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Friday, September 29, 2017

The Chameleons: Script Of The Bridge


1) Don't Fall; 2) Here Today; 3) Monkeyland; 4) Second Skin; 5) Up The Down Escalator; 6) Less Than Human; 7) Pleasure And Pain; 8) Thursday's Child; 9) As High As You Can Go; 10) A Person Isn't Safe Anywhere These Days; 11) Paper Tigers; 12) View From A Hill.

Oh no, not another band from Manchester! Well, from Middleton, to be precise, a town with but 42,000 inhabitants (as per 2011), meaning that approximately as much as 0.001% of the Middle­ton population came together as The Chameleons back in 1981 — a pretty impressive figure, if you ask me. Led by bass player, singer, and primary songwriter (I guess, although credits are democratically shared among all four members) Mark Burgess (no relation to Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, though who knows, if you go real deep in the past?..), The Chameleons also consisted of two guitarists, Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding, with no clear separation between rhythm and lead guitar duties; and drummer John Lever, a strong and passionate fellow who was, unfortunately, born in the wrong era of electronic enhancement.

These days, you do not hear all that much about The Chameleons, and there is a reason for this: while their ambitious debut, Script Of The Bridge, is often hailed as their best album, it really does not make that much of an impression if you arrive at it already after having dutifully dige­sted all the big New Wave / post-punk names of the era — starting with Joy Division and ending with early U2 and The Cure. The Chameleons were intelligent lads and they made good music, but in terms of style, they were followers, not leaders: nothing on this record sticks out as highly individualistic, a performance that you could never for the life of you confuse with somebody else — I mean, they didn't call themselves «The Chameleons» for nothing, right?

Nevertheless, once you have accepted the fact that this is «just another early Eighties band», it is also easy to accept the next few — that the guys were good songwriters, capable of coming up with their own hooks, clever lyrics, and reasonably optimistic / pessimistic moods that never went all the way up to the giddy heights of U2 or sunk down to the heavy depths of The Cure, but, in the process, also avoided the «inadequacy risks» commonly associated with either of these bands; that is, whenever Burgess and the boys sound uplifted or depressed, it comes across as less open­ly theatrical than when Bono or Robert Smith do it. Which is not necessarily a plus (at their best, Bono and Robert Smith blow these guys out of the water), but it works wonders on the consis­tency front — there is not a single song on Script Of The Bridge that would disgust or irritate me in any imaginable way.

The single worst thing about the album is the production: that big Eighties sound is present every­where, with all the songs thoroughly drenched in echo, all the drum parts futuristically enhanced by electronic processing, all the guitars steeped in reverb — co-producer Colin Richardson, who, odd enough, has almost exclusively worked with heavy metal bands outside of The Chameleons, made sure that fashions be respected and that the band be recognizable on the same arena-rock circuit as U2. Given the length of the record — its twelve songs clock in at just under an hour — this makes the first couple of listens fairly tedious for anybody who is not thoroughly enamored of «mullet pop». It does not make things easier that most of the songs are attached to the same type of rhythmic patterns — you know, «the U2 chug», where you spend most of the time metro­nomically bobbing your head up and down, with a twist to the right or to the left here and there when a chord change comes on. It starts out with ʽDon't Fallʼ and never really shifts that much right until the very end — making you wish that they'd at least include a Black Sabbath cover on there or something, because they are chameleons, aren't they?.. For a bunch of chameleons, these guys show a remarkably stubborn aversion to changing color.

Got that out of our system? Good, because when all is said and done, ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ is a great pop single: fast, energetic, anthemic, rebellious, with Burgess' rough, salt-of-the-earth, post-Paul Weller voice building up his set of complaints, ever faster and ever more aggressively, until it all comes down in the climactic hook of "there must be something wrong boys!" This, bar the dated production, is the kind of sound that never dies — inherited from The Clash and The Jam, it goes all the way up to Arcade Fire and beyond, and ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ can have a proud spot in this parade-of-the-disillusioned chart.

Overall, Burgess and Co. do a fine job at bottling the protest spirit without turning the record into an exaggerated «Goth» experience à la Bauhaus — most of the songs combine a spirit of despe­ration with that of defiance: ʽDon't Fallʼ is defined by a cackling vulture riff swooping up and down, but its message is "I'm running for the door, I'm out on the edge, but I'm not defeated yet... don't fall, my friend, all nightmares have an end", even if the second song already shows that this last phrase is an example of wishful thinking: ʽHere Todayʼ was apparently inspired by the shoo­ting of John Lennon (surprisingly, it shares its title with the Paul McCartney song inspired by the same event — coincidence or adulation?), and it does a good job at applying the same playing and production style to painting a musical portrait of a dying man's state of mind, even if the tempo might be a tad too fast for a dying man.

There is no need to speak about the individual properties of every song: the very titles such as ʽMonkeylandʼ and ʽLess Than Humanʼ speak for themselves as far as The Chameleons' artistic philosophy is concerned, and most of what there is to say is usually in connection with whichever other artist it reminds me the more of — for instance, ʽSecond Skinʼ is one of the best Cure songs that The Cure never wrote ("cold, numb and naked I emerged from my cocoon"), and the album's second single, ʽAs High As You Can Goʼ, with slightly less cavernous production could occupy a respectable position on any Duran Duran or even A-Ha record. For the last number, ʽView From A Hillʼ, they slow down the tempo a bit and provide the song and the album with an extended instrumental coda — atmosphere, atmosphere, and more atmosphere, all very Eighties and maybe just a little psychedelic, wrapping things up with a few moments of frozen melancholic beauty that seem to rely too much on stock tricks than inspiration, but how could they not end things on a suitably epic note? One thing that Script Of The Bridge has in spades is existentialist philo­sophy, and I'm sure Kierkegaard has already added the record to his little collection, wherever he might be at past, present, or future.

The album certainly deserves its thumbs up, although it also firmly establishes The Chameleons as a «B-grade» level artist, above which they would never be able to rise — however, solid B-grade is nothing to sneer at, and, for instance, if you want intelligent and meaningful lyrics rather than hyperbolic wallowing in self-misery or cryptic pseudo-poetry, these guys might be far pre­ferable to Robert Smith or David Thomas. In any case, ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ at least deser­ves a rightful place on any compilation of «flagman tunes» from the early Eighties, and ʽHere Todayʼ will be a standout on any Me, Me, Me And John tribute album.

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