Wednesday, March 15, 2017

RIP John Lever

Tributes have been slowly pouring for the Chameleons' drummer who passed away a few days ago. When you're a "cult" band (a unfortunate term, as Ned Raggett refers to it in his piece for The Quietus, but it is what it is) the proper recognition can take time to gather steam in death just as it did in life.

Chameleons belong in a select group of influential 80's bands that nobody has ever quite been able to duplicate (I'd put both The Smiths and Cocteau Twins in this category).  The combination of Mark Burgess' throaty vocals, Reg Smithies and Dave Fieldings' interlocking guitar lines, and John Levers intricate yet propulsive drumming somehow added up to more than the sum of their parts, as many have noted.  When I was first absorbing alternative music in the late 80's, "Swamp Thing" was the Chameleons staple heard most often on the radio.  But as the years went by, "Soul In Isolation" became their signature song for me, in no small part due to Lever's blowaway drum performance.

While recording the album "Strange Times", the band was pushed to record live as much as possible with no overdubs.  So rest assured that Lever played the complex opening riff for "Soul In Isolation" with two hands and only two hands.  In an alternate universe, its opening drum riff is as iconic as "Be My Baby".  It would be copied more often if more drummers were capable of playing it.

Few rock drummers could switch so effortlessly between the busy opening riff and the expansive, energetic drumming in the bridge and chorus.  Of course you can always stick together two ideas in a song to form an odd, schizophrenic pairing.  But the two drum riffs in "Soul In Isolation" don't come off sounding like that.  They're a logical progression in a cohesive whole.  And then the pattern repeats itself in the second half of the song!, i.e. yet another switch to the busy would-be iconic riff, and back again to the propulsive final stretch.

Jammed into the middle as the fourth song on a sixteen song CD (ten for the album proper plus six bonus tracks), "Soul In Isolation" arguably loses part of its impact in the post vinyl era,  On vinyl, it was the epic Side 1 closer, fading away in volume while the band surged on without the least bit of let up, with Lever's outstanding drumming leading the way. It reminds me of something once said about Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir".  It's a song without a clear beginning or end, it's practically all middle.  It passes by like a slow moving float in a parade, and while it's in earshot you get you hear a few (well, technically eight) scant minutes but you can't be sure how long they were playing before, or how much longer they'll keep playing after the float passes by. 

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