29th Mar2009

History Lesson: The Chameleons and the great Mark Burgess

by Todd

The Chameleons (called The Chameleons UK on some American releases) were a band that formed in Middleton, in the Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, England in 1981. They consisted of singer and bassist Mark Burgess, guitarist Reg Smithies, guitarist Dave Fielding, and drummer John Lever.  Their music shared the anthemic soar of early U2 while maintaining a decidedly “dreamy” feel that has influenced generations of musicians.  They released four tremendous studio albums in a time when most bands released one good one, followed by a series of failed follow-ups.  Live their performances were incendiary and were able to not only capture but magnify their studio sound.  Why weren’t they as big as U2, Echo and the Bunnymen and others?  A combination of a fickle British media, bad management, idiotic record label decisions and…..you.  They’re a great example of what happens when you stay inside your “safe box” and refuse to venture into uncharted territory.  Because they didn’t jump on the early 80′s MTV bandwagon and print media didn’t “approve” of them,  they didn’t hit the mainstream radar.  This is why our website exists.  Perhaps by showing you the history of bands like The Chameleons and then showing you the great “small” bands that are ignored by the media, you can support these groups and encourage their success.  As we’ve said before, our “history lessons” are not meant to slight the band we’re interviewing.  We hope that by exposing these bands to a new generation they can be enjoyed anew.

Mark Burgess was kind enough to spend time answering a plethora of questions regarding his days leading The Chameleons and his side projects.  He is the first person we’ve spoken to that genuinely took the time to answer every question and really put some thought into it (are you listening Darker My Love?).

TDOA: The three studio albums released in the 80’s coupled the bombast and fragility exemplified by bands like U2. The Chameleons always seemed more concerned with the music than the “image” and seemed to avoid the MTV video era. Was it a conscious decision to steer clear of the “MTV video” path or was this just a failure by Geffen to help promote you?

MB: Well at CBS they just didn’t want to allocate a budget. Simple as that. We’d opted for a debut single that wasn’t radio friendly and I don’t recall that there was a dedicated music video channel back then, so it was only good for dinosaur institutions like the BBC. At the time we were pushing for it just to get experience in front of a camera and argued that from that point of view, it would have been worth a video budget, something to invest in for the future, but that was ignored with vague promises of ‘next time round’, which of course didn’t happen, because they’d dropped us six months in. Even then though, we were aware that we’d want to do something a bit different than the formula that was evolving in music video and experimented with rapidly moving slides and photographs to the track ‘On The Beach’, but then the guy that produced it got weird and started demanding huge amounts of money from CBS to use it, and anyway it lacked dynamic. It was obvious that it wouldn’t serve as anything other than an ‘in house’ promotion tool for journalists and the like, so while we did shoot it, we didn’t pursue it any further.

Statik recognised the value but by then we’d become quite cynical about the amounts of money that was being thrown into video. Statik talked us into doing a studio video of the band playing live for ‘Escalator’, but the concept of miming, while we’d done it on a couple of live TV shows in Europe, was abhorrent to us and it showed really, so that didn’t get seen much. After that we pretty gave up. I don’t recall it was even mentioned by Geffen and we didn’t push it. Had we been properly managed by someone who recognised the value of getting us experience in front of a camera, it might have been different. I know there were a few interesting video producers around, the one that did the Cure videos back then springs to mind, but we didn’t so, that was that.

TDOA: How supportive was Geffen and do you feel they could have done more to break the band in America?

MB: Oh yeah, I mean they could have done a lot more yeah. I mean we couldn’t even get a CD release of the album. It was Tom Zutaut at Geffen that wanted the band and he’d made huge signings for the company, which gave him leeway when it came to signing artists that were a little more left of centre. That’s how he operated, by giving Geffen acts that he knew would notch up high domestic sales, he’d be given a free reign with acts that he really wanted to work with, such as XTC and Chameleons. But they didn’t really believe in the band or anything, we were kind of Tom’s pet project.

TDOA: Did Tony Fletcher’s passing have as much to do with the bands breakup as was portrayed by British mags at the time? Why did the band break up in ‘87?

MB: Well yeah it did in a way because Tony was a stabilising factor in the increasing tension between Dave Fielding and myself, he kept that in check. We all had sufficient respect and love for Tony for us to push that away when he was around us doing his thing. So once Tony was gone, things started to fall apart pretty quickly. Our drummer, John Lever, was the first to leave the band a few weeks after Tony died and as a consequence of that I handed my notice in. It was John that put the Sun and the Moon together a month or so later.

