Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 7]

Altered Images team 2022 L-R: Bernard Butler, Robert Hodgens, Clare Grogan, Stephen Lironi

[…continued from last post]

Before I got this album, there were only two songs I’d ever heard from the pen of Robert “Bluebell” Hodgens: “Cath” by The Bluebells, and “Young At Heart” by Bananarama. Good songs, but nothing extraordinary by my reckoning. I have to say I’d rank “Beautiful Thing” as written here with Ms. Grogan at the “extraordinary” end of the spectrum. She’s gone on record as calling the album title a reference to her penchant for tears with little provocation. Though the album had a title track up front, this was the song that dealt, wonderfully, with her predilection for tearing up whether happy or sad over a delightful dollop of Indiepop backing from producer Hodgens.

Happy Sad no difference to me
The pure joy of my release
People fear my need to show
How much life affects me so

“Beautiful Thing”

Not only did this song proffer a very personal, yet unique point of view, the music bed was somewhere where I’d like to hear Ms. Grogan explore for a full album. Hearing it sounded so self-assured and straightforward; like having a conversation with a friend eager to help you understand them better.

Which is not to say that I was ready to forego the more style-driven tracks on offer here as “Changing My Luck” immediately showed! The glockenspiel keyboard hook that opened the song was a close cousin to the one on Shuggie Otis’ incredible “Strawberry Letter 23” so that will always get my rapt attention! Then the rhythm track confirmed that we were boarding the DiscoFunk train for the next four minutes. The shoutout to “Are Friend’s Electric” in the first verse was another “I have to back that up – did I hear what I think I did?” moment! I never would have imagined Glare Grogan moving in a Chic direction, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a… beautiful thing. Capitulate and join us on the dance floor. And we can only hope that there’s a 6:30 12″ mix of this track somewhere.

It’s an eerie thing. This album was so distinctive and memorable on first listen that each subsequent time I listen to “Mascara Streakz” I reach “Last Of Love” and think to myself, “wait, have I heard this track before?” It’s not a poor track, but it fails to differentiate its downtempo Disco self from the other eleven tracks here. Unlike the next song, “Double Reflection.” It was an uptempo [and expert] pastiche of New Order that featured heavy helpings of “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” DNA. With Clare capably playing a spitfire role here.

“The Flame” was a mid tempo groover that almost courted irrelevance, but Lironi pulled the track out of the frying pan with his tasty sustained late 70s guitar solo quite admirably. Then the final track was upon us and “Sleep” was the most pensive downtempo album closer ever from Altered Images. The melodramatic strings were the only balm to assuage the death march tempo and air of fatalism that hung over this song like a pall of smoke.


This album was an immediate win with my ears by offering a sound that took the directions the band were interested in exploring on the last album and bringing them decades through time to reside in the now. The writing team wrote what is now my favorite Altered Images album and that’s not always likely. Especially 39 years later. But I have to say that there’s a lot of life that happened during that time and a huge gulf between a 21 year old Clare Grogan still experimenting with the trappings of adulthood and her current 60 year old self.

And given the clumsy mistakes of the mid 80s that have trickled out, I’m happy that she’s only gotten back to writing and recording on her own terms as the music is all the better for it. Her singing has matured to be a far cry from the childlike cadences that colored “Happy Birthday” and “Pinky Blue.” Her singing here was more assured and intimate than the Broadway chops she was trying out on “Bite” as well. Which certainly fit the material well.

I had thought about doing a Rock G.P.A. for this band for many years but three albums was a bare minimum I didn’t cross until that third Slow Children album happened and with that Rubicon crossed, I had to do it after album number four from Altered Images. The joy of Altered Images was that there have been no catastrophic albums, while only this album could be said to move reliably towards greatness for me. Making their curve on the Rock G.P.A. graph lfar ess “dramatic” than let’s say…Duran Duran’s!

altered images rock GPA
a modest but reasonably accomplished career from Altered Images

ROCK G.P.A.: 2.875

The band netted a very respectable 2.875/4.0 ranking. And Clare has revealed that her deal with Cooking Vinyl is for two albums. “Mascara Streakz” reached number 28 on the UK LP charts, but fared better yet on the Physical [#4] and Independent [#2] charts so here’s hoping that the option for album number two can see some further growth as Altered Images are getting a strong second wind in their glory years.


Bonus Round: Clara Libre EP

Cooking Vinyl | UK | CD-5 | 2022 | FRYCD1507

Altered Images: Clara Libre EP – UK – CD [2022]

  1. Happy Birthday
  2. Don’t Talk to Me About Love
  3. See Those Eyes
  4. I Could Be Happy

The pre-release bundle came with a CD-5 EP of new versions of Altered Images’ four biggest hits and I had no idea what to expect up front as little was said about them. Imagine my surprise when I heard that as the cover and title, foretold, these were Cubanesque arrangements heavy on the percussion and acoustic instruments. With husband Stephen Lironi playing and programming everything. But not shockingly, the marimbas were always there in “Happy Birthday” so maybe this was a latent thing?

