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A Quietus Interview

Vox Pop: Mark Burgess Of The Chameleons Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , April 23rd, 2014 07:04

Julian Marszalek talks to Mark Burgess of Chameleons Vox (formerly The Chameleons) about playing by his own rules

Given the enduring media images of social and political unrest, the so-called managed decline of so many of Britain's inner cities and the devastating riots that exploded within them, the shocking scenes of violence and suffering endured by many during the miners' strike, and the jingoistic flagwaving of the Falklands conflict, it's all too easy to forget – or even know – just how psychedelic the first half of the 1980s really was. Factor in those pop cultural references of fops in eyeliner, mullets, synthpop and the emergence of the video age that forever permeate the stock footage that's guaranteed to crop up of any nostalgia show purporting to cover the era and you'd be forgiven for thinking that the early part of that decade had anything left of the lineage started in the 1960s.

Yet despite the Year Zero mantra that had accompanied punk and supposedly eschewed all that had gone before, influences from that maligned era trickled through to influence a new generation of musicians either too young to have fully embraced the punk aesthetic or those who could cherry pick from both to forge ahead. Along with The Velvet Underground, a band whose stock rose sharply during the early years of the 80s, were The Doors, whose musical excursions proved alluring to some young and questioning minds.

Coming in from another angle to create a perfect musical storm was the annual autumn resurgent abundance of magic mushrooms and the appeal of pot for those living outside of metropolitan areas. Then legal – up to a point – mushrooms could easily be found in any number of municipal parks, golf courses and fields up and down the country and their effects proved to be far more satisfying to those seeking an alternative to a night in a down at heel town centre boozer that usually culminated in a punch up outside a kebab house come closing time.

And then, of course, there was the music. While Liverpool bands such as Echo And The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes ran with the 'new psychedelia' tag, their source of inspiration was as much the music of the 60s as mind-altering intoxicants. The Chameleons, though, were different. In common with Manchester's The Blue Orchids, The Chameleons' psychedelia was more modern, rooted in reality; they were concerned with the social effects of the incumbent administration. Across the course of three, each better than the last, albums before their initial demise – Script Of The Bridge (1983), What Does Anything Mean? Basically (1985) and Strange Times (1986) – The Chameleons charted the growing effects of alienation that manifested themselves in the wake of decimated communities, draconian laws and the eradication of social unity.

The concerns of The Chameleons wouldn't have counted for much had it not been for the sonic arsenal at their disposal. In Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies, the band possessed a highly talented pair of guitarists whose intricate weaving and mastery of effects pedals created a new vocabulary for the age and beyond, while the rhythm section of drummer John Lever and vocalist, lyricist and bassist Mark Burgess provided a solid bedrock upon which to build those treated excursions.

By-passing bluster and chest-beating, The Chameleons' music was infused with humanity and empathy and it's small wonder they were supported by a dedicated fanbase that recognised itself in Mark Burgess' kaleidoscopic view of a grey and increasingly oppressive environment. This was music from and of the suburbs, with grit under its fingernails yet it never condescended or patronized; it reached out for something more than the stifling feeling of perceived reality.

And it was reality that brought them down. The death of manager Tony Fletcher, coupled with internal simmering differences, precipitated the demise of The Chameleons. Though they reformed in 2000, internecine fighting re-surfaced on a grander scale to bring about their end, but not before releasing 2001's Why Call It Anything? Mark Burgess and John Lever reconvened under the name ChameleonsVox but following the departure of the drummer, the singer-bassist now carries the legacy of the band.

Mark Burgess has been a busy man. Last year, he released his first new material in a decade with ChameleonVox's EP, M + D = 1(8.) and he's currently working on an album of all new material. As he readies himself to revisit The Chameleons' Script Of The Bridge with a series of concerts revisiting the band's debut, Burgess takes time out to speak with tQ about his former alma mater, psychedelics, alienation and the perils of obsessive fans…

Let's go back to Middleton. What was the impetus for the formation of The Chameleons?

