Timing. Some say it’s what counts most in life, and perhaps that’s true. If so, Manchester’s Chameleons UK (apparently there is still some other, non-Anglo version floating around out there somewhere) could be accused of doing their very best to test that hypothesis. This is, after all, the band that split in 1986 after releasing one of the finest albums of the 1980s, Strange Times, their third-long player overall and major label debut in the US. With that album’s “Swamp Thing” getting major college radio airplay, and with the critical raves piling up, the band suddenly imploded amidst the “internal bickerings” that have torpedoed many an act, with singer Mark Burgess’ rumored heavy drinking habits and wild mood swings getting most of the blame. All the momentum that had been generated ground to a halt. Fellow moody Mancunians the Smiths went on to garner much of the acclaim and subsequent rock mythologizing that might have easily belonged to the Chameleons (only to themselves succumb to similar “internal problems” a year or so later).
Fast forward to 2002, and suddenly Manchester is back in vogue, with the raucous documentary film 24 Hour Party People providing those who weren’t around the first time—and even those who were—with a taste of what all the fuss was about, and hip new American bands like Interpol liberally sampling the musical wares of Mancunians such as Joy Division and, yes, the Chameleons. So when the band’s appearance in Toronto was announced amidst all this cultural buzz, it seemed that perhaps the band had finally gotten the “timing thing” figured out.
The answer to that notion, is, well, yes and no. While many evenings in Canada’s largest metropolis pass by without much of real interest happening musically, on this particular evening, it just so happened that those hot New Yawkers the Strokes, with only one album out mind you, were playing to 4500 punters at a barn down the street usually reserved for local sports clubs the Maple Leafs and Raptors. Not only that, but something called Hoobastank had sold out another popular local music venue, while Ireland’s Hothouse Flowers served up their best Van Morrison-via-Springsteen good-time vibe-ola at another nearby watering hole for those intent on a trip down that 1980s memory lane. All-in-all, a lot of competition for the concert-goer’s dollar—and not great timing for the return of an obscure 1980s alt-rock band.
Let’s just say that the smart Torontonians (around 200 or so) who showed up at the Phoenix very likely got the most for their money on this particular evening. The very good news that became apparent as the Chameleons rather cheekily launched into their best known song, the aforementioned “Swamp Thing”, to start the show was not only how good they sounded, but how damn good they looked: rumored excesses aside, time has not taken much of a toll on these boys, who could pass for the Strokes’ slightly older brothers (with more varied CD collections). Not a bunch of sad old geezers out for a day’s pay, for sure, but rather still vibrant and looking ready to rock out.
OK, so it took a little while for the band (Burgess on vocals and bass, guitarists Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies, drummer John Lever and percussionist Kwasi Asante) to limber up, but by the time they launched into the set’s fifth tune, the spine-tingling “Intrigue in Tangiers” from their sophomore effort What Does Anything Mean? Basically, with Burgess’ impassioned refrain, “Brother can you hear my voice?” sounding appropriately messianic in a way Bono only wishes he could, the Chameleons could really do no wrong. Suddenly a crowd of 200 sounded more like 2000, so rapturous was their response. And Burgess, with his Shroud of Turin t-shirt, tight leather trousers, and longish (dyed?) black locks, no doubt tried his best to fill the currently vacant rock messiah role, even if, with his oversized beak and a few additional pounds, he did visually evoke a bizarre cross between rock god Jim Morrison circa Morrison Hotel and rock geek Geddy Lee of Rush (circa anytime).
To the band’s credit, newer material such as “Dangerous Land” (from the band’s 2001 comeback effort Why Call It Anything?) meshed seamlessly with the older material, which hit its emotive peak on the Strange Times combo of “Tears” and “Soul in Isolation”. The former’s gently ambient, neo-psychedelic touches and the latter’s impassioned lyrical cry of existential alienation (“But most of you are much too ill / Way beyond a surgeon’s skill / In bondage to a dollar bill / What more can you buy, buy buy?”) both evoked the vibe and outlook of late-period, Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd, perhaps anathema to the punk generation, but a key underacknowledged source of inspiration for Manchester’s gloomy, yet somehow ultimately uplifting, post-punk sound. And a special word of praise here for the blistering drumming of Lever, the first skin-beater I’ve seen in a long time for whom a comparison to rock’s greatest drummer, the late John Bonham, wouldn’t be mere rockcrit hyperbole. In contrast, percussionist Asante seemed lost, mostly musically inaudible and verbally incomprehensible during his between-song diatribes.
Two sets of encores, which included “Monkeyland” and “Don’t Fall” from the band’s debut, Script of the Bridge (but, to this critic’s chagrin, no “In Shreds”), took the set to nearly the two-hour mark, and only served to further drive home the point that the Chameleons, appropriately, given Burgess’s T-shirt, have “resurrected” themselves, and are ready to prove that they are no mere footnote to a history of the Manchester rock scene, but a renewed vital force to be reckoned with. Indeed, this critic, at least, certainly left the venue in emotional “shreds”, and quite happily so, the Chameleons UK having proven that rock and roll can still be about so much more than the hackneyed nu-metal chest-beating and poseur-grunge whining which fills the airwaves today.
Timing, indeed. This time, boys, please don’t mess it up!