Friday 17 March 2017

John Lever

I was browsing the Guardian's music section when I saw the sad and shocking news that drummer John Lever had died. Never famous, Lever was nonetheless the driving force behind one of the enduring musical obsessions of my life, the underrated but quietly influential band The Chameleons.

They were active in their initial incarnation for only five or six years, enough to put out a few singles, cut three albums, and record a number of radio sessions. They were completely unknown to me until the release in 1986 of the single Tears from their third album. I heard it played - and get mostly slagged off, I seem to remember - on one of those jukebox jury type programs on Radio 1. Something of its driving, start-stop energy must have stayed with me, though, because when I later saw the 12" ep of the single, I snapped it up. I played little else that summer. I still have that 12" and I still play it regularly. It's magnificent.

I bought the album when it came out, which disconcertingly enough had a completely different version of the song on it, but which I came to love just as much as the single. I suppose you'd call it moody indie rock now, but at the time the only people I knew who had even heard of this band were some of my goth friends, and thanks to them I managed to hear the earlier singles, as well as the first two albums. Over the next few years, these records (and the various spin-offs by the band members, after the group disbanded) were rarely off my turntable. Nobody else sounded like them. You could hear their influence in lots of bands who came later,, but no one seemed to come close to the same magical alchemy of chiming guitars, soaring vocals and god's own drum sound. Someone once described John Lever's playing style as sounding like a man trying to smash a lathe to pieces.

I mean, have a listen to this:

When I first heard the above track - Home is where the Heart is - I felt like it was a piece of secret music I'd been waiting my whole life to hear. I played it last week, as it happened, just because, and it still sounds as huge and terrifying and apocalyptic as it did in 1987, when I encountered it for the first time. I mean, listen to those drums. That's the end of the world right there - and bloody hell it sounds good.

I thought I'd blown my chances of ever seeing The Chameleons by dint of coming to them a few months too late. They were gone by 1987, splitting up in acrimony after bad deals and the death of their manager. They deserved much better, and there was a second bite at the cherry around 2000-2001, when they reformed for some dates and a new record. I caught them twice, and they were as great and thrilling as I'd hoped. Both sets commenced, I recall, with the titanic A Person Isn't Safe, from their first album.

Thank you, John Lever, for laying down your drum sounds on some of the greatest records almost no one has ever heard.


  1. I can't believe I've managed to completely miss this band until now. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Same thought, do a little downloading tonight.

  3. I've been meaning to listen to the Chameleons for a while. "Tears" is a really great tune. I think this post will finally get me into them. It's fitting as I've also recently discovered a few other UK "guitar bands" of the mid to late 80s like the House of Love, the Church, and the Primitives. I've been fairly obsessed with the "alternative music" scene of the 80s (R.E.M., The Smiths etc), and a number of its myriad offshoots for something like half a decade (which, for me, is a decent amount of time given that I'm a third year college student), but it's amazing to me how I can think I've heard all there is to hear of a particular era/genre of music only to find that I've missed an embarrassing number of incredible (and often seminal) artists.

  4. Steve - I've been listening to that stuff for 30 years and there are enormous gaps in my own knowledge. In a way that's part of the joy of it as there are always bands/artists waiting to be (re)discovered.

    I particularly recommend checking out Cherry Red's catalog of re-releases, as they've been doing a great job of bringing back some of the more obscure or somewhat neglected eighties stuff, such as The Passions, Furniture, Lotus Eaters etc.

    1. Mr. Reynolds- Thanks for the link, I'd never heard of Cherry Red. They've got a huge catalog, most of which I'm unfamiliar with. As you say, they seem to have an impressive amount of quality material from the alternative scene in the 80s and 90s. I signed up for their email list; I look forward to what that'll expose me to.

      I absolutely take your point about uncovering gaps in one's musical knowledge. Discovering an artist that you feel you should have known for much longer is one of life's greatest pleasures.

  5. Great song and band, I've never heard about them before, been playing them a lot last weeks. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I have heard The Chameleons before but unsure when. I find similarities to the band She Wants Revenge when I listened to A Person Isn't Safe Anywhere, which is worth checking out. Especially the self-titled first album which is both dripping with angst and preformed with a tightness equal to Kraftwerk.