Manchester has its greats: Joy Division, Stone Roses, The Smiths, Oasis… the list could go on. Just because the city had already birthed Herman’s Hermits, The Bee Gees and the Hollies in the 60s, it doesn’t mean it was going to stop there, not for a long shot; the decades to come showed a stronger desire for music creation; everyone and their mothers started a band.
Everyone knows the story—the Sex Pistols came to town, the Buzzcocks were already buzzing about, the city explodes with many bands, record labels, hip clubs, all the cool drugs and with the attention of the media, Manchester becomes the epicenter for the British music scene elite.
The sounds coming out of Manchester was diverse and exciting; the early sounds of punk transform into post-punk, the jangly guitar bands and the whole Madchester scene take over the city in the 80s and acid-house is king. Just under the radar was The High (with former member of the Stone Roses, Andy Couzens) Northside (on Factiory Records) and The Waltones (with future members of The Charlatans). All these bands and many more had the right chops and were just as good as many of the greats, but just never got enough media attention; there was just so many bands. One of the more underground gems to come out of Manchester in the 80s, melodic post-punks The Chameleons, never really took off as high as the great music they were making.
Formed in in Middleton, Greater Manchester, The Chameleons (known as Chameleons UK in the US) started making noise as far back as 1981. Combining the dreaminess of The Cure and the standout vocals of Mark Burgess with plenty of comparisons to Ian McCulloch of Echo and The Bunnymen, the band’s first 3 albums are each solid pieces of music.
The first album Script of the Bridge (1983) has the beautiful and haunting song “Up the Down Escalator” which can almost sound like The Killers, if they were really good (ha!). On their second album, What Does Anything Mean? Basically, the band has a stronger production on the music and the album still captures those sonic landscapes of the first, but they are still nowhere near as popular as their Manc brothers New Order.
The band is on a hot streak and makes an impressive third album Strange Times (1986). At this point the band has perfected their sound, and their most inventive output is delivered. The second single “Swamp Thing” is melodic post-punk dreariness enveloped in dreamy tones and swaying emotions.
Released in effort to support album sales, “Swamp Thing” is a post-punk masterpiece. The contrast between the dark tones of the verses and overwhelming sensation of optimism and hope in the chorus creates a rollercoaster of emotions. The long intro eases you into the groove of the song like a slow drug. The verses start and the mood of the song is dreary with its cynicism. The bridge takes on a different turn and lifts you up slightly, with lyrics “all around you walls are tumbling down, stop staring at the ground.” The chorus kicks in and the guitar lick transcends the mood into this surge optimism. You get this breathtaking sensation as if you’d just jumped in the shower and you get splashed with cold water.
The b-side is a unique take on David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing. “ Not included in the actual LP as did “Swamp Thing,” this song was exclusive to the single. Their take on the Bowie classic is a more straight forward post-punk song that rocks along from beginning to end, unlike the ever beautifully swaying a-side.
Although the band are considered cult favorites and aren’t completely unknown, they never really got out from under the radar. Even when Interpol first hit the scene and all over the magazines, the band had no idea who this band The Chameleons were that they were constantly being compared to. Other bands like the Editors, The Horrors and Crystal Stilts all borrow from the Chameleons, a highly underrated band of the Manchester scene.
Text: Daniel Salas