Record Review: The Chameleons – “What Does Anything Mean? Basically” UK CD [part 1]

Dead Dead Good | UK | CD | 1995 | GOOD CD 7
  1. Silence, Sea And Sky
  2. Perfume Garden
  3. Intrigue In Tangiers
  4. Return Of The Roughnecks
  5. Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In)
  6. On The Beach
  7. Looking Inwardly
  8. One Flesh
  9. P.S. Goodbye
  10. In Shreds
  11. Nostalgia

I first heard The Chameleons on college radio in 1983 when I was taken with the material I was hearing from their “Script of the Bridge” album. “Don’t Fall” and “Up The Down Escalator” sounded like what U2 wished they were doing; actual Post-Punk guitar rock with some blood in its veins. U2, as I’d heard them from 1982 onward, just seemed like tourists in this art space. Meanwhile Mark Burgess sang it like he meant it and the creative twin guitars of Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies sat comfortably in the Post-Punk toybox as defined by John McGeoch with echoplex and delays being used to amplify the band’s penchant for moody atmospheres.

Though the band was, for my ears, a necessary respite from the curse of too many synthesizers, the synths are in the mix, even though the albums do not have specific credits for them. But they were a minor note in this band of Post-Punk Rock. One that flirted with Gothic sounds if not specifically in lyric imagery. Their vibe was congruent to the dreamy, neo-psychedelia of certain Bauhaus tracks or “Kiss In The Dreamhouse” era Siouxsie + The Banshees; which pointed once again to McGeoch. But this sophomore album disarmed by opening with a brief ambient instrumental, “Silence, Sea And Sky,” which was all synths.

That all changed once the driving yet dreamlike “Perfume Garden” got underway. The drumming by John Lever was decidedly motorik in style, though the guitars were split between lyrical phrases and an atmospheric haze of sound that in other bands would have been relegated to synths. But with two guitarists they had strings to spare. Listen.

“Intrigue In Tangiers” lived up to the premise of its title as the song stepped into the spotlight with seashore foley sound effects and gentle acoustic guitars eventually giving way after 45 seconds to the more typical heavier drums and guitars. At least until the point where the acoustics returned with a vengeance and held sway until the song’s finish.

The intensity went further than just “intrigue” on the more forceful “Return Of the Roughnecks.” The darkly cinematic vibe showed the album at the flashpoint where it went from smouldering to fully aflame. The thunderdrums were pummeling in their motorik fury and the guitars managed to bite even as Mr. Burgess unleashed his full angst on the indignities of the time. Which, after 36 years, remain with us still.

You want to climb

But when you try to climb

You see the ladder getting shorter

You want to drink

But when you try to drink

There’s someone pissing in the water

Return Of The Roughnecks

the-chameleons-singingrulesbrittaniauk12a

There were only two singles from this album period and “Singing Rule Brittania [While the Walls Close In]” was a dreamlike swell of guitars as the beat faded in to the intro here. The track coalesced into a paradoxical sound that both surged forward and remained locked in stasis as the rhythm guitar descended on the downbeat and the harmonic guitar rose on an upbeat. Burgess’ bass got space in the mix to step out between these extremes on the middle eight. It sounded more like a deep cut than what one would expect for a single. Perhaps its simplicity of construction led to it being chosen as a single.

Comparatively, “On The Beach” sported a stronger, more developed melody while still offering a sound that didn’t stray far from the band’s target of a bruised, world-weary melancholy that still carried the seeds of defiance within. That Burgess managed to have his singing hit rare major keys in the song’s climax was the biggest surprise on this consistent sophomore album.

Next: …Of Flesh + Hearts

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16 Responses to Record Review: The Chameleons – “What Does Anything Mean? Basically” UK CD [part 1]

  1. VersionCrazy says:

    Such a brilliant album that one, not a bad song on it and the sound they crafted – have heard many bands that have clearly been inspired by it. Such a pity that they never achieved the level of success they were due and the internal dynamics of the original band members have proved to be so damaging over the years.

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  2. RobC says:

    Undisputed classic. Others may disagree but this LP to me is their finest creation. In fact, it rates as one of my favourite albums of all time. There’s something magical, timeless and of pure primal emotion happening here. A true tour-de-force and undisputed masterpiece.

    Thanks for featuring.

    Btw it’s John Lever (I think the spell check got you there) Sadly the great drummer passed in 2017 at the young age of 55.

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  3. Vlad says:

    Thank you for pointing out the first track! Always wondered what was it with bands in 1980-83. So many instrumentals that were not simply B-sides but even part of the albums, often the starting point of them. And sometimes they were a true wonder! Was it a fashion of the times or what? I got so accustomed to this that the (broadly speaking) “new wave” album feels incomplete to me without an instrumental.

