Forever Surviving Thatcher

The Chameleons in 2024

To see The Chameleons play live is special.

Exuberant doom rock, Bratislava.

Although the band from Greater Manchester will never be rewarded as much as their impact deserves, their music has a tenacious hold on longtime fans and those who weren’t even born during their heyday in the 1980s.

When I saw they were coming to my home in Tucson, Arizona, I wondered what the crowd would be like.

The Chameleons were playing in the searing heat of mid-June, the worst possible time for artists to secure a decent audience, and would be performing their 1986 album Strange Times.

Not only was that record a commercial disappointment upon its release, but it isn’t available on streaming platforms like Spotify.

Who would come to the show?

I anticipated feeling bad for the band, but when I got to the venue, I realised that I should not have worried.

While they weren’t playing in a big concert hall, the audience was passionate and full of people who knew the album well.

It reminded me a little of Belorussian band Molchat Doma’s concert last year, when I was surprised to see teenagers singing along in Russian.

In a way, though, the reception for The Chameleons was more heartening.

Whereas Molchat Doma capitalised on one of their tunes becoming a worldwide TikTok hit, the British band that reunited only a short time before the pandemic had to rely on more traditional word of mouth.

Even at the peak of their fame, following the release of their debut album Script of the Bridge, The Chameleons never became superstars.

However, when finding an audience required radio play and the music press, the individuals who managed to discover them demonstrated the kind of loyalty bigger acts struggled to achieve.

I discovered the band in 1986 while I was an exchange student in Germany.

Living where I did in the United States, out of range of college radio, I had never heard of them. My new German friends, though, were deeply devoted to their brooding minor-key rock music.

At first, I didn’t realise that the songs they were playing over and over were by the same band. It seemed improbable to me that an artist outside the mainstream could be revered every bit as much as ones I’d seen on television back home.

Once I listened to all of Script of the Bridge, though, I understood why.

Mark Burgess sang with the full-throated intensity of Bono but without the self-aggrandising.

Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding’s guitars pulled off a similar feat. Although drenched with the effects favoured by U2 and other mainstream rock bands in a post-punk vein, they still sounded fresh.

John Lever’s powerful drumming ensured the band would never be mistaken for the Europop bands that were all the rage.

It also helped that The Chameleon’s distinctive cover art, created by Smithies, repudiated the major labels’ easily parodied MTV-friendly approach.

The band communicated stubborn self-possession back then, a willingness to go their own way, even though they weren’t technically on a major label.

And they continue to do so today.

Although Strange Times didn’t meet expectations back in 1986 and remains less known than their first two albums, they decided to give it a proper reissue and then tour to support it.

It’s hard to imagine a more anachronistic gesture, considering how streaming platforms and YouTube have marginalised the album format.

If you can get people to listen to an album from start to finish, you can convince them to buy it for posterity.

Judging by the queue at the merch table after their show, The Chameleons were able to do just that. Although some people were buying concert T-shirts, the best-selling item was the vinyl edition of Strange Times.

Maybe that’s what we need in 2024 when the staying power of music seems to be in greater doubt than at any time since the advent of the phonograph.

When I was watching The Chameleons, I thought of last year’s Molchat Doma show because the Russian Doomer aesthetic they exemplify is powerfully influenced by the alternative rock sound that emerged in the wake of punk in the early 1980s.

On the surface, nostalgia for that decade seems very different in the former Eastern Bloc than in the West.

Yet there are underlying continuities that move audiences worldwide, regardless of their place of origin.

With their steadfast commitment to making music the way they want, even if they have to fight the current, The Chameleons communicate a persistence that feels all the more critical today, when patience is as rare in culture as it is in politics.

Although the main set of their concert was devoted exclusively to Strange Times – with their allusion to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” making a powerful impression – they played some of their best-known songs during the encore and the new single they released this year.

As luck would have it, their final number was “Don’t Fall,” the first song I got to know during my time in Germany. Like everything they played, it sounded as good live as ever.

It was an anthem of survival in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and remains one today when the horrors of that era seem almost quaint.

These are strange and disturbing times indeed. But they are easier to bear when we come together to show our passion for a different way of being.

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Photograph courtesy of PALIO10. Published under a Creative Commons license.