Especially after hearing that the restaurants that Lironi maintains in London are geared toward tapas and Spanish seafood dishes it must have been all but preordained. The cover sports Clare dancing on the bar in her stocking feet. Still, this was closer to Sr. Coconut than Buena Vista Social Club [both in the Record Cell] with the heavy reliance on machine here. But I was a sucker for the laid back Samba vibe that “Don’t Talk To Me About Love” had been given. Amazingly, Clare’s phrasing was not all that different from the 1983 version.

“See Those Eyes” was heavy on the scratcher and cowbell [!] and still held a firm grip on my heart as it always had. Though the tempo was [note: yours truly is having a massive hit of Deja Vu as I listen to this EP while seeing the cover on my computer screen…] far more languorous than the classic single version. I did enjoy hearing Clare caress the song more tenderly this time; drawing out her closing for the song to at least twice its usual length.

The one here that was less compelling was “I Could Be Happy,” which seemed to need the faster tempo to stay aloft as a song. Before my copy had arrived in the mail, commenter schwenko had told me that he was definitely now down with these “lounge versions” as he deemed them. Even going as far as citing Bill Murray covering “Star Wars Theme” with his memorable “Nick Rails” lyrics changes. This had me braced for something maybe more extreme to my ears than what’s on offer here.

thrifty scot altered images

It’s a lark that more or less works on its own terms but the reliance here on MIDI brass and programmed percussion meant that it could only be a low budget weekender; not a full vacation in the Tropics. If the Latin groove calls to you, there is still one bundle available with this CD EP in the Altered Images webstore. The signed CD, Red LP, and CD EP for a tidy $38. The going rate for strictly colored vinyl in the current market, so if you’re in for some Scot thrift, then hit that button. At the very least your dream home needs the latest Altered Images album.

post-punk monk buy button

-30-

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Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 6]

[…continued from last post]

Clare Grogan ca. 2022

The press release that announced the second coming of Altered Images last year was certainly auspicious. Clare had written the album with husband Stephen Lironi from the “Bite” lineup, along with friends/neighbors Bernard [Suede] Butler and Bobby [Bluebells] Hodgens. And against all odds, the press release at new label Cooking Vinyl revealed that original guitarist Johnny McElhone would be participating in the writing and album. With McElhone foundational in the [very successful] band Texas, I was shocked, but pleased by this. I felt that it would offer tremendous continuity between eras of the band but when the CD reached my mailbox, I saw that it wasn’t meant to be. There’s no mention of McElhone on the finished disc. So how would it stack up against the band’s legacy?

altered images - mascarastreakzUKCDA15K

Altered Images

Mascara Streakz 2022

3.5

“Mascara Streakz” had me from the first synth-claps on the backbeat. I was surprised to hear Altered Images indulging in Electro Trash that reminded me of “Supernature” era Goldfrapp. And I was most intrigued by the abstract loop that figured throughout the song that sounded like a baby vocalizing. And unlike the previous album the backing vocals here added patina to the song without threatening to dislodge Ms. Grogan. The nearly subliminal telephone conversation running under the end of the song following the drop where Clare vamps it up was part of the intrigue this track offered that I was enjoying.

The next song was very different with “Red Startles The Sky” succeeding at recreating a full-tilt Tom Tom Club vibe like some lost track from the “Close To The Bone” sessions. I had to hand it to Stephen Lironi; he really nailed that Bernie Worrell sound on the synth patches. Though the song had a vibe and especially a title to last for days, the cut was on the slight side. It helped that it was a brief and definitely not over egged 3:22.

“The Colour Of My Dreams” was the first song written that sparked the rest of the album. It was a tried and true use of the Altered Images gambit of matching a downbeat lyric with euphoric music to generate that creative friction. The refrain of “I’ve been let down” slotted right in there with “something at you do to me fills me with unease” when mated with the club-ready dance track.

The lush, slightly tropical Disco exotica of “Glitter Ball” showed that enlisting Bernard Butler to add his touch was nothing but a fine idea! After three good songs we received the first modern Altered Images classic, but there would still be more to come. It’s a rare thing in this streaming-the-first-15-seconds music era when an album can be given the chance to unfold its charms and to pull the listener in to its spell. The brief these days is to usually play the strongest card first to hook the listener lest they hit the “next” button. I was liking the arc that this album was building. “Glitter Ball” perfectly built its dreamy dance floor spell.

Then came a glorious curve ball with the tender “Your Life Is Mine” had Lironi returning to the producer’s chair to answer the musical question “what would Robin Guthrie sound like producing Altered Images?” The billowing clouds of DreamPop guitar left little doubt as the gentle rondo of the melody spun and folded on itself like a möbius strip of sound; stretching the loving sentiments into the infinite. Wow! This album was certainly making up for lost time and exploring new vistas of sound for the band.

Maybe I got lost in the crowd of doubt
And maybe I misread what my life is all about
Took such a long time to figure it out
But now I know I’m on sacred ground

“Home”

The four-star songs kept coming with the other Butler tune. “Home” was simply glorious, anthemic pop of such a positive, even euphoric nature, that it managed to get me a little choked up on first listen. I loved the drop in the middle eight where the rhythm box was left holding it all together before Ms. Grogan returned to deliver the powerful verse above. This track wasn’t just written by Grogan and Butler, either. Credits were shared here among all four writers on this album. You can toss that old saw about “too many cooks.” Kudos to producer Butler for realizing that the false fade followed by a vocal reprise dropping the music bed out was exactly the bold ending that a song like this needed!

