Chameleon rose to Midwestern fame after arriving in the Twin Cities from Joliet, Illinois. During their peak in the ‘80s, they scored a sponsorship from Miller Brewing Company and played roughly 250 one-nighter shows in 15 Midwestern states and Canada. In their last year, drummer Charlie Adams said, they played 285 one-nighter shows. They also played bowling alleys and ballrooms across Minnesota, as well as clubs like The Cabooze, Boys on the River and The Hideaway, and the prestigious Guthrie Theater and Carlton Celebrity Room.
Bassist Dugan McNeill remembers joining the band shortly after his band opened for them at a Minnesota show.
“They were exceptional musicians and they did something different than all the bands here did,” McNeill said. “At that point they were playing cover material, but they were doing it in a metally form and just doing it their own take on it.”
Hoping to impress the band, McNeill amped up what was already a theatrical performance. “I wanted to be a bass player who jumped around like no other bass player had at that point,” he said of his stage presence, inspired by hard rock bands like Alice Cooper.
After losing some members, this very early version of Chameleon asked McNeill to join, forming the widely known roster of McNeill, Charlie Adams, Mark Anthony and Johnny Donaldson. After their first album came out in 1981, McNeill got his former bandmate Yanni in the band. Following their second release in 1982, Adams said, Anthony and Donaldson were replaced by Peter Diggins and Donny Paulson.
Yanni, now a renowned new-age composer, had previously played in bands with McNeill before he even owned a keyboard.
“A funny little C-level band I was in had [an ad] sitting up in a place called ‘B Sharp Music’ for about half a year that nobody answered,” McNeill said. “It was an ad that said, ‘Keyboard player wanted for progressive rock band with theatrics.’ We were pretentious, even at that point.”
McNeill’s love for theatrics meshed well with the band. Each member maintained a themed costumed look throughout the years, with Adams dressed like a jock and McNeill channeling a new wave, “alternative” look, as he called it. At one time, each band member also had a mannequin dressed like them that appeared on stage. To further their atttempt to connect with listeners, the band made an effort to include all members’ names on all of their posters, and even came out with trading cards.
“We were being very presumptuous with our fans, but they liked it,” McNeill said. “I will say, to this day, I have never worn a shirt with my name on it.”
But the most successful publicity stunt of all was Adams’ revolving drum set.
Adams was inspired after watching Buddy Rich on the show “I’ve Got A Secret” play on a drum set that turned upside down, and hoped to expand on the feat. Engineering pal Tom Westby hooked him up with multiple versions, including one that turned upside down and spun simultaneously. More information and concert footage can be found here.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” Adams said.
One time, Adams said, he performed in the gyroscoping drum set while riding down the street in a parade. Still, Adams and Westby always hoped to go to the next level.
“He did have plans where we were going to put the whole stage upside down,” Adams said.
The band self-released four albums from 1981 to 1984. The band’s first album sold over 30,000 copies, Adams said. It was released the same week as the Rolling Stones’ “Tattoo You,” and Chameleon prevailed over the famed rockers in sales throughout the Midwest for one glorious week, McNeill said. The band landed a moment in the national spotlight when MTV featured their video for “Little Sister” on the “Basement Tapes” show.
Still, the band broke up in 1985 after a coming close to getting a record deal multiple times.
McNeill now teaches record production at Minneapolis Media Institute, and Adams teaches drum lessons to students across the globe through Skype when he’s not busy performing with Yanni.
Adams said that the band is considering an invitation to play at a reunion concert in Minnesota within the next few years. In the meantime, check out more photos and one of their popular tunes below.