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January 17th, 2010

View From a Hill

I just finished one of the more extraordinary books I've read in some time; I would say one of the most extraordinary biographies I've ever read, but I'm truthfully not a big consumer of bios, so that would be meaningless.

The book is called View From a Hill, and is by a gentleman named Mark Burgess. Since you've probably never heard of Mr. Burgess, I'll tell you: He was the lead singer, lyricist, and bass player for a rock band from the 1980s called The Chameleons (sometimes referred to as The Chameleons U.K., since there is apparently also an American band by that name). And since you've probably never heard of The Chameleons, I'll tell you: They were the single best band of the decade. Their unique sound has influenced nearly every British rock band since (and plenty of American bands as well), and twenty years after their prime, they remain my favorite band of all time.

The Chameleons only recorded three full studio albums during the '80s (plus one album from 2000, during a brief attempt at getting together again), and tracking down information about them was always somewhat difficult. One theme that has obsessed me for years in regards to The Chameleons has to do with the nature of collaboration; Burgess has had an interesting career since the band broke up in '87 and has produced some worthy solo music, but none of it has reached the brilliant level of his work with The Chams. How is it possible that the same man who was unquestionably the main force behind a band couldn't reach the same heights without them? During my theater days I even considered writing a full-length play about The Chams that would focus on that question and be somewhat surreal, but I realized I'd probably never be able to get all the rights I'd need, so I put the thought aside...but never fully.

Fortunately, Mark's book is candid and (at a whopping 772 pages!) very detailed. He discusses some of the unusual ways in which The Chams worked, and many of the ways in which they did NOT work. His relationship with one of the two guitarists (The Chams never had a traditional distinction between rhythm and lead guitar) was always troubled...and yet that relationship was at the heart of the band.

The biography has also left me pondering the comparisons to my own career. Part of the reason The Chams aren't better known has to do with simple bad luck (had their one-time manager Tony Fletcher not died, they might've gone on to be the British R.E.M.), but some of it also has to do with bad business - they were never in it for the money (in fact, Mark was set up to go into an engineering career, just as my school counselors insisted that I was to go into science, until - like Mark - I rebelled). They refused to play nice with major labels (Mark killed their deal with Geffen when he complained about an offensively sexist t-shirt made to promote another band), and wouldn't let major producers like Steve Lillywhite warp their sound. Well, I thought, that's not me...

...and then I remembered that I'd just told someone that if I was really smart I'd be churning out a zombie novel and making a quick five-digit advance.

Okay, so maybe it is me. A little, anyway.

Unfortunately Mark's book was published by a small British press and is very difficult to find (I won mine on ebay), but in the meantime...here's a Chameleons song that will give you some idea of their sound. This may be the ultimate song written on the subject of disillusionment...another reason I relate to Mr. Burgess ("It was maximum joy for the men they employed to hold you down/well, I hope now you know that this isn't the bliss that you thought you'd found").

Perfume Garden

(In the rare event that you are already a Chams fan, I highly recommend this video - it was produced by a fellow who worked with the band for years, and features many rare photos of the beautiful young Chameleons.)