Next: …Song Sung Bluebell

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Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 5]

Epic | UK | 7″ | 1983 | A 3083

[…continued from last post]

There’s no two ways about it. Writing a song like “Don’t Talk To Me About Love” and then getting Mike Chapman to produce it was a stroke of genius. From the very first bar the sequencer line on the Oberheim synth suggested thrills aplenty were in store for our ears and the reality was certainly that. The band picked Chapman due to his production of “Heart of Glass,” which sported a similar synth pulse, but the vibe here was less eerie and more direct.

I recall seeing this play several times on MTV and I was assured that Altered Images were back and ready to move past the cul de sac that “Pinky Blue” had represented to me. The live drums were a welcome presence after the Linn overkill of the last album. The guitar playing was fluid and slightly funky; reacting nicely to the string section. And Clare’s vocal arrangements were bold and vivacious; offering delightful counterpoint to the melody carried through the backing vocals. All resulting in a world class single that rightly matched the number 7 UK placing of “I Could Be Happy.” This one is always at the top of the heap for Altered Images songs for my money.

The shuffle beat and animal wail guitar harmonics that opened “Stand So Quiet” were another left field and unexpected jab from the Tony Visconti half of the disc. But I’m not sure that I can lay blame solely at his feet since the album clearly stated in the liner notes that Altered Images were the arrangers for the album. When the accordion joined in, adding a quixotically Gallic feel to the already slightly berserk number, I didn’t know what to think the first time I heard this one. Fortunately, it was also home to some of Ms. Grogan’s most assured belting ever, and to hear this little sprite fully inhabiting her voice was a treat. Bonus points for whoever decided in the song’s climax to have Clare’s voice almost imperceptibly segue into the accordion line.

Altered Images - change of heart cover artIn spite of the first three singles from “Bite” charting in the UK in numbers 7, 29, and 46, a fourth single was finally issued in October of 1983. “Change Of Heart” was a vibrant dollop of Pop sporting ginchy Farfisa organ and a sassy 60s verve of the sort the Blondie built their reputation on. The stuttering backbeat that Stephen Lironi built into the song gave it a real punch. The backing vocals supported here and left room for Ms.Grogan to hold court just as strongly as Tony McDaid’s bass solo in the middle eight. And then the song only managed a lowly 83 in the UK charts! A crying shame, that.

The album had one song left and Tony Visconti pulled out all of the stops for the sumptuous ballad “Thinking About You” to evoke a lushness harking back to Martin Denny with its luscious harp glissandos, glossy orchestrations, and even – be still my beating heart, touches of pizzicato strings as well! The insouciant sax solo that Andy Hamilton added in the song’s climax while accompanied by Clare’s breathless sighs conjured a bittersweet romantic scenario that made being hurt feel so good. The one concession to modernity was the precise rhythm box percussion driving the bus on this one. Otherwise this song was Prom Night, 1958.


Maybe it was the 1983 zeitgeist that did Altered Images no favors, but their dramatic re-invention as sophistipop adults fell largely on deaf ears in their native UK. Certainly, the rise of Culture Club and Wham! proffering blue-eyed soul was the dominant trend of the year. Even erstwhile New Romantics Spandau Ballet had jumped to the head of that trend. In retrospect, it was probably a minor miracle that a winning single like “Don’t Talk To Me About Love” managed an appropriate amount of success at this time.

Otherwise, “Bite” was a case of diminishing returns for the Scots this time out. The album peaked at 16 on the UK LP chart, and had a similar nine week run, but with only one hit single, it fell short of the silver disc status of the first two albums. Even so, the expectation of success was such that the demoralized band called it a day after returning from their one and only US tour. Finding themselves at the end of a three year whirlwind career that saw them beginning as almost Gothic Post-Punk critics darlings before veering wildly into sugary Pop that had them scoring a trio of UK Top Ten singles. Ultimately moving to a more mature Adult Pop sound.

Maybe the mistake here was in splitting the difference of the album between Tony Visconti and Mike Chapman. Two great producers with disparate working methods that made for what is undeniably a schizophrenic album. I found the Chapman work more solidly successful than the Visconti material and wonder if the kitchen sink and Retro Disco stylings he enabled were asking a bit much of the band’s audience.

It probably didn’t help that the packaging was pushing Clare as a dynamic young woman when the public had bonded with her as a schoolgirl in “Gregory’s Girl.” The focus on her image on the singles sleeves saw the other band members relegated to the back cover, but perhaps significantly, the one hit single here was the disc with no images of Clare but the now throwback David Band sleeve painting.

various artists - giant cover art
London Records ‎ | UK | 1987 | CD | 828 055-2

At the time I felt that Altered Images had perhaps thrown in the towel too early in a way that almost seemed petulant to me at the time. I had been disappointed to lose one of the bands I enjoyed collecting so soon, but have to admit, that when Clare resurfaced four years later with her solo single, “Love Bomb,” it sounded like a ghastly mistake. I was a fan of the artist and remixer but this was a bomb best defused immediately! Apparently London Records agreed with my thoughts, and Ms. Grogan’s solo album, “Trash Mad,” was shelved.

