As readers of my frequent written ramblings will know, if I can spot some link, however tenuous, between the sound of a song and The Chameleons, I’ll lob it right in there – if I hear something that sets of a thread of a memory vibrating, it’s totally out of my control, dear reader. So, when I got the chance to review them tonight at The Picturedrome in Holmfirth, it absolutely WAS a labour of love.
The Chameleons and I go back a long way, from receiving illicit TDK SA-90 recordings of Script of the Bridge and What Does Anything Mean Anyway? Basically, right the way through to the wonderfully over-attended reunion gigs in 2000 at the Witchwood pub in Ashton-under-Lyne – ah, for the days where Health and Safety wasn’t a thing…)
However, if you’ll indulge me, it goes even deeper than this. When I left home to move to London at the back end of 1988 (it’s OK, I came back after 13 months as nobody spoke to me), I had to leave a lot of my vinyl and cassettes behind, in the care of my younger brother, who would have been about 16 at the time. I handed him copes of the three Chameleons albums, saying, “Have a listen to these, you might like them” – and so, the baton was passed.
We have many drunken conversations about that transaction to this day, and I like to feel that it was the start of HIS musical journey, the band that got him listening to “proper” stuff, just in time for the outbreak of Madchester. The Chameleons get you like that – they get under your (Second) skin. Fans will know all about the “Greatest Band That Didn’t Quite Make It” tag, about the implosions within the band after the death of manager Tony Fletcher, the reunion spanning three precious years between 2000 and 2003, the second break up and the tragic death of drummer John Lever in 2017.
They’ll be able to tell you all about the offshoot bands that sprung, phoenix-like from the ashes of one of Manchester’s finest exports, they’ll be able to recite the lyrics to the songs perfectly, they’ll sit in bars prior to tonight’s gig, joyously belting out choruses to songs that won’t be played for another two hours.
They’ll exchange memories of gigs from over 30 years ago as though they were yesterday. And why? Well, to quote any number of them on the official Facebook Fan page “We are all Chameleons”. And that’s exactly how it feels.
Chameleons fans are bound together by something very special indeed, a real sense of camaraderie and a desire not to lose touch with the past, the glorious eighties, where we all felt that we capable of anything at all. Some of us wonder today if we’ll even be able to stand up for all 90 minutes of this gig, but we’re all ready to give it a damn good go.
As band take to the stage to a rapturous roar, it’s also nice to see that the baton has been handed down in so many other places too – there is a pleasing number of younglings in the packed Picturedrome tonight, maybe not the proud owners of C-90s (they probably wouldn’t recognize one if it hit them in the eye), but folk who have been lucky enough to grow up in a Chameleon-loving house where someone else has possibly said.
“Have a listen to these, you might like them”. Mark Burgess, smiling as always, looking like he never quite believes his luck to have such a massive extended family, Reg Smithies, tonight’s only other surviving Chameleon, and guitarist Stephen Rice, drummer Todd Demma and Danny Ashberry on keyboards take up their positions, all ready to launch into Paper Tigers, but this is delayed for a few minutes as Reg is experiencing some serious tech issues (there’s nothing coming out of his amp. At ALL).
Some good-natured banter (“Fcukin’ bobbins!”, “No pressure, Reg!”, “Get it sorted, Reg!”) erupts from the crowd with Reg looking on sheepishly as the tech runs back and forth, replacing cables and swapping things about until finally, after a couple of minutes, the Reg’s Telecaster finally springs to life.
The crowd aren’t far behind, and a bounce that will continue for the next 80 minutes or so starts to develop nicely. The inclusion of the refrain from Abba’s, “Money, Money, Money” is a nice trick that will be repeated elsewhere throughout tonight’s set. A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days is dedicated to the memory of Sophie Lancaster who was murdered in 2007.
“What kind of times are these, when no-one cares and no-one sees, and they drag you to your knees… disease”. The lyrics have lost none of their power or poignancy since we first heard them back in 1983… that’s a LONG time ago, yet somehow it just feels like yesterday. “Here Today” is an examination of the needless death of John Lennon and written not long after the event is a chilling indictment of murder, from the point of view of the victim.
The crowd join in with the refrain from “Pleasure and Pain” – “It’s pleasure and pain – no loss no gain” as they will do with every song in tonight’s set. We punch the air; we point and shout and hug each other as though there’s no tomorrow – something to which Mark will allude later on tonight. We yell angrily in agreement during Monkeyland – “To all you out there, reading this tonight – IT’S JUST A TRICK OF THE LIGHT”. Tonight, we are all Chameleons.
Editor Girl (whose daytime identity is Alison, my esteemed other half, reviewer of ramblings, photograph selector and up and coming band photographer in her own right – we can conceal her no longer, dear Readers) hasn’t seen the Chameleons before, not has she heard anything by them, so her approval is my litmus test. She turns and gives me “The Nod” and at that point, I know that she’s joined the Church of the Chameleon. I suppose it was karma really (well, SOMEBODY had to say it…)
The stage is by now awash with the little smiles, nods and gestured that flit between a band whose members know that they’re delivering exactly what the audience has dome to see. We drift effortlessly into “Looking Inwardly” with its message of introspection and self-doubt “I delve into myself ceaselessly, but I rarely see what I want to see” and barely before the applause has died down, we’re launching into a loud, raucous, rowdy (and to be fair, largely tuneless) accompaniment to “Up the Down Escalator”.
