Words and pictures by Andi Callen – All rights reserved
We all have our little rituals in the lead up to the Christmas period. Whether its the works do, or the once a year meet up with old school chums, the distant relative who always stops off the weekend before the 25th, on their way home for Yuletide, to dish out presents and disappear for another 12 months. Whatever it is, chances are you have one. Chameleons fans have theirs too, in the shape of 2 nights at the O2 Ritz, Manchester, a veritable homecoming of their own as Middleton’s favourite sons entertain over two nights, playing a different set on each and ably supported by 4 fantastic bands, 2 each evening.
Part 1 The Battery Farm – Membranes – The Chameleons
On Friday , at the unearthly time of 6.50pm, the four youngest (and by some considerable distance) musicians of the weekend take the stage for the biggest hometown gig of their short career. Manchester’s The Battery Farm, hailing from various parts of the city’s eastern borders, blinking in the stage lights like a newborn deer, are about to realise a dream come true and deliver a stunning set of angry guitar based rock ‘n’ roll, winning many new fans in the process. Except, just at that point they don’t yet know it! Self described as “gutter punk”, they do themselves a massive disservice adopting the tag, in that they are so so much more than that. Guitarist Dominic Corry is simply one of the most innovative purveyors of 6 string cacophony currently on the scene, as he wrenches sounds out of his guitar, like a priest conducting a particularly difficult and violent exorcism, before falling quiet and exhausted, only to re-energise seconds later as yet another Corry brothers production rears up like Cerberus at the mouth of Hades. This is most certainly not 4 posh boys in parkas, with Daddy’s money, trying to ape those other Mancunian siblings, Oasis, as Ben sings “I’m A Working Class Lad” on the song of the same name. No, this is a band who have worked extremely hard to get to this point, having already ticked another of the old bucket list in the shape of an appearance at Blackpool’s annual Rebellion Punk Festival in the summer.
By the time Crude Oil Water cranks into life, with the distorted choppy electro intro, Ben’s already acquainting himself with the people on the barrier, some of whom seem a little shellshocked by such a ferocious start to the evening. Safe indie rock this is not! The set goes far too quickly and the 15 songs fly past like a juggernaut whose brakes have failed. Drummer Sam and Paul the bass player, have the unenviable job of holding this all together, one they do with remarkable calmness.
When I first re-entered the world of music journalism in 2019, The Battery Farm were one of 3 bands causing much excitement on the Manchester independent scene. The others being the sadly now defunct Tinfoils, who’ve morphed into The Accident Group and The Red Stains, who have simply failed to live up to the hype and are now largely irrelevant, since the likes of Pyncher, Duvet and The Strangerz came to the fore. The Battery Farm have big plans for 2024, and it’s fitting that it’s also a Leap Year because it means one extra day to enjoy their majesty!
The Battery Farm played – Flies, A Working Class Lad, Crude Oil Water, Hail Mary, Wooden Spoon Number, Poet Boy, House of Pain, I’ve Never Been to Gorton, A Time of Peace, Roy Keane Isn’t Real, When The Whip Goes Crack, Pigeon Skeleton, In the Belly of the Beast, We’re At The Top, and While The Black Smoke Rise. Check out their Bandcamp page.
Another North West band, John Robb’s Membranes, were originally born in Blackpool in 1977, died in 1990 and resurrected in 2009, when they were asked to play at All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by My Bloody Valentine. After various line-up changes since 2009, Robb remains the only original member.
The current line-up is Robb (bass/vocals), Pete Byrchmore (guitar), Mike Simkins (drums) and the classically trained and multi-talented Amelia Chain (keyboards, tambourine and backing vox), who takes the stage adorned in the equivalent of a goth bee keepers veil.