Just five years ago I got the “Giant” compilation from London Records with the only other song to have escaped from the basement they put it in, and “Reason is the Slave” was just as aimless and inert, but I must remember it was the mid-80s. Most of my favorite artists still active from the Post-Punk era were causing me angst with their then-current work. Clare Grogan would act intermittently but musically only pinged my radar when she reunited with Stephen Lironi in the group Universal Love School. I was looking out for releases after hearing the name but that never happened.

the sixths hyacinths and thistles
Merge Records | US | CD | 2000 | MRG185

What did happen was that hooking up musically with Lironi six years later delivered unexpected benefits; the two married in 1994 and Clare became a mother to daughter Elle. Motherhood kept Ms. Grogan busy, but in the late 90s both Grogan and Lironi had some startling activity. In 2000 The 6ths, Stephin Merritts’ eclectic pop band with a huge cast of favorite vocalists enlisted Clare to sing “Night Falls Like A Grand Piano;” a shimmering bit of acoustic dreampop. Lironi, by comparison, formed The Revolutionary Corps Of Teenage Jesus with singer Alan Vega and I need to investigate this, like pronto!

clare grogan talullah and the teenstars

In the new century, Clare began playing shows and festivals and bringing Altered Images songs into the new millennium. She also wrote a series of of children’s books based on her character Tallulah Gosh [see left] while Lironi became a restaurateur in London in addition to his music production career. Life settled down for the family until in recent years, Clare got the bug to start writing songs again. Reactivating the Altered Images name in a way that no one could have predicted. Tomorrow we dig in to the fruits of their labor!

Next: …Do You Dream In Colour?

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Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 4]

altered images 1983
Altered Images – 1983 model L-R: Johnny McElhone, Tony McDaid, Glare Grogan, Stephen Lironi

[…continued from last post]

Their first album peaked at number 26 in the UK LP charts, but it stayed on the charts for 21 weeks. “Pinky Blue,” in comparison, got as high as number 12 but was off the chart in just 10 weeks. A holding pattern regarding sales with both LPs moving over 60,000 for silver disc status with the BPI. Altered Images were winding down 1982 two men short and their campaign of singles from “Pinky Blue” starting strong at UK numbers 7 and 11, but dropping to 35 for their title track single, a re-think was on the books. Clare Grogan took a trip to clear her head and when she got back, management had found a single musician to replace both Jim McInven and Tich Anderson as Stephen Lironi was at home on drums, and guitars. So the group was a quartet.

In terms of production the decision to move on from Martin Rushent yielded a surprising response in that the band sought to split production between Mike Chapman and Tony Visconti. Being fans of Bowie, T-Rex, and Blondie it was seen as a natural decision. But on the same album would be a very different sort of vibe that would perhaps challenge listeners and fans. The Chapman work reached our ears as the first single, “Don’t Talk To Me About Love” was another number 7 UK hit for the band. How did the rest fare?

Altered Images

Bite 1983

2.5

Altered Images - bring me closer cover artWhile the pre-release single still sported a David Band cover painting [strangely, of blues singer Big Joe Turner…?] the next single to reach our eyes and ears kicked off the “Bite” album. “Bring Me Closer” announced the “new look” Clare Grogan striking a sophisticated pose in a sophisticated song. It was a full-on glossy, Production Disco throwback to the ’78 era with [impeccable] Visconti-scored strings and percussion buttressing the dancefloor rhythms and wah-wah guitar to make Barry White jealous.

It was a bracing new gambit for Teen Goths-Gone-Ginchpop band. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the dramatic shift in tone, presentation, and style didn’t knock me for a wallop the first time I heard it after buying the 12″ single in the Peaches import bins. And I don’t mean that in a good way. It was and still is, troubling to hear a phalanx of seven backing vocalists all but blowing tiny Clare out of the water on her own song. By the time that saxophonist Andy Hamilto0n [fresh from Duran Duran’s “RIO”] started wailing in the coda one could be excused for thinking that the band were getting lost in their own record.

But after a suitable adaptation period, one could also claim that the band were much more present even in this widescreen production. The Linn Drums and banks of keys from the last album were set aside here. This might be a very Professional record but it was in no way mechanical. Once could actually hear Tony McDaid’s bass guitar in the mix! And most encouragingly of all, the creamy smooth refrain to the song was the line “…something that you do to me, fills me with unease…!” Sung in the dreamiest way possible. Yes, this was still Altered Imaged underneath all of the surface gloss. Though time has been kind to the record, it’s still a jarring release to my ears and only a partial success beneath the busy production. The UK record buying public agreed, and the second single from the album managed to barely dent the Top 30 at number 29.

