Clare Grogan’s Altered Images: Thank Heaven For Little Girls

“I just wanted to get to know her, really. She was just kind of fascinating.”
— Director Bill Forsyth, explaining why he cast Clare Grogan in his film Gregory’s Girl.

THE FASCINATING Clare Grogan sits next to me in a noisy restaurant, sipping coffee and twirling the beads around her neck. She’s dressed in baggy trousers rolled to the top of her white stockinged legs, a white frilly shirt, blue scarf, and shielding sunglasses: the picture of a modern British pop star. Stylish, unattainable, and very, very pretty. Clare replies to my numerous, occasionally impertinent questions with dry humor and a degree of self-deprecation; gently admonishing me for my overseriousness, feeding fairly good copy and barely concealing the fact that I’m missing the point by a mile.

“It’s just like everybody said, that anybody could be in a pop group,” she reiterates in a light Glaswegian-soaked accent. “And that’s what Altered Images did. Now everybody’s asking us about it. We’re a group, we make popular songs, I’m a girl, I’m quite young, but I’m maturing fast. Why do people have to make things so complicated for us? Why can’t they take Altered Images at face value?” Clare sighs, shrugs, smiles, giggles. A youthful 20-year-old enjoying a working holiday in big, bad Manhattan.

It started like this: Clare’s oldest sister was dating a guy whose kid brother was bass player for a school band that needed a girl singer, “so it was going to be one of my sisters and it just happened to be me.” The place was post-punk Glasgow in October ’79, and the seeds for a new pop explosion were being cautiously sown; local band Johnny and the Self Abusers were changing their name to Simple Minds, in Edinburgh, Scars were still a punk band, the major rock theatre had closed down, and the world was suffering from major depression.

Six months later and Altered Images were practicing a couple of times a week. The rest of the band (“the boys” as Clare refers to them) were still in school, and a very broke Clare was working weekends in a greasy hamburger joint. Enter Bill Forsyth — who’d been searching Scotland for the face to put in his upcoming film — one such weekend. He tells Clare he’s going to make her a star (“And I thought ‘oooh, eye eye'”) and leaves her with his phone number. Clare spends the summer of ’80 filming Gregory’s Girl, a small ($400,000 budget), charming movie featuring Gregory (Gordon Sinclair) falling for the school’s star soccer player (a girl, not Clare) and maneuvered toward Susan (that’s Clare). Gregory’s Girl has been playing in Manhattan since June and is certainly the most successful British film since Chariots Of Fire.

The end of ’80 found Altered Images out of the garage and at the helm of Scotland’s new pop, going through the dreary rituals of trying to break through a country. “It was fun at the time, but I wouldn’t like to go back and do it again,” Clare reflects with little affection. “It was an adventure, and a bit crazy because we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. And it was a bit rough in style. We never had any money.” Glasgow’s screwy liquor licensing laws didn’t help any, clubs that charged admission couldn’t sell drinks. Altered Images were playing in Paisley, part of suburbia, travelling to Le Night Club in Edinburgh. “Sleeping in the back of the van, that early band thing. I don’t care what anyone says, it isn’t fun.”

But it was necessary. “At the time we had the ideas, but we couldn’t really do them because we didn’t have the experience, and we weren’t sure and none of us knew much about music. I don’t.” Altered Images’ luck changed when they caught the attention of Siouxsie and the Banshees, a rather incongruous mentor for Altered Images’ breezy, adolescent romance with pop. “They weren’t our idols,” Clare sets the record straight, “but a band that we liked a lot, and they took us under their wings. We never ever thought we sounded like them.” Siouxsie gave them a support slot on a major British tour, helped them sign a contract, and Steve Severin produced their debut single, ‘Dead Pop Stars’ — a feeble little number which Kirsty McNeill caught for all time as “vaguely like Black Sabbath with Shirley Temple vocals” in the NME. It charted in Britain’s lower 40s. “Not bad for a first record,” says Clare. “If we brought it out today, it’d be a hit.”

Things went right from then on, with help from the hand of fate. “I never ever thought I’d be a singer in a million years. It just kind of happened. We’ve been really lucky. We’ve had loads of luck, which I think is a really big factor in this business. With luck on your side then that’s it.”

“There was no master plan,” Clare second guesses my next question (I still ask it later). “Well, there was one actually, but I’m not telling you.“Master plan or otherwise, Altered Images got the chance of a lifetime, playing support for Adam and the Ants on his mammoth Kings Of The Wild Frontier tour. “We never got to meet Adam. He was being rushed by bodyguards the whole time. Un-be-lieve-able. Adam used to leave us messages in our dressing room, little notes saying ‘Sorry we never get to meet.’

“It really changed us; we were performing for screaming girls. Sometimes it worked, sometimes the audience were just too excited.” By all accounts Altered Images were a really fine live group then. “I think we won over some of his fans. That’s why we have such a diverse audience; we’ve played with Siouxsie, Adam, U2, the Cure, and each time we’ve won over some of their fans.”

