Altered Images: Happy Birthday (Portrait/Epic)

ALTERED IMAGES’ debut album is an unforeseen delight: a surprise party where the kids play whatever games strike their fancies. During the din of celebration, the identity of the band remains obscured, and the clues are scant indeed: five group members with first names only (one, a female called Clare), all very young adults (perhaps adolescents); their home: Glasgow, Scotland; ‘Happy Birthday’, their single, certified silver in England primarily via the dance clubs; their first 45: ‘Dead Pop Stars’.

None of these bare facts, how­ever, will prepare you for the immediate allure of Altered Images. You are constantly being teased by squawks, squeals, and squirrelly giggles from the lips of Clare, a singer who can certainly be added to the growing list of first-rate female voices that have emerged over the past several years – Poly Styrene of X-ray Spex, Robin Lane, Lora Logic, Lesley Woods of the Au Pairs, Debora Lyall of Romeo Void, Vanessa Ellison of Pylon, Exene of X, Chrissie Hynde, the Slits, the Raincoats, Delta 5, Liliput, the Go-Go’s, and so many, many more. To call what Clare does singing, though, would be stretching the point; instead, she transforms her voice, its plain everyday quality, into a series of high-pitched, high-spirited sound effects. At times the results are genuinely haunting – on ‘A Day’s Wait’, for example, she sounds like a chorus of children, or rather, like the same child overdubbed a hundred times. Upon occasion, as on ‘Leave Me Alone’, she is not so frolicsome, her voice defiant, ex­pressed in grunts and confused tears – but from a distance, like the voice of an insignificant creature shaking its tiny fist.

The band’s music is basic hard-edged English punk, falling some­where between Joy Division/New Order and the Sex Pistols (Some­times a glockenspiel – or is it a xylophone? – lightens the punk gloom). As Clare’s fragile and mysterious presence enters the’ crossfire of clashing musicians, what emerges, particularly on ‘Idols’ and the title cut, is a tension so tough that it threatens to break through the carnival atmosphere of the surface. Here the accomplish­ment is not unlike that of the Go-Go’s, except somewhat in re­verse. Just as the Go-Go’s brought experience to the sound of joy – testing themselves against the pop formula and its history – so have Altered Images brought their inno­cence to the sound of dread.

The framework may seem odd but the songs are ferocious despite it all. Even more unusual, the only historical reference which immedi­ately comes to mind is Savage Rose, a long-forgotten but still-cherished Danish art-rock group of the early 70’s fronted by Annisette, a woman almost otherworldly in voice and substance – and Clare’s distinct forebear. But such a con­nection, as convenient as it is, does not convey the power of Altered Images’ own music: the implicit sadism of ‘Real Toys’, the garbled messages on ‘Faithless’, the creepy-crawly beauty of ‘Insects’.

“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” sings a bird faintly during the fade on ‘Beckon­ing Strings’; “peep, peep, peep,” echoes Clare impishly. The mystery remains intact.

© Robot A. HullCreem, May 1982

Leave a Comment