After the pressure of the first track, hearing Mike Chapman’s kinder, gentler “Another Lost Look” was almost as if a song from the “Pinky Blue” sessions had managed to escape from the often oppressive production stance that Martin Rushent had imposed upon it to spend the day at the park instead. The only Blondie song it could be said to even remotely recall was maybe “Pretty Baby,” but were Blondie ever this winsome?

altered images love to stay coer artThe next track was single number three, and “Love To Stay” was a very different Mike Chapman production with its dignified drumbox beating cha-cha beat like a steel heart compared to the prevailing Linn Drum brutality of the day. Clare’s dreamy vocals could go on for days and in this case, the notion of putting the 12″ dance mix on the album  instead of the succinct 3:23 single edit gets a pass from me since the single was really an edit of the 12″ single that took the track to a stately 5:40. The creamy rhythm guitar and the trumpet and xylophones [uncredited but probably the acme of L.A. session monsters] created a luscious vibe that I wanted to hear more of, so the soloing that extended the dance mix here was a gift in the best possible taste.

Tony Visconti was back in position to end side one of the album with “Now That You’re Here.” It began strangely with a tribal drum figure joined on the fifth bar by a juddering synthesizer sequencer, with melodramatic strings and piano eventually joining the mix. Even 39 years later, I can’t really say I’ve ever heard anything else quite as, uh, singular as this arrangement. The chorus featured yet more massed backing vocals achieving a weird stab at MOR Pop from within a very eccentric song. It was definitely trying… hard, to make its own kind of music and sing it’s own kind of song. Thus far, Chapman was winning the tug of war over this album.

Next: …Change Of Heart of Glass

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Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 3]

Altered Images ca. 1982 L-R: Johnny McElhone, Tony McDaid, Clare Grogan, Tich Anderson, Jim McKinven

[…continued from last post]

Side two seemed to get off to a promising start with “Funny Funny Me.” Where else could one heard a song that featured both a rhumba beat and calliope? Clare Grogan swooped and swerved gamely with the song, but the songwriters [and producer] made a fatal error in confusing the song’s hook with its chorus. The first few bars where Ms. Grogan offered the vocal counterpoint to the song’s rhythm with “do-do-I-do-right…do-do-I-do-wrong” was the stuff of Pop dreams, but the incessant repetition of what should have been a sparing seasoning into a reasonably strong song became its Achilles heel. The last 1:27 of the 3:24 song being its repeated chorus made it seem closer to one of those dreaded 4:20 songs. If not moreso.

No such reservations could be made over “Think That It Might.” This was the song that I will always take from “Pinky Blue” as its acme. It’s blend of ebullient emotion and the perfect mixture of the band and singer make a strong argument that it should have been the triumphant third single from the album instead of its [albeit remixed] B-side. Hearing Clare’s giddy venture into the land of Marc Bolan’s bleating delivery on the front chorus by rights should have been off putting, but instead, it primed the listener for her soaring takeoff at chorus’ end. And the song left delightful nooks and crannies for the twin guitarists to shine even in the brief running time of 2:52. What I wouldn’t give for a six minute Martin Rushent Dub mix of this one.

Altered Images - i could be happy cover artThe album’s big hit was the number 7 UK placing of the iconic “I Could Be Happy,” but as far as I can see, all copies of the “Pinky Blue” album contain the 12″ version of the song. There’s a big part of me that thinks that including the 12″ remix on the album and relegating the hit version to the single is a bit unfair. It’s odd that the 3:32 hit version of the song while being perhaps foremost in people’s minds regarding the song revealed the lyrical hook right up front in the first chorus. While in comparison the 12″ version treated the listener to plenty of the Dub technique that Martin Rushent was obsessed with around that time.

Building up layers of sound while exploding and reconstructing the track to allow for maximum space and sonic impact. Only the first verse was injected at the midpoint of the mix while a massed chorus of Clares sang the refrain in unison. While the 12″ mix is not canonical from a Pop song standpoint, one thing that it very successfully achieved was the decision to delay the repeat of the first verse and chorus until the song’s climax. Building up sonic joy with effect after effect and then dropping the lyric’s payload as the ultimate in ironic stingers as the song’s last word. And in that it encapsulated my impression of the band for all time.

…All of these things I’d do,
All of these things I’d do,
To get away from you
Get away, run away far away
How do I…
Get away, run away far away
How do I…
Escape from you

“I Could Be Happy”

“Jump Jump” was the closest thing that “Pinky Blue” had to a throwback to the band’s earlier sound. It sounded like the missing link between the rest of the “Happy Birthday” album and its poptastic title track. Proffering a much less synthetic sounding production with trebly guitars weaving with organ drones for a winsome sound that was a far cry from the firehose of buttercream icing that much of this album could be.

This left the closing “Goodnight And I Wish” as the outlier to nowhere with its dreamy, widescreen ballad sound pointing to a more “mature” Altered Images sound that would manifest very differently in a year’s time. The choral patches of the synths prefiguring the backing vocalists who were yet to come in the band’s story. It made for a contemplative finale to a somewhat hyperactive album.


It was exactly 40 years ago today that I first bought this album on my birthday in 1982. Time has seen the sugary sheen of its prefab excesses dampen my enthusiasm for it, even though I could hardly wait for its release in 1982. Back then I would have listened to anything that Martin Rushent and his new toys were involved in during that post-Dare time. And this certainly did slot in nicely with the incipient technopop of the rapidly approaching MIDI-era as it marked the point where the torch of top producer was in the process of being passed from Rushent to the upstart Trevor Horn.