This is a beast far removed from the quirky, choppy lo-fi sound of their Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder days. Now we get a dark brooding creation, flirting on the edges of goth, songs like opener The Ghosts Of Winter Stalk This Land, fully stretched with enough space to breathe, allowing Robb to mark his territory with a series of high kicks and maniacal stares, in between vocal deliveries. It’s a truncated version of LP track (from 2019’s What Nature Gives…LP) and Chain’s middle eastern wailing heralds the arrival of Black Is The Colour, with it’s JJ Burnel-like bass refrain and renewed opportunity for John to get his steps in for the day! For a band who haven’t gigged much in the last year, they sound incredibly tight and Byrchmore’s guitar work soars and gnaws at the very fabric of the songs. The bulk of the 9 strong set is lifted from their last album, the critically acclaimed What Nature Gives…Nature Takes Away, and there’s a bonus in the shape of Ice Age, a track that hasn’t seen the light of day in 43 years! I have to admit to not being particularly fond of early Membranes back in the day, but it’s the perfect palate cleanser before the triumvirate set of closers in the shape of the Gang Of Four-esque Snow Monkey, Deep In The Forest Where The Memories Linger and Myths And Legends brings proceedings to an end having taken a trip through Southern Death Cult territory. This is easily the best set I’ve seen from this line-up, lean and clinical, with Robb’s bass punchy and melodic. Here’s hoping for a new album before too long!
The Membranes played: The Ghosts Of Winter Stalk This Land, Nocturnal, Black Is The Colour, In The Graveyard, What Nature Gives….Nature Takes Away, Ice Age, Snow Monkey, Deep In The Forest Where The Memories Linger and Myths & Legends.
And so to the headliners. This is the ninth time this event has happened, as both Chameleons Vox and now Chameleons, with guitarist Reg Smithies back in tandem with bassist and singer, Mark Burgess.
Never scaling the same commercial heights as fellow contemporaries Echo & The Bunnymen or The Teardrop Explodes, the band have still left their mark on early 80s indie guitar music, and their cult status remains intact, especially in these parts. You can’t help wondering what they could have gone on to achieve, if they hadn’t broken up in 1987 after the death of their manager?
Part 1 is basically about 1983’s Script Of The Bridge LP with a couple of tracks thrown in from 1985’s What Does Anything Mean? plus assorted early recordings. These are the songs of countless peoples youths, and judging from the reaction, most of them are present tonight. Grown men hug each other and wipe imaginary grit from their eyes as Things I Wish I’d Said bursts forth. As the night unfolds I realise I’ve only ever heard these songs as part of a Mark Burgess solo set or by Chameleons Vox. For once I can’t wait to put the camera down and enjoy the music. The incredibly upbeat The Fan And Bellows follows, probably my favourite song with the word “masturbate” in it, before Burgess sings, “don’t know what happened, but somebody lost their mind tonight”, and half the Ritz lose their shit to Here Today, as Smithies chops out soaring guitar lick after soaring lick. Burgess is grinning like the proverbial cat. This must feel so good, to be here in front of a reverential crowd, living your best life (still) and crushing it (again). As the last note fades and gives way to the Department S-lite Everyday I’m Crucified, now delivered with a much lower pitched vocal than when it was originally recorded, the mosh pit steps up a notch, a walking stick festooned with Xmas lights held high in the air, conducts the tempo. (Nice to see you again Alex!). The pace shows no sign of slowing as In Shreds follows before Less Than Human affords us the chance to catch our collective breath again. Then it’s time for my personal favourite track from Script, Monkeyland, the song that finally removed any vestige of my own childhood faith that I might have been hanging onto aged 21. The rest of the set washes over me like a wave of novocaine, and not fuelled by alcohol before you ask, certainly not at nearly £8 a pint, robbing bastards! Second Skin ends the regular set and when the band return for an encore, we’re treated to Nostalgia and Don’t Fall before a surprise rendition of T. Rex’s 20th Century Boy, with Simon Hinkler of The Mission joining in on guitar.
A truly mesmerising night of fantastic music from beginning to end. Their ability to transport us through time while remaining relevant reaffirms the power of great music. This gig wasn’t just a concert; it was a testament to The Chameleons’ lasting legacy. And as I leave I suddenly remember I get to do it all again the following night!! Tough life this music journalism, but someone’s got to do it!
The Chameleons Set List
Things I Wish I’d Said
The Fan and the Bellows
Everyday I’m Crucified
Less Than Human
Pleasure and Pain
As High as You Can Go
Up the Down Escalator
Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In)
20th Century Boy – (T. Rex cover with Simon Hinkler of The Mission)