Mark Burgess: It was the climate of the times. It was that post punk period and everyone was forming bands. Dave and Reg had been playing for quite a few years by that point and I started on the back of the punk thing. I learned to play ten minutes after buying the bass and then formed a group. We'd known each from school but kind of lost touch. We started seeing each other at the punk gigs and we let them use our rehearsal room and they saw me play and immediately they wanted me to join their band. At the time I really wasn't that interested.

Personally, I didn't really take it seriously; it wasn't like, "Let's form a band and get really famous." I was actually on college at the time and wanted to do drama and I was aiming for a place at Manchester Poly. Dave took it the most seriously and he was the main motivator and trying to get the Peel session and all that stuff. I was just doing it for the craic; it was the post punk thing and it was what you did. I enjoyed it and it was part of being in the spirit of the times but they wanted me in their band it evolved from there, really.

The Chameleons were very much characterised by their distinctive sound. Was this something that evolved over time or was it the intention from the start?

MB: The answer to that is that it's both of those things, really. We were really conscious of the fact that we didn't want to sound like anyone else. And we had to two guitar players who were extremely naturally talented. On the first Peel session we recorded, Dave was using a lot of flanger and then he discovered the wonderful world of the Roland Space Echo and it completely changed his sound. Reg's style was purely natural and he hardly used any effects; all of his style was in the way that he plays; the secret of his playing is in his right hand. That combination developed quite quickly.

We did that Peel Session and immediately got signed to publishing by Virgin which meant that we had money to buy gear and from that point on we started to develop the sound and the music. But right from the offset, we decided that we didn't want to sound like anyone else around.

Your bass playing certainly added to that sound…

MB: When I first started in this punk band, the bass was actually the lead instrument because the guitar player could only play barre chords. But when I joined Reg and Dave there wasn't the space to do that because the guitars wouldn't allow it. The other thing is that the songs themselves were based on the root and the bass is the root. I'd find the root and anchor the song and then build things up around that. There wasn't a lot of space to play the way I did before.

But my approach was based on dub; I listened to a lot of dub records and I've always loved dub bass playing. The first bassist I learned to play to was JJ Burnel and I used to turn the speed of the record up so I could play faster but my the time I joined Dave and Reg I'd been listening to Jah Wobble which was a completely different approach. I really got into that in a big way. I was going to the Russell Club a lot and listening to a lot of dub music and bass players but I had the notion that that would be the approach to use and that the bass would have kind of a dub role. This would then allow the guitars to do whatever they wanted and so make for a more interesting landscape. That's why on some records I'd pull back and then drop it in again.

A lot of the music from that time seemed to be defined by the area that it came from. How much impact did say, the Middleton Arndale centre have on you?

MB: None. The punk thing had an influence and it gave us an edge but it didn't impact on us in terms of what we were writing about. We dealt with universal themes. That became clear to me when I realized that we were more popular in non-English speaking places. I think it was the whole sound of the band, the way the vocals, the words and the guitars and the arrangements all fit together and it struck a universal chord. I think we could have come from anywhere.

We weren't part of that Manchester scene. I think I know why that happens anyway. If you get a band from a city like Sheffield or Manchester and that band comes to any kind of prominence then right away you'll get 15 or 20 bands trying sound the same way. Each one might diversify a little bit and out of that lot maybe a half dozen or so will come to the fore and then you've got a scene. I don't think it's because you've got anything in the water that makes one city any more talented than another.

We went to a meeting of the Manchester Musicians' Collective to see what it was all about and principle it was a really good idea – a co-operative of bands who'd help each other out when they'd get gigs and maybe offer each opening slots. The true kind of heavyweights of that were, I think, Joy Division and The Fall but we'd look and think, yeah, you've got Joy Division and The Fall and then you'd have 30 different variations of those two things and it was what is was. I mean, I think it was a healthy thing but with Manchester at the time I was more interested in what was going on with Object Music than I was with Factory Records. Aside from Joy Division, I don't think Factory had that much.