Today I can at most muster a 2.5/4 rating for “Pinky Blue” on the Rock G.P.A. graph. While the album sold equally well as their debut, with silver disc status in the UK, and three UK Top 40 singles, it didn’t manage to best it in sales. The reviews at the time were an albatross around the band’s neck as the previous Indie darlings had many who had earlier championed the band turn on their pivot to twee, and sometimes saccharine pop. After the album campaign guitarist Jim McKinven and drummer Tich Anderson left the band for something more in line with their tastes. The remaining trio would have to reconfigure if they wanted to move forward.

Next: …Clare Golightly

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Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 2]

[…continued from last post]

altered images pinky blue cover art

Altered Images

Pinky Blue 1982

2.5

So, with the release of their third single, “Happy Birthday,” Altered Images were thrust into the funhouse mirror world that accompanies having a single that reached number two in the charts when their previous single [the lovely “A Day’s Wait”] couldn’t be bothered to chart at all. So the experiment with Martin Rushent producing was deemed to be a fantastic success. The right record at the right time for the right year! Naturally leading to him producing the entire next album. What could go wrong?

Altered Images - pinky blue cover artIf a dour Post-Punk album like “Happy Birthday” can sell silver [60K] in the UK on the back of a single sugary-sweet morsel of ginch-pop, imagine the sales on a whole album of such tunes. Over a synthetic seaside slice of surf noise and seagulls, the title track to “Pinky Blue” began the album on a subtle note. The vibe of the album was clearly tipped off in the first minute as what sounded like Linn Drum hi-hats  frantically kept a steady pace as the jangling guitar bounced off of their steely discipline. The song rolled forward with an expansive energy that saw Ms. Grogan’s girlish vocal taking flight with some newfound power as she soared above the slightly fussy arrangement; winning me over with sheer verve. Even if this, the third single from the album, stalled at a number 35 in the charts

Altered Images - see those eyes cover artThe first Altered Images song I ever heard was the remix of “See Those Eyes” and I was living the Human League’s “Dare” album in early 1982, I was fascinated to hear producer Rushent treat what was a pop band with the same aesthetic at the producer’s desk with Altered Images. While the band did have a keyboard player in Jim [Berlin Blondes] McKinven, they were still led primarily by guitars, even though the production style that Rushent was deep into as producer of the moment was based on the precision of drum machines and sequenced synthesizers.

The dub technique on Rushent’s dance mix of “See Those Eyes” could be mashed up with a record like the “League Unlimited Orchestra” album with nary an eyelash batted. yet the straight 7″ mix as the album provided was to these ears an unerring classic Pop tune. The programmed backbeats on the drums allowed the synth lines to float lazily overhead as the twangy guitar lines managed to capably unite the rhythm and melody into a satisfying whole. And Clare Grogan’s vocal was the glue that held it all together without any of the little girl tics that she often fell prey to. That this sterling single fell just outside of the UK top 10 at number eleven was something of a small crime as I find it one of the group’s best songs.

“Forgotten” was an energetic number that proved to be an excellent deep cut almost hiding on this album among all of the spun sugar candyfloss. I could respect its winsome pop the morning after. Which is more than I can say for “Little Brown Head,” with its oscillating two-note hook being just too forceful for its slim chassis to support.

Every time I hear the high-pressure conga groove the Linn Drum was providing for the intro of “See You Later” it always made me expect a completely different song. Once the intro was over and the proper song got underway, it seemed to fare a lot batter. That the song was a gloriously cheerful kiss-off was all the better. I loved how Ms. Grogan trilled in ecstasy in the song’s climax while the drums echoed her ebullience with some tidy fills, but her getting the last word on her final “see you la-terrrrr” was a little too close to the ending of the thematically similar “I Could Be Happy” for comfort on the same album as the latter.

Altered Images - song sung blue cover artNext came the primary reason why this album only mustered a 2.5/4 ranking on the Rock G.P.A. scale. Because the band managed to include a painfully twee cover version of the already sappy “Song Sung Blue [#1 1972] that managed to make the Neil Diamond original sound like Joy Division in comparison. I recall interviews with Clare at this time commenting on how it was a favorite song of her mother but surely she could have just sung it around the home?

Instead, we got a bouncy, singsong rendition that seemed like it was made for a [condescending] children’s program. With a music bed that sounded like a Casio demo and featuring Ms. Grogan taking such extreme liberties with the phrasing of the melody that I can feel the cavities in my teeth happening on every listen. But the killing stroke was surely the appearance of producer Rushent and famed BBC DJ John Peel [yes, the John Peel… he was a supporter of the band] contributing a male chorus of backing vocals and whistling. This was the sort of track that could slay even a strong album, and this one wasn’t quite up to that level. That the resulting song seemed to last forever at a tooth-gnashing length of 4:14 [the second longest song here] was insult to injury.

