Monday, July 09, 2007

Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"

I don't read many music blogs or news sites, but I've been sucked in by Idolator, though not so much for the buying advice, the gossip, or the requisite snarkiness. Rather, the site's editors seem to have a broader view of the musical landscape, removed from crowning and/or tearing down the latest indie sensation.

One of my favorite semi-regular features on Idolator is the Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda Files, which celebrates releases that never gained traction with the general public, always a popular topic among dedicated music fans. Thus, I'm kicking off my version of every music lover's favorite game: If I Ruled the World. I'll probably cough up a few more iterations in this series whenever the concert schedule slows down.

The Chameleons U.K., Strange Times
The Chameleons U.K., Strange TimesTo everyone who's read this blog for the last two-plus years: thank you kindly. But I've been a little disingenuous, as my longstanding Anglophilia has been woefully underrepresented on easily fooled. I'm just not that excited about the current crop of bands from England, but who knows? It's not the first time I've sworn off the U.K. hype machine, only to be fully assimilated by some shambling outfit out of Manchester, England.

Which brings me right to the Chameleons (or the Chameleons U.K., as they were known in the United States), who were indeed a shambling outfit out of Manchester, England. You can read the bio on allmusic, but a short recap: Formed in the early '80s, the Chameleons were classic underdogs who faced their share of Behind the Music-style cliches--early critical acclaim, followed by record company fiascoes, then eventually unraveling under the weight of personal issues.

The Chameleons weren't unknown in the States; they had a couple of "modern rock" hits ("Tears" and "Swamp Thing") off Strange Times, and they toured here at least once--including a visit to One Step Beyond, a club in Santa Clara, California, I frequented as a teenager on its "youth nights" (bwahahahaha). Strange Times, backed by Geffen Records, was supposed to be their breakthrough in America, and they even got a write-up in the New York Times. Alas, it turned out to be their swan song, though numerous live albums and reissues came out later. I finally got to see them live in 2000 when they regrouped, but they broke up again the following year.

Though my cultural barometer is shot these days, I swear that neither the Smiths nor the Cure were popular in 1983 at Sylvandale Junior High--or in 1987 at Oak Grove High School, for that matter. But I can assure everyone that the Chameleons have never broken through to anything approaching the level of notoriety enjoyed by either former cult band. Case in point: A dear friend I've known 20+ years is also a major Chameleons fan, but for several years after meeting each other, we didn't realize we had this in common, though we talked about music all the time.

If you read this blog for my current musical preferences, this album is likely not for you. The production on Strange Times is straight up '80s--that is, the drums are huge, but oddly, they're slightly turned down from the Chameleons' earlier releases. And synth fills were used in the making of this album. But hey, if you can listen to U2's early releases, you should be able to give the Chameleons a chance.

If, then, you put the disc on for a spin, you'll hear the lead-off track "Mad Jack" and its opening thunderbolt of guitar. About 5 seconds into the second track "Caution," you might notice a tickle of fretwork, followed about 20 seconds later by shimmery, expansive chords that are so welcoming, they practically roll out the carpet for you. Dave Fielding was the man responsible for that sound, one of the two elements that sealed the Chameleons' standing in my book. At the time, all I knew was that he made it sound soooooo cool, simultaneously jagged and crystalline, nothing like the vapid, preening cock rock that has always ruled American radio. This was my idea of heaven; for many years afterward, nearly any band that came close to those acoustics went straight to the top of my list of new faves. But all in due time.

The Chameleons grabbed me on another front: Mark Burgess's impassioned lyrics and vocals. OK, that's two things, but they're kinda the same. Again, to unfamiliar ears, the lyrics, like the production, might seem over the top, but they were both a salve and a spark to my angst-ridden teenage soul. Certainly songs such as "Childhood," "I Remember," and "Time/The End of Time," fixated on the past, but the tunes that stayed with me addressed feelings of alienation and the struggle to remain an individual. For example, there's "Soul in Isolation," with its cry of "I'm alive in here" (and its ability, to this day, to make one of my best friends burst into tears); the sprawling, spiraling "Caution"; and a lyrical nod to Wordsworth in "Swamp Thing," which always struck me as an '80s-stamped bastard child of "Come Together."

If you ask any former New Waver about the Chameleons, odds are the only song they'll remember by the band is "Tears"--as well they should. This was the Chameleons' take on pop perfection: guileless but not cloying lyrics about loss; a sunny but forceful melody; a steady, emphatic beat; and lucid touches of guitar. "Tears," along with the unexpectedly tender "In Answer" ("you own my soul're all that matters to me"), showed a delicate side to this otherwise gruff Manchester crew.

» The Chameleons: "Mad Jack"
» The Chameleons: "Caution"
» The Chameleons: "Tears (Original Version)"

See also:
» Star Hits: a tribute


T.J. said...

I probably mentioned this before, but in my alternate universe, Morrissey recruited Smithies and Fielding after Viva Hate and made 6 albums of groundbreaking music; basically inventing the popular genre of Anthemic Psych Mope.

pneyu said...

This is the first I've heard of it. I can't believe you've been holding out. You should whip up some album covers for the band; I'll see if I can think up some song titles.

Strangely, I heard "Swamp Thing" on a commercial radio station (Indie 103, to be exact) this weekend while driving around Los Angeles. Granted, it was around 2 am, but I'll never turn down a chance to hear that huge, plodding opening beat over the airwaves.

El Lovecrafto said...

I loved "Script Of The Bridge and What Does...", but when I listened to the first 5 songs in "Strange Times" my jaw fell to the floor. Especially with "Soul In Isolation", wich I find just cathartic.

Thanks for your review!