I mean, I went to the Factory club in Hulme and I'd seen Joy Division about five or six times and A Certain Ratio but I wasn't influenced by it. My musical thing had nothing to do with it but the punk thing definitely had an impact on me. If there was any Manchester band that had a real definitive impact on me then it would've been Buzzcocks.

You mentioned dealing with universal themes but one of the stand-out elements of The Chameleons' music was that you made social and political comments. Did you see that as an artistic responsibility or simply a reaction to what you saw around you?

MB: I always write from personal experiences. If you write a song like 'A Person Isn't Safe Anywhere These Days' it's because there's violence all around you and people are getting their heads kicked in and it's in your sphere of experience. And the whole of that alienation thing that runs right through the music is the way you experience the world and what is happening around you.

People used to say, 'What are your songs about?' and I was like, 'Are you fucking kidding me?' Experience gives you the ammunition. If I'd have been asked what one thing the songs were about at the time I wouldn't have been bright enough to say that they're about alienation because I hadn't worked that out. In retrospect, I can say that I was a very alienated individual; I always have been and I think I still am and that's at the root of everything. At the time I didn't know that but I was channeling experiences that were going on around me and I was writing about life and what it was like to be living in Manchester then. And as we toured more then of course our horizons expanded.

Did you then find that the experiences were the same but with different locations?

MB: Yes, and the way you look at them because I started doing a lot of drugs. I've got a very psychedelic view of suburban life and 20th Century Britain and Europe. Drugs were a huge influence on me; marijuana was a huge influence on me, LSD was a huge influence on me, and psilocybin mushrooms I used to do a lot. It gives you a very unique view of things. It certainly gives you a far wider view than you have in ordinary waking consciousness.

Liverpool and Manchester were very psychedelic places back then – The Wild Swans, Echo And The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and all that. To me, they're psychedelic bands. We were a psychedelic band and the Factory lot really didn't know what to make of us. The first time we did the Hacienda we had 900 people there and they didn't fucking know who we were. I'm sure they'd heard of us and seen the name dotted around the town but they didn't expect 900 people through the door on a Friday night and these were people who wouldn't normally go to the Hacienda. They probably couldn't afford to go and they weren't part of that thing; they were always outsiders but we didn't care.

But it didn't negatively impact on us that we weren't part of that. All our gigs sold out even if we weren't under that umbrella of coolness that the NME brought out each week. I think there was some antagonism for sure but they didn't understand who are audience was; that was the problem. They'd found theirs and they were the young, affluent, hip Mancunians with the industrial veneer. Our audiences would sooner fucking buy an eighth of hash then put money in the gas meter; that's who our audience was!

Do you find it depressing that a lot of the concerns expressed on those records are as relevant now as they were then?

MB: No. I don't find it depressing because I knew that was going to be the case. The alienation that I was expressing was going to be on the increase and the further we got into the 21st Century, the more prevalent that vibe was going to be and that the more our individuality was being taken away from us and suppressed and this is pretty much what's happened. I saw that stuff coming because of what I'd been reading and stuff that I'd seen as a kid and it had that message very strongly that all these optimistic view of the future were wrong and how your individuality and your creativity was being stifled and your freedoms were being eroded. I saw that as clear as day.

There were a lot of political writers in music at that time who were raising awareness and that was brilliant but I would only write about what I had direct experience of. I've never even been arrested so I was never going to write about being in solitary confinement because I feel like I'm in solitary anyway when I walk down the street. There are plenty of writers cleverer than me who can bring that stuff to people's awareness so I tended to avoid a lot of the heavy political issues. What I wrote about I don't regard as political; it's more social. 'Sing Rule Britannia' is very much about Thatcherite Britain but I'm there I'm trying to write from the perspective of the social repercussions of that rather than the politics of it.

It's become something of a cliché that The Chameleons have become something of a 'lost band'…

MB: I don't really understand where that's come from or what it means. I'm a fatalist and I think bands that bands happen at a particular time and a place. I mean, The Doors happened at a time and a place that was the only time The Doors could've happened and in the way that it happened and bands who have that kind of influence are from a certain time and a place. It's fatalistic.