Next: …Funny Girl

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Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 1]

rock g.p.a. altered images

Now that Altered Images have returned for that fourth album a mere 39 years after breaking up after their their album seemed to show their ability to land singles in the charts flagging dramatically, the appearance of album number four has triggered another Rock G.P.A. event in my mind! There’s no better time than the present to weigh and analyze each album to better understand what this eclectic Scot band’s lasting merits are. Especially now that their canon of recorded albums has increased by a third and broadened their established run from 1981-1983 all the way to 2022!

I remember reading about Altered Images after their first album was released in the UK, but it remained until I heard the 12″ mix of “See Those Eyes” on Trouser Press flexidisc #8 that I actually heard the group. Since that track was produced by Martin Rushent in his post-Human League brand of electrodub genius, I naturally thought that I needed to hear more of this band, so I went out and bought their first album, which was all that was available in the summer of 1982.

The “Happy Birthday” album was produced largely by Steve Severin of The Banshees, with just two cuts being produced by Martin Rushent; the “Happy Birthday” single and “Insects.” The difference in the recordings couldn’t have been more pronounced! The Steve Severin sessions [i.e. the bulk of the album] were dark, minor chord epics, rife with teenaged angst that don’t sound any more than spitting distance from Siouxsie and The Banshees, whereas Rushent troweled on the sunshine with his Linn drum and the Roland Microcomposer and their shiny, synthetic surfaces.

altered images press photo
Portrait US press photo courtesy of Lansure’s Musical Paraphernalia

By the time that their sophomore album “Pinky Blue’ entered my Record Cell, I realized that the band drew its strength from its careful playing of both emotional extremes; sometimes unified in the same song if you were lucky! I am definitely drawn to bouncy music that expresses dark sentiments. I love the emotional contrast, but when it came to dark sentiments, none were more stygian than the debut single from the band.

Debut Single

altered images - dead pop stars
Epic | UK | 7″ | 1981 | EPC A1023

Altered Images: Dead Pop Stars – UK – 7″ [1981]

  1. Dead Pop Stars
  2. Sentimentaal

I didn’t buy this until I started buying music via mail order catalogs in those pre-internet days of the mid-80s. I think it was in the Main Street catalog that I ordered the now legendary debut single by the group. “Dead Pop Stars” wasn’t on their debut album, and remained a non-LP treat. The record suffered from coming to the market in the weeks following John Lennon’s murder, so its commercial prospects were limited. If anything though, listening to it brought to mind the late 70s hyping of Jim Morrison [“He’s Hot! He’s Sexy! …And He’s Dead!] and I’d not be surprised if the whole ghoulish campaign was in fact the impetus for the song.

Because if it was, the band hit the nail right on the head with this dirge-like screed decrying the trend.

“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”

Dead Pop Stars

And who better to produce this caustic little ditty than Steve Severin? It sounded not a million miles away from “Happy House” except that it’s sung by the girlish Clare Grogan, which creates lots of nifty emotional friction. The band would revisit this song within a year and re-record a merely ironic version re-titled “Disco Pop Stars” and heavily laden with sugar sparkles of the Rushent variety as the B-side to their ultimate single, “I Could Be Happy.” But as a statement on intent, this single certainly got one’s attention.

Rock G.P.A.

altered images - happy birthday

Altered Images

Happy Birthday 1981

3

The producer was again Steve Severin of Siouxsie + The Banshees and the band sounded very much in thrall to the Banshees, in spite of the intro/outro of the Rushent-led “Happy Birthday” single’s marimba rhythm track that opened and closed the album with Clare Grogan. But the first, real song, “Love + Kisses” was much more in line with the sort of shadowy sound that would be the stock-in-trade of this debut album.

The floor-tom heavy drumming style was an obvious nod to Budgie’s early Banshees sound. In fact, I can detect a whiff of not just the obvious Siouxsie + the Banshees, here, but even a twist of Bauhaus popping up here and there. But that I’m willing to put down to engineer Ted Sharp at Rockfield Studios, where the album was recorded. He would go on to hold similar duties with the next two Bauhaus albums following this release by Altered Images. The acoustic rhythm guitars were also afforded plenty of space in the mix, making for a pleasing setting for Ms. Grogan’s somewhat minimal vocals that arced gracefully throughout the song; echoing the peals of the flanged guitar chords.

“Real Toys” showed Altered Images at their most political as they conflated gender power structures with its commensurate sexism and even war. The next song, “Idols” was fully in the Banshees wheelhouse. The track sported Banshees-syle bass by Johnny McElhone and even trotted out the glockenspiel; an old Banshees trick straight out of their early days. Then there was a huge sidestep in “Legionaire” to something that took the Banshees sound at its most bass-led level, and rode it to Winsometown without telling anyone their intentions up front. The instrumental was hung on ringing guitar lines that circled back on themselves with only some strategically placed “la-las” getting the vocal nod from Ms. Grogan at the song’s halfway point any beyond.

