The Chameleons, Don’t Fall (1983)

ChameleonsScriptofabridge

Artist: The Chameleons
Title: Don’t Fall
Description: track, Script Of The Bridge
Label: Statik
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

“In his autumn, before the winter, comes man’s last mad surge of youth.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”

It’s the rejoinder from an exchange in a box at the theatre that clinches it as a typically random mouthful of dialogue lent unfathomable depth of meaning and angst by its very detachment from context. In a way, even telling you that it’s ripp’d from the mainly unknown 1946 American musical comedy Two Sisters From Boston ruins it. That the exchange is enacted by Peter Lawford as the idealistic son of Nella Walker, playing his uncomprehending mother, is irrelevant. It’s better if we don’t know.

Book publisher, sports writer, biographer and documentarian Mark Hodkinson – who hails from the same neck of the Greater Manchester woods as The Chameleons – named his first novel after the intriguing word combination The Last Mad Surge of Youth in 2009. It was about a struggling indie outfit called Group Hex. (At the time of its self-publication I praised it in Word magazine for containing “all the affection missing from John Niven’s similarly biz-themed Kill Your Friends,” a compliment to both.)

The Chameleons, though led from the front by a charismatic if fanciful, self-romanticising young man like the novel’s John Barratt, were not Group Hex. Mark Burgess, for it was he, was a melodramatic post-punk touchstone briefly in the early-to-mid 80s. He went straight onto the hit-list my like-minded bedroom co-conspirator Kevin and I kept circa 1983 after the band’s ferocious debut In Shreds and the Rochdale-recorded debut LP’s hand-pencilled sleeve illustration, which promised hope and glory. (The illustrator was guitarist Reg Smithies, which fed into my own twins dreams of art school and rock’n’roll.) Before the decade was out, I’d gone to London to see the Queen and backdoored my way into the NME as a layout boy. I met Burgess professionally in the boozer-next-door in 1988 by which time, improbably signed to Geffen, he’d forgotten to tell his paymasters that he and John Lever had changed the optics and become The Sun and the Moon. Whatever. The record was all the excuse I needed to genuflect at the fringe of a hero, regardless of fripperies like which band called what was signed to whatever label.

Without exhausting the elastic “post-punk” cordon, it can be difficult to put your finger on what was occurring in that fecund wake of the first mad surge of the independent sector. Punk bands stopped playing punk and started foregrounding melody and decoration over spit and sawdust. I guess if anything it was the knobs in higher education saying, “Hold my beer!” before that concept had been invented. If nothing else, the mid-80s were literate and a bit speccy, but not without some dramatic swoops of hair and permanently aloft jacket and overcoat collars. Had the Chameleons sold as many records as, say, China Crisis, or Big Country, or the dreaded Thompson Twins, they might have made more of a mark. Instead, they were Modern Eon or Essential Logic or Clock DVA or The Scars or Jesus Couldn’t Drum: deserving of more appreciation. (Alright, perhaps not Jesus Couldn’t Drum.)

As it stands, Script for a Bridge, and follow-ups What Does Anything Mean? Basically and Strange Times, are of historical interest rather than cultural. A general sense of rainwear awareness (“A storm comes, or is it just another shower?”) weds them to the blockbusting likes of the Bunnymen and the Goth bands, but not in unit terms. Their sound was arena-ready but never got the chance to prove it. They had the alienation, but not the niche of Alien Sex Fiend. No wonder they semi re-formed in the 2000s for a second crack at the cherry and were by all accounts louder than Motorhead. (Burgess’s wingman and drummer Lever sadly died, aged 55, in 2017, a sad day.)  They have every right to play as a legacy act. They are an act that has a legacy.

So why is Don’t Fall one of the 143 best songs of all time?

For me, because it means more than a phase, or a whim, or a makeweight, or a notch on a recovering new romantic’s bedpost in an East Midlands town. The Chameleons mattered because they meant it, man, and they soared when the sociopolitical trajectory pointed alarmingly towards a fork in the road where neither choice filled you with optimism. (Imagine that!) At times like these, we need something more than Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding’s product-placing career plans and artists featuring other artists featuring other artists: something mad, something that surges, something that says youth.

Only in adolescence do we write or think thoughts like this, and I know of what I squeak.

Hiding inside
A room that’s running red
The place to be
Exists only in your head
And the focus of fear
In the creases of a dress
A female dress
How did I come to be drowning in this mess?
This fuckin’ mess?

If you managed to get through your exams without Yes, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Specials, Soft Cell, Smash Hits, Just Seventeen, The Tube, The Chart Show, grunge or Pubic Enemy, I salute you. In this hormonal hinterland, we do need another hero: one who articulates the state of the nation and all the trouble in the world better and more poetically than we humanly can. With longer words, or shorter ones, but always better ones. We all feel as if we have an uncomprehending mother or father and wonder what on earth we’re talking about.