I have no complaints about the way things went. Obviously, we struggled but I've had a really rich life and it's given me a lot of freedom so for me it's a successful thing. We're not forgotten about and it mystifies me that 30-odd years later people still want me to play this material and big percentage of them weren't even born when it was made. That stuns me – that is a success.

I came into this band as a punk and I don't wear a Mohawk or bleach my hair anymore but the attitude that punk was has stayed with me. I've always had that attitude and I didn't get into this band to be fucking Bono. I got into this to make music and express myself and try to make a difference. It's given me the chance to do something that I really love doing to do what I want and go where I want and to have the kind of life that I want. I've never been stopped from doing anything that I want to do. I'm quite happy with the way it was. Other people's perceptions that we're not as big as we should've been - I don't really understand what that means. They don't realise what goes in to making your art and they don't understand the mechanisms of it and how you're asked to compromise. That's completely unreal and I was never about being unreal.

I remember at the beginning and they were trying to get us to make videos. I'm going, "What – you want me to stand up and pretend to play my instrument?" And they're like, "Yeah, yeah!" And I'm going, "But I work really hard to get good at playing my instrument, why should I pretend to play it? Why don't you record us playing live? Why should I have to lip-sync and mime and write stupid stories for the videos?"

In the whole history of that period there's only like maybe one video director – Tim Pope who did The Cure's stuff – who entertained me while watching it. I think he was really clever and that was just one video out of hundreds that I saw. And we all pretty much felt the same way. We were told that making videos would sell more records but fuck it, that's not my job. My job is to make the records as good as I can to the people that are asking me to make the record; it's their fucking job to make the record, not mine! I'm not a salesman.

What led to the demise of The Chameleons?

MB: I suppose it what happens to any friendship really. You change and have different ideas about what you should be doing and how you do them and then things escalate and get a bit more intense than they should be. As you get older and mellow out a bit you look back and think, I can't believe we fell out about that! These things get to the point where they become lifestyle conflicts and it just becomes not enjoyable; that whole fucking scene can do your fucking head in so much that you don't want to be around them any more. You might not want to do tours; you might not want to get together to rehearse; you might not want to make another record or feel like that. Your lives might just become completely at odds. You know, girlfriends might get involved and get in the way – fucking all sorts of things might happen!

We'd been friends from kids and then we spent pretty much 10 years doing this and then it got to the point where there was a lot of friction between us and personalities just clashed towards the end and it became unworkable. We tried to get over that around 2000 when we put it aside and then the same fucking thing happened all over again but worse! I just gave up on it in the end. There was John and Dave, and Reg was caught in the middle as always and Dave I've not seen since. It was fucking just a complete clash of lifestyles and personalities and we just don't like each other any more.

They left the band – I didn't leave the band. I was waiting in Athens to do a show that they didn't turn up to. That's how it ended. It did hurt and it was one of the worst things I've ever experienced but I got through it. Even then I thought, we're going to have a serious fucking talk but then I read on the internet that they'd left the band. So I thought, "Ah, fuck it then!" I wasn't arsed because I've always made my own way and I can always find something to do. We won't be getting back together.

I'm enjoying it now playing with the guys that I'm playing with far more than I did playing it with anybody else.

Speaking of new material, you put out an EP at the end of last – your first new material in 10 years. What's next?

MB: Yeah, we're writing new material and trying to make it as good as I can. We've thrown away a lot of that shit that we did initially when I was commissioned to do this record. I'd accumulated all these ideas but none of them were exciting me; it was the same-old, same-old, you know? I need to collaborate with other writers. I do my best work when they can bring something and that's what I've been doing. I started from scratch. Last year I had a lot of problems in the percussion department so that set us back but I've got a demo studio and the producer's got his own studio and we're getting together and swapping ideas around and slowly but surely we're getting a really I interesting mix of stuff. The EP was basically stuff that probably isn't going to make that record but rather than just shelve them we thought, fuck it, we'll mix them and put them out now and just get in with making the album. It was something to get out while we're writing our album.

