Post-punk band The Chameleons’ singer on their Hong Kong debut, 37 years after they started out
Formed in northern England in the 1980s, The Chameleons became cult favourites with songs such as Up the Down Escalator. Singer Mark Burgess talks about their excitement at playing Hong Kong for the first time
Up the Down Escalator, the signature track by The Chameleons, laments the inequality and dreariness of post-industrial life in England during the 1980s, the era in which the British post-punk band’s dark and tightly wound new wave sound first struck a chord.
“There must be something wrong boys,” frontman Mark Burgess sings in the 1983 track. “[They] sit at their tables and throw us the scraps/ For Christ’s sake leave us something/ Now they can erase us at the flick of a switch.”
It was atmospheric, rallying songs such as this that made the band a cult favourite around the world in the intervening years, but the band never made it to Asia. Until now, that is. Burgess will finally be making his debut here this Friday, performing with the latest incarnation of the band, which for the Hong Kong gig will be called Chameleons UK.
Fighting off a cold, yet still riding high after the band’s “fabulous” pre-Christmas hometown show only a few days before he spoke to the Post, Burgess is excited at the thought of performing in Hong Kong for the first time.
Despite having seen it all in the music industry as part of various musical projects in the 1980s and ’90s, Burgess admits he relishes the challenge of entertaining a new crowd of foreign fans in uncharted territory.
“We don’t know what to expect; we’ll just do what we do and see how it goes down,” he says over the phone. “When you’ve been doing this as long as we have, it’s always a thrill going somewhere you’ve never been before to do something you’ve not done before; something completely new.”
Seem now as one of the genre’s most overlooked acts – their peers include Joy Division, The Smiths and The Cure – the Chameleons’ influence can be heard clearly in the songs of many post-punk groups active since the genre’s revival in the early Noughties.
Formed in a small town on the outskirts of Manchester in 1981, the Chameleons quartet released three studio albums, including their seminal debut Script of the Bridge and follow-up What Does Anything Mean? Basically, before calling it off in 1987.
In the years that followed, Burgess worked with Chameleons drummer John Lever under the name Sun and the Moon, before going on to contribute to a number of different musical projects. Eventually, The Chameleons reformed at the turn of the millennium; or, in their own words, “buried hatchets, kissed and made friends once more”.
They went on to release three more albums, before disbanding again in 2003. In 2009, Lever and Burgess began performing Chameleons music under the name ChameleonsVox before the drummer’s death in March last year.
Burgess described himself as “shocked” by the death of his friend and bandmate in a Facebook post announcing the news to fans. “It’s a very difficult area for me to talk about, it’s still very raw,” the frontman says now. “The best way to honour him is by keeping the music alive.”
The Chameleons may have been overlooked in the ’80s, but Burgess has discovered the band are appealing to a new generation of music fans.
“We attract a lot of newcomers – lots of young people coming to the show, lots of them are in bands themselves. You do get some people who have been coming since the ’80s, but the majority never got to see us back then,” he says.
Post-punk, in all its thunderous, noirish glory, is enjoying a fresh wave of interest in Hong Kong, with European groups Motorama and Toy having played to packed rooms within the same week last September, while local group David Boring made their mark on the city’s underground scene last year. The Sinister Left, another local group whose sound is similar to that of The Chameleons, will open the show on Friday. For the band’s lead singer and long-time Chameleons fan Nathan Inciong, landing the support slot was a dream come true after having grown up with the band’s music.
“The Chameleons heavily influenced our sound,” he says. “The ’80s was a flourishing time for colourful pop music but, in parallel, there was a darker New Wave underground scene and I was hooked instantly. The moody, grey songs had a certain attitude that has become part of my life.”
Burgess’ Hong Kong gig will kick off another busy year that will see he and his band entertain crowds for the first time in both China and Australia, plus appearances across Europe at festivals during the summer. The singer is also hoping to round out 2018 by recording some new songs. “It’s going to be a hectic time, but I’d like to schedule some time in the studio – there’s lots of things I’d like to work on,” Burgess says. He also plans to get married, too.
Addressing fans in Hong Kong directly, Burgess says: “It’s a huge thrill for us to be able to come all that way and play. I hope people coming to support the show will enjoy it and find us as rewarding as people here do. I have no idea what to expect but I’m really excited. I hope it’ll be one to remember.”
The Chameleons UK, Jan 5, 7.30pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay HK$680 (door)