Happy Birthday Clare Grogan

From their formation in 1979, singer Clare Grogan fronted the Scottish punk pop band Altered Images.
Between 1981-83, the band were behind six Top 40 singles and three Top 30 LPs, and Clare was featured on enough covers of Smash Hits to wallpaper the hallway, but the band’s beginnings were much more rooted in Glasgow’s post punk boom.

Lifting their name from the back of The Buzzcocks “Promises” single – whose artwork had been done by the London based design company Altered Images. Clare along with former school chums Caesar McNulty, Tich Anderson, Tony McDaid and Johnny McElhorne sent their demo tape to none other than Siouxsie and the Banshees. Instead of just thanking them, and dashing off a quick signed photo, the hugely popular Banshees actually invited the unknown Altered Images to open for them on their 1980 Kaleidoscope tour. Must have been a really good demo.

Next stop was Radio1 DJ John Peel, whose enthusiasm for Altered Images led to their first BBC session which makes for an interesting listen. There’s a pop undercurrent for sure, but Grogan’s vocals and lyrics still stand out as being sweetly sarcastic, and those Scottish bands always had great guitar sounds! The tour and the Peel session landed the band a deal with Epic Records, and the band hit the studio, releasing the decidedly edgy, jerky and slightly gothic anthem to all those pre-punk pin-ups, “Dead Pop Stars”. Produced by Banshees bassist Steve Severin, and written and sung from the viewpoint of a forgotten, former idol, Clare’s lyrics tease and trash the has-been’s desperation for more attention. Clare’s vocals swing between the petulant and strident, all delivered in Grogan’s trademark nasal sneer, featuring a barely hidden reference to the Glitter. If it had been a hit, then Altered Images may have been remembered as one of the first proto-goth cross-overs, however, by chance it was released in the UK on the exact same day that John Lennon was gunned down outside the Dakota Building. Call it bad timing but that day’s events trumped all other matters, and records called “Dead Pop Stars”, were probably not going to played on the radio.

Dead pop stars rotting in the studio
Pretty bodies make the little girls scream
Dead pop stars hear them on the radio
Pretty bodies every little girls dream

Hello, hello, I’m back again
You can touch me, but only for a moment
Testing, testing 1, 2, 3
I am the poster on your wall

Returning to the studio to start work on their debut album, again working with Steve Severin, the band also drafted in the Human League’s producer Martin Rushent for the title track.

“It was our crack at being really commercial – and it worked” – Clare Grogan

Released as their third single “Happy Birthday” reached number 2 in the UK, and stayed there for three weeks transforming the band from no hit wonders to the pop parade’s new darlings, practically over-night.
Their wide appeal, which ranged from Peel listeners through to the casual Top Of The Pops viewers, owes much to Clare’s energy, and her girl next-door charm. Clare became the new benchmark for female fronted pop, setting the stage for future bands like Transvision Vamp or The Primitives with their deft combination of catchy chorus and Indie cool. Boys wanted to go out with her, and girls wanted to be her friend.

One particular boy, who eventually took his yearnings all the way to the bank, was Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, who used up all his Grogan feelings to pen Spandau’s “True”. Seriously, he did.
He told Dave Simpson in The Guardian,

“I was infatuated with Clare Grogan. I met her on Top of the Pops and, at one point, travelled up to Scotland to have tea with her and her mum and dad. Although my feelings were unrequited and the relationship was platonic, it was enough to trigger a song, “True”.

Whether they intended to or not, Altered Images re-calibrated pop’s pendulum from the glum-faced, black-clad seriousness of post punk, and reintroduced some fun back into the mix. Grogan’s look became mainstream, and for much of the summer of 1981 you couldn’t walk down the local high street without seeing several Clare-a-likes, in their a combination of polka dots, ra-ra skirts, hats and denim jackets.

Altered Images’ wide ranging popularity resulted in an almost perfect set of end of year accolades, from ‘Best New Group’ at the NME Awards, coupled with ‘Most Promising New Act’ in the 1981 Smash Hits readers poll. In the 40 years between then and now, female fronted and generated pop has come a long way. New technology and new ways of writing and recording have given birth to a range of very different genres. It’s great that there are now more women than ever working in music, but no matter how sleek, or how evolved music has become, let’s never forget the transmissible exuberance of a band like Altered Images. Clare raised the bar for post-punk by bringing a lighter touch back into the fray, and in doing so inspired a host of bands that were to follow.

Since her Smash Hits heyday, Clare has continued to work as an actor, singer, radio presenter and more recently as a children’s book author.

7 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Clare Grogan

  1. Hi lena, loved the article, brings back many Glasgow memories from the time. Saw them supporting Siouxsie and then, unbelievably, I went to see them supporting a band I’d never heard off at Strathclyde uni. I watched altered images and headed to the disco, only eventually returning to see the last few songs of U2. We were very proud of them in Glasgow, great guitar sounds and of course Clare.

  2. By the way, it was Johnny who twigged that the conceit of having a song called “Happy Birthday” would net you a lot of play. Very smart lad.

  3. I got board from the first album and appreciated how the band was able to ultimately mix ebullient music with a biting lyric. “Bring Me Closer” and “I Could Be Happy” were fascinating bitter songs packaged [very] deceptively. But even so, “Dead Pop Stars” was an arresting record for sure with its all dark palette! I only got a copy by 1985 and mail order catalogs. It staggers the mind that once the singles fell out of the top 50 they pulled the plug on Altered Images. Having your fourth single from your third album make #93 after the first one had reached #7 made for a brutal and premature end for the band. Looking back it all seemed so cutthroat, but then again, it was the Thatcher era. I suppose the early 80s was the last time where a band could develop [even wildly] over the course of three, very different albums. In that respect, Altered Images were in good company with the likes of fellow New Pop band ABC who certainly matched Altered Images penchant for an admirably wide stylistic profile.

    1. Hi PPM!! Always good to get your take and extra nuggets!

  4. Loving this blog…I discovered Altered Images in my last year in high school ‘82. They were not very big in the US, but living in Austin, TX we had more exposure to punk(ish) bands thanks to college radio and several great record stores.

  5. I admit, I had a bit of a crush on her like most of my mates!

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