Altered Images: songs sung blue, pink and with added Mascara Streakz – the Clare Grogan feature/interview

Early ‘80s new wave pioneers Altered Images are back, a number of headline shows about to commence, with a new album, Mascara Streakz, landing this summer.

Formed in 1979 as teenagers inspired by the punk scene, this Glaswegian outfit – fronted by Clare Grogan – swiftly reached the big time, selling millions of records, topping charts in several countries, recording three top-10 albums and securing six UK top-40 hits.

In 1981 they were voted the NME’s Best New Group and Smash Hits’ Most Promising New Act and invited to play a Royal Command Performance. Meanwhile, Clare’s parallel career took off after starring in Bill Forsyth’s rightly-revered coming-of-age romantic comedy, Gregory’s Girl with John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn that same year.

More recently a published children’s author too, Scottish Music Awards’ special recognition award-winner Clare’s love for music clearly continues, singing live again under the band’s name since 2002, even fronting an all-female version at Blackpool’s Rebellion Festival. There was also a BBC Scotland Quay Sessions show in late 2019, while last year a reformed line-up supported The Human League on their Dare 40th anniversary UK tour.

And now a fresh Altered Images line-up are taking to the stage again with a string of headline dates, their set including material from the new album, one my interviewee is extremely proud of. But first, I asked just where she was, that slight delay on the telephone line last Friday afternoon suggesting it wasn’t her adopted North London home base.

“I’m actually in Barbados. I’m so sorry! I’m sorry!”

I’m guessing Storm Dudley and Storm Eunice haven’t quite made it there yet.

“No, we’re basking in beautiful sunshine. I won’t go on though, or you’ll just fall out with me. What’s it like there?”

Well, I just went to retrieve my recycling box, to bring you down to earth a little. And I’m guessing you’re not watching the Winter Olympics’ men’s curling final in Beijing by the poolside right now.

“Yeah, I have to say I feel very, very lucky if life at the moment. I’m here with my husband, our daughter and our friends.”

Clare’s husband is Altered Images bandmate Stephen Lironi, who joined in 1983, the pair going on to form the short-lived Universal Love School. And now they’re at the heart of this new Altered Images LP, due out in August on Cooking Vinyl Records, also involving Robert Hodgens – aka Bobby Bluebell – and Bernard Butler, of Suede and McAlmont & Butler fame. And as I pointed out, we’ve only had to wait 39 years for this new record to be delivered.

“Ha! Yes, slightly rushing the whole thing!”

I was lucky enough to see Robert when The Bluebells – Clare having appeared in a video for their No.1 hit, ‘Young at Heart’, way back – came to headline the final night of the three-day Preston Pop Fest last August. They put on a storming set, so knowing he’s involved with this record and the tie-in tour bodes well.

“Yeah, Robert and I are really old friends, so it was great to actually finally get to work with him. It really was, and the whole thing just kind of came together in a very sort of casual, organic way. It just built and built and built. It started as a tiny wee speck, then I just kept going, ‘Let’s do another song … let’s do another song!’.

“And I’ve been saying to everybody that if it hadn’t been for that second lockdown, I’m not even sure if this album would have been written. In a really weird way, I just found the space in my head to do it, at such a weird time for people. It really was.”

I gather Altered Images’ co-founding guitarist Johnny McElhone (later of Hipway, before huge success with Sharleen Spiteri in Texas, Clare having not so long ago featured with them live at the Royal Albert Hall and also appearing on May 2021’s LP, Hi!, the band’s 10th studio album) was also involved on the songwriting front.

“Actually, we decided to put a sort of hold on them. We were finding it really difficult to be in the same spot at the same time with all his Texas commitments, but we’re definitely planning on doing it, because I’ve got a two-album deal with Cooking Vinyl, so you never know what will happen next. But it’s a shame we just couldn’t quite get the timings right.”

How did the link with Bernard Butler come about? Was he someone you knew quite well?