Following the sunniest outlier on this album, the vibe snapped back into the Siouxsie sound big time with “Faithless.” The minor key was a dead giveaway. Slow, deliberate tempos on the first and third verses, contrasted with the more frantic tempos and delivery for verses two and four. The creepy guitar harmonics were surely the hand of Severin? I’d swear that the more upbeat “Beckoning Strings” had its roots in another Post-Punk band than the Banshees. This time PiL! Listen to McElhone’s bass line. It’s pure Jah Wobble delivery. It remains as a rare fusion of PiL and bubblegum pop. At least until the ending, where birds tweet in the outro fade and Ms. Grogan joins them in birdsong! It was not much of a stretch for her voice.

Then there was the number two bubblegum pop smash that broke Altered Images after their first two singles made no inroads on the charts. “Happy Birthday” had its origins in bassist McElhone’s canny realization that an original song called “Happy Birthday” might have a chance of sticking around like the other well known song with that title. It could not have hurt in giving the pop confection the boost needed to gain commercial traction. Was he ever correct!

The marimba played in the introduction was almost the last such instrument one would have imagined on a song this sugary sweet. It really sounded like marimba consciousness might have invaded Britain during its “New Pop” phase, what with Haircut 100 also featuring the instrument some months later. I wonder if this was down to the influence of Kid Creole + the Coconuts but unless I miss my guess, their second album was the breakthrough in the UK and that record was charting at roughly the same time as this one. But apart from that very analog instrument [plus the guitars] it sure sounded like drummer “Tich” Anderson had been replaced by Rushent’s Linn Drum machine as the song was sped forward on some very chipper but mechanical beats. I’m almost wiling to entertain the notion that the 4/4 was the Linn [or triggered drums] while Anderson added the fills manually.

“Midnight” was one of the few songs here with prominent keyboards. The organ drone and random waveforms in the intro really stuck out here. And yet the album credits say nothing about the instruments in the margins of these songs. Anderson laid down the motorik beat and not unlike a song by The Cure, the track was half over before the vocals entered into it. The lyrics here were very cryptic as is sounded like Ms. Grogan was repeating “rape on Sunday is a terrible thing” and going on about “serial number 024.” It sounded like some very inside material that only Glaswegians might be able to parse.

altered images - a days waitThe first single from the album didn’t trouble the charts any, but “A Day’s Wait” had another long drawn out Cure-like instrumental buildup before the vocals entered the song at the halfway point. Original guitarist Ceaser had left the band after they recorded their debut single [not on the album proper] and this song; citing their signing to Epic Records of a punk sell-out. If he only knew what was in store for this band after that! The song was built, appropriately enough, upon steady train-like rhythms. The minimal lyrics and vocals with a dub breakdown functioned as the middle eight. At 4:10, this was the Prog-opus of this album!

The next song was also the third bonus track on the cassette single version of “A Day’s Wait.” Back when such an event was incredibly scarce. All of the vitriol that Siouxsie and the Banshees were capable and more of showed up for “Leave Me Alone,” a song of unbridled hostility. The queasy organ line that flowed through the song mirrored the descent of the singer into what can only be called breakdown as Ms. Grogan formed the same shaky alliance with pitch that John Lydon often made for the emphatic nature of such a delivery. Obliterating the line between girlish and gutteral with relish. The ascending bass pulls on the middle eight before the screams of Clare intruded reflected a mental breakdown state most capably.

The bright shiny pop of “Insects” certainly implied where the hand of Martin Rushent would be taking the band even though this recording of the song was produced by Steve Severin. Clean, bright and reverberant, it would be re-recorded for the B-side to their hit single “I Could Be Happy” in an even shinier Rushent production very soon. It made a sensible way to end the album with this as an outlier to where the band would go next on their second album “Pinky Blue.”

The first Altered Images album turned out to be very much a Post-Punk affair, due to the band enlisting Steve Severin for the bulk of this material. The boy just couldn’t help it! The dark, guitar led music featured only scant keyboards used with much restraint. Not only were Siouxsie + The Banshees the blueprint for this sound, but snatches of other uncompromising or even gothy pop bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, and even PiL can be detected in the mix.

Then there was the bright, shiny [maybe too shiny…] Martin Rushent side of the album, which skewed the needle in the opposite direction on the speedometer of this album. I would like to know which brains decided that “Severin’s not cutting it… call Martin Rushent!” I’ve never heard the whys and wherefores, but I would have to put it down to label influence. After all, Rushent had credible punk hits with The Stranglers, and concurrent with the recording of this album, was really getting ready to make a name for himself with The Human League. If he could sell that band, and he had taken them Top 30 with “The Sound Of the Crowd” earlier that year, anything might be possible! Though it bears mentioning that The Human League had released their first Top 10 single, “Open Your Heart” at exactly the same time as “Happy Birthday” dropped, giving Rushent two Top 10 hits concurrently. Still, whoever recommended Rushent for the job here probably got a fat bonus.

But he did mark the point where Altered Images crossed over from dour Post-Punk into the nascent New Pop demographic. Any old fans they had managed to snare with their first handful of releases around the time of this album might not be convinced to stay on the bus as it barreled, out of control into the top of the charts with a bright, frothy payload of ginch-pop tunes that could cause cavities were it not for the band remembering to infuse some of the material with admirable, contrarian lyric content that played against the production for maximum irony.

Next: …Buttercream Bubblegum [with sugar + spice]

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