Strange Times

by The Chameleons

1985. This album achieved a bit of a cult status - and could be best described as ethereal indie rock. 

This a momentous album for me. This was my first freelance project as an engineer. In fact the producer on the album, Dave Allen (The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy, Human League), asked me to leave West Side Studios to engineer for him on the project because he wanted to record it in a residential studio.

It was very early days for me to be going freelance. I'd only assisted at the studio for a year and had been house engineer for a year. I hadn't worked on tons of projects or worked with loads of bands/producers. Six months of my time at West Side had been spent assisting on an Asia album (not a lot of fun - except to work with producer, Mike Stone, which was an honor. You'd think in six months he might have brought up the fact that he worked on Queen's mega hit 'Bohemian Rhapsody' as an engineer! But no, he didn't. Great guy who worked hard, partied harder and sadly died way too young). And also I worked a lot on my bosses Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley's productions so I didn't get to meet a lot of other producers.

It was a big gamble for me to leave the safety and regular paycheck of West Side Studios but The Chameleons were hyped to be the next U2. They were signed to Geffen by the legendary A&R man, Tom Zutaut, and flown to Antigua to sign the record deal. Not bad for a bunch of lads from Manchester! I took the plunge and left West Side, a move that wasn't welcomed by Clive and Alan.

Going back a bit in time though, prior to the full album, Dave Allen booked West Side to record the first three tracks for the album at West Side and asked for me, as the house engineer, to work with him.

Dave's concept for this project was that the band should all play together and nail the songs live with no overdubs. This proved pretty difficult for the band who weren't real seasoned studio pro musicians - I'm not sure how much they'd played live at that point. We had three weeks - a week per song to record three songs. I remember feeling very sorry for the band because they were just playing the songs over and over and over again and Dave would be saying 'sorry, not quite there yet - try that again'. I was wondering if Dave would cave in with his concept and do what was normal with this kind of band, concentrate on getting a good drum recording first and then build up everything on top of that, one instrument and vocal at a time. I don't remember him caving - if he did, it was not for a long time. I remember a lot of tension in the band because if anyone screwed up we would stop the recording and they would have to start the song again. I realized though when we started the rest album weeks later at Jacobs Studios in Farnham, Surrey, that although it was a very tough approach by Dave, it transformed the band. When they came back to the studio, they were a much tighter, well rehearsed band. I can't remember all the songs that were recorded at West Side, but Swamp Thing was by far the best song of the session and my favorite on the album. Such amazing guitar riffs and incredible mood.

The Jacobs Studios sessions were fun. I remember Dave turning up on the first day and opening up the trunk of his car. I expected him to be getting out some music equipment but instead he took out about 4 cases of mixed alcoholic beverages! This was a residential studio so we were all in this together. I loved the studio, I'd worked in it as drummer a couple of years before - at a time when the later-to-be mega mixer Mark 'Spike' Stent was the brilliant but lowly assistant there. 

Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies played amazing textural guitar parts using tape echoes and chorus/flange pedals. Beautiful.  The drummer, John Lever, who sadly passed away in 2017, was great drummer and lovely bloke.

The tracks were laid down in a pretty relaxed and easy fashion but vocals with Mark Burgess proved more difficult. Mark was obviously feeling the pressure of the huge record deal and let's face it, the vocals usually go last and they are clearly the most important part of the recording - so there is a ton of pressure riding on that master vocal take.

It took a lot of persuading (alcohol) to even get Mark in the vocal booth at all. The vocal sessions felt pretty precarious - like Mark could melt down or walk out at any moment. I'm pretty sure that Mark would have a hard time remembering recording some of the vocals on this album. Dave and I would cobble together the most coherent passages of vocals when Mark had finished for the night and we'd give the song another go on another night to see what we'd get. 

The studio, unusually in those days, had a female assistant  - called Becky, if I recall correctly. Becky was very cute and I think a few of us had crushes on her. This caused some tension between Reg and Mark as far as I can remember as Reg's affection towards her was more requited than Mark's! In fact there is lyrical reference to her in the song Caution. Becky was leaving the studio in 6 days when we did the vocal for that song and at about 6 minutes into the song he started yelling about '6 days' - followed by a very Jim Morrison style 'nothing on earth can help me now' rant. Hey Mark, we were all pretty sad when she left ok?

At the end of the Jacobs sessions, Tom Zutaut flew in from LA for a listening session. He came in on the red eye and came straight from Heathrow to the studio. Mark was wound up very tight and ready to blow at this point. At the end of the album playback, all eyes turned to the jet lagged Zutaut. Who said 'I love it - (reasonable pause) - there's just one thing though - (small pause) - I'm wondering if some of the vocal could be a little bit louder.' In a blinding flash, Mark was inches from his face yelling 'what the fuck do you know?!!!!'. He was swiftly whisked out of the room leaving a rather shell shocked Zutaut in his chair. As Mark left the room he could still be clearly heard yelling 'I don't care - he's a fucking idiot!!!'. I'm pretty sure the next words spoken by those left in the control room with the almighty powerful A&R man were 'err...would you like another cup of tea Tom?'.

From then on things didn't go from strength to strength and I heard that the band, fairly soon after we finished the album, had split up. Not much great news for an engineer who'd just taken a gamble to go freelance to work with the 'next U2'!

I didn't know at the time though that this would lead to me working with The Cure. Dave Allen not only produced The Cure but he was managed as a producer by the nice folk at Fiction Records and, because I'd gone out on a limb for this project, he asked Fiction if they'd help me out with finding me some more work. That worked out very nicely - thank you very much Dave!


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