The Chameleons - Strange Times
By: Brett Spaceman
By their third album, The Chameleons found themselves on David Geffens label and what represented for them a flirtation with the big time. Luck had stalked the cult, Manchester band throughout their career. Too little of it of the good variety but the Geffen move (and that’s a whole story by itself) offered a last, best chance to redress the balance. We all, those of us who followed the group, felt they deserved it, felt it was their time. Johnny Marr was blowing off The Smiths, Stone Roses hadn’t happened yet, New Order had their best days behind them and The Fall were plodding on, being The Fall and living off John Peel’s patronage. We all hoped it was The Chameleons moment, but in our hearts we all knew they would fuck it up spectacularly.
Strange Times is a brilliant album. I come back to it over and over again but when I first played it I hated it. In the days of vinyl, side one of Strange Times was so claustrophobic and impenetrable you’d forgive anyone for bailing out. This record can make The Bends seem like The Tweets. Which is a pity because the albums second half is all light, ambience and dreamy reflection. Maybe if the band reflected now, they might reconsider a running order which sees the dense, cathartic ‘Caution’ in position two on the album and the crushing, walls closing in, grandeur of ‘Soul In Isolation’ at position four. Talk about commercial suicide. Effectively the first half’s lightest, most accessible piece was the heartbreaking lament to a lost friend, ‘Tears’. It was as though the band wilfully manoeuvred to alienate themselves from new listeners, critics and even the label (Nothing here suitable for radio play) They had a reputation for self destruction and it became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Get to know Strange Times and you get to love it. Opening title,’ Mad Jack’ is the one and only time the ‘old’, anthemic Chameleons are evidenced – a stepping stone from the What Does Anything Mean, Basically era Chams to a newer, slightly progressive model. Witness ‘Swamp Thing’s cosmic guitar opening, or the now legendary drum roll on ‘Soul In Isolation’. The band were at the height of their powers. The interplaying guitars of Fielding and Smithies were already etched into Manchester music folklore but never bettered than on Strange Times. Also coming of age (and dealing with exactly that), Burgess thoughtful, sensitive lyrics. Aging, loss of innocence, grief – all touched upon. Plus, in ‘Mad Jack’, Burgess created his wild, salivating alter ego – a manifestation of President, junkie, salesman madness – a Major Tom for the eighties and a character who would crop up again in future recordings.
Was it their time or was their time slipping away? They were in the right place, certainly (Manchester… Geffen) but the timing couldn’t have been more wrong. In a decade of great singles and great singles bands The Chameleons knocked out three near perfect albums and not nearly enough people took notice. A heartbeat after Strange Times was completed, The Chameleons ripped themselves apart. In-fighting doesn’t cover the half of it. When you have more than one creative element in a band it’s like a love affair and the magic it creates goes beyond anything an individual can envision. When a love affair goes sour, you don’t need me to tell you how bitter and ugly that can become. Yet what a legacy The Chameleons left us. Strange Times, at its darkest, predicted the angst rock of the nineties and bands like Radiohead, Puressence and even the Manics whilst the albums contemplative moments anticipated the lighter, decaffeinated melancholy of Coldplay and Travis.
As a listener, once you unlocked The Chameleons, there was no going back. They meant everything to their fans because they had everything, were everything. Listen today and you hear traces of The Chameleons sound everywhere. Interpol, White Lies, Editors, The Killers, The Domino State…all those bands owe a debt. (And all the critics namecheck The Chameleons) It’s as though The Chameleons were the eighties Velvet Underground. Few people ever heard them, but those who did were inspired to form bands. And as good as any of those other groups undeniably are, I defy anyone to name one that could compete with The Chameleons on every level. Some can manage the beautiful, melodic, chiming chords, for example, but can’t do anthems. Others approximate their icy, gothic doom but can never match the lyrics. The Chameleons had the lot and put it all together with exponential synergy.
To proclaim any one of The Chameleons albums to be their “best” is a surefire way of starting a bar brawl in North Manchester. (Light the blue touchpaper and stand well back) That, more than anything is testament to the bands enduring affection and the love people feel towards this music. It’s a pity the passion isn’t wider spread. The band take their share of the blame of course – refusing to compromise, insisting the music would speak for itself. They were ahead of their time. Today, arguably is more The Chameleons time than then. Strange Times indeed.