TDOA: Can you talk about the songwriting process for the band? The drum intro on “In Shreds” is still one of my favorite drum parts of all-time. Did songs generally start with guitar parts, vocal melodies, drum rhythms? Take us inside the process, please.

MB: Well it kind of varied from song to song. Sometimes Reg would have something that would kick the idea off, sometimes I would and sometimes Dave. There was really no set formula for developing the songs. In the beginning we’d jam them out between us and bring the drums in when we had a loose arrangement. The only time an idea ever came from the drums was the time Reg was dicking about on John’s kit and came up with the intro beat that kicked off Soul In Isolation, which John then refined. But a song could come from anywhere really. The best ones tended to come from Reg’s guitar riffs.

TDOA: The British media was (and still is) ridiculous during this period. The music made by The Chameleons was easily (in my opinion) as good or better than the similarly styled U2 at the time. Do you have a sense for why Melody Maker, NME and their ilk didn’t embrace the band?

MB: They didn’t like the way we looked or sounded, or the things that we said. I remember doing one interview one time and I was lamenting that there weren’t more women involved in politics back then, or in the running of society in general. The guy who was conducting the interview just got up, shook his head, turned off his tape recorder and stormed off muttering to himself. Most of them just didn’t get it at all, we didn’t fit into anything, we weren’t selling racks of records, so we just didn’t really matter to them.

TDOA: How did their impact the band emotionally and from a songwriting standpoint? Was there ever discussion of changing the sound to pander to the masses?

MB: No never. For the most part while the slaggings irritated us we didn’t really give a fuck because for the most part, the crowds were filling the venues and we knew the records were doing well abroad via exports to the US or via licensing, so we didn’t really care that much. Although some of the lies got us angry. I remember a review of a sold-out show we’d done at the Hacienda in Manchester was a complete and total fabrication. A stitch up from start to finish.

The only time I remember it really impacting was after the US tour with the Lemon Drops. We’d played this amazing tour of sold out shows and it was obvious that the majority of those that turned out where there to see us. Then we came home to read in the national music press, of how the Lemon Drops had just done this sensational sell out tour of the States and of us there wasn’t a single mention. Earlier that month a review of Strange Times had been published in the New York times, comparing the album to ‘Revolver’. The only positive review we’d got in the UK was in our local paper where we lived. So naturally I posed the question, what the fuck are we wasting our time here for? Let’s go back. That was on the cards until Tony died about a month later, then it was off the menu and the band broke up soon after that.

TDOA: Your work with The Sun and The Moon certainly carried on the spirit of The Chameleons. How did that band get started and what led you to carry on as a “solo” artist beyond that?

MB: John got the band together shortly after he left The Chameleons with a couple of mates of his, Andy Clegg and Andy Whit. I knew Cleggy because he’d played keyboards for us on a few Chameleons’ tours in Europe and the US and I knew Andy Whit vaguely. At first I wasn’t keen, I thought it was a bit soon to go diving into something else, but then gradually I came around. I was kind of hankering for the old days when we’d sit around together as mates and work new tunes out, so that appealed. Once Geffen got a sniff it became a bit more serious and that didn’t sit too well, but I knew they weren’t about to just let us all walk away and start fresh, so I just accepted that and got on with it.

TDOA: I saw you during a U.S. tour with The Mighty Lemon Drops in the 80’s and the shows were packed. Did you enjoy playing in the U.S.?

MB: Yeah it was a fantastic time. I mean the tour had its usual dynamic of highs and lows, I remember in Chicago for example, the PA was so bad we were throwing the monitors around the stage, or at least I was. But there were some great shows on that tour, The Ritz in New York was my favourite ever for a long time.

TDOA: Without internet or a way of anticipating the response, was the band surprised by the strength of the reaction by the American audiences.

MB: Yeah to a certain extent we were although we’d first played there in 84 along the east coast and the responses then had been tremendous. We knew college radio liked us and we knew ‘Script’ had done very well there, so from that point of view we knew we were liked in the US. But the size of the audiences on the Strange Times tour did open our eyes a little bit and as I say, just ahead of Tony’s death, we were all ready to relocate to America for a couple of years and I think had we done that, Geffen would have supported us and pushed us a lot more.

