncomplicated, something I hadn’t enjoyed for a long time.”
Meanwhile, the other two band-mates recorded two albums as The Reegs, and – skipping ahead again – Mark recorded his debut solo LP in 1993 and worked with three other bands before The Chameleons reconvened in early 2000, by which time Mark was based in Hamburg, where he remained between tours until 2010. So what had changed by then to bring about that band reformation?
“As you get older you get a little less extreme and intense, and I knew the popularity of the band was still growing through being in touch with the fan-base directly via the internet. I was weighing all that up against losing these friendships I’d had for so long, when I got a message from Dave asking to meet him, which was surprising.
“We had a few pints, and agreed it would be really great if we could put all that behind us and play some shows. I was quite amazed, because it had all been so bitter and vitriolic.”
First came the album Strip (2000), featuring older material reworked in an acoustic format, then the band’s final studio album Why Call It Anything (2001), and further acoustic album, This Never Ending Now (2002), as well as a reunion tour taking in Europe and America. So how does Mark sum up The Chameleons Pt. II?
“I couldn’t really. Initially it was quite amazing, for that first year though. It was first mooted that we did this show at the Witchwood in Ashton-under-Lyne, to which I was incredulous. I said, ‘You’ve got to me joking!’
“Their idea was to announce it, then arrange a second night. Even then, Reg was saying, ‘Do you think it will really go to two nights?’ They had no idea – it became six nights! Then we did the (Manchester) Academy in June 2000, and I can’t describe how I felt walking out of there. It gave me one of the proudest moments I’d ever experienced with The Chameleons. The massive attendance and rapturous response after 10 years away was an unforgettable moment I’ll always cherish.
“But before long all the old gripes began to come back and I became concerned we were doing things we never would have done before for the pay cheque. Things came to a head. Dave and I are chalk and cheese and I guess it will never be any different. It was all a bit bitter-sweet. Perhaps we should have just come back, done a few shows and left it at that. It was a mistake taking it any further.”
That wasn’t the end of the story though, and in 2009 Mark and John Lever reformed to play back-catalogue material under the name Chameleons Vox. And while John is now back with Dave Fielding, performing and recording as The Red-Sided Garter Snakes, Mark continues to front a five-piece outfit under the Chameleons Vox handle, playing that original material.
And next weekend (December 18/19), Mark and his band are back on old ground at the Manchester Academy 2 for a two-night filmed residency, Home is Where the Heart Is 2015, carrying on from where they left off last year – having played the second and third albums over two nights – as part of the venue’s on-going 25th anniversary celebrations.
On the Friday night, The Fan & The Bellows & Early Recordings will see the band ‘revisit a lost gem in the back-catalogue’, playing their 1986 compilation in its entirety, along with a selection of choice cuts from the earliest days, the set including songs ‘that very rarely if ever have been performed before a wide audience’.
Then on the Saturday night, taking its name from a track from What Does Anything Mean? Basically, they conclude their residency with P.S Goodbye, delivering a set made up entirely of fans’ favourites, attendees having been given the opportunity to vote for the songs they love best in ‘a farewell gesture of sorts’.
“The second night will be a Jukebox Jack, the audience picking three choices of songs they would like to see performed. Manchester shows are always special, and as this is likely to be our last Manchester performance for quite some time, we want to make it doubly so.”
Fans have also been able to snap up weekend passes at a reduced rate, accessing both shows and getting a limited edition Chameleons Vox laminate and lanyard, plus a free download link for an exclusive track recorded at last year’s Academy shows. And also on the bill are (on Friday) Evi Vine and From Carbon, then (on Saturday) old friends of the band Oskar’s Drum, a project by Patrick Fitzgerald and Yves Altana (Kitchens of Distinction/Chameleons Vox).
“We’ve done it the last couple of years, rounding the year off with shows. They’ve all been really great. And the tour we’ve done this year is the biggest we’ve ever done, including South America, where we’ve never been before.”
It’s clearly not just the first-timers coming out to these shows either, with lots of younger fans turned on to The Chameleons these days. Is that down to bands out there who acknowledge your influence, like The Killers and The Editors?
“We’ve always been a musicians’ band, so a lot of people come and see us play and have been influenced that way. Then there are a lot of kids whose fathers are huge fans.”
Has college radio in the US been important too?
