Music Features

Interview: Mark Burgess (The Chameleons / Chameleons Vox)

Mark Burgess is in a good mood. It helps that just before we meet, his beloved Manchester City have just beaten Hull City 2-0,despite being down to ten men for the majority of the game. In the kitchen of his manager’s home in Middleton, a town just North of Manchester where Burgess grew up, he sits in his retro football shirt and enthuses of his team’s chances of winning the league title again. [Editor's note: Manchester City did indeed win the title yesterday)

As frontman and bassist of the Chameleons, he was part of a band that never quite reached the level some expected of them, despite the strengths in their favour – these being two wonderfully talented guitarists in Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding, a drummer with incredible strength, stamina and timing in John Lever and Burgess himself. He was, and still is, a frontman of some charisma. 

Currently, he’s leading Chameleons Vox, who have toured Europe and North America performing the old line-up’s material and are back on the road through May and June. Amongst the dates is a slot on an “Indie All-Dayer” at Manchester’s Academy Venue on May 24th. Other bands on the bill are the Wedding Present, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, the Frank and Walters, the Sultans of Ping and Cud. Chameleons Vox were a late addition to the bill.

“We did a show in London,” Burgess explains. “The agent got us in the dressing room and asked if we’d do it. We all talked about it and thought why not. It was a no-brainer, really. He asked us to do just the one show, in Manchester. But what happened was he got offers from Europe and it mushroomed.”

Dates in Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France have featured prior to the tour of England, yet Burgess initially had reservations about playing in his home city.

“I didn’t want to play Manchester again this year, after the Ritz show back in December, which was triumphant. It was probably one of the best shows we’ve done. So I thought if we’re going to do Manchester again, it can’t be any less than that. We’d have to think very carefully about what we’re doing and then this came up.”

The event will give Burgess a chance to catch up with Wedding Present frontman Dave Gedge – the two went to school together in Middleton, a town a few miles North of Manchester.

Their set, like with all of their dates on this tour, will be a full run-through of their debut album Script of the Bridge. Released in 1983, it was followed by What Does Anything Mean? Basically in 1985 and Strange Times a year later. The initial Burgess/Smithies/Fielding/Lever line-up split up in 1987 following the death of manager Tony Fletcher and though a reformation in 2000 brought an excellent album in Why Call It Anything?, old resentments (primarily between Burgess and Fielding) soon came to a head again, resulting in what appears to be a final break. This writer did see Burgess, Lever and Smithies briefly share a stage together in 2006 at a benefit concert for one-time Chameleons touring keyboard player Andy Moore, who was suffering from the effects of a brain tumour that would take his life a year later.

Their legacy remained strong enough to merit a reissue of Script of the Bridge in 2008, a double CD set with new artwork by Smithies. To Burgess, however, this wasn’t quite enough.

“When we got to the 25th anniversary of the album, I argued we couldn’t really have the reissue without a vinyl edition. And they were...” [here he makes a dismissive sound] “And it bugged me.”

A solution to this would come around a few years down the line.

“A friend of a friend knows Guy Massey and he was saying we’d been namechecked on his website. I knew who he was, obviously, after the Beatles stuff...”

Burgess remains a fan of the Fab Four, often inserting their lyrics into performances of Chameleons songs while the Chameleons recorded a version of Tomorrow Never Knows as a b-side. He decided a forward approach was the best option.

“I wrote to him and his manager wrote back. I was very cheeky, saying ‘we’ve got very little resources, but I really would love to see this album remastered on vinyl and I wondered if he’d be interested in doing it.’

“The manager said, you can imagine how busy he is since he won the Grammy, and I didn’t think anymore of it. But then two hours later, I got another message saying ‘I just spoke to him and he wants to do it.’

“So then I had to make to happen. I spoke to Simon, who manages the affairs of the original Chameleons, and put forward the vinyl idea again. He still wasn’t won over, but I said ‘if we got someone like, say, Guy Massey...’ Simon thought I’d gone insane, but said ‘obviously, theoretically, if you want to speculate, if someone like him was doing it, it would be different, but we can’t afford him’.

