The Chameleons: The band that refused to blend in
In the mid 1980s, Geffen Records dispatched one of its top A'n'R men to Manchester with instructions to secure the signature of a hot new band everyone was raving about. What the executive didn't realise was that he was supposed to sign future 'Madchester' heroes The Stone Roses. Instead, having spent a few days gauging the musical temperature of the gritty industrial town, he gave a record deal to a much more intense, markedly less photogenic group called The Chameleons. It's a cracking story – or at least it would be, were it not for one trifling detail.
"It never happened – it's complete nonsense," says Mark Burgess, Chameleons frontman and one of the unsung talents of British post-punk. "We were already at Geffen when The Stone Roses were signed. Study the timeline and you will see we had probably broken up at that point."
If there isn't any bitterness in his voice, there isn't a great deal of amusement either. You get the impression he is slightly fed-up serving as a punchline to a fictitious music industry anecdote.
Or maybe he is just venting his general discontent with a business which, even by its usual heartless standards, gave The Chameleons a stunningly raw deal, initially hyping Burgess and band-mates as the next U2, then nudging them into a ditch as it became clear the singer had little wish to be Lancashire's answer to Bono.
"The 'next U2' thing was a perception that originated with the record label," Burgess explains, speaking ahead of a short comeback tour of Ireland.
"They obviously were keen for us to tick that particular box. To be fair, U2's first record was a big album for us. Edge's guitar opened it up in terms of how you could build an ambient atmosphere. The record company [they were signed to CBS prior to Geffen] saw us as an arena prospect. We never had ambitions in that direction. We were punks."
Punks – but with a difference. While rejecting the enormodome piousness discernible (even then) in U2, The Chameleons' cloud-scraping sound set them apart from their contemporaries in the north of England.
Burgess probably wouldn't think much of the comparison and yet a case may be made that The Chameleons were forerunners of a later generation of heart-on-epaulette rockers – no insult is intended in pointing out that, if you have a soft spot for Coldplay, you'll probably be partial to The Chameleons' sonorous songbook too.
Theirs is the sort of music that, through the 1980s, prompted rock journalists to churn out hyperbolic guff about 'sonic cathedrals'.
"I remember we were trying to sign to [indie label] Cherry Red and they were going, 'you don't want to go with us – you're a major label act'," chuckles Burgess. "That was totally against what we stood for. We didn't want to be on a major. We wanted to stay independent. Pretty soon people started to call us the 'stadium band that doesn't play stadiums'. I can understand that – there was the sheer hugeness of the music, the presence of it."
Such was CBS's determination to remould The Chameleons into U2-esque behemoths, they enlisted Bono and company's in-house producer, Steve Lilywhite to midwife the debut single. "We were at odds with him," says Burgess. "We did our single 'Shreds' really quickly. We went in with half an idea, recorded it in half a day and mixed it in 15 minutes. [Lilywhite] was horrified."
At the time, Manchester was in the midst of a musical flourishing. The Smiths were on the cusp of a breakthrough; ferociously independent outfits such as The Fall and The Buzzcocks had redefined what it meant to be a rock group operating outside major label parameters. The scene was presided over by Factory Records, whose discoveries included Joy Division (later New Order), A Certain Ratio and Durutti Column.
From the sketchy suburb of Middleton, the reclusive Burgess never felt affinity with his peers. As far as he was concerned, The Chameleons were coming from an utterly different place.
He's in two minds as to whether Manchester meaningfully influenced The Chameleons, who drifted apart in 1986, and occasionally reform for one-off projects (such as their latest tour and an accompanying EP). Clearly you can't grow up in a post industrial city like that without some of the grit seeping into you music. On the other hand, he feels certain The Chameleons would have sounded much as they did wherever they hailed from.
Though disdainful of the 'Manchester U2' tag, Burgess speaks warmly of the Dubliners themselves. "Our third ever gig was with U2, at Sheffield Lyceum," he recalls.
"Bono had gone off to bed early. We got talking to Adam Clayton and The Edge. They had just recorded [second album] October. The Edge told us they had made the LP for America. That was where they were headed. They chased that dream. The Chameleons didn't. We were determined to stay true to our punk roots."
The Chameleons play Whelan's in Dublin tonight.