When it comes to the post-punk pantheon, The Chameleons—or The Chameleons UK, as they were known on this side of the pond—have been frequently and criminally overlooked. The Manchester-born band has been overshadowed by fellow Mancs like The Smiths and Joy Division, to whom they are often compared, as well as the usual suspects from the era. Such oversight is particularly troubling when one considers the trio of masterful albums the group’s first incarnation left behind. Those records—their 1983 debut, Script of the Bridge, 1985’s What Does Anything Mean? Basically, and Strange Times from 1986—brilliantly mix a darkened aesthetic, swirling guitars, and evocative lyricism that rivals anything by The Cure, Bunnymen, or Banshees.
Though the band reassembled in the early ’00s for a few albums and tours, since 2009, vocalist and bassist Mark Burgess has kept the band’s legacy alive under the moniker of ChameleonsVox. It is under this guise that he recently completed a jaunt through the U.S. labeled the Farewell Tour, playing in Brooklyn for the final date. (The band has clarified that they are not calling it quits, but no longer will be touring.) As Burgess explained when taking the stage, the show was very nearly cancelled as guitarist Chris Oliver had to fly back to England for a family emergency. Fortunately, a replacement was found, with Roger Lavallee of The Curtain Society filling in at the last minute.
It had also been previously announced that Burgess and company would be playing Script of the Bridge in its entirety, so it was no surprise when they launched into “Don’t Fall” after Burgess introduced Lavallee. If anyone was wondering if the 55-year-old Burgess was still up to the task of replicating this masterpiece live, all doubts were quickly dashed. What was also quickly apparent was that some of the aggression from the previous band’s set had carried over, with a small group of knucklheads’ thrashing about making it uncomfortable for others in the crowd upfront. (Shit talking between laughable opener Anasazi’s lead singer and an audience member had resulted in fisticuffs prior to the ChameleonsVox set.) Nevertheless, the gloom-laden interchange between Burgess’ bass and guitarist Neil Dwerryhouse’s lead was as riveting as ever and set the tone for a performance that captured the album’s every nuance.
Indeed, much of Script is slower paced and moodier than the opener, but songs like “Second Skin” and “Less Than Human” weren’t letdowns. Rather, they were intricate parts of the greater whole and didn’t seem lesser next to their counterparts. Of course, it was hard to ignore the sonic sparks flying during “Up the Down Escalator” and “As High As You Can Go.” Here, the band shined brightly, each song’s crystalline notes accented by the excellent work of The Wick’s soundman. Of course, the chiming guitar tones of “View from a Hill” signaled the denouement of both the album and the show. The band, however, did return for an encore, beginning with Strange Times’ “Swamp Thing” and including the single “Nostalgia” and two cuts from What Does Anything Mean? Basically, “Perfume Garden” and “Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In).” Burgess seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the response the band had received throughout the night, so one can hope that whatever sporadic dates are in the band’s future, New York will be included. Until then, this was an extraordinary night of music that shall remain cemented in my memory.