There may WELL be something wrong, boys, but there’s nothing wrong with the enthusiasm and love with which these songs of our youth are sucked in, swirled around and belted back out with all the love for Mark and Reg that we can muster.
“You either swim or you drown”, Mark concludes, and we’re DEFINITELY swimming, and possibly floating on air, too (that’s your “See what I did there?” moment, folks) tonight. We sing Rule Britannia (not really caring if the walls are closing in, to be fair) “Working class heroes mean nothing to me, I’m a working class zero – chained to the tree of life” and joyfully chime along with the cleverly interwoven lyrics of The Clash’s “White Riot”, Joy Division’s “Transmission” and The Beatles’ “Get Back”.
My red-bearded new friend from Barnsley (who we met in a bar across the road prior to the gig along with his other half who told us about her son who’s in a band too. You’re only ever six feet from someone in a band… or something like that.) continues to shout out random dates and venues of Chameleons gigs as if his life depends on it. I think he’s tying to communicate to Mark that maybe tonight’s gig is better than ALL those others.
And it’s certainly right up there with the best tonight. Soul In Isolation cleverly mutates its lyrics to include “Lost in a Brexit… wilderness of pain… and all the Leavers are insane”, before spiralling into “All the lonely people, where do they come from” from The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. “I’m alive in here”, we all yell defiantly.
If you close your eyes, it could be forty years ago, apart from the fact that some of the voices are a bit more jagged at the edged than they might have been back then, but nobody cares. “There is a light that never goes out”, yells Mark defiantly and we all agree wholeheartedly.
Mark dedicates “In Answer” to his girlfriend who’s back in Berlin and as Home Is Where the Heart Is draws to a close, where we were all hiding (yes, I KNOW..!), we howl in delight as Reg teases us with the opening notes of “Swamp Thing” If there’s one thing that absolutely shouldn’t be happening when the demon’s knocking at your door, it’s that you should be starting down at the floor – thankfully, nobody’s doing that – in fact, pressed firmly against the barrier with a ferocious mosh pit mere feet behind us, you probably couldn’t bend your head forward.
And why would you want to , and risk missing something that’s going on up on the stage? Mark leads the show with the swagger of a born ringleader and whilst Reg is a man of few words, preferring to let his guitar do the talking, a smile manages to creep across even HIS face, Tonight is a night for celebration, for recollection and for optimism, regardless of what might be going on in the outside world.
“The storm comes, or is it just another shower?” asks Mark, generating his own rainstorm as the sweat flicks from every pore at the merest movement. As we realise it’ll soon be time to head off into the night. Mr Burgess pauses for a moment of introspection. He thanks us for coming, whether we purchased our tickets for the original gig, or for the rescheduled date.
He explains earnestly that they’ve tried to make tonight an experience for us so that when we walk out and go back to our lives, we’ll think, “Fuckin’ hell, that was SOMETHING!” His message is that our experiences are the most valuable things we own, the only things that we’ll take with us when we’re gone. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s absolutely correct too.
He explains that the point of his speech is to try to explain tonight’s set closer, “Second Skin” – we’re with him all the way as we exchange smiles, clap each other on the back for one last time, try not to go down in the mosh or crack a rib on the barrier and shout joyously to the Picturedrome’s rafters – “And a half-remembered tune played softly in my head – he said – He turns smiling, and says, I realize a miracle, is due, I dedicate this melody, to you”.
This is what we came he for, this is why we could stay for another hour if they’d play another hour for us. It’s the joy, the camaraderie and the kinship that shows us that for ninety minutes at least, this crowd is something far more than the sum of its parts this evening.
The band leave the stage to rapturous applause, but we know from the fact that Mark’s bass is already being given a good towelling down that we might JUST be getting the almost obligatory “One more song” and sure enough, that’s exactly what we get, in the form of “In Shreds” – “It seems to me, to be so contradictory – It seems to me, You count your blessings while they’re there” – I don’t think that anyone could doubt that we’ve been truly blessed tonight and have experienced something very special indeed.
Special shout outs also need to go to drummer Todd Demma and guitarist Stephen Rice, both of whom have had very big boots to fill indeed, but have carried out their roles with confidence and panache, ably complemented by Danny Ashberry on keyboards. It’s as though they’ve become part of the machinery (OK, so I couldn’t resist ONE more Chamelepun)
However, it’s not just “One More Song”, but two as the evening’s proceedings draw to a close with “Don’t Fall” and amazingly, most of us down the front have somehow managed not to. “I know your back’s against the wall, but this roaring silence won’t devour us all” bellows Mark triumphantly and just for a few precious minutes, we all believe him. We’re all in one piece. We’re all happy. We’re all safe. We are all Chameleons.
The Chameleons played: Paper Tigers, A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days, Here Today, Pleasure and Pain, Monkeyland, Looking Inwardly, Up the Down Escalator, Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In), Soul in Isolation, In Answer, Home Is Wear the Heart Is, Swamp Thing and Second Skin, In Shreds and Don’t Fall.
More information about Chameleons can be found HERE.