“Bernard’s my neighbour. Ha! He lives just around the corner from me, and I’ve always been a big fan of what he does. I just asked him one day if we should try to write something together. We did, and have co-written two really lovely songs. And I’m really excited about people hearing it.”

Me too. And in the meantime, you’ve inspired me to go back through the back-catalogue – although I never really need an excuse, to be honest – with Pinky Blue – its lurid cover one of many for the band by late Glaswegian artist David Band, whose CV also included key Aztec Camera and Spandau Ballet covers – and Bite still having that power to transport me back to my teenage years. 

I didn’t get to experience the first two 45s, ‘Dead Pop Stars’ and ‘A Day’s Wait’, or debut LP, Happy Birthday, on release, although I knew well enough the title track that first cracked the UK top 10 the week I turned 14 in late October ’81 (that hit single going on to spend three weeks at No.2). But I reminded myself of that album the morning I called Clare, remarking on its classic post-punk vibe, hardly surprising considering the Siouxsie and the Banshees link (Altered Images toured with Siouxsie and co., having sent a demo tape to the official fan club asking if they could, landing a slot on 1980’s Kaleidoscope UK tour, guitarist Steve Severin going on to largely produce that late ’81 album).

What’s more, there’s a Buzzcocks feel with the guitars (not least on ‘Legionaire’, again perhaps not such a surprise seeing as their band name referred to a sleeve design on Buzzcocks hit ‘Promises’, inspired by Pete Shelley’s constant interfering with sleeve designs, apparently).

“Yeah, definitely!”

And songs like ‘Idols’ and ‘Leave Me Alone’ sound so powerful to this day. There’s also a touch of The Cure for me, another band in the Banshees’ orbit, of course. And l hear how later bands like Catatonia perhaps carried on where you left off.

“I think a lot of bands are influenced by the same musicians, so we all kind of merged together to a certain extent, just because they’re the influences you have. I loved the Buzzcocks and the Banshees, and when we started our band, the boys literally picked up their instruments for the first time, you know, so it was amazing that we very quickly progressed to the level we did.

“I’ll never quite understand it, but I don’t over-analyse it. I just think there’s no point. It happened, and it was great!”

Well, if you’ve got something special, you don’t want to look too deeply. Also, I know your bandmates were very much influenced by the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Did you also get to see all those classic bands when they came to Glasgow?

“Yeah, there really was a kind of group of what I describe as baby punks, and we all gravitated towards each other. Although none of us were at the same school, we became a little tribe of people that went to see all those acts, which we loved.

“Originally, when we heard Siouxsie and the Banshees were doing a Scottish tour, we got in touch with the fan club and asked if we could open for Siouxsie, support her on tour, and they said yes! And I’ll never quite understand why … but they did!”

Was your seminal date at Tiffany’s in Glasgow with them an audition of sorts? Or had they already signed you up for the full tour?

“I’m not sure … I think we’d already signed up. And yeah, it was magical. It really was, and they were really helpful towards us when we first started out and, although they seemed quite terrifying, they were really, really amazingly supportive to us.

“They also got us on the bill at Futurama, which was where of course John Peel saw us, so we got to do a John Peel session, and yeah, it was really quite incredible.”

Ah, Peelie, the band’s high-profile champion, the interest garnered by his initial BBC Radio 1 session with the band in October 1980 leading to a recording contract with Epic Records. That show she mentions was as part of the Futurama 2 festival in Leeds in September 1980, Peel impressed enough to invite the outfit to record a session for his programme, an offer taken up the following month. They went on to record two more for the show, in March and September 1981. What’s more, Peel and Pinky Blue’s producer Martin Rushent – more of whom shortly – contributed backing vocals and whistling to the group’s cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Song Sung Blue’ for that second LP.

