The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge

This band is relatively new to me, having first listened to them around 2013. But once I heard them, I immediately knew that they were something special. There’s so much to love here: the late John Lever’s precise and heavy drumming, the interwoven and at times delicate guitar stylings of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding, or the solid and metronomic bass and voice of singer Mark Burgess. What’s recorded here is extremely tight, virtuosic, and while subsequent albums would prove this band contained heaps of talent, the debut album caught lightning in a bottle, and attained heights that wouldn’t quite be reached again.

The Chameleons in 1981

Album opener, “Don’t Fall,” sets the tempo with it’s heavy guitars and thunderous drums. This is music typically made by bands at the height of their skills, not those putting out their first album. Burgess describes a nightmarish room, evoking the confusion of Kafka’s main character in “The Trial.”

Alone in a room I’ve been in once before
Shapes in the hall I’m running for the door
I’m out on the edge but I’m not defeated yet
I hear my name above everything else
Mark! Mark!
Above everything else
Don’t fall.

Lever’s drums beat relentlessly while Fielding’s and Smithies’ guitars mesh to create a wall of distorted noise.

While “Don’t Fall” bursts unapologetically forward with its wailing guitars and drums, standout “Second Skin” opens with gentle synths, quickly giving way to chiming and repeating guitars and processed snare, granting the song with mostly tangible, traditional instrumentation a slight sensibility typical of electronic music.

All of this culminates during the interlude and change at around the 3 minute mark–which builds on reverberated, palm-muted guitars and thumping bass line–until the guitars break into a resplendent, sparkling dance, enveloping Burgess’s vocals and Lever’s drums in a wash of effects and emotion. It’s one of the most affecting moments of the album, and it comes relatively early on, jarring the listener to awareness and compelling them to pay attention. When Burgess sings:

But is this the stuff dreams are made of?
If this is the stuff dreams are made of
No wonder I feel like I’m floating on air

it doesn’t feel vacuous or limp. The words carry weight, and you feel their sincerity. This is someone with something to say. This is someone feeling something profound, and finding a way to express it in ways the listener can feel it as he does. It’s a moment musicians try to capture in earnest, and it’s done so beautifully here.

It’s remarkable that “Second Skin” was never a single, having been passed up for “Up the Down Escalator,” “As High as You Can Go,” and “A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days.” While each of these songs is good in their own right, they don’t carry the same weight, or showcase the band’s abilities quite as much as “Second Skin.”

Likewise, “Thursday’s Child” hits in ways those songs fail to. It is perhaps a modern take on the children’s nursery rhyme, “Monday’s Child.”

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Monday’s Child

Burgess sings of knowing the past, feeling its history, and of examining its faults. The song is about the onset of self-awareness, or rather the realization of this awareness is finally internalized. “I suppose/ years ago/ years ago/ I might have known.” It’s an assessment of maturity and the path taken to get there, but it’s also a cautionary tale about aging: “Please leave my mind intact/ as I slowly grow older.” Enlightenment, it seems, happens quietly. And then quickly, it fades. This fear, and others surrounding what it means to be human, is echoed throughout the album.

This is the type of album you can listen to a number of times and hear something new with each listen. It is rich, dense, and accomplished. The Chameleons only lasted from about 1982-1987, but in those few years put out 3 fantastic albums. Script of the Bridge is about as good a debut album as one is likely to see from any band, and the fact that it remains so obscure after garnering so much critical acclaim is mind-boggling. They never attained the same following as The Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen, but have nevertheless influenced many bands that followed. This one is likely to be in my own circulation for years and years to come.