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The Chameleons' Mark Burgess:
Under the Radar

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: June 18, 2003

An Evening with Mark Burgess
w/ Dickson LeBron from Atomic Breathing
Thursday, June 26
Omaha Healing Arts Center

1216 Howard St


There really is no reason why you should know who Mark Burgess is, or for that matter, his band The Chameleons. They never sought commercial fame; in fact, some might say they went out of their way to avoid it.

Formed in 1981 just outside of Manchester, England, The Chameleons were arguably one of alternative music's most influential bands of that decade. Headed by vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess, bands as diverse as The Cure, Kitchens of Distinction, For Against, Comsat Angels, Catherine Wheel and Echo & The Bunnymen have either been influenced by or compared to The Chameleons, while current-day faves Interpol owe a great debt to the band for their sound.

The Chameleons began developing an underground following with their debut, 1983's Script of the Bridge, released on Statik Records. By the time Strange Times was released on Geffen in 1986, The Chameleons were on the cusp of breaking through to a commercial market that The Cure would cultivate a year later with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. But it was never to be, because despite critical acclaim, Strange Times proved to be their last album. The band broke up in 1987.

Over the course of 15 years, Burgess and company watched as The Chameleons developed a following bigger than what they had enjoyed back in the '80s. It was constant requests from those fans that drove the band to organize a successful reunion tour of Europe and the United States last year.



Talking from a friend's home in San Francisco that he's using as a homebase for the solo-acoustic tour that brings him to Omaha June 26, Burgess said The Chameleons' reunion was a natural.

"Time heals all wounds," he said. "None of us could remember why we ever fought. When it was suggested that we play some shows together, it seemed like a good idea. We did five nights at a venue outside of Manchester, and then went on the road to Europe for 40 shows. Then last year did a tour of America. We discovered that a lot of people were flying to America just to see those shows."

Burgess, who now lives in Hamburg, said prior to the reunion band members had rarely been in contact with each other, and that the reunion was purely fan-driven. "We knew people were still buying our records because we were getting royalty checks," he said. "Even though we had an idea that the band was more popular than when we were originally together, we weren't prepared for the reception we received."

Despite that, The Chameleons continue to remain under the popular-culture radar, which is no surprise to Burgess. The band never tried to write commercial-friendly radio material. "We were about making records that interested us. We weren't interested in mainstream acceptance," he said. "Our songs were seven, eight or nine minutes long. That's not going to get you played on the radio, and without radio, you won't break into the mainstream. We just wanted to make good records, and the fact that they're still selling today means we did something right.

"I always thought of us as an underground band. As long as we could keep it going financially, we were more interested in staying out of the music industry. We found it insidious and not very artistic."

"Even though we had an idea that the band was more popular than when we were originally together, we weren't prepared for the reception we received."



The Chameleons circa 1984. Burgess is first from left.


"A lot of people have made the Interpol connection, but I don't hear it."



Artistic is a good way to describe The Chameleons' sound, which combines warm, ethereal melodies with crashing, chiming guitars. A typical song could go from a study in dark-night textures to a rising, glorious celebration. The key sonic features include echoing guitars, a throbbing, driving rhythm section and Burgess' intimate, personal vocals.

Burgess said comparisons to The Cure are most likely based on the fact that Dave Allen, who produced the Chameleons' later CDs, also produced The Cures' most popular late-'80s recordings, including Kiss Me… and Disintegration. The Interpol comparisons, however, are a complete mystery to him. "A lot of people have made the Interpol connection, but I don't hear it," he said. "But that could be because I'm in the band and so close to it."

Burgess said citations of their influence on other bands are "extremely flattering."

"It makes you feel like part of a great tradition," he said. "We got turned on by bands that inspired us. It's a wonderful feeling because you feel like you've made an impact."

The band currently is on a hiatus with the recent birth of guitarist Reg Smithies' son. "The baby's his focus right now, so there's not much we can do in the immediate future," Burgess said. "I got the idea of just going out and playing on my own. I never done anything quite like this before. It's something very different, and I'm trying to keep what I'm doing fresh. People have responded quite well to it in Europe."

He said many dates on the American leg of his solo tour were suggested by people in cities around the country, including Omaha's Stephen Sheehan (Bliss Repair, ex-Digital Sex), who wrote Burgess asking for a tour stop.

"A few people went 'Huh?' when they heard Omaha was on the tour," he said laughing. "I was surprised about Omaha, too. I looked at it geographically and it made sense. Stephen wrote me a nice letter saying, 'You'll probably be surprised, but rest assured there are people who want to see you.' I'm happy to get invited and hopefully people will be open for it and enjoy it."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader June 18, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.