And rather perceptively, that iconic broadcaster said of the band in June 1996 during a BFBS broadcast (as recorded on this rather splendid webpage), “Hard to imagine a band less fashionable than Altered Images. When they first appeared, people said, ‘It’s like a Scottish Siouxsie & The Banshees’, except they were light where the Banshees were dark, really, and got lighter and eventually got darker… people did like ’em when they first came along, had a couple of hit records, and suddenly everybody turned on them, as they do, in a strange way. I’ll never understand how this process works, but it does go on all the time. They started to dislike them for the very things which they’d previously liked them for, like the fact that they were bright and a bit daft and colourful and leapt about and stuff, and suddenly these things became terribly uncool, whereas a week or so beforehand they’d been cool.”

Did you retain that friendship with John through the years?

“Well, you know, I didn’t see an awful lot of him, but when I did, I really relished it. And I was just so fond of him and liked being around him. That’s the only way I can describe it. He was just a really nice person to be around.”

You seem to have been blessed by knowing a few people like that. I recently caught footage of you being interviewed on camera with Martin Rushent (who first worked with them on breakthrough hit, ‘Happy Birthday’), and you clearly had a kinship there as well.

“Yeah, I really did. I’ve come to the conclusion over many, many years, that people liked being around us as much as we loved being around them. Maybe that’s all it was. I think when you’re young, you don’t really notice that stuff so much, you know. I think we just desperately wanted to fit in, in a world that was incredible. And the best way to do it really was just by being ourselves. And I’m so glad that we were.”

You were clearly infectious in that respect (in a positive way … and that’s pre-covid terminology). And as you mentioned being so young, the youngest of my three older sisters is barely a few weeks younger, which reminds me there’s a landmark coming your way soon, your – dare I say it – 60th birthday. Do you think that was part of your inspiration for doing this LP now? Thinking, ‘If not now, when’?

“Yeah, I think during that second lockdown, we got to be together as a family quite a lot more than normal, like all families, and I was with my teenage daughter a lot and it really just got me thinking about the fact that at her age I was already in the band and travelling and doing all this stuff.

“Actually, the thing that’s really inspired me the most is looking back at being 16 or 17 and the music that inspired me then. I re-listened to all those records I loved back then, you know, The Human League, Simple Minds, Kraftwerk, Grace Jones, the Tom Tom Club. I just started listening to all of that again, and that’s when … I just felt absolutely compelled to do it!

“I read recently that Robert Smith of The Cure said he suddenly felt overwhelmed by the need to create new music and I totally related to that. I’ve talked about it over the years and written with other people and have casually dipped in and out. But suddenly I really wanted to put something really, really personal out. And make it work, you know.”

Pinky Blue was an LP – in my case a cassette at first – I lived and breathed for some time, arriving at just the right time for me. And don’t take this the wrong way, but many a time you’d tell me ‘Good Night and I Wish’, last thing of an evening.

“Ha ha!”

That second LP was released in May 1982, reaching the UK top 20 and providing three more top-40 hit singles – ‘I Could Be Happy’, ‘See Those Eyes’ and the title track. Yet it was largely perceived as a disappointment in UK music press circles, if not for 14-year-old me, and ‘I Could Be Happy’ (which reached No.7 on this side of the Atlantic, four places higher than follow-up, ‘See Those Eyes’) proved to be the group’s sole US chart success, peaking at No.45 on Billboard’s Dance chart.

Personnel changes followed, not for the first time. In fact, this was a band never afraid to mix things up. That rehearsal room door must have slammed a few times with the line-up changes en route. I guess it wasn’t always a happy ship. Do you get on well these days?

“Well, the only one I’m … well, obviously, I married Stephen. Ha! But sometimes we got on and sometimes not so much. Obviously, I see Johnny and hang out with him, but the others I really don’t see. I mean, I know it sounds a bit weird, but it was almost like people you went to school with, and I know we had those shared experiences together, but people do fall by the wayside. They just do.

