The politics of rock'n'roll is that a lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in the shops of boredom, on the dole or TV doldrums in Mum & Dad's living room, nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all. - Lester Bangs, 1987
It's been a long time Jack, welcome back...have some speed, have some smack. - The Chameleons, Mad Jack
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The Chameleons, London Shepherd's Bush Empire, 4/6/00
Christ, here we go again. Another review of 80s relics on the comeback trail. Well, why is it that we can only get excited about the bands that defined our youth? Why didn't the best bands of the 90s get us excited? Just us getting old, or was there something vital lacking in the music?
Martin Amis was on TV last week, lamenting the blandness of Blair's Britain ("Switzerland") and the lack of "vinegar" in society, and drew conclusions about the concomitant lack of stimulus for British artists. Well there was certainly some acid in the air in the Eighties. And the music was better, or at least alternative music was better (and Amis's books were better). Mainstream chart music was vacuous crap, the soundtrack to the amoral bankruptcy of the government, listened to by the brain-dead wankers with no pulse that voted Thatcher. For those suffering the downside of the Thatcher era, and with the sensibilities to rebel against it, there was at least the compensation of a healthy guitar-based independent scene, especially active in the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds M62 industrial region in the North of England. Small comfort, perhaps, but despair, beauty and a driving rebelliousness were a powerful combination to a generation that was being brought up to have no ambition.
Manchester's Chameleons were a prime example. Their three albums in the early-mid Eighties were rooted in the hopelessness of the times ("She's making me feel like I've never been born" from Singing Rule Britannia), yet from out of the industrial greyness created a beautiful, expansive sound, a counterpoint to the ugliness of the times. Their career was dogged by bad luck: CBS dropped them, inexplicably, after one single - the blistering In Shreds; their manager died in 1987, and after a huge row between singer Mark Burgess and guitarist Dave Fielding they split without having had a hit record and leaving only a few fond memories amongst an intensely loyal fan base. They didn't seem to have much of a legacy, although one might argue for a link between the Chams melodic riffs and the Stone Roses' first album. I occasionally dug out the albums, particularly the second, What Does Anything Mean, Basically?, usually on Saturday mornings when the sun was out and a carefree weekend beckoned.
A comeback was mooted over a few pints in Manchester earlier in the year, and after a few small gigs at a Lancashire pub attracted international attention it was realised that something larger was called for; hence the Manchester and London shows, which both sold out. Looking around the audience before the show it was striking that the average age was well over 30 - evidence that few new fans had been attracted to the band in recent years - and there was a smattering of bald spots, receding temples and full-blown greyness. The rug nightmare continued when the band appeared on stage; Burgess sporting a disgracefully unfashionable mullet. The wisdom of this particular comeback was being questioned as the band tuned up and checked mics...
...and then they kick into Swamp Thing, their best song, and it sounds magnificent. The drums are thumping, the vocals - that glorious melody - confident. But it's the guitars ... it's the guitars. Laden with effects, chorus, reverb, they gradually build, and build until there is this huge wall of noise that fills the hall. The moshpit gradually extends towards the back of the hall. It's a beautiful noise - far more appealing than grunge's distorted mess. The Eighties music press occasionally let rip with the risible phrase "cathedrals of sound". I never understood what they meant until tonight. Time and again guitarists Dave Fielding and Reg Smithers take off and the noise is almost tangible as it surrounds you. After Swamp Thing finishes there are huge cheers from the crowd. The applause goes on for a good two minutes, and for once at a gig the applause isn't perfunctory, there is genuine warmth. It's a huge moment - something you thought was lost forever coming back after 13 years and not having aged. Looking around there are even some people in tears. I've never known anything quite like it at a gig, and it's something I won't forget in a hurry. Burgess is quite overcome: "Unbelievable ... unbelievable ... second night running ... it feels good up here."
A Person Isn't Safe and Singing Rule Britannia, that vicious attack of Thatcherism, follow and are savage. For a good hour the performance is stellar. Second Skin equals the peaks reached by Swamp Thing, and the guitars do that thing again. In Shreds is blistering ("The noise in my head/the whore in my bed"). Things go awry for the encore, however. One Flesh is unnecessarily jazzed up by a guest rapper; it didn't work, there's no need to try to update this sound. The show ends, happily, though, with a dramatic Splitting In Two, the drums attacked so violently it feels like being repeatedly punched in the chest. This is a good thing.
On the Tube home, a girl is trying to work out how she'll explain the band to her friends at work the next day. 'If I say "Well, they're indie and play guitars", everyone will think I mean Oasis, and that's not right." No, it's not right. She needed to get more pretentious - if the Chams are to hang around, "sonic cathedrals of crystalline noise" has to be re-admitted into the critic's vocabulary. Against expectation, the Chameleons are back.
Picture: Mark Burgess at Manchester Academy, 3/6/00. Taken from The Guardian, 6/6/00.
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