“Historically, that’s how the band did get known out there, although I’m not sure how influential it is these days with the internet.”
Looking at your latest homecoming, Manchester Academy has been an important venue for you over the years, but The Chameleons have been around longer. So which Manchester venues were important to you back at the beginning?
“We started off playing the Gallery on Peter Street, with fantastic memories. I actually saw REM there (1984), The Church (possibly 1982), and a few others. That was a great little place. Then there was The Band on the Wall of course, and we played the Free Trade Hall, where my first ever show was, seeing T-Rex in ’73 or ’74.”
Moving away from music for a while, I understand you worked for Manchester City FC for a while (in the mid-’90s). Do you still follow City, or do you see them as just another big money club now?
“Oh, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool City fan, and have been for 40–odd years.”
But your Dad – Albert Burgess – played for Manchester United?
“Yes, around 1955/6. All his friends were on the plane, actually. But he came off a motorcycle on Queens Road and smashed his leg in the weeks leading up to that, and that was the end of it. My Dad played for Manchester Boys and was in the Army at the time, and like a lot of people augmented his Army pay by playing for factory teams around the region. A United scout picked him up and he became an apprentice there, meeting Matt Busby with my grandfather, signing as a full-time professional. He was a great footballer, my Dad.”
Did that skill pass on to you?
“No. I wasn’t interested … which frustrated the shit out of him! I was happy to play on a Sunday, have a kick-around with my mates, but at school I wasn’t interested really. They were encouraging me, but it was only music that really got me passionate.”
So where’s home these days? I’m guessing you’re living back in Manchester again.
“I’m only here when we’re working, when there are things to do with the band. I spend a lot of time – about half the year – in the United States, the last couple of years in Florida.”
It’s not a bad life then, is it?
“It’s beautiful there.”
But you need a bit of Manchester rain now and again just to remind you of your roots?
“I get plenty of rain there, but Manchester’s a magnet and I’ll never stop coming back here.”
I’m guessing it keeps you grounded.
Talking of grounded, that brings me back on to the original Chameleons line-up, and the question I have to ask. Is there still animosity with your old band-mates?
“There’s a couple of guys I don’t speak to or have anything to do with, but I don’t really want to talk about it. I’d prefer to focus on positive things. I’m about the music really – that’s all that matters to me.”
The official line is that your latest line-up, Chameleons Vox, is ‘a vehicle for the perpetual performance of Chameleons material by people who have a deep passion for the music and a desire to keep the music alive in the wake of the original band’s demise in 2003’, with yourself ‘backed by a loose collection of musicians currently spanning two continents’. Can you explain that a bit more?
“It’s been evolving for the last five years. A lot of people have come and gone, and initially we weren’t really so concerned with getting the sound of the band, but just wanted the spirit of the music. All those who have been involved were all very passionate about this music, so initially that was the thing.
“Then, as it grew, we were thinking that if we were going to do this we owe it to the music , the legacy of the music and the people coming to try and do it as well as we can. So the emphasis came on to trying to perfect it, and I think we’ve got to the point where the band I play with now play that music as well as it can be played outside the original line-up.
“But there have been a lot of people who have come along at one time or another, and they’ve all been fantastic. We’re more like a cooperative.”
In one interview I heard you suggesting Chamelons Vox was more like Star Trek – The Next Generation. So, as the Chameleons’ captain, would you say you’re more a Captain James T. Kirk or a Captain Jean-Luc Picard figure?
“Oh, I’m definitely a Jim Kirk.”
Finally, do you have any regrets about the fact that – despite all your loyal fans, the love for your music out there, and the influence you continue to have – it was U2 who ended up making it big time, rather than The Chameleons?
“Well, what does that mean, really? To have feelings like that you’ve got to be dissatisfied with your life, and I’m not at all. What The Chameleons had given me is the complete freedom to do what I want, when I want, where I want, and with whom I want.
“I’ve been free – and I mean free – I go to bed when I want, get up when I want, I don’t have to jump on the shovel when someone shouts ‘shit’, and I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve never been able to do what I want for lack of resources, and I can walk down the street and go anywhere I want without being mithered.”
For further details and tickets for Chameleons Vox: Home is Where The Heart Is at Manchester Academy 2 (Friday, December 18 and Saturday, December 19) head to the venue’s official website link, or the venue’s Facebook page.