“I don’t really keep in touch with them. I did a Tim’s {Twitter} Listening Party with Johnny, Stephen, and Tony {McDaid}, and that was really lovely. But a lot of the original members I literally haven’t seen since they were in the band, so it’s a weird one.”

When you put it like that, that makes sense. I guess some of us are guilty of remaining in a kind of early ‘80s bubble when it comes to thinking of you and the band. We’ve stopped the clock, while moving on in our own lives.

As it was, 1983’s follow-up long player, Bite was the more sophisticated album of the three – as suggested by Clare’s Holly Golightly-esque restyling on the cover – and for these ears, in retrospect, veered between dance pop (disco, I guess) and everything from Blondie (maybe that’s why Mike Chapman – who shared production duties with Tony Visconti – was called in) to New Order (‘Another Lost Look’) and The Temptations (‘Thinking About You’). Then again, the drums on ‘Now That You’re Here’ are pure ’Moving Away from the Pulsebeat’-era Buzzcocks.

I reckon it’s as cool today as first time I heard it too. It also provided a blueprint for pop-funksters I went on to admire like Shoot! Dispute (the Visconti-produced second single and LP opener ‘Bring Me Closer’ and ‘Stand so Quiet’ spring to mind), as did Peel, and the whole album drips with the vibe of so much from that era, not least ABC and Orange Juice. As for the Chapman-produced flavoured 45s, ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Love’, their third and final top-10 hit in spring 1983, and ‘Change of Heart’, which somehow only reached No.83, they remain as fresh today as then. However, while the LP, released that June, was their second to reach the UK top 20, it sold less than the previous pair, both awarded silver discs. No accounting for public taste, I guess.

Did you see that third LP as your last crack at the big time for the band? I mean, your star had already ascended as an actor by then. Did you just think, ‘Right, one more go at this’?

“Do you know, it really wasn’t. I often say to people now that at the time when I walked away from the band, I probably just needed a really long holiday. But you know, when you’re young, it’s kind of a bit all or nothing. I just thought I can’t. I’d been on the move for five years, literally, just non-stop, getting on planes … and, you know, I always say to people, it was great fun until it wasn’t.

“I just suddenly thought, ‘I can’t live my life like this. I have no control over it’. And having a say in what I did and where I was and who I was with suddenly became very important to me. You know, I think I’ve worked out that most bands last between four to seven years, even the successful ones.

“I just kind of think we had our moment, it was fantastic, and I get to more than relive that moment. I think I’ve created something quite different. And not really intentionally, just almost by accident. And I’m not just saying that.”

You probably answered my next question there, but I’ll crack on anyway. I was going to ask how you felt when you saw Johnny taking off, success-wise, with Sharleen and Texas. I know you’re close now, having appeared with them live and on record, but at the time did you secretly think, ‘That could have been us’. Or had you truly moved on by that point?

“I had completely moved on. My life was very different. And I never ever thought that at all. I mean, it’s been an absolute joy to get to go on stage with them and be on their album and stuff. That’s been an absolute joy. But he’s got his thing and I’ve got mine, and we just have a mutual respect for each other after all these years, which is really lovely.”

After the break-up, Clare went solo, signing to London Records in 1987, releasing a single, ‘Love Bomb’. Not the greatest, in retrospect. And when that failed to chart, follow-up single ‘Strawberry’ and an LP, Trash Mad, were shelved by the label. There was always the acting though. Which brings me on to her parallel career, that starring role in 1981’s Gregory’s Girl her big break, credits down the years going on to include roles as the original Kristine Kochanski in Red Dwarf, and those in East Enders, Father Ted and Skins.

In fact, she was only 17 when she first met Bill Forsyth, this Scottish Youth Theatre hopeful waitressing in Glasgow at the time. Has she been in touch with Bill lately, and is there still a kinship between her co-stars from that wondrous film?

