Growing Up “Normal” With Altered Images

AT THE end of my interview with Altered Images, singer Clare Grogan lets me in on a secret. She’s extremely nearsighted. In fact, so is the whole band. But she doesn’t wear contact lenses. So onstage, I say to her, you can’t see the faces in the crowd.

“I can’t see a thing,” Clare chirps back.

“You should see all her bruises from tripping over,” adds guitarist John McElhone.

From knocking into the mike stands?, I innocently ask.

“And the boys,” Clare says, grinning mischievously.

In fact, this charming young woman is very accommodating. She stands up to show me the bruises on her thigh. The boys did that?

“Yeah. We’re really blind. From now on, when people ask us ‘how would you describe yourselves,’ we should say ‘nearsighted.'”

The interview begins with Clare Grogan meeting me at the door of her hotel suite, with a firm, friendly handshake, and a beautiful sweet smile. It takes a minute to adjust to the real Clare Grogan.

The first public Clare Grogan was not much known in America outside of clubs, where the single ‘I Could Be Happy’ and its video were a hit. But in England, she was a pop figure of note. She was a 19-year-old singer in a Scottish pop band, and looked and sounded like she was barely 12. On the early hits of Altered Images, ‘Happy Birthday’ and the very bright and bubbly ‘I Could Be Happy’, Clare played an imaginary little girl’s role to the hilt. She was all ribbons and birthday cake, skipping care-free down the lane singing tra-la-la. It was an entertaining image, refreshing in the gloomy and doomy context of British rock at the time. But it was precocious and, in the end, a little wearisome.

The new public Clare Grogan is the woman on the cover of the new Altered Images album, Bite. She is wearing an elegant black evening dress, black gloves, a large ornate earring. Her hair is pulled back, her face set in a posture of studied sophistication. It is a 21-year-old trying to look like a woman many years older. It is also Altered Images truly living up to their name, altering their image.

The Clare Grogan standing in front of me in the afternoon light looks just her age, acting as relaxed and naturally as anybody could under the circumstances. The public Clare is so cute, you just have to hope she turns out in “real life” to be charming, funny, nice and unpretentious. And she does.

The other members of Altered Images are also here — three boys who are as natural, unstudied and “normal” as Clare is, though far less talkative. Only guitarist John has much to add, and what he says is couched in a Scottish accent so thick you could cut it with the proverbial chainsaw. I can make Clare out fine, though.

Not to dote on her too much, but she has a smile like the sun… and a laugh like fine-tuned bells. What a perfect pop idol she could make. A recent NME headline tagged her “the Audrey Hepburn of the ’80s pop dream.”

CLARE: “That was a moment of glory for me, being a big Audrey Hepburn fan. The best of it was, in the contents they had ‘Audrey Grogan, page so-and-so.’ I cut that out. It’s just a joke, really.”

But it goes with this image transformation, from a cutesy little girl to a sophisticated woman.

“Yeah, I suppose that’s because of the album sleeve, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. If we’d done it subtly, it probably wouldn’t have worked. We had to come out and announce it in black and white. This is it, we’ve changed.”

What pushed you to it?

JOHN: “Natural progression.”

CLARE: “And also, we weren’t being… not taken seriously. I hate the word seriously, but it’s just the same situation as where you never really listen to what kids say. People were dismissing us as a group, saying, ‘Ah, they’re too young.’

“And also we took a whole year away from recording so we kind of…”

JOHN: “Matured in ourselves.”

What is maturity?

JOHN: “Getting older.”

CLARE: “Shaving. Wearing tights. Wearing high heels. Heh heh. Naw, mature’s a misused word. We’re talking about progression more than maturity.

“When we started out we just wanted to get away from all that darkness darkness stuff. Like ‘we’re all so depressed,’ that’s really boring.”

JOHN: “People forget that before we came out, the music scene was really down, really depressed. What we did was a breath of fresh air. And ‘Happy Birthday’ was really effective. And then a lot of people, happy young pop bands, came after us.”

CLARE: “And then they started questioning it. Everybody takes everything so bloody seriously. It’s stupid.”