“I said, ‘well, if he was just doing it for the expenses...’ He thought I was completely mad and replied ‘yeah, obviously, if that happened, I’d be willing to do it.’ and I went ‘well, I’ve got news for you!’ He couldn’t believe it and all Guy said was ‘I’ll do it, but I’m going to do it at Abbey Road...’“

Sadly for Burgess, he was out of the country when the re-mastering took place: “I was getting text message updates from Simon through the whole process.” The finished work was then reissued on a double vinyl set, improving the sound quality of the original, on which the near-hour long album was crammed onto a single disc.

According to the singer, Massey was then very keen to do a similar job for Strange Times – “but Geffen wouldn’t let us do it.”

The Chameleons had signed to the label with some expectation, only to receiving a sobering wake-up call of the reality: “On the surface they appeared to be really progressive and one of the cooler major labels you could be on but behind the facade they were a joke.

“We never really fitted into any kind of corporate environment, which I knew from the beginning. It was the way it worked – we had such a big sound and the kind of music we were making suggested to these people we were in the same bracket as U2 and Simple Minds. But from our point of view, we had more in common with the Fall than those bands.”

Burgess’ negative experience with the world of major labels wasn’t exclusive to his band’s time on Geffen. Their debut single In Shreds was released on CBS in 1981, but if he had had his way, the Chameleons would have started their careers on an independent.

“We sent stuff to Factory, never got a reply,” he shrugs. “We also got in contact with Rough Trade who said the same as Cherry Red... ‘We really like it,but we think you should be on a major’.

The band appeared to fly totally under the Factory radar for some time: the journalist Mick Middles claimed that as late as 1985, Tony Wilson rang up him demanding to know “who are the Chameleons? Are they any good?” Perhaps he should have paid attention to what was going on at his own nightclub.

“When we played the Hacienda, they had no idea who we were. Somebody was booking gigs and said ‘we have to get this band in,’ because we pulled a good crowd in Manchester and word was getting around. So they put us on a season of local groups playing on a Friday night. The others were James, ForeignPress52nd Street and the Smiths. I think we got about 900 people, a lot of whom weren’t the sort to ordinarily go there, because they couldn’t afford it.”

On the subject of other indies: “I was disappointed that Cherry Red were telling us ‘go to a major’ when I didn’t want to be on a major label! We didn’t have that mentality.”

Even 30 years on, Burgess is clearly frustrated by the subject: “I couldn’t work it out. What does that mean? Did they see us as more mainstream? Because if I was in charge of an indie label and I found U2 in, say, 1980, and they wanted to work for me, I would have been doing a fucking jig. I wouldn’t have been saying ‘go to Island’.”

On signing a publishing deal with Virgin, a showcase gig in London was organised, which was attended by people from several majors, and offers were put on the table. “The consensus in the band was ‘CBS’... And I’m like, this is bullshit, why do we want to be on the same label as Adam Ant? I mean I used to like (the original) Adam and the Ants, but I’d seen what a label had done to them.”

Studio time was set up with Producer Steve Lillywhite, at that time enjoying a strong reputation after working with XTCU2 and the Psychedelic Furs amongst others. Yet Burgess feels it wasn’t the right choice for a song he maintains is amongst his strongest work.

“CBS didn’t know what they had in us. We had to fight to get In Shreds out. Even now, that’s a brilliant single, a proper rock and roll song. Everything just clicks, it’s natural, not overcomplicated and says a lot of valid things. We couldn’t understand why we were the only ones who thought that – even the producer didn’t want to put it out. In the end, we got it out as a compromise, on a limited run.

“Then people were going to Lillywhite and saying ‘that is such a brilliant single.’ So he does a U-turn and says he might be interested in doing the album. But when he finds out it’s not going to be ten versions of In Shreds, he backed out.

“We had meetings with some name producers, all of whom told us our songs were too long. Our attitude was ‘fuck you.’ “We phoned CBS and said ‘it’s not happening. We’ve decided to take our engineer Colin Richardson and produce it ourselves in a top studio.’ The next day, we were off the label!”

