Altered images entered the 80’s on a trajectory steep enough to make you dizzy. Formed by members of the Siouxisie and the Banshees fan club in Glasgow it was immediately clear where their influences lay. Tribal drumming, chiming guitars and a melodic droney bass. It was also obvious that the band were a bunch of friends who had got together to play music rather than a bunch of musos.
There were thousands of bands ups and down the country doing the same thing. In Nottingham my own band Butisitart? Were following a similar blueprint. More of their fascinating story here
Altered Images had a not so secret weapon in the diminutive shape of their lead singer Clare Grogan. Follow YouTube comments to any of their videos and its almost entirely aged men professing their love for her from 40 years ago. Its wasn’t just men though Grogan appealed to just about everyone under the age of 25. She was blessed with an unlimited supply of energy and enthusiasm at a time when showing any real interest in being a musician was regarded as rather uncool. Significantly she had easily won over John Peel who was probably at the height of his influence as an arbiter of taste through his radio show.
The first single ‘Dead Pop Stars’ was a witty piece of banshees influenced pop which unfortunately was released at the time John Lennon was shot so we were all a bit touchy about people being dead which stunted it’s sales. The band quite reasonably asked the Banshees for some support slots and got them. Siouxsie and her gang were just massive in 1980 and Altered Images looked set to follow.
From the beginning they had big ideas, bassist Johnny McElhone suggested they write a song with the same title as another massive song and sure enough Happy Birthday is now a sound track to just about every Birthday event and hopefully is a nice little earner for all the band members to this day.
The album was produced by Steve Severin from the Banshees and kind of kept them in touch with their goth roots, the single on the other hand was produced by Martin Rushent purveyor of shiny new pop and fresh from producing the Human League’s Dare album. Apparently, the single got to number 2 in the charts but it seemed bigger than that possibly because already it was becoming an alternative anniversary song (although literally no one knows the verses).
Inevitably, the band announced a tour in support of the album and Butisitart? sent them a pretty terrible demo tape we had recorded on a two-track recorder and asked for some support slots. What a time that was, we didn’t have to follow them on twitter or Instagram and pretend to like everything they did, we simply posted them a cassette and a couple of weeks later they wrote to us to say we could support them at Derby and Leicester.
Our singer Meloni’s dad was a miner which was about as rich as a working person could get in the 70’s. His hobby was horses and we had to rely on him to transport us to both gigs in his horse box as three of the band didn’t have any transport. Clare Grogan actually took the trouble to meet us, what a nice person, she didn’t have to, but she explained she had listened to our tape while she had been doing the ironing and decided to offer us a slot, all I remember beyond that was she was wearing a pair of jeans so shapeless the average builder wouldn’t have worn them to work. Apart from that she was absolutely charming.
We learned to stay out of the way of the roadies who all seemed very bad tempered until showtime when they all cheered up no end (I’m not sure what stimulants were involved), we played ok in Derby and pretty well in Leicester, it’s a relevant term, we were pretty terrible but it was a time when no one expected technical proficiency. I could hold down a beat and Meloni could skip about and charm the audience and sing out of tune, its only years later after watching Altered Images videos that I realise just how many of Meloni’s ‘moves’ were taken from Grogan who in turn had appropriated them from Siouxsie Banshee.
What was interesting though, was being able to see a band do the same act two nights in a row. It was clear that, despite having been a working band for a couple of years that they weren’t great musicians. Their very first number ‘A Day’s Wait’ (Lyric ‘A days Wait..because my Train’s Late) just fell apart, each band member seemed to have a different idea about the tempo and it just spluttered to a halt. It didn’t matter a great deal, Grogan just laughed it off and they started again but its hard to imagine a headline band being able to get away with it that easily today, not least that it would be all over YouTube within a couple of days.
They were still able to attract a punk audience, but they were outnumbered by the new pop kids waiting to hear the single. One of the newly cheerful road crew had pointed out to us the new keyboard which had cost as much as a family car and had been purchased just so one of the guitarists could play the intro to Happy Birthday live (and it still sounded shit!). Grogan also announced the next single ‘I could be Happy’, even a cursory listen from the back of the hall revealed it was pretty awful and I realised the band were at tipping point in their career.
In fact Martin Rushent got to produce all their next album and it was a more shiny pop beast than their debut, there was a lot of synth and slick rhythm tracks creeping in especially in extended mixes. Rushent knew what he was doing, tastes were changing rapidly and he was helping the band keep up although its likely they were losing their original fan base, he also made I could be Happy sound a whole lot better. Worst of all was a cover of Neil Diamond’s Song Blue where somehow John Peel had been cajoled to join in with chorus vocals it was a case of changing horses in midstream but somehow the band just about survived.
In the process they lost two members, it was a telling process especially as it involved the loss of drummer ‘Titch’ Anderson. It was a classic case from Pete Best onwards of the drummer being good enough for early efforts but unable to grow with the band. Anderson liked the ‘tribal’ style which meant lots of beating the toms. That’s fine for the relatively gloomy material but the band were now looking forward to a more pop sound and it sounded like he was increasing being ousted in favour of drum machines.
Anderson and guitarist Jim McKinven were ejected and in came multi instrumentalist Steve Lironi whose musical achievements were completely overshadowed by the fact that he eventually got to marry Grogan. The group’s final album Bite produced by Mike Chapman and Toni Visconti sounded more like Haircut 100 than the original band. Johnny McElhone had learned a decent funk bass style and now they had a drummer not afraid to use hi hats, plus there were keyboards, backing vocals and even a saxophone. The trouble with the more orthodox backing is it served to highlight just how wayward Grogan’s vocals could be, she had discarded her jumble sale look which had endeared her thousands of teenage girls for a more classic look. The single Don’t Talk to Me About Love was classic pop but it was very different and the album was their worst selling.
It’s a familiar story, band starts off with something really distinctive and ends up chasing the trends and loosing the thing that made them special. The band split and none of them have done a whole lot musically since except Johnny McElhone who went on to play bass with Radio 2 favourites Texas.
Grogan had been in cultish film Gregory’s Girl filmed in the early days of the band which helped lift her profile considerably. She’s had a minor career as an actress since although perhaps the royalties from Happy Birthday have enabled her to dabble in this as well as presenting and being a children’s novelist. More recently she’s been reforming a version of the band sometimes playing in 80’s revival tours. It something I usually hate but with customary charm Grogan has subverted the genre by recruiting an all woman band.
A heady brush with greatness was enough for Butisitart?, our music was fast becoming outdated and we soon split up.
Luckily, I had my writing skills to fall back on.