Record Review: Altered Images – Happy Birthday …Plus DLX RM UK CD [part 1]

Edsel Records ‎| UK | CD | 2004 | DIAB 8048

Altered Images: Happy Birthday…Plus UK CD [2004]

  1. Intro: Happy Birthday
  2. Love And Kisses
  3. Real Toys
  4. Idols
  5. Legionnaire
  6. Faithless
  7. Beckoning Strings
  8. Happy Birthday
  9. Midnight
  10. A Day’s Wait
  11. Leave Me Alone
  12. Insects
  13. Outro: Happy Birthday
  14. Dead Pop Stars
  15. Sentimental
  16. Who Cares?
  17. Happy Birthday (Dance Mix)
  18. So We Go Whispering
  19. Jeepster

I was aware of Altered Images from the point of their debut album since it got a US release by late 1981. That the band took their name from Malcolm Garrett’s ever-changing design firm name was something that triggered my interest, but beyond that I never heard the first note from it. It remained until early 1982 when Altered Images were one of the bands who got a flexi-disc in subscriber copies of Trouser Press. I heard the 12” version of “See Those Eyes” as produced by Martin Rushent and wow – did it ever reek of the work that Rushent had been doing with The Human League around the same time. The same tech/dub sensibilities were at work, along with the obvious Linn Drum and maybe even the Roland Microcomposer along for the ride. I was down with this so I went out and bought a used copy of the first Altered Images album, “Happy Birthday.” It was easy to source, having been released in America in the fall of 1981, but the new track I had heard was from their upcoming second album; not yet released. I recall that it was some months down the line before I saw the import version with the US edition loping along 2-3 months later.

Spinning “Happy Birthday” now was an abject lesson in how completely different to the Rushent-produced, pop-friendly sound the band rode to the [near] top of the charts that their immediate predecessor could have sounded. First of all, the producer was Steve Severin of Siouxsie + The Banshees and the band sounded very much in the shadow of 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 releases 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 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 in to 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’s 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.

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 mechanistic beats. I’m almost wiling to entertain the notion that the 4/4 was the Linn 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.”

Next: …Insects [and T Rex]

About postpunkmonk

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6 Responses to Record Review: Altered Images – Happy Birthday …Plus DLX RM UK CD [part 1]

  1. Mel Creighton says:

    A great record in the vein that the Banshees were mining. This is the only record I liked by them and I think it was because of the melancholy overtones in most of it. I am a sucker for that.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Mel Creighton – Well, when you have a goth band fronted by what sounded like a six year old, it either sends people packing or ensnares listeners with its contrarian juxtapositions.


      • Mel Creighton says:

        Yep. The latter happened to me. The child like quality to the vocals kinda pulled me in too. Cranes did the same thing for me. Therein lies the strong Robert Smith influence on