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Vlad – Nice to see you visiting. It’s hard to say why the New Wave instrumental went in and out of vogue as it did. I often think about compiling a Simple Minds instrumental CD-R from all of their classics in the genre. Jim Kerr’s quote about not touching “Theme For great Cities” was somewhat priceless. It’s just a tragedy that he didn’t leave well enough alone and let “Let The Children Speak” happen ten years later. “Real Life” was not the worst Simple Minds album of their stadium period, but it would sound a lot better without that song!

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      • Vlad says:

        I think I know that Kerr’s quote :) Fully agree, Simple Minds were (and maybe still are, have to check) in top form when I came to instrumentals. I love this side of their repertoire, “Theme for great cities” is among my most beloved instrumentals. Also have a huge soft spot for “Brass band in African chimes”, I could listen to half an hour of it :) And yes, they should’ve been doing more instrumentals in the 1990s instead of some of the dodgy political statements…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. djjedredy says:

    The Chameleons always seemed to get ignored in the discussion about great Manchester bands. Too emotive, too Gothic – they went their own way and still have a hardcore fanbase. Burgess is a living legend and still can cut it live.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. zoo says:

    One of my favorite bands ever. Love this album. Saw Mark Burgess with a backup band in 2019 in a small club in Tampa and it was amazing. These songs are brilliant and timeless.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – I remember that show! We wrote about the Chameleons Vox tour and you and Echorich were definitely attending. Glad you made it. Can’t say I would have missed in either, had it been on my doorstep. The songs are very well written and have a lot of staying power. A trait that is not mandatory for my enjoyment of music, but one that’s nonetheless appreciated.

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  6. Andy B says:

    A band that deserved far more recognition than it got. Unfortunately in the UK the albums and singles didn’t sell. Ask the average Joe what they thought of The Chameleons. Most responses would be “who”? Yet some very average groups went on to be come world famous. There’s no justice.

    This is a good album but I prefer their debut and their third albums. The songs gripped me more. I do like the fact that they added synths to the tracks but allowing the guitars to dominate.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Andy B – I have really fond memories of “Script Of The Bridge” and “Strange Times” and I am inclined to also rate them more highly than this one, but I can’t really point to any weaknesses in it. And Andy…many [many] sub-average bands have somehow managed to conquer the world.

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  7. michaellomon says:

    As a kid who grew up in Manchester AND was specifically interested in gothic tinged post punk/rock, the fact that I was buying albums by oh I don’t know Fields of the Nephilim and The Mission (no offense Carl and Wayne nuff respect) before Chameleons says it all. It’s as if fate wanted to hide them away for its own private record listening sessions. But the pleasure of hearing Swamp Thing/In Shreds etc with totally fresh ears almost makes up for it.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      michaellomon – Wow. Fields of the Nephilim? You were on the hard stuff! I think of them as a mid-80s phenomenon where The Chameleons managed to reach my ears in the cultural backwaters of Central Florida in 1983. It’s a mystery [cue Toyah…]. But at least you finally heard them! That’s what ultimately mattered. I have to say that I found the bands that were branded Goth once it became a “thing” to be uninteresting. Once they had that label defined the pose overshadowed the music. Like any other trend, I guess. Though I once saw The Mission in concert. My friend and I had gone to the show because they were touring with The Wonder Stuff but even though they pulled out of the tour, we still went because it was something to do in Atlanta for excitement thin on the ground in Orlando.

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  8. Echorich says:

    Sorry, I have been disconnected from regular attendance in this corner of the blogosphere for the past 5 or 6 days, so I am late to this Post Punk Party…
    I first have to admit that I was SO taken by Script Of The Bridge, it had such a lasting impact on me, that I gave What’s Does Anything Mean? Basically a bit of short shrift. Looking back it was kind of odd because I had seen The Chameleons twice in the lead up to the album’s release and had heard Intrigue In Tangiers and Return Of The Roughnecks both times. I was purchased and listened to as soon as it was available in my favorite import record store – Freebing Records, but it didn’t hit me as immediately as the debut. The album’s biggest competition for my ears in that late spring of 1985 was New Order’s Low-Life which fully enveloped me for a good few months. But by the end of the summer of 1985, getting ready to start my final year of college, WDAM?B was just what I needed to refocus from a summer of nights out and next morning hangovers.
    I agree, wholeheartedly Monk, that opener Silence, Sea and Sky is a disarming opening, but there is a beauty and sadness that end up being two of the albums enduring themes. It an album closer that is turned on its head and works as an engaging opener. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it is a kind of final coda that was left off of the end of Script Of The Bridge but manages to tie the two albums together.
    Perfume Garden has, over time became one of my favorite Chameleons songs. It is one of the saddest angry songs I know.
    Intrigue In Tangiers opens in tranquil waters, but then, it grips you by the throat as it lays out it’s cautionary tale.
    Return Of The Roughnecks eschews all melancholy pretensions and goes right for the gut.
    Singing Rule Britannia has a wonderful Sixties Psychedelic feel to it with a wall of sound knitted together by all concerned.
    On The Beach is a close to a Pop Song that The Chameleons ever really got near. It should have been a hit.

    Liked by 1 person

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