Mark Burgess: a Chameleon interviewed
"Through a sky of stars With the wings of an eagle I'm launched into oblivion" - the Sun and the Moon, "Death of Imagination" Mark Burgess is a poet. But the spirit of punk rock resides in the rough edges of the dark, sometimes angry emotions conveyed in his lyrics. As the leader of the Chameleons, Burgess was a powerful, distinctive frontman and bassist, his raspy vocals and passionate delivery reflecting the plaintive musings of troubled youth. The Chameleons' first three LPs - 1983's Script of the Bridge, 1985's What Does Anything Mean? Basically, and 1986's Strange Times - became landmark releases in post-punk and New Wave. The group was equal parts Goth and psychedelic, capturing the ominous atmospherics of the former and the swirling transcendence of the latter. Comparisons to Joy Division, early Echo & the Bunnymen, and the Psychedelic Furs were attached but the Chameleons didn't sound like any of them.
On a personal level, Burgess' music has been an integral part of my life for over 30 years. In winter 1987, I tried to commit suicide. I felt utterly crushed by life and could not relate to the world around me. It was the Chameleons' "Tears" from Strange Times, played repeatedly on Philippine New Wave radio station WXB 102, that helped me pull through my loneliness and depression at the time. Hearing Burgess sing, "In the cold world how would it be?/Beck and call, beg and crawl, how would it be?" made me feel less alone. The Chameleons splintered a year later. Burgess then formed the Sun and the Moon with former Chameleons drummer John Lever alongside guitarists Andy Clegg and Andy Whitaker and released a self-titled album in 1988 that is still my all-time favorite record. That LP, with its dreamy, otherworldly textures, like a cross between the Cocteau Twins and vintage Bunnymen, and songs about boredom, love, and enlightenment, burned a permanent space in my heart.
Neither the Chameleons nor the Sun and the Moon made a commercial impact in America; however, their influence latched onto the next generation of alternative rockers such as Kings of Leon, Interpol, and the Editors. Burgess continues to tour the world as ChameleonsVox as younger generations discover his hidden jewels.
The following interview was conducted shortly after the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England on May 22, 2017.
Mikey Sutton: First of all, Mark, I was very disturbed and upset by the terrorist attack in Manchester the other night. I can't imagine what you were feeling when you heard the news. Were you in the city at that time? How are you?
Mark Burgess: I was nowhere near the blast zone, although the lady next door had a daughter and a grandchild at the show. Mercifully they were unhurt. I'm fine thank you.
M: Racial and religious division feels worse than it has been in decades, at least from what I've seen stateside. The level of hatred and violence is overwhelming. Do you recall it being this bad when you were younger?
MB: Yeah, racism was a lot more visible and prevalent when I was a kid and racially motivated violence was common. I grew up with terrorism, too, with the Irish conflict and Catholic vs. Protestant division was rife.
M: Growing up, when did you decide to become a musician?
MB: It was punk that got me into a band although I'd been collecting records from a very early age. My first record was a Beatles album at the age of four, a gift from my grandmother.
M: What rock & roll artists made the biggest impression on you as a child?
MB: John Lennon, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alex Harvey, Kate Bush, John Lydon, Joe Strummer.
M: When did you discover punk rock? What was the first punk show you attended and what kind of impact did that have on you?
MB: First one was the Damned in 1976 when they opened for T. Rex and the impact was massive, completely changed my attitude and outlook. I discovered the Sex Pistols around the same time although it took me a year to eventually see them because they were banned just about everywhere.
M: Was the Cliches your first group? What was that experience like?
MB: It was fun. It wasn't something we took seriously. It was meant to parody what punk had become, hence the name, but everyone loved the songs I was writing. That surprised me. We only played three shows but they were blinding and I had a really great time.
M: How did the Chameleons form?
MB: Well, I was at school with Dave [Fielding, guitar] and Reg [Smithies, guitar]. They had a pub/prog rock band but then they saw me play and asked me to join them when my guitar player enrolled at Oxford. It evolved from that.
M: When you started the Chameleons, did you have a vision for what you felt the band should sound like? Or did it all happen organically?
MB: No, it was more a case of knowing what we didn't want to sound like. We ditched anything that reminded us of anyone else. We just wanted to sound different to everything else that was going on.