Are you working with a settled line-up now? You were previously working with a line-up for the US and one for Europe…

MB: It's never been a settled line-up. It's not a band in the traditional sense of the word where you've got four people and you say, 'That is the band.' It's a collective and a lot of people are coming in and out of the project over the last four years. It's a very fluid kind of thing but the one thing that we've all got in common is that The Chameleons' music brought us all together. We can't operate as a band anyway; we're independent. We're a bit more organised than we used to be but before we used to put on all our own gigs and we didn't have anybody. But we're not marketed as a band: Chameleons Vox means 'Voice of The Chameleons'. And that's me!

But I was thinking that I'd like this to continue. I mean, if I dropped dead I'd like someone else to come in and do the vocals and keep it going. I don't know if it's feasible but I like to imagine that it would be.

The concept of ChameleonsVox had certainly divided long-term fans of The Chameleons and you've been known to wade into the debate on online forums.

MB: I did wade in in the beginning but I don't do it anymore; it's just a bunch of fucking lunatics. They're telling me I shouldn't be using the name The Chameleons but I devoted my life to this band. But this is the flipside of getting a lot of adoration for your music – these freaks who look at it like that, like some religion. They're like parrots going round saying, "Legacy! Legacy! Legacy!" I've never met these people and I don't know them yet they comment on your personal life and they talk about how the music was formed and they weren't even fucking there.

They're lunatics and it's actually made me withdraw. I used to get a lot of positive feedback for being accessible – I do talk to people and I don't hide myself away – but I'm having to distance myself now. It's getting ridiculous.

It seems ironic that a mass communication medium is driving you back into the alienation that you were writing about.

MB: People who live their lives on the internet are alienated – that's why they live their lives on the internet! The internet is like a universe of alienated people and alienation is on the increase. You've got millions of them now! The internet is the last bastion of the alienated and it's the only place where they feel they can express themselves. But it is kind of addictive. I'm just trying to go, "You know what? There's a whole actual world out there!" I think I'd rather be out on the bike, you know?

Because I am accessible, I get hate mail for un-friending somebody on Facebook. I had so many friends on Facebook that I couldn't add my real friends to it. So I started un-friending people who I didn't know and I started getting hate mail for it. I mean, real vicious stuff: "How dare you un-friend me? I'm going to burn all your records!" And I'm like, "Fuck off! Go! I'm glad!" These are not the kind of people I'd want to know in real life! These are lunatics! And there's a whole bunch of them fixated on The Chameleons! I don't understand it and I can't relate to it the way they can. I've had people in front of me sobbing or throwing their arms around me telling me that I've changed their lives and obviously I'm profoundly affected it by that but at the same time it disturbs me because I can't relate to it.

Would you agree with the notion that once you've made the art and released it into the wider world then it's no longer yours?

MB: I think I'd agree with that – that it belongs to everybody, yeah. I think once you put it out there it belongs to them and what they see and what they get from it is all well and good but I can't relate to it because as much as I love music – I've been listening to records since I was four years old and I'm 53 now – I'd have never stood in front of John Lennon or Paul McCartney or Jim Morrison or whoever and cried my eyes out about how much their music changed my life.

Music has influenced my life but if I've got myself out of a dark hole, I've got myself out of a dark hole; music hasn't done it. Music can help you when you're in a dark place, no question, but if you got yourself out of a dark situation then you've done it. Because when you're in a dark place like that, there's only two ways you can go: you can pull yourself out of it or you can fucking hang yourself and a lot of people hang themselves; or jump in front of a train, like my mate did, or you pull yourself out of it. So for them to be so grateful to me when all I did was make a record seems a bit strange to me.

I'm not saying that in a negative way, I'm just saying it's hard for me to relate to. And when it happens I don't know what to say and that makes me feel worse because I should have something profound to say but all I can say is, 'Er… thanks!'

Chameleons Vox are playing as part of the Gigantic Classic Indie All-Dayer at Manchester International on Bank Holiday Saturday May 24