THE CHAMELEONS – “Swamp Thing”

On paper, we should owe The Chameleons everything: every grand swoop, passioned howl and gritted-teeth gesture of modern rock might stem from these North-East die-hards. I should be cursing them now for their bad influence, as Mark Burgess’ meat-and-leather face stares up from yet another adult rock mag. And your reaction to a review of “Swamp Thing” ought to be “Oh Lord, not that again,”.

But the Chameleons hit minor cult status at best: maybe you’ve not heard ‘Swamp Thing’ and its latticed, funkless groove. I heard it once a long time ago and didn’t forget it – I lost the details, but the airless mesh of guitar and starved, hard drumming stayed with me until I picked up the song again. It’s impressive stuff – with “How Soon Is Now?” the peak British art-rock statement of the time, but where that song drowns in resignation the Chameleons flail and fight, determined to go down messily.

The Chameleons’ music was easy to get wrong. One step to the right lay histrionic blowhards like Simple Minds or Big Country, and for me the band took that step a few times too often. But when they let their rigid post-punk roots show, it had the curious effect of making the Chameleon’s music genuinely grand. Burgess’ voice is stiff, straining, and dry – but its roughness is the only way he could have got away with stuff like “A storm comes / Or is it just another shower?” (On the page, he still doesn’t). When “Swamp Thing” kicks in, the band sound like Joy Division tackling Bon Jovi, men trying to beat a hostile and reductive world simply by becoming too big for it.