Record Review: The Chameleons – “What Does Anything Mean? Basically” UK CD [part 2]

The Chameleons L-R: Dave Fielding, Reg Smithies, Mark Burgess, John Lever

[…continued from last post]

Was there ever a Post-Punk title more appropriate than “Looking Inwardly?” The music, more than lived up to the promise in such a moniker with cascades of drums and guitars building to powerful crescendos as Burgess, laid down his ethos. While “Singing Rule Brittania” was the only single released in the UK from the album, “One Flesh” went as far as a French promo 7″ that will set you back three figures today. The dreamlike guitars tumbled on a long delay until the middle eight, where the sound tightened up and the drums dropped out for several bars before new, more complex rhythms asserted their place in the second half of the song.

“Home Is Where The Heart is” was erected on an foundation of military tattoos and swells of shimmering synths. The guitars joined eventually to toughen up the sound, but only somewhat. The spotlight was mostly for the rhythm and the cinematic clouds of synth. At this point in the album, I was thinking of another album from about the same time period that I also loved and also trafficked in a similar brand of atmospheric Post-Punk and theme: “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” by Killing Joke. In fact, it can be argued that there were even vocal similarities between Mark Burgess and Jaz Coleman. Let’s say that they are concerned with the big picture and were definitely not crooners. The modulating synth figure that was all that remained of this one by its coda was as chilling as anything Killing Joke might have done around the same time.

The closing “P.S. Goodbye” was a more placid note on which the album originally ended. The guitars were gentler and the instrumental coda with the synths predominating was almost wistful for this otherwise melancholy album. But this CD was the 1995 edition and there were two bonus tracks appended to the running order that were not on the original vinyl.

Statik Records | UK | 12″ | 1985 | TAK 29/12

The Chameleons originally were signed to CBS Records in 1981, and released one single that year, “In Shreds.” Their debut as produced by Steve Lillywhite but they had a difference of opinion with the label and left for other climes. Ending up at Statik instead. In early 1985, prior to this album, Statik re-released the debut single and the A/B-sides of the 7″ single were added as bonus tracks.

“In Shreds” was a more rough and tumble affair without any of the synthesizer stylings of the current album. It was a bit closer to the 1981 Killing Joke mark. The drums were more brutal and the guitars less tranquil. As for Burgess, he always gave it his all, no matter how polished the music might be. By the song’s end here he was screaming “you’ve become part of the machinery” with acute venom over the pounding drums and circular guitar riff that wound up disappearing into the singularity of sound that ended the song.

“Nostalgia,” by turns, was a more laid back groove. Burgess was not shouting here and the melody was far less dark, even if the lyrics weren’t. The addition of these songs on the album served to point out how much development of sound the band had undergone in four years. The slight sprinkling of synths here were seeds that had obviously taken root in the intervening years.

It’s kind of ironic. I used to have the US LPs of “Script Of A Bridge” and “Strange Times,” But sold those off a generation ago with the intent of getting them on CD. Particularly when I found out that’ “Script Of A Bridge” had been shorn of a third of its songs time for American release! But I have never bought those CDs. I never run into them. Meanwhile, the second album, which I never heard back in the day,” is the only Chameleons album in the Record Cell today.

Listening to “What Does Anything Mean? Basically” today, I can certainly hear a lot of parallels between The Chameleons at this time and with my entry point into the world of Killing Joke. To my ears, this has the same aura of melancholy and resistance that Killing Joke were definitely exploring on the “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” album. It’s a smoother sound delving into choppy emotional waters where society is buffeting the personae of the writers. These songs sound [as do Killing Joke’s as well] like warnings from the front lines of society’s crushing pressures.

Burgess and Coleman were each working out their response to the terrible stimuli that was being fed to them from all corners. The music wept with the ineffable sense of the loss of something precious and dignified as each singer railed against the injustice of it all. I really must try to buy those other two albums that bookend this one as I have vary fond memories of then from the era but have not heard them in decades.

I see that they are available for less than a king’s ransom, but the LPs of “Script Of A Bridge” are bearing down on three figures now. Even the shredded US edition is aiming for $50. But I’ve no interest in the LPs. What I’m curious about are the reformation era CDs. The band managed two more albums in 2000 and 2001 before parting ways once again and I’m interesting in finding out how they sound. The band was a compelling mix of dreams and nightmares; the rough and the smooth that congealed into a powerful whole.


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6 Responses to Record Review: The Chameleons – “What Does Anything Mean? Basically” UK CD [part 2]

  1. RobC says:

    Love the comparison between this album and another undisputed classic, Killing Joke’s Brighter Than A Thousand Suns. Two albums I treasure and play frequently today. It’s amazing to think today about the diversity, quality and sheer brilliance the era (roughly 1976-1991) produced, and how some of these albums fell through the cracks – except for magazines like The Big Takeover. Both these LPs ended up in Jack Rabid’s top 10 albums of the year – but then again The Big Takeover was the place to go, a mag that championed the likes of The Sound, Sad Lovers And Giants, For Against, Comsat Angels, Killing Joke and The Chameleons.

