The Chameleons(Vox)

A few days ago, I ventured into this semi-post-punk riff, starting with Portland outfit Soft Kill, then moving on to SoCal’s Cold Showers, both of whom embrace that old-school rebellious energy, while layering nu wave synth melodies with melodic pop listenability.

Back in that initial post, I made reference to another longtime genre act, The Chameleons, who precede both these artists by a few decades or more. So I’m going to drift a bit old school here, setting the way-back machine to 1981, Manchester, England, where a little known four-piece helped pave the foundations for what we liberally refer to as post-punk today.

The Chameleons, sometimes known stateside as The Chameleons U.K. (due to a domestic naming conflict), were never really a breakthrough band, always remaining on the flipside of the underground, despite some major label support. During their six year tenure – they broke up in ’87 – these Brits produced three uniquely atmospheric guitar-oriented albums, most notably their ’81 debut “Script of the Bridge” and the smartly inventive ’86 effort “Strange Times.”

Back then, I never labelled The Chameleons as post-punk. I just saw them as a unique alternative rock act, with goth tendencies, sort of like The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, or Joy Division. All of these artists had a distinct and defining sound, one you’d recognize near-immediately if you heard it. The Chameleons were no different.

But like I said, they were mostly under-the-radar and underrated, unlike these kindred spirits I’ve named.

Time, though, has an interesting way of re-interpreting the past, as we’ve seen many long-forgotten acts from the ’80s and ’90s return to the fold, reuniting, or in some cases, just continuing on, having never stopped.

In that respect, the Chameleons shared a similar trajectory, returning in ’00 for a three year run that produced a fourth original album “Why Call It Anything?” (’01), and a pair of acoustic LPs of reimagined earlier material. Neither of those efforts had quite the same visceral impact as their initial six-year run. And consequently, the original line-up disbanded again in ’03, which of course, was wholly unfortunate.

On the plus side, the reunion did bring these Mancunians back to the stage, and more importantly, inspire bassist/frontman Mark Burgess and drummer John Lever to keep going under the revised moniker The ChameleonsVox.

Lever has since passed away, in March of ’17. But Burgess continues to maintain The ChameleonsVox – which brings me to the heart of this post.

I’ve managed to dig up a selection of clips from two L.A. shows by the ChameleonsVox, one from ’15 at the Regent, with Lever still present, and the other from ’17 at the Echoplex, with just Burgess as the sole original member.

I’ve actually seen the Chameleons proper at a little club in Santa Clara, CA called One Step Beyond (long since vanished), back when “Strange Times” was released. But rules and tech were different in the ’80s, so despite my best wishes, I could never hope to share anything from that distant era. This pair of Vox performances is the next best thing.

Of the two shows, the Regent clips are of superior quality. Unfortunately, the captures are incomplete, for reasons I’ve forgotten. Featured are two of my favorite efforts, the measured haunt and brood of “Swamp Thing” and the energetic elation of “Up the Down Escalator.” These clips rightly capture the shimmery guitarwork, spatial atmospherics, and bellowing vocals that Burgess is known for.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Swamp Thing” at the Regent Theatre in DTLA on 09.22.15.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Up the Down Escalator” at the Regent Theatre on 09.22.15.

The Echoplex footage tends to be a little rougher on the edges, in terms of sound and picture quality. But they’re also more comprehensive and complete, starting with the full version of “Up the Down Escalator,” and including such “classics” as the menacing “Don’t Fall” and the melancholic “Singing Rule Britannia,” plus a few others.

As mentioned, Lever passed away earlier that year, so Burgess is the only founding member left. Also, if I recall correctly, one of the regular touring members “disappeared” the day before, meaning the band couldn’t find him before this Echo Park performance. So they had to enlist a friend to fill in at the last minute. If things sound a little different from the Regent show, that might be why. Also, a few years and change of venue might have something to do with that, as well.

On that note, I’ll leave you to it.

And of course, if you’re wondering what these songs sound like as proper studio recordings, check out the setlists at the end.

Enjoy this precursor of post-punk from The ChameleonsVox.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Up the Down Escalator” at the Echoplex on 09.10.17.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Don’t Fall” at the Echoplex on 09.10.17.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Singing Rule Britannia” at the Echoplex on 09.10.17.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Here Today” at the Echoplex on 09.10.17.

The ChamelonsVox perform “I’ll Remember” at the Echoplex on 09.10.17.

The ChamelonsVox perform “Looking Inwardly” at the Echoplex on 09.10.17.

A setlist for each:

Mark Burgess of the ChameleonsVox performs at the Echoplex on 09-10-17.