1st entry in a weekly column entitled “Flashback Fridays” where I discuss albums that have impacted me over the years
My day began with somewhat of a bizarre exchange with Courtney Love Cobain on twitter. After reading about her campaign against my childhood (and let me be honest, adult) heroes The Muppets, I decided to drop Courtney a message letting her know how ridiculous it was to pick on Kermit the Frog (for those who don’t know, Courtney Love Cobain after selling her majority stake of rights to Nirvana’s music, was upset with The Muppet’s rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”):
Courtney responds to me not once, but twice. Somewhat unhinged (yet funny). Ultimately a bit sad as well:
@pugetsoundguy i know the whole thing is surreal- like mickey and KERMIT come dropping gold BULLION in the desert still law IS LAW @pugetsoundguy DONT EVEN START O N LISA HENSON AND THE HENSON FAMILY HEY ILL HIDE BEHIND THESE PUPPETS MY DAD DREW. NOT.
so I responded with something that probably killed the “conversation” if you will call it that –
I had already planned to introduce my series Flashback Fridays today to discuss albums that I love and have meant a lot to me over the years. The bizarre actions and public persona of Courtney Love have somewhat obscured the fact that she was involved with one of the most brilliant albums of the 90’s – Live Through This. Artists usually come in two flavours those whose brilliance flickers briefly before abandoning its host, leaving the host to navigate the demands of the industry (Courtney) OR those who make a career out of being true to themselves. While the high points are very high indeed, the points that don’t reach those heights can hardly be called low. Today’s featured album puts the spotlight on one such artist, Mark Burgess, and a band whose debut album is one of my favorite albums ever – Script of the Bridge.
I actually discovered The Chameleons by accident. In 1995 I spent most of my free time shuttling between Siren Records in Doylestown, PA and the Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, NJ. In those days I had to rely on fanzines and word of mouth to discover new music, but on occasion I would buy something if it had an amazing cover OR if it had some sort of connection to John Peel (towards the end of my high school years I was perfecting my outsider stance and had abandoned all love of mainstream music). Going through the bins at Siren Records one day, I came across a record called The Chameleons – John Peel Sessions. The cover seemed to be an artists depiction of hell inside of a carnival – and even better – IT WAS JOHN PEEL. I popped the disc into my player (the old discman connected to a tape deck) and listened intently to see what this was going to be. Halfway through track 2 “Here Today” I turned my car around and went back. I purchased everything Siren Records had in stock by this band including a copy of their debut album. This album has been my soundtrack to life as I graduated college, moved across the United States to WA from PA, and settled into life. Here is a track by track breakdown:
1. Don’t Fall – The album begins with a soundbite from the 1946 film Two Sisters from Boston – “In his autumn before the winter comes man’s last mad surge of youth / what on earth are you talking about” – the guitars come roaring into focus with Mark Burgess wailing “don’t fall…don’t fall” like a madman possessed. In other words – stunning so far. A rousing opener.
2. Here Today – A song that still gives me chills even after having heard it hundreds (if not thousands) of times. Written from the perspective of John Lennon as he lay dying after being shot by (that bastard) Mark David Chapman. The music is a driving post punk gem with the lyrics and music equally haunting “My chest is burning, I think someone set my soul alight / Not sure what happened / But I don’t think I’ll get home tonight”
3. Monkeyland – Going back to my exchange with Courtney Love Cobain – wouldn’t it have been weird if the template for Nirvana existed – not with The Pixies – but with a UK guitar band in 1983? Funny you should ask – “Monkeyland” begins as a quiet song with Mark singing in an increasingly agitated tone “I shake my head and shiver / They smile and they stab my back / As they shake my hand / Send out an S.O.S please / I’m marooned in Monkeyland / Is there anyone there / Who understands me / Anyone at all?”….on for another verse in accusatory words before Mark shouts “It’s just a trick of the light!!” and the guitars explode in a Nirvana-ish wall of sound (or should we begin to say Nirvana explode in a Chameleons-ish wall of sound). Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.
4. Second Skin – In Mark’s words this song is about “dealing with the immortality of cinema stars. It evolved after I read a book about the study of ‘Near Death Experiences’ and subsequently dealt with another form of immortality altogether” This is a very haunting track with swelling synths in the background with the drums answering the lyric “Someone’s banging on my door…” For a song about the afterlife, it really makes me feel alive (silly maybe).
