Chameleons/Vox: Return Of The Roughnecks

Chameleons/Vox: Return Of The Roughnecks
ChameleonsVox by Frank Yang

Listings for a new Chameleons live record have had me a little confused of late, so I finally got around to doing the leg work to understanding what it is. The album is Return Of The Roughnecks – Live at The Ritz Manchester 1, and the description on many of the UK retailers implied that it was The Chameleons – the original band – in performance in December 2019.

Almost 35 years on, The Chameleons return once again, to one of Manchester’s most iconic venues, playing the original set they played that evening…

from Drift Records listing

Which is tricky because the Chameleons reunion of the early aughts – which yielded the Strip, Why Call It Anything?, and This Never Ending Now albums – ended in 2003. Bassist/vocalist Mark Burgess has been carrying on the band’s legacy since 2009 as ChameleonsVox2 with a revolving cast of players that have at times included original drummer John Lever and guitarist Reg Smithies, at least in the UK. When Burgess has come to North America, he has a different backing band. But point being, “The Chameleons” hadn’t been an active entity in some 17 years.

But maybe Burgess was looking to change that – referencing this interview from September 2017 with The Big Takeover, he indicates that if Smithies is playing with him, and thus half the original band is in the lineup, he feels justified in just calling it The Chameleons. If it’s just him, it’s ChameleonsVox. It’s also a good read for getting a handle on all his various post-Chameleons projects, which have been legion.

And that’s how it was billed when he was at Lee’s Palace in November 2019 for a stellar show (from whence the above photo was taken). I had missed his visit in October 2015 at The Garrison because a) I was being a snob about it not being the proper Chameleons, whom I had gotten to see at The Phoenix back in 2000, and b) I was in Pittsburgh.

And so it is that this new live record says ChameleonsVox on the album art but is or at least has been listed as a Chameleons release in shop listings (some of them have apparently changed to ‘ChameleonsVox’ to avoid the confusion I’ve been working through right here). In any case, it’s a great-sounding document of what was surely a great show from a band that I’m happy continues to exist in some form.

It’s a shame the original lineup will never be able to come back together properly2; John Lever passed away in 2017. Guitarist Dave Fielding appears to be the last holdout, though interestingly in 2019 he worked with Jack Sobel’s Black Swan Lane project (here’s another Big Takeover interview with details), which had already counted Burgess and Lever amongst its collaborators. At least his Chameleons/Vox replacements Neil Dwerryhouse (in the UK) and Andru Aesthetik (in North America) both have the correct gear in the Micro-Frets Swinger.

1 The record was released via Bandcamp in December 2020 and sold out; these retail listings are for a second pressing which are also going fast.

2 I’ve always written it as ‘ChameleonsVox’, a more visually interesting portmanteau than ‘Chameleons Vox’. But as I’ve been doing research, it looks like the latter is more correct. Also note that I refuse to acknowledge the ‘Chameleons UK’ moniker the band were forced to use in North America since day one.

3 Also interestingly, there have been a few multi-Chameleon projects over the years – The Reegs was a project with both guitarists, Smithies and Fielding, The Red-Sided Garter Snakes was Fielding and Lever, and both The Sun & The Moon and The Sons Of God was Burgess and Lever. The only missing combo is Fielding and Burgess. I guess you can do the math.

4 Footnotes are fun!

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