Who can honestly say they didn’t at a certain tender, shoe-gazing age feel as if they were drowning in a mess – beat – a fuckin’ mess?

Talking Heads, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980)

TalkingHeadsRemaininLight

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Description: album track, Remain In Light
Label: Sire
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1984

It was Stephen King who got me into Talking Heads. Well, my friend Paul Garner, who got me into Stephen King and Talking Heads at the same time. It was early 1984, the year I would complete my one-year Art Foundation course at Nene College, where Paul – a like-minded cinephiliac contemporary from school who’d left before sixth form – was well on the way to a Diploma at the same local seat of learning. Band and horror novelist, whose twisted Americana held like-minded allure to a provincial lad straining at the artistic leash and already besotted with Hollywood movies as disparate as On The Waterfront, Halloween and Apocalypse Now, came together as one.

Paul, one step ahead of me, lent me Remain In Light (their fourth album) and Carrie (King’s first) and Night Shift (his first collection) at around the same time. I devoured all three and went for the set in both cases. This was quite a slog with King, already up to his eighth or ninth under his own name, but with great enthusiasm comes fast reading. All three previous Heads LPs, and the next, went onto cassette and when Little Creatures was released a year later, it was my first contemporaneous purchase. Likewise, with King, in paperback, Christine. (It was only in later years, postgraduate and with disposable income, that Paul and I began to buy them in hardback.) If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’ll recall that heady thrill of discovery and how it tore through everything like a cyclone.

Imagery and story linked CBGBs band and horror author, although a cosmic alignment suggested itself when, during my reading of The Dead Zone (an early favourite for both of us), Psycho Killer from Talking Heads ’77 gave up the line, “Can’t sleep, my bed’s on fire.” In the story, extra-sensorily perceptive Johnny Smith has a vision of being in a burning child’s bedroom. (It’s in the Cronenberg film, which we saw on video that year.) This was all meant to be.

David Byrne’s lyrics snared me in. “Look over there, a dry ice factory, good place to get some thinking done,” he explained, seemingly in some kind of panic (“I’m a little freaked out”), on Cities, from Fear Of Music, a restless road movie waiting to be adapted by David Lynch (Memphis is the “home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks”, and when he smells “home cooking” it turns out to be “only the river”). But I think what made Talking Heads unique to me in a way that only mining David Bowie’s back catalogue for C90s had ever done before is that every single track had something to recommend it. Even the more spidery early stuff. Not a single song went by without some twang, or chord-change, or vocal quirk that made it different to everything else.

With a percussive mistake, an explosion of cymbal and a whipcrack toe-stubbing exclamation from Byrne, Born Under Punches opens Remain In Light in fidgety, wired, ants-in-pants style, although you’ll have to forgive me, I played Side Two of my first ever Talking Heads LP before Side One because it had the single Once In A Lifetime on it, which, a surprise UK hit, was my passport over the border. (It wasn’t until C4’s proto-Adam Curtis, cut-up documentary Once In A Lifetime aired later that year – coloquially known as Talking Heads Vs. Television – that I truly appreciated the “world music” aspect of Byrne’s appetite, including the sign and body language behind the famous Once In A Lifetime video.) Remain In Light has not a weak link, from the jerky pop to the more morose meditations on Side Two, but Born Under Punches is the one that really throws its weight around for me. (Crosseyed And Painless really picks up the twitchy baton, and The Great Curve is no slouch, but both feel relatively controlled in comparison.)

A chattering, Brian Eno-doctored mutant of guitars, squeals and beats speaks in musical tongues, while Byrne, a perspiring Norman Bates-like figure, affects a near-parody of the possessed funk vocalist (“I’m a tumbler … I’m so thin … Take a look at these hands … Some of you people just about missed it … Thank you! Thank you!”) With repeated phrases and half-phrases, coming back on each other in the round, the lyric, such as it is, behaves more like beat poetry. As with the dancing, there’s so much going on behind it. Who is “the Government man”? Why are the hands “passing inbetween us”? In what way was the tumbler “born under punches”?

Talking Heads pose way more questions than they answer, and so be it. This is collegiate new wave taken to vertiginous heights of theoretical tease. When even the hand jive has subtext, it’s little wonder the words have you reaching for books. And so it was that Talking Heads burrowed into my consciousness at the same time as Stephen King’s vivid tales of domestic equilibrium shattered by supernatural events.

When I thought I had it in me to write a novel, the first title I came up with was Born Under Punches. It looked superb in capital letters. But I checked it on Amazon and unfortunately someone had already nabbed it. Not that you should ever start with a title if you’re writing a novel. I fully intended to have a Government man in it, and a backstory about domestic violence (born under punches) and a subplot about hand signals. It would have been amazing.

I stopped buying Stephen King’s books when they came out at the end of the 90s, but I did see him read from Bag Of Bones onstage at the South Bank in ’98 and it was pretty cool. Never did see Talking Heads, although I went to CBGBs and it was pretty horrible.

Don’t even mention it!