M: What was the songwriting process like in the Chameleons?
MB: It varied. I had a lot of melody ideas that I'd marry to the guitar ideas I was hearing; sometimes Reg and I would get something going and then later Dave would embellish it. Sometimes Reg and Dave would have a riff going and give it to me to arrange and write a song around it. There were a lot of different approaches.
M: How did the Chameleons' debut album, Script of the Bridge, become released on MCA Records in the U.S. in 1983?
MB: Statik Records sold it to them behind our backs before they'd actually acquired the rights to a U.S. release. We were mortified when we found out and heard what they'd done to it, and it was quickly pulled when they discovered it was actually illegal.
M: When did the Chameleons begin touring America?
MB: Our first trip was a short East Coast tour in 1984, then we did the Strange Times tour in '86.
M: Looking back, it surprises me that Script of the Bridge was on a major label. There is a darkness and heaviness to the songs, such as "Up the Down Escalator" and "Don't Fall," that eschew the commercialism happening at the time in the U.K. Did you receive any pressure from MCA Records to be more mainstream, more pop?
MB: No, they just went ahead and raped the record, changed song titles and stuff without us knowing and we had no intention of working with a label that would do something like that. They were absolute idiots.
M: The Chameleons released three powerful LPs in the '80s without softening your sound. As much as I still loved the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the Psychedelic Furs, among your post-punk and New Wave contemporaries, after they broke through the U.S. with increasingly accessible fare, the Chameleons remained decidedly indie. Was having a "hit" in America something you longed for or simply didn't care about?
MB: We didn't care. We pleased ourselves. Although I was mystified as to how "Swamp Thing" wasn't a massive hit. We were very naive and had a strong belief in our music. We hated just about everything in the mainstream.
M: "Tears" from Strange Times was massive in the Philippines when I lived there in the late '80s. Bands there still cover it to this day in live shows. It was an anthem for our generation. Was "Tears" as successful in England?
MB: It broke the lower reaches of the top 40, which was about as close as we got.
M: Why did the Chameleons break up?
MB: Why do marriages end? Why do kids eventually leave their parents? We just outgrew each other I suppose.
M: In the past, you and I have discussed our mutual admiration for the late writer Iain Banks, author of The Wasp Factory. Was he or any other novelists an inspiration for any of your lyrics?
MB: No, I just enjoyed his books.
M: In 1988, you recorded a self-titled record with the Sun and the Moon. How did that come about?
MB: John Lever and Andy Clegg phoned and asked if I'd meet them, which I did. This was shortly after the Chameleons broke up. They invited me to form a band with them and having nothing better to do at the time I agreed.
M: How did you become involved with the American band Black Swan Lane?
MB: Jack Sobel was a fan of the Sun And The Moon and hired me to work on some music with him in Atlanta. He has a really great studio there in his house. It evolved from that.
M: You wrote an autobiography, View from a Hill. How long did it take you to write? Are you planning on releasing more books, perhaps fiction even?
MB: I was writing it for quite a long time but then pulled it together quickly, over the course of a year when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I wanted him to read it before the end, which he did. He loved it.
M: You mentioned collaborating with singer Julee Cruise on Facebook. Will this be a single or an album? Do you know when it will be out?
MB: Just a few songs. We're trying to work out a time frame. ChameleonsVox has kept me very busy for quite a while; I need to find the time to do it.
M: The Chameleons may not be as famous as other Manchester acts such as Joy Division, New Order, or the Smiths; however, you have left a legacy nearly as large, influencing acts like Interpol and the Editors. I probably see the Chameleons name-dropped in interviews with rock stars more in the past ten years than I did in the '80s. Did you ever see the Chameleons becoming like the Velvet Underground, the eternally cool indie band that may have not moved millions of units but inspired so many other groups?
MB: No, I never did. I can't remember exactly when I started noticing it. I'm not surprised in that I was fortunate to work with two of the best and most innovative guitar players Manchester ever produced and looking back that was bound to be influential, but at the time, no, it never entered my head. Sometimes others hear it and I don't, as with Interpol. Other times I hear it and it makes me proud. Editors are among my most favorite bands.
(Dedicated to the late John Lever.)