With a wholesome pop image synonymous with the new wave of the early 80s, it’s easy to forget that Altered Images was formed in the white-hot creative furnace of the post-punk era of the late 70s.
A music lover with eclectic and diverse teenage tastes, singer Clare Grogan was born in 1962, meaning she was the perfect age to embrace punk when it exploded in the late 70s. 1980 was the pivotal year for the teenager: she left school, shot her first film – iconic British classic Gregory’s daughter – that summer, and then Altered Images – formed just a year earlier – were signed by Epic and sent on tour with their heroes, Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Siouxsie, in fact, was one of three women at the forefront of punk who had a crucial influence on the developing singing career of young Clare Grogan.
“Punk had a massive impact on me right from the start,” she reveals. ” I saw [X-Ray Spex vocalist] Poly Styrene on top pops one night and I thought, “I love this person.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for. I wanted to be part of it right away. It was an overwhelming feeling to have found my tribe. I felt so excited about it.
X-Ray Spex’s 1978 single Germ Free Teenager duly became the teenager’s first punk rock buy. Equally in love with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Clare recalls taking home a copy of their first seven-inch single Hong Kong garden in her purse, “just in case someone hadn’t heard.” Debbie Harry of Blondie was another key inspiration.
“I loved those women,” Clare says. “When I was trying to find my own style, I really leaned into the way they played and sang. I was very young – and so were they. I have a lot to thank them before I find my old feet again.
Altered Images was formed while the band – Johnny McElhone (bass), Gerard McInulty, Tony McDaid (guitars) and Michael Anderson (drums) – were still at Holyrood RC Secondary School in Glasgow. In the spirit of DIY punk rock, the guys learned to play their instruments as they progressed. Practicing twice a week at Carmunnock Town Hall, the band began playing Glasgow pubs, occasionally in support of Simple Minds – who went to the same school.
As a five-piece band with a lead singer, Altered Images would inevitably be compared to Blondie, but the band quickly made a name for themselves on Clydeside.
“The Glasgow punk scene was so inclusive,” says Clare. “I loved the idea that it was open to everyone. Anyone could be in a band. Girls like me could be in a band.
An avid concertgoer, Clare learned the lessons of directing seeing Ian Dury and the Blockheads at Glasgow Apollo, followed by The Stranglers and The Clash. As central Glasgow’s punk rock shows ran into trouble and council bans, the scene coalesced around the tiny Paisley venue The Bungalow, still a respected historic venue to this day.
Much of Altered Images’ association with the new wave rests with Martin Rushent and the polished brilliance of his production on a breakthrough single. Happy birthday and second album pinkish blue. But the band’s original sound was darker and more raw – as their 1980 Peel Session demonstrates. There is a clear Blondie influence on Rope beckonings – resembling Tear her to shreds – while Insects has a sinister feel, similar to early Banshees
Happy birthday, Altered Images’ debut album, was produced primarily by Banshees bassist Steve Severin. At the time, Severin was housemates with Skids singer Richard Jobson in West Hampstead, and Altered Images was making his home in London. But to record the album, they decamped to Rockfield’s famed residential studio in Wales.
“We had a lot of fun,” Clare says. “The priest came to visit us. We have also finished supporting them a few times.
In the best punk rock style, the group’s first single dead pop stars was controversial – albeit purely coincidental – being released three months after the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. Bad timing and the inevitable lack of promotion meant that, while it reached No. 67 on the UK Singles Chart, he was being crushed by Epic, a false start for the band’s career.
“People love it when we play it live now,” says Clare, who says the reason for the single’s silent withdrawal was known, but never discussed. “John Lennon would have had no problem with that!”
Follow A day of waiting wasn’t much better. But by then the band had become fans of Rushent-produced Human League after hearing the previously forward-thinking futuristic band’s unabashed stint in the shiny new wave synth pop of their third album, 1981. To dare.
“We wanted to continue top pops“, explains Claire. “So, in an act of blatant commercialism, we decided to write a song called Happy birthday. And it worked ! That’s why we went to see Martin Rushent. It makes us seem ruthlessly ambitious, which we weren’t!
Peaking at number 2 in September 1981, and selling half a million copies, with Rushent producing, the single now seems incongruous compared to the rest of the debut album. But an older, darker version of the track – long lost to history – was originally recorded with the Banshees’ bassist behind the soundboard.
“I would love to hear it if I could ever get it,” Clare says. “It would have been much more punk.”
Streakz MascaraAltered Images’ fourth album is out next month, 39 years after the release of their underrated third album in 1983, Bite. Written during the pandemic, Streakz MascaraFeatures Bite line-up drummer (and Mr. Clare Grogan) Stephen Lironi, as well as Bobby Bluebell and former Suede guitarist (and Clare and Stephen’s neighbor) Bernard Butler.
Fittingly, the band return to an even larger Rebellion festival next month to perform on the post-punk/new wave R-Fest scene, supporting another major influence, the Buzzcocks (the name “Altered Images” comes from an interference with Buzzcocks founding vocalist Pete Shelley’s cover design and the cover of their single Promises).
But what about the rest of the festival, especially the more hardcore part of the spectrum? Will Altered Images feel comfortable alongside The Exploited?
“I love The Exploited!” says Clare of her fellow Scottish punks. “The memories I have of them is just being at a gas station in the middle of the night somewhere and you’d see the exploited walk in and you’d be like, ‘Oh, hi!’ Back then, those were the times you really cherished!Meet at 3am on the highway services criss-crossing the country playing some really shitty clubs.
“I still look back and think how lucky I was to be so young when I found something that transformed my life.”
Altered Images is playing R-Fest at Rebellion on August 7. Their new album Streakz Mascara releases on Cooking Vinyl on August 26.