Interview with Mark Burgess of The Chameleons

words Lee Taylor

Interview Mark Burgess The Chameleons

The Chameleons held a sort of air of mystery to me back n the mid eighties. I came across them in dingy alternative clubs around in Manchester around that time. I would dance around like a maniac to the music before I knew who they were. I had to piece the story together piece by piece. A snippet of information here and there until I built a picture. They existed amongst their fans but were quite invisible in the music press. They were not really goth but the sound was too big and dramatic for indie (which didn’t even exist as a term until later in their career). I didn’t even know they were from Manchester at first. They certainly were not allowed into the fold championed by Factory and their ilk. So they sort of hung in the ether with their intense, emotive vocals and layered melodic guitar lines.

Then they disappeared in what seemed like a puff of smoke straight after releasing their most powerful and accomplished album to date, Strange Times. Luckily for me and a legion of fans they have reformed and are still performing now and sounding as powerful and beguiling as ever (or so I hope – I’m seeing them tonight).

Many bands from past and present have come out over the years citing The Chameleons as a major influence on their work but they remain for me that elusive Manchester band that were as out of time as they were ahead of it.

So, it was an honour to be able to speak with Mark Burgess of The Chameleons and get some insight into him and the band he so ably fronts.

Interview Mark Burgess Chameleons band

What were the first records you can remember having an impact on you as a child?

So, you’re going that early? Well, aged four I wasn’t speaking and my nursery were worried I had autism or something like that. So they started playing me Beatles songs over and over again to encourage me to sing. I ended up learning to speak through first singing Beatles songs aged four. It worked. The love of music and the Beatles must have stuck as years later I was buying the records myself.

What first made you pick up a bass guitar and want to learn it?

When punk hit I just wanted to join in, I wanted to join a band. I figured taking up bass might be the easiest and quickest way to do that so that’s what I did.

Did you always see yourself as a singer or did that evolve through being in bands?

It was by default. When I formed a punk band I couldn’t find the right singer – I was just supposed to be filling in until we found someone. But then when I joined The Chameleons they wanted me to do vocals as well as bass so that was it. I found myself doing vocals.

Which singers do you think have influenced your own singing style?

I loved The Beatles, Jim Morrison, Julian Cope and Paul Weller. In the early stuff you can hear it. It took time though to develop into my own style.

How did you write songs in those early days and did it change over time?

Most things were written through jamming with each other. From these ideas we’d build a structure. All chipping in. One of us might bring a snippet in. I’d maybe bring a bassline in and some lyrics or one of the others would. We’d then construct something from these parts.

What bands were big on the Manchester scene when you were starting to gig in Manchester?

It was around 1978 / 79 post punk era. The main bands then in the city were Joy Division and The Fall. There were others too such as Spherical Objects. The Buzzcocks too but they’d gone off doing their thing, in the charts and such. We kept our distance from it. I mean, we went to lots of gigs, but were not part of any scene. I saw Joy Division several times it was a bit off a mess early on. It was only when they brought out Closer that I took notice. That was on a different level. I loved The Fall. I saw them regularly. I loved the shambolic nature of it. Mark was like a firecracker. You had no idea what he’d do next.

Do you remember where you played your first gig and what was it like?

I was in a punk band. The drummer didn’t show up. Another drummer filled in at the last minute. It was chaos. But the adrenaline of it. I’d found my thing. David Gedge was there strangely. He recorded it onto cassette. I’ll have to ask him if he still has that.

I had wanted to do drama before that. When I first joined The Chameleons I joined because we were mates. The day after the Peel Session everything changed overnight. Peel rang us and wanted us to come down. I’d only joined the band 6 months before. Suddenly it was all meetings with CBS. It was all so fast.

Did you see yourself as a Manchester band?

No, not really. We were aloof in that respect. We didn’t feel part of it. We were thinking about relocating to Liverpool actually. We were into what was going on there with bands like Wild Swans, Teardrop Explodes. But after the Peel session everything exploded and so….

When you started out did you want fame or did you want to be underground?

I wanted to be on an independent label like Cherry Red or Rough trade. They though saw us as a stadium band. We did have this big sound even then. I was like is that not a good thing? Would a band getting big not be good for the label? But that’s not the way they thought. Anyway, we ended up at CBS.

You always seemed to me to stand alone, maybe out of step, out of time. How did it feel from the inside looking out?

We felt like outsiders but the shows were always rammed. Our stubbornness played a part. We didn’t try and fit into any category. We decided to just write good music. We were happiest in the practice studio constructing songs. I had only played 3 or 4 shows before the band were signed. We quickly had to learn how to play all the songs live.

The Chameleons to me stand out for being very openly emotional. As men you were not afraid to express emotion?

We didn’t think about it that much or analyse. We were just typical English lads. It was all done instinctively – more like stream of consciousness – is how we worked. When I wrote ‘In Shreds’ I didn’t know what it about myself until later. All the madness with signing to CBS I was talking about.

One of my favourite tracks was Tears and that felt very heartfelt. I used to think it was a love song and now think it kind of is but between friends?

Well in a way yes. I lost the subject of that love. This presence had gone, ripped away. It was personal to me. The label though loved it and wanted to make a single out of it. I was like ‘How do you make a single out of this?’ The producer led that process. I fought back though and got to do a more acoustic version on the album itself. That was how I originally wanted it to be.

How did you end up getting signed to Geffen? Did you think at the time that this was it. The band would really take off in a big way?

We were not career motivated in that respect. We didn’t think like that. It was the best option at the time. Geffen had this very flamboyant A&R guy who was passionate about our band. He had all our records even really obscure versions even though he was in the US. We bonded with him.

From day one we wanted to get on Peel because we loved we loved the show. We were punk. So had the attitude. Punk is an attitude. We made music. We didn’t compromise. We were creating this music the way we wanted to do it.

Interview Mark Burgess The Chameleons


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