Altered Images were on the Adam tour to plug Happy Birthday, the debut LP where the latent commerciality of their music — Clare’s gurgly girl singing, the boys’ nursery rhyme pop hooks and implied disco bottom — was focused by producer Martin Rushent (of Human League/Pete Shelley/etc, etc. fame). Clare carefully considers that “It was Rushent who really got the band together” question. “I’m not so sure, we were looking for a sound and Martin bought us the sound we wanted. We aren’t children, we did play our own instruments, we did write the songs ourselves. The talent was there. And as Martin himself has admitted, he can make a good song better but he can’t make a bad song good.”

Happy Birthday — both LP and single — were huge hits in Britain. And questions began to arise as to Altered Images’ actual worth. Well, they are certainly about the fascinating Clare, they skirt on her immense charm, on her adolescent girlish-ness. What Bill Forsyth found in the coffee shop is projected, even strengthened, in her music, her videos. Clare denies the contrivedness while allowing that she might have become something of a caricature at one point. “I think maybe I am a bit younger than I am. I can’t help it. Who wants to be old? Part of it is that when people come to see their favorite pop stars, they don’t expect to see a 20-year-old girl in short skirts. It’s not the image they’re used to having. Maybe that’s why people dismiss us as being a kind of child act, maybe they think I’m younger than I am. I’m trying to be mature, in fact I can see it corning already.

“Success has changed me a wee bit. Being in the limelight, I think it spoils you, you get to like it which is really a bad thing. It’s nice being spoiled. Maybe it would be a good thing for me to change a little bit — yeah?” I rephrase my question: It’s been suggested that your older fans like the band because they think you are desirable in a pedophiliac manner, and that you use that desire to sell records. Long silence. Clare blushes. Shakes her head rigorously. To her credit, she gives a direct reply, “No. I think ‘OK…yeah.’ I think it doesn’t matter whether I’m young or old or anything. The way you talk about it, it’s as if our fans are 40-year-old men in flasher raincoats. That’s what you mean by an older audience. We’re talking about 18-year-olds, like that.”

Actually I don’t believe the question either. Sex and pop music are integrally, tangled, but it isn’t such a conscious process. Clare sums it up as “People want to see people looking good; it’s human nature.” And what Altered Images really want to do is what they actually do. What should people get out of pop? “Enjoyment. Just enjoyment. If you like our records you’ll buy them, if you hear a good tune. That’s what it’s all about really. You journalists take it too seriously.

“It’s just that sometimes, even talking to you, I’ve got nothing to say. I don’t know anything about music. I just think live and let live, write songs and do it. Not many people can understand what I’m trying to say, they ask ‘why’ve you done this,’ ‘why are you called Altered Images…does this mean something?'” Clare laughs, “‘in this song what’s the meaning of that.’ I don’t know. I wish I did. If I was musical I could say, ‘Well, in this song…’ It’s dead hard for me. Most of the time I don’t do interviews. I’d rather leave it to the boys. Why do people want to talk to me about music? I can’t read a line, it’s hard enough for me to sing in tune most of the time. Can you understand that?”

Clare isn’t solely an innocent. What she’s trying to get at, why she’s so mad at journalists, is that both the raves and the put downs have been one dimensional. It is part of Clare’s fascinating effect on people, the fact that they can read into her whatever they want to; the “masterplan,” the “contrivedness,” the “innocence,” whatever they want to project onto her can stick. Which is why Clare dislikes both the complimentary and other interviews, why she suggests writers should just write and not bother speaking to her. Because it doesn’t change their view. What confuses is (as was proven in Gregory’s Girl), Clare’s immensely enjoyable personality wasn’t given birth with Altered Images. It was always there.

For all that, Clare certainly is aware of her role. She fails to mention that Altered Images’ drummer has just resigned, denies that Gordon Sinclair (you know — Gregory), who has come with her to NY, is her boyfriend, and amusingly describes the lack of notice she gets on the street, everywhere but Glasgow. “Even when I’m wearing my ‘I am Clare’ button.” Do you get hassled by boys? “I wish, I wish,” she jokes. “I’m in New York to find a boyfriend!”

Which doesn’t lead us back to Altered Images’ latest album, Pinky Blue. Slaughtered by the critics, it is the most fun, despite the sameness of the songs (“we wrote them all in a month; that’s the last time we’ll try that”), and, er, ‘Song Sung Blue’ (“Yes, it was meant to be slightly a joke. It was tongue in cheek. You hear it and you just smile; you think ‘what’s this.’ It was meant to be quite humorous.”). It still went gold in Britain.

Which doesn’t lead us back to two points I’m going to close on. Both from Clare: 1) In reply to the criticism that Altered Images are mindless. “I love Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’. I think it’s great, I wish I could write like that, I’m telling you. I can’t. I haven’t had much experience, and so I write about things that I know. And that’s all there is to it.”

2) In reply to my asking what the American public should be told about Altered Images: “That we’re a great group, buy our records, and keep Clare Grogan in a job.”

Fascinating, completely fascinating.

© Iman LababediCreem, January 1983

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