They were active in their initial incarnation for only five or six years, enough to put out a few singles, cut three albums, and record a number of radio sessions. They were completely unknown to me until the release in 1986 of the single Tears from their third album. I heard it played - and get mostly slagged off, I seem to remember - on one of those jukebox jury type programs on Radio 1. Something of its driving, start-stop energy must have stayed with me, though, because when I later saw the 12" ep of the single, I snapped it up. I played little else that summer. I still have that 12" and I still play it regularly. It's magnificent.
I bought the album when it came out, which disconcertingly enough had a completely different version of the song on it, but which I came to love just as much as the single. I suppose you'd call it moody indie rock now, but at the time the only people I knew who had even heard of this band were some of my goth friends, and thanks to them I managed to hear the earlier singles, as well as the first two albums. Over the next few years, these records (and the various spin-offs by the band members, after the group disbanded) were rarely off my turntable. Nobody else sounded like them. You could hear their influence in lots of bands who came later,, but no one seemed to come close to the same magical alchemy of chiming guitars, soaring vocals and god's own drum sound. Someone once described John Lever's playing style as sounding like a man trying to smash a lathe to pieces.
I mean, have a listen to this:
When I first heard the above track - Home is where the Heart is - I felt like it was a piece of secret music I'd been waiting my whole life to hear. I played it last week, as it happened, just because, and it still sounds as huge and terrifying and apocalyptic as it did in 1987, when I encountered it for the first time. I mean, listen to those drums. That's the end of the world right there - and bloody hell it sounds good.
I thought I'd blown my chances of ever seeing The Chameleons by dint of coming to them a few months too late. They were gone by 1987, splitting up in acrimony after bad deals and the death of their manager. They deserved much better, and there was a second bite at the cherry around 2000-2001, when they reformed for some dates and a new record. I caught them twice, and they were as great and thrilling as I'd hoped. Both sets commenced, I recall, with the titanic A Person Isn't Safe, from their first album.
Thank you, John Lever, for laying down your drum sounds on some of the greatest records almost no one has ever heard.