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Songbook: The Chameleons – Childhood­

May 16, 2011

Like many others I fell for The Chameleons in the early 1980s – quite by chance, but that’s the subject of another story. Along with those many I followed them with a passion, even sleeping outside one cold spring night in Leeds when there was no late bus back to Teesside after their show.

By the time their third album, Strange Times, came out The Chameleons had built up a huge, devoted live following, had signed to Geffen and looked set for world domination on the scale of U2 or Echo And The Bunnymen. It never happened, and they probably never wanted it to happen. Like many bands on the verge, they were actually on the brink, and personality conflicts, the death of someone very close to them, and possibly a general feeling that they’d run their course led to their split a year later.

The rough-hewn emotion, even desperation, that runs through The Chameleons’ music and knowledge of the time that it was made (the early 1980s) gives their music a darkness and an intensity no-one has matched before or since. It felt, and was, real, different from the fabricated gloom which served as the currency of many bands of that era.

The characteristics of their sound are easy to pin down: two inventive guitarists whose complementary lines weave in and out of each other, giving the music a suppleness and fluidity to match its rhythmic power; the monumental, muscular drumming of John Lever; the bounce of the bass guitar, and the gruff, passionate voice of its player, singer Mark Burgess. How four apparently ordinary blokes from Middleton, Manchester, conjured up such a sound, such beauty and majesty from their hands and voices, is a happy musical mystery.

I don’t hear a weak song in the three albums from The Chameleons’ original, pre-split, incarnation. I love them all, and the one that means most to me is Childhood, from Strange Times. It’s a song I can never listen to in isolation –­ I have to hear the whole album, and Childhood comes near the end. Of all The Chameleons’ albums Strange Times is the bleakest ­– the sound of a man, or maybe a band, on the edge of collapse, its monochrome grimness almost oppressive. There are moments of light and love along the way, but the album’s magnificence is in its sense of doom and struggle. And then Childhood comes, its joyous sound like a shaft of sun streaming through a stained glass window. By the time it arrives I’m emotionally exhausted, which is why investing the best part of an hour in waiting for a single song always feels like a very reasonable deal.

The hazy, shimmering opening, with its swirl of characteristically Chameleon guitar, and Burgess’ yelps and wordless singing usher in the band, with that wonderful sprung rhythm they had patented. Lyrically Childhood is unusual for The Chameleons. Their normal subject matter was a kind of generalised, human-condition-related angst, but Childhood deals with the everyday, citing local places (“My life is a Milbury’s home on Hereford Way”), mortgages, weekend routines like cleaning the car, and the importance of keeping that connection with your past (even in the bleakest, strangest of strange times “you have to hang on to your childhood”) –­ whilst still moving on (“open your eyes or stay as you are”).

Two great verses and a middle eight, and then a glorious epiphany of an ending, this huge belt of chorus after chorus after chorus taking the song to its finish.

It’s a wholly unsentimental song about the past –  reflection, affection, but no nostalgia. And then, balance restored after the album’s long emotional journey, one more track –­ the heartbreaking, valedictory instrumental I’ll Remember. And you do.

The Chameleons website

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From → Songbook

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