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Did The Chameleons toy with prog on 1985's What Does Anything Mean, Basically?

The Chameleons
(Image credit: The Chameleons)

If punk was more than just the cries of the disaffected working class, the same was true of its further-educated successor, post-punk. Right up to the mid-80s a savvy proletariat supplied beautiful noises to a socially aware pop audience, and Manchester’s Chameleons were one such band taking gritty urban soundscapes beyond the barricades.

Formed in 1981, The Chameleons peppered their early output with rain-stained, mind-altering moments - View From A Hill from debut album Script From A Bridge is a
tab-induced signpost. By the time we reach second long-player What Does Anything Mean? Basically, the trip is in full flow. Just a glimpse at the artwork and you know you’ve arrived somewhere brilliantly alien: an op-art Blue Meanie with doves for ears and a planet for an eye is more Marillion than Meat Is Murder. However, these Manc  lads were still viewed as edgy, post-punk visionaries with hard-bitten polemic and a lot of chiming, transcendental key-work in the mix.

What Does Anything Mean? Basically opens with the sublime Silence, The Sea And Sky, a meditative Solina-wrought instrumental that gives way to the paisley skip of Perfume Garden. Meeting at an intersection of Magazine and The Mission, mutual fans could delight in the reverb maze constructed by Messrs Burgess, Fielding, Smithies, Lever and Clegg here, cleverly masking their Thatcher-era oppression-pop as the gentrified
angst of Floyd. And so it continues: the Smithsian whirlof Intrigue In Tangiers (inspired by Burgess’s visits to a retired servicemen’s club, where a hash-fuelled, wheelchair-bound gent would recall exotic missions); Return Of The Roughnecks with its acerbic yuppie baiting and Killing Joke-tough chops; and Singing Rule Britannia, the stately call-to-arms against the regime that was turning the UK upside down (‘And now the baby needs to grow/But the mother is crazy’– spiralling to a paranoid, embittered She Said, She Said crescendo).

Finally we reach the glorious centrepiece, Home Is Where The Heart Is. Inspired by The Prisoner, a dreamy but eerie melody is woven around an idea of destiny and the Devil, fading to a throbbing wash of keys as PS Goodbye closes the album with a three-stanza love letter to the band’s inspirations.

There would be one last release, Strange Times, recorded when The Chameleons signed to Geffen – allegedly mistaken for The Stone Roses – and proceeded to fall apart musically and emotionally. The sounds they made, however, are surely cornerstones for Porcupine Tree, Anathema, Oceansize and their ilk. 

Here’s to their crazy nights, crazy sights and the bearing of scars that only their mothers knew.

The Chameleons

(Image credit: The Chameleons)