VIDEO: Mark Burgess, "Swamp Thing," live at Hennessy's in Boston, July 2009
Hennessy's bartender Sean Flynn's admiration of Mark Burgess and the Chameleons UK runs deep enough to border on devotion. "I used to challenge kids in high school if they refused to take their hats off when 'Swamp Thing' was played at parties," he says. "It was just plain rude if people wore a hat while the song played. It's like wearing a frigging tuxedo T-shirt and a pair of three-quarter-length jams at a loved one's wake."
A fixture of the '80s post-punk scene, the British band last stopped by Boston in 2002. Flynn had been out of town at the time, so the possibility of his seeing the Chameleons live had long seemed hopeless. Then last July, Mark Burgess was planning to visit Maine. Poring over the MySpace friends of the Chameleons Vox (his latest incarnation of the band, with original drummer John Lever) and searching for someone in that vicinity, he noticed Hennessy's as a friend and messaged its account for suggestions on a local hotel. Flynn ran the account, and he was amazed to discover who was messaging him. He made Burgess an offer: Flynn would cover the hotel if Burgess played a set at Hennessy's. Burgess said yes.
The show would go down in a week's time, but it was no typical Chameleons gig. Flynn enlisted the Worcester-based Curtain Society as Burgess's backing act, but the vocalist and his band never got an opportunity to rehearse together — they didn't even get a soundcheck. "I'm standing there with this band, and I've got absolutely no idea what they're going to sound like," Burgess recalls by phone from the UK. "I actually said to the audience, 'This [set] is going to be as much a surprise to you as it is me, because I haven't heard the backing band.' Everybody was laughing like I was joking, but I wasn't."
The crowd was no joke either — Burgess had expected "maybe 40 people," but by the end, the room was packed. They opened with "Swamp Thing" before nailing "Soul in Isolation," "In Shreds," and a dozen or so other songs. And the Church's Marty Willson-Piper jumped on stage and performed with his old friend for the very first time.
Burgess was impressed by his impromptu bandmates. "When you play with musicians that really want to play with you because they love the music so much, there's a lot more passion than there was with the Chameleons, for the most part. It sounds weird, but it's true."
What makes the Chameleons UK worthy of this worship is their artful, atrabilious rock — a woozy but melodic product of an era that also birthed Magazine, Joy Division, and Wire. Worn, atmospheric riffs and a trunkload of drugs ("LSD, hash, amphetamines — the usual stuff, really") guided Burgess and company into a world where reality didn't always feel real. Cue the title of their 1985 album What Does Anything Mean? Basically.
On Monday, Burgess returns to Hennessy's as part of a small American tour with a new version of the Chameleons Vox. For the last year or so, he's been content with living as a wandering musician — "working when I want, with who I want, with no worry about what it's leading to" — so playing in Boston wasn't a difficult decision. "I'm on a journey, and I'm just going to see where it takes me."