I ask of the producers around at the time, were there any he thinks the band could have dealt with? “I would have loved to have worked with John Porter, who produced the first Smiths album. What Difference Does It Make? is the perfect pop single.”

Script of the Bridge appeared in 1983 on the Statik label: “It came together really organically, because it was a collaborative effort. We were in our third year as a band.”

A sample of the album had appeared a year before, on a compilation album entitled Your Secret’s Safe With Us, which also featured some little known band from Sheffield called Pulp. For their own debut long player, promotion proved a tricky matter, though one which Burgess himself had a somewhat ambivalent approach to.

“We never got asked to be on TV. The people at the label might have been running around trying to get us on shows, but we didn’t really care about it. We got approached about maybe being on the Tube, which I didn’t know much about as at the time I never watched TV. If had been The Old Grey Whistle Test it would have been different. I would have talked to them all night about the bands that had been on it back in the 1970s.”

After the band initially split in 1987, Burgess formed the Sun and the Moon with John Lever, releasing one self-titled album on Geffen before his life took a different direction.

“I spent a little period in the 1990s doing the nine-to-five and it wasn’t for me. That was the first ‘real’ job I’d done, working at Manchester City. It had all the trappings that most people enjoy, regular money, nice car outside, but it was boring. I was living in a cul-de-sac,which was a metaphor for what my life had become.”

I ask if his life had become like the subject matter of the song Childhood, from Strange Times – “my life is a Barclays loan now, with a mortgage to pay”– and he gives a little chuckle of agreement. He tried to keep his hand in music in his free time, but after the end of his marriage, a change was required.

“I moved to Hamburg, played with some different people, not for any real reason but the joy of it. But it wasn’t until the Chameleons got back together in 2000 that music became the centre of things again.”

He’s been working on stage and in studio since,with Chameleons Vox having a fluid membership that allows Burgess to play the songs when and where required. John Lever had took up the drum stool initially though he’s been missing in action in recent times: “He hurt his hand last year, which stopped him from playing, but now we’re not sure why he’s not in the band. He’s telling people we’ve fired him, when we haven’t,” shrugs Burgess.

Instead, long-time friend and collaborator Yves Altana has took up drumming duties alongside guitarists Chris Oliver and Neil Dwerryhouse. It is with Oliver that Burgess has been writing new material: “I always prefer to write with others. I’ve gone through phases of writing alone, but it’s not a process I enjoy. Some people thrive on that, but I like working with somebody who can throw something in that’s totally left-field, that challenges me.”

Last November saw the release of the M+D=1(8) EP,and I suggest that the lead track, Sycophant, is the angriest sounding song he’s ever been on, an assessment to which he readily agrees.

“It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done, whether with the Chameleons or on my own. It was the first song I’d co-wrote with Chris. He sent me the music, and the vibe of it suggested the rest of the song.

“He’d come up with the arrangement with Neil and sent it to me, asking if I could do anything with it. At first I thought, ‘not really’. But then I thought it over, took the tempo up and it worked. I came up with the words, and then immediately it reminded me of the kind of record that made me want to play in a band back in 1978 – that post-punk sound, like the Fall. I could imagine hearing it at the Russell Club.

“And I still get the buzz from making new music. More, even, because it gets harder to do it.”

Working as Chameleons Vox evidentially suits Burgess: “The band are excellent. They are really passionate about the music in a way the old band weren’t. For me, personally, I enjoy this far,far more than I used to.”

Though some of the old fans have taken a somewhat snotty approach to him performing Chameleons songs without all the original members, plenty of others are grateful and are not shy in telling the singer what it all meant to them: “I can’t be objective about it,” he states. “I was there, I was part of the process and so have a different perspective on the music. When you have someone in front of you telling you what your music has done for their life, you have to take that seriously, but I can’t let it get to me too much.

“I know what it [the band] means to me,” he concludes. “I’ve struggled through life because of the Chameleons, but the one thing it’s given me that I’m grateful for, which is the most precious thing anyways, is that it’s given me the freedom to do what I want. If I want to stay in Middleton, I can do it. If I want to go somewhere else, I can. There’s always somebody who’ll say to me ‘we’d like you to make a record.’”