THE MUSIC on Bite is more a progression from the band’s first two albums than a departure. The theme of the album is love — love found, love lost, and love in between. Altered Images has treated this theme before, but the coy evasiveness of Clare’s old lyrics is gone, replaced with a more open, direct approach.

The sound is as upbeat and cheery-bright as before, but layered now with a more dance-oriented sense of rhythm and timing. Some of the songs seem to have warm tropical breezes blowing through them.

Clare’s voice has aged and mellowed a bit. But she still sometimes sounds like a little girl singing about adult topics.

“I think you’re right, I think I do sound quite young. But I think a lot of girl singers sound really young. Think about some of that Motown stuff, even the Shangri-Las and that, sometimes you thought they were only 14 years old. Even the singer with the Go- Go’s, Belinda, I think she sounds really young.

“I think it’s because I also look quite young, and because I’m small and everything, that’s why people notice it more. Maybe if I was five foot ten and had a huge chest people wouldn’t notice it. I think with me it’s gotten highlighted by the way I look.”

Also some of the lyrics seem to still have a little girl’s viewpoint. Like in ‘Another Lost Look’ where you sing “I know a place nobody knows/To that place I want to go.”

CLARE: “That’s just escapism. I think that’s an adult thing, escapism. Children have their own worlds. It’s adults that want to escape.”

Taken together, what do the songs on Bite have to say about love and sex?

“They say it’s happening all the time around us everywhere. Boys and girls, boys and girls. That’s what it’s all about, the whole world revolves around relationships. If we all had good relationships, we’d have a good world.”

But relationships can fall apart so easily. Surely love isn’t a really reliable answer to the world’s problems?

“Okay, I know, it’s not that easy.

“You know, if somebody can pick up something they can identify with in the lyrics then that’s good. But if it doesn’t happen, we’re not going to worry about it.

“And we’re kind of young and inexperienced. Who are we to write about what’s really going on? We haven’t got a clue.”

Maybe Clare Grogan had to stop playing the precocious little girl because Boy George cornered that market and did her in. Whatever the reason, she’s jumped to her new image remarkably well. Onstage at the Ritz, she uses all the sexual body language she can muster, and it looks great. She has the confidence of a woman 10 years older.

Her voice is still limited, but with the right song (and Bite contains at least three certifiable pop gems) it’s fine. She’s better off when she doesn’t have to strain too hard. She’s more Lena Horne than Annabella Bow Wow. The main problem with the band is that nobody in it — except Clare — projects any personality onstage. And yet it’s a good pop band.

But it’s easy to see why people tend to think of Altered Images as being Clare. Does it create problems.

JOHN: “Not really, ’cause we know what we think Altered Images is. And people we count as friends know.”

CLARE: “People have so many preconceived notions about what a group is. And lead singers, whether they’re male or female, always get spotlighted, and others in the group have to take a back seat. I think it’s just the way the media work.”

Was little Clare the kind of girl who put pin-ups on her wall?

CLARE: “Yeah. David Cassidy. And Roxy Music. David Bowie. Yeah, I’ve always liked music. It’s never really been my main interest in life, the way it was for the boys. I just kind of liked groups.”

And what about fame? Is that something to be valued for itself?

“Not really. I think it’s weird because basically I’m still a fan at heart. I mean, I’ve still got my David Bowie pictures up on my bedroom wall.

“To be honest I don’t really think about it that much. When you start taking it that seriously it all starts becoming a pain in the neck. I do what I do and get on with it.

“I’d hate to be in a position where I couldn’t go out and walk about on the streets. That would be hellish. I don’t see how anyone can derive any pleasure out of having to be shut off the whole time. If that’s what fame is I don’t want it.

“I guess when I thought of people that I really liked I thought of them as being slightly unapproachable. And I like to think that we’re all quite approachable, that anyone could just come up and talk to us, without feeling unnerved. I mean, even I, if David Bowie was to walk into this room 1 probably wouldn’t be able to talk to him. I’d go all silly. But I can’t really imagine myself having that kind of effect on anyone.”

Oh, I don’t know Clare. I can imagine it easily. But show me that smile again.

© Richard GrabelCreem, January 1984

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