24-hour prophet people
The return of Manchester's Chameleons
In 1982, Manchester, England, was coming unglued. A tiny town roughly one-sixth the size of Atlanta, it was buckling beneath the pressure of plummeting employment, escalating racial tension and a police force whose methods of peacekeeping were medieval at best. A rash of street riots wreaked havoc across the hamlet's troubled Moss Side, and residents were forced from their crumbling homes into towering, faceless high-rises.
Meanwhile, Manchester's music scene, which was just beginning to crackle with life and possibility, had lost its wind with the suicide of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis.
So when Mark Burgess bellows, "Don't fall!" 15 seconds into the Chameleons' devastating 1983 debut, Script of the Bridge, the words are weighted with meaning. Bridge serves as a bracing introduction to a group that rose above the chaos only to vanish five years later in a fog of burned bridges and bad contracts.
It's strange luck, then, that the Chameleons' second coming also coincides with hubbub over their hometown — this time the lionizing of the city by pasty-faced hipsters as a result of Michael Winterbottom's Manchester-centered rockumentary, 24 Hour Party People.
But Burgess isn't buying the myth.
"Manchester sucks you in like a mire," he says from his home in Hamburg, Germany. "It's a great city with a great energy, but it can really drag you down."
And what about the Hacienda, the birth-of-rave hotspot where the Chameleons themselves once performed? "I thought the Hassy was very smart, but I didn't like to go there," he says. "It was very elitist. I hate those scenes where everyone stands outside on a freezing pavement whining, 'Pick me!'"
And so returns Mark Burgess, pop contrarian, dark poet and criminally unsung hero of early-'80s rock, a masterful songwriter with the eyes of a prophet and a voice like the Grim Reaper. He's speaking on the eve of the Chameleons' first U.S. tour in 15 years — one that will bring the group face to face at last with its substantial, rabid fan base. It's a tour that few thought would actually come off — least of all Burgess.
"For me personally, the band had ended very badly," he admits. "Everything that we had achieved wasn't worth it, because by the end we weren't friends anymore."
Burgess took up desk work for the Manchester City Football Club, but never fully disconnected from his past. "I had been using the Internet, and I knew that the band's fan base had grown," he says. "Eventually, [guitarist] Dave [Fielding] and I met up a couple of times, and the genesis of getting back together started over a pint."
Despite the passage of time, the group's early-'80s troika — Bridge, What Does Anything Mean? Basically and Strange Times — remain vital. Falling somewhere between Joy Division's blank despair and U2's arena rock grandeur, the records are driven by a sense of desperation. Songs such as "Singing Rule Brittania" and "Paper Tigers" are stark portraits of personal loss and political hypocrisy, with Burgess' haunting low-register vocals hovering above ghostly guitar patterns. While other bands alienate with abstraction, the Chameleons seduce with huge, swooping melodies. The Cure may have made despondency saleable, but the Chameleons made it hummable.
It's the potency of the songs that makes the group's live show so spectacular. Its initial string of comeback shows in the British town of Witchwood was lauded as breathless, jaw-dropping affairs. "It was totally mad," Burgess recalls. "The whole suburb became a sort of International Chameleons Festival. Indescribably brilliant, the whole week. We had planned to play two nights, which eventually became five nights, and they all sold out in three days. People were flying in from America, from Indonesia, from fucking Japan."
In conjunction with the tour, the Chameleons have delivered a new album, Why Call it Anything?, and Burgess is slowly developing a book about growing up in Manchester. The same bitter cynic who hammered out a warning in 1983 is again sounding the alarm bell for another generation visited by oppression and despair.
"Sometimes I feel like one of those geezers that walks around with a sandwich board that reads 'The End is Nigh.' Ultimately I'm pissing in the wind," he laughs. "But I am compelled to do it anyway."