TDOA: Do you speak with the former members of The Chameleons anymore?

MB: Yeah I see John from time to time and I’m still close friends with Reg. Dave I have no time for or remote interest in.

TDOA: You worked with Steve Lillywhite (who hasn’t responded to our interview requests in the past, by the way) who was seemingly involved with dozens of the great albums of the 80’s. What was it like working with him? The production on all of your albums was great and you did some of your own producing. Did you feel like Lillywhite did anything to change or refine your sound?

MB: A bit of a two sided coin to be honest. Initially we were very excited that he wanted to work with us and yeah, he refined the sound to the extent that he really captured the massive live sound the band had. While I think the Peel sessions are the best recordings we did, the electronics and mechanics of recording did tend to compress the sound of the band and Steve was able to get past that. In Shreds remains my favourite Chameleons singe. On the other hand he was a superstar record producer with a massive ego and as noobs, we couldn’t tell him anything, he just wouldn’t listen to us, so time was wasted, mistakes were made that we ultimately paid the price for. He was also very secretive about his techniques, which is fair enough I suppose, but when you’re paying him what at the time were, massive amounts of money per song, plus percentages on royalties, you might expect that during your time together, you might learn a new trick or two. We did actually despite his efforts to keep us all in the dark about how he constructed his sounds. That put us in good stead later when we produced ‘Script of the Bridge’. Although I still say that had he agreed to do the album, it would have been universally massive. Egocentrics aside, he was a brilliant producer in my view, despite some of the dross he worked on later that decade.

TDOA: Are there any current bands that you enjoy or that you think carry on the spirit of The Chameleons?

MB: Well if we’re talking about guitar bands, in terms of spirit and integrity I’d have to say Radiohead, although obviously they’re far more talented and in fact my favourite album of last year was ‘In Rainbows’. Actually the only album of theirs that didn’t’ light my fire was ‘Hail to the Thief’. Everything else is pure genius in my humble view. But to be honest as far as I’m concerned the only rock and roll band worth a fuck in the last 30 years is The Sex Pistols although I LOVE ALL the punk bands of the late 70’s and tend to focus on music from that period on the iPod, with the odd exception of course..

TDOA: The acoustic versions you did of your music were tremendous. For a band so associated with the electric sound that you came up with, who came up with the idea of stripping it down and doing it acoustically?

MB: That was me, I’d been playing acoustically for some time. When the idea of getting back together crystalised, John was unable to commit right away because of work commitments and the three of us didn’t want to hang around doing fuck all waiting for him. It was mooted that we do some secret acoustic shows in the meantime as means of preparation, but I thought that was silly. Any idea that we could keep something like that secret in the age of the Internet would have been delusional. It wouldn’t have been Chameleons without John anyway and it would have lessened the impact of the reunion shows, so alternatively I suggested we go into the studio and do acoustic treatments of some of our tunes, so that’s what we didl

TDOA: What are you working on now musically?

MB: Not a lot to be honest. I played the US a couple of years ago as a three piece band called ‘Bird’, alongside Yves Altana and a drummer from Berlin called Achim Faerber from Project Pitchfork, amongst many others. It was a joint tour with some friends of mine that have a band called ‘Rescue Mission’ in Austin TX and we did that big industry thing that they have there every year and then drove across America. That was great fun. I also collaborate occasionally with Jack Sobel, who’s based in Atlanta and has a studio there. That project is called Black Swan Lane and if folk want to check that out they can find it at:

www.myspace.com/blackswanlane

I’ve also done a few shows with The Sun And The Moon and one or two more are mooted for later this year.

Finally I’ve been writing new songs and developing new ideas toward a fresh album at some point when I figure out how and with whom I’ll record it.

But to be honest for the last couple of years I’ve been focusing on my autobiography, which was published by Guardian Angel Media last year as a limited first edition run, which are almost old out. It was a race against time in the end because my father was dying and I needed to get it into his hands before that happened and happily, I was successful. He loved it. Anyone interested in that can find it here:

www.guardian-angel-media.com

Since the inception of this site, we’ve been fortunate to interview some great artists.  None have been more forthcoming and entertaining as Mark Burgess.  We wish him the best and suggest you educate yourself on the greatness of his music.

To learn more about his current projects, go to Mark’s MySpace page:

myspace.com/chameleonsvox

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