5. Up the Down Escalator – One of the songs on the album that shows a lighter touch – it has a really strong chorus / melody. A piece needed to hold the album together, but also a song that I often will forget just how good it is because of the brilliance of the other tracks. The twin guitar attack of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding starts off the song with aa Wire-ish chugga chugga sound. Mark and John Lever join in after 30 seconds or so to give a welcome full band attack with the focus coming back to the lyrics “There must be something wrong boys / They’re dragging me down..”
6. Less Than Human – Organized religion is a funny thing. Everybody has the truth and everybody seems to know what happens when we die. Seems a little heavy-handed to me. But in this song, I GET what Mark is saying in the lyrics. The song begins with whirly pipes and almost tribal drums. Mark sings in a very mournful voice “I must’ve cried a thousand times x3 / Feeling less than human / I surmise / I’m less than human in God’s eyes”. Needless to say, I’ve played this song (in all the versions I own) thousands of times and have been known to sing it at the top of my lungs (heaven help anyone who has heard me)
7. Pleasure and Pain – Along with “Monkeyland” I consider this song to be a case of The Chameleons not receiving recognition for a very specific sound 15 years ahead of when it broke big in the UK / US. Interpol have created an entire career out of mining the treasures present in this song (Full disclosure: I do love Interpol). The driving bass, eerie guitars with Mark singing about “Its pleasure and pain / no loss no gain / Again and again / pleasure and pain” and elsewhere he calls out those fake friends (we all have had them, I’m sure) “Smiling as we climb / Smiling or crocodiling” (strangely the last time I saw Mark live it was at the famous Crocodile in Seattle, WA where another band called Nirvana started to make its name as a force to be reckoned with). This all makes for a perfect song.
8. Thursday’s Child – I always thought this song was called “Years Ago” as it builds its focus into a lament for the past / fear of growing up. Somewhat of a lighter touch with this song until the music fades away and we are left with eerie guitars and Mark begging us “Please leave my mind in tact…”
9. As High As You Can Go – The Chameleons and U2 shared a producer at the outset of their respective careers – Steve Lillywhite. Though he isn’t the producer on this track, this song stands out to me as a song that should have been a hit single. It reminds me of Boy era U2 with a positive vibe throughout.
10. A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days – This song starts off with a nice post-punk riff, Mark singing passionately “As she parts her greying hair / Voices on the stair / When she turns there’s someone there” leading to the rousing chorus “Men of steel / just stood laughing in the rain”. The song is apparently about a rash of violent crimes in the UK at the time (1982 / 83?) against the elderly community. The song breaks down into a tribal hypnotic beat at about the 4 minute mark and fades out to intricate guitars over the beat with Mark pleading “How can you laugh this one away / Will you ever laugh this one away”
11. Paper Tigers – Song starts with a chugga chugga guitar sound before building into a full band jam. Mark starts off “Too much makes me lazy /Not enough and it makes me crazy /Too much makes me crazy / Not enough and it makes me lazy” slowing building up to the chorus “You have to face them sooner or later /These tigers made of paper /Don’t pay now /You have to pay later /Confront your tigers made of paper” The song is absolute perfection. It’s about a run in The Chameleons had with the crew of Killing Joke in the early 80’s.
12. A View from a Hill – Perfect ending to a perfect album. Slower guitar sound with Mark sounding like a ghost, singing from under the floorboards (yes, that was a silly Magazine reference). The song is about Mark in his youth taking acid and climbing Tandle Hill to look out over Manchester. I’ve never taken acid but I’d imagine Mark’s lyrics describe it perfectly “Feel myself falling to the ground /Solitary silence there’s no sound /Open my eyes and look around / Colours and concepts that confound /All around” The song fades into the most beautiful epilogue of sound I’ve ever heard with isolated guitars, driving guitar, and the feeling that youth is fleeting.
There you have it – my first Flashback Friday. Stay tuned next Friday as I discuss Genesis – Foxtrot.
Here is some information about The Chameleons and Mark Burgess, I must say if you haven’t heard this record, please buy it TODAY.