Four decades after Clare Grogan first came into my life, marking my 14th birthday with a personal greeting from north of the border (that week the first of the four their biggest hit spent in the UK top 10, with the next three at No.2), she’s back with a new band, interspersing Altered Images’ golden hits with their post-punk roots and a few new songs that bode well for a forthcoming fourth LP, 39 years beyond the gorgeous Bite.
Not as if ‘Happy Birthday’ is the song I think of first, at least not if I can help it. Yes, I cranked it up on the stereo to mark my daughters’ annual celebrations during their formative years, so may well be guilty of instilling in them the same mixed feelings about that biggie. But it had to be done, right?
The band on this occasion was not the one that joined her in the studio for the soon-to-be-released Mascara Streakz, which also involves Clare’s other half Stephen Lironi, long-time pal Robert ‘Bobby Bluebell’ Hodgens, and neighbour Bernard Butler. But that was no huge surprise, and I was certainly impressed with the five-piece that showed up at the university union on Oxford Road, Manchester.
After a full-on, committed performance from highly-likeable four-piece, female-fronted grunge/pop alt-rock openers Scarlet – who were on top form by the time we waltzed in, bringing plenty of power and glamour alike to metal credentials – I was a little concerned as the main act got going. They went straight into the amazing ‘I Could Be Happy’, but sounded way too quiet, as if the levels were there for one of those racetrack ‘80s nostalgia dates, so they didn’t spoil the on-going conversation around the grandstand. However, the quality of the song itself soon shone through, and I’m pleased to say that by the time we got on to the equally awesome ’See Those Eyes’ – Clare seemingly still hiding behind her sunglasses, rather ironically – the mixing desk bods had sorted the issue and we were properly away.
A fine band they were too, and I’ll start (rather aptly) at the back with guitarist Alan Longdon, who definitely looked the part. While the beard put me more in mind of Frank Lampard Sr. around the time Clare was breaking through (still pulling up trees on a weekly basis in defence for West Ham then, and simply known as Frank Lampard), there was enough of a Shoestring thing going on with his skinny tie over white shirt, and his cardie wouldn’t have looked out of place on an Orange Juice promo shoot.
Alongside Alan, drummer Martin Johnston – surely the youngest of the five – hadn’t bothered with that early ‘80s look (although my travelling mate reckoned he looked more like he was in The Frank & Walters at the end of that decade, no bad thing at all), there was no doubting his prowess on the kit, driving the pace all night with bass player Rosie McClune, who was also on great form in a band where the low-end parts always counted.
And while I initially feared that co-vocalist Stefanie Black might be there chiefly to bolster things up, those concerns were soon allayed, her professional delivery not only helping Clare out of her shell, but the two of them spurring each other on all night.
As for Clare … ah, Clare. She was struggling a bit – she said so herself – confidence-wise at first, but it was soon apparent that she still has that star quality, with her voice definitely up to the task. What’s more, that winning smile is still capable of swimming a mile down the Nile. After she mentioned it recently (with an interview link to our conversation here), I could tell she was watching us as intently as we were her, revelling in the fact that so many of us were on a trip back to more carefree days. And that was certainly true, forgetting for at least a couple of hours the tragedies unfolding in Ukraine, the sadness of these last two pandemic-fuelled years, and the mess we’re in courtesy of Brexit and all that has been allowed to follow.
Yet here we got to lose ourselves in the Banshees-influenced ‘Insects’ and ‘Dead Pop Stars’, and a few encouraging selections from the new record, not least the title track. For me, on this showing, I’m thinking it could well carry on where the wonderful Bite left off. As for that Bernard Butler co-write, it could almost have been a lost track from his long-playing collaboration with David McAlmont.
Sound-wise, there was a little backing tape action going on, in lieu of keyboards (how I’d have loved to see Clare prancing off to give us those occasional one-note flourishes here and there, like in the olden days), but it worked well. There was also one cover thrown in, and while technical gremlins kicked in on The Ting Tings’ wondrous ‘That’s Not My Name’ (dedicated to all those who have misspelled Clare’s name with an ‘i’ down the years, something this writer can sympathise with), this quintet rode the storm perfectly, and it just added to my love for that song and the band themselves.
Then, from their ‘83 swansong we got the more polished but no less alluring, sensual pop masterpieces, ‘Bring Me Closer’, ‘Love to Stay’, and ‘I can’t believe it wasn’t a bigger hit’ 45, ‘Change of Heart’, which had already slipped out of the lower reaches of the top 100 by the time I’d hit 16, the story seemingly, prematurely, over.
And Clare’s shades were off by the time she got to the evergreen classic that is ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Love’, her first co-write with the hubby, she told us. Then they were gone. Surely not, we joked, I think they may have missed out at least one hit. And with that, back they came, ‘Happy Birthday’ having not sounded quite so fresh to these ears for many moons. They did it proud, Clare’s band did her proud, and Clare did us proud.
Of course, ideally, they could have come back for at least three more Pinky Blue classics to complete the circle – the title track, ‘Song Sung Blue’ and ’Goodnight and I Wish’. But no complaints from me. Maybe next time, eh, Clare?
You can pre-order new Altered Images album, Mascara Streakz, via this link. Meanwhile, Altered Images’ 2022 dates continues this weekend in Stockton-on-Tees and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with full tour details here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
For more about Scarlet, follow this Facebook link and their own website, catching for starters their NHS-dedicated lockdown video for ‘Friends’, including a cameo from WriteWyattUK interviewee Carol Decker, of T’Pau fame. You can also catch them live, supporting Greywind, at the Star and Garter in Manchester on Wednesday, April 6th, with a ticket link here.