    Thanks for the shining a spotlight on this crucial classic.


  2. iac4ad says:

    When it comes to the subject of CDs and bonus tracks I am more often than not ambivalent and can see the sense of them in many cases. For the original Statik CD of this album though, I just can’t get on with the addition of ‘In Shreds’ and ‘Nostalgia’ – they just don’t sit with the album as intended at all, both dating back a few years to 1981.

    Interesting angle on Killing Joke – hadn’t thought along those lines but see the sense in it – ‘Brighter Than A Thousand Suns’ is a particular personal favourite.

    Having picked a quibble above with the bonus tracks not being of the era, it’s worth noting that some of the tracks on the album pre-date the first album and can be found on some of the other releases such as the John Peel Sessions album and BBC Evening Sessions album. Despite having released only three studio albums while together originally, there are a variety of compilations that gather together radio session recordings, demos and live appearances. From the Peel and BBC Evening sessions releases alone you can construct a nearly complete alternative version of the album… Though I feel the album versions nail the songs.

    One exception to that though might be the ‘Tripping Dogs’ release, later tidied up and re-released as ‘Free Trade Hall Rehearsal’. A high quality recording of a pre-gig rehearsal – the original version includes between song chat and false starts. It captures the band at at a high-water mark and the version of ‘One Flesh’ I really like for the beautiful chiming guitar start in particular.

    The reunion album… for me, a bit like Ultravox – on paper it should have really worked – original line up, the sound is there… but somehow I felt a vital spark was missing. To be fair, it is a long time since I last listened so I should make time to revisit it. The other reformation albums were a mix of acoustic versions and revisits.

    Worth a mention too… the post-Chameleons Mark Burgess led band The Sun And The Moon – the album, single B sides and EP that was the sum of their output carry on the same feel and passion as the Chameleons, but sadly also were stifled by lack of success.


    • Echorich says:

      I love the music Mark Burgess and John Lever released as The Sun And The Moon. The band was fleshed out with Andy Clegg (who was on many of the uncredited synths and also played them live with The Chameleons) and Andy Whitaker who had a Manchester band called Music For Aborigines, which John Lever flitted in and out of over the years. Burgess was able to get Geffen who was The Chameleon’s US label to release the first two singles and a wonderful album, Le Soleil, La Lune. But no money or time was spent promoting the band and the moved on to indie label Midnight Music for their final EP, Alive; Not Dead. There’s a compilation of all their released music called The Great Escape out there, if you can find a reasonably priced copy.
      I have written a sum total of fan letters in my life. One to XTC – no response, one to Pete Wylie – replied to and turned into a summer of drunken nights in NYC and one to The Sun And The Moon, which was replied to by John Lever, who got all the members to sign a lobby card and sent it to me with a message of thanks for getting in touch on the back, written by John.
      Favorite The Sun And Moon tracks – Dolphin, The Speed Of Life, Limbo Land, Arabs And Americans.


      • RichDevoto says:

        Lucky enough to see the sun & the moon at the LSE in London back in the day – superb as I recall. WDAMB is my fave all time album – I still listen weekly.


        • postpunkmonk says:

          Rich Devoto – Welcome to the comments! So you saw The Sun = The Moon at Mick Jagger’s alma mater? Count yourself lucky. I’ve never had the chance in the Southeast United States where I’ve been living.


  3. Echorich says:

    Looking Inwardly is such a “Big” song. It’s a song with lofty lyrics and a strength of both musical and lyrical conviction that makes it kind of untouchable.
    One Flesh is another Chameleons classic for me. What gets me everytime is Mark Burgess’ delivery. He is one of Post Punks greatest lyricists and One Flesh is a particularly good example of his abilities. What sets him apart from many of his contemporaries is that he delivers his lyric as a poet read his poems, full of subtle and overt inflection to get across everything he needs to say.
    Home Is Where The Heart Is one of WDAM?B hidden gems. It is grandiose, self sustatining, but dark and foreboding. It has one of my favorite lyrics in it – “According to Hoyle, all cards on the table. What can you do, when life is unstable.” Oh and Monk, yes here I can definitely agree with your Killing Joke comparisons – in spades. (See what I did there?)
    P.S. Goodbye was one of my favorite Mixtape final songs during the 80s. It is just perfect in that role.
    I have to agree that In Shred and Nostalgia have no business being tacked on to the end of the album. They are Chameleons’ statement of intent and are all about setting out on their journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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