“We’ve had a couple of really special anniversary screening moments over the years, which has been great. And Gordon’s married to one of my best friends, which is really lovely, Shauna McKeon. But I haven’t seen Bill in years. Our paths just haven’t crossed. I met him at the Baftas a few years ago though, and it’s always nice to say hello.”

Gregory’s Girl has certainly stood the test of time. When was the last time you watched it all the way through?

“Well, I saw it for the first and last time about five years ago, screening at the BFI, which was a really lovely moment. They were doing a special screening and I thought this could be my last chance to see it on a big screen with a big audience.”

Had you avoided the premieres at the time then?

“No, I went to all of them, but you watch the first five minutes and then you leave. You don’t want to criticise yourself! Because all you can ever see are your mistakes.”

Well, we didn’t. And of all your acting roles for film, TV, theatre and elsewhere, is there one you feel didn’t get the positive attention it deserved, or went under the radar?

“I think maybe Comfort and Joy, I was terrified of seeing as well. I remember having conversations with Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, who I see from time to time, and we really felt like we almost ruined Bill’s career! {Bill Forsyth, who was directing} But we got invited to a screening of it at a film festival, and afterwards the three of us were saying, ‘It’s really rather good!’.

“It came out just after Local Hero {Mark Knopfler provided the score for both}, and I think people were expecting a different kind of film. So maybe that would be the one, but honestly, I’m not just saying this, most of the things I’ve done had genuinely positive acting. And I feel so lucky and fortunate that things like Red Dwarf and Skins and all this stuff, people love.”

And you’re a published author these days. Will there be an autobiography at some stage soon?

“Erm … no, definitely not. I mean, I consider this album to be the story of my life a wee bit, through songs. That’s what I’ve done, and it’s quite revealing.”

So is this holiday your break before getting back to rehearsals for the LP launch and live shows?

“Yeah, my year’s going to be really busy, so I just thought, ‘while I can’, during this half term, come away with my husband and my daughter, and chill out a bit.”

Have you put your daughter off a career on the stage?

“No, she loves hanging out at shows and she quite often helps at the merch stall. She’s part of the family business. She used to love coming on stage with me, but she’s at that stage now where she’d rather die than do that!”

Incidentally, I’ve never asked my girls – now 22 and 19 and at uni – if they were scarred from me playing a certain Altered Images song to them up the stairs for every birthday throughout their formative years.

“Ah! I love that!”

It had to be done. And I’m looking forward to the album and these live dates. I’m guessing it’ll be a set from across the three original LPs and the new one, yeah?

“Absolutely, and it’s gonna be really good fun. My shows are always great fun. They really are.  And I just love looking at the audience, as I can see the songs taking them somewhere. It’s a bit like you were saying at the start of the conversation – I love seeing people going, ‘Oh, my God, I remember this! I remember where I was, I remember what I was doing!’ I just love that. It’s a really, really great moment to witness.

“And honestly, I say this on stage every time, but if somebody told me 40 years on that I’d still be doing this, I’d have thought, ‘That is just wrong!’”

Well, we’re glad you are. And it’s been lovely to catch up, but you best apply some more lotion now, or turn over or something. Don’t worry about me, I’ll go and get my wheelie bin back.

“Ha! I’m thinking of you all! Thank you so much. ‘Bye now!”

You can pre-order new Altered Images album, Mascara Streakz, via this link. Meanwhile, Altered Images’ 2022 dates commence at Manchester Academy 3 on Wednesday, March 2nd, with special guests Scarlet (tickets here), and include a Friday, March 18th show at 229, Great Portland Street, London, where the band will be joined by former WriteWyattUK interviewee Gary Crowley (with tickets here). For full tour details head here. You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Altered Images: songs sung blue, pink and with added Mascara Streakz – the Clare Grogan feature/interview

  1. Pingback: Return of The It Girl: talking Sleeper & more with Louise Wener – yesterday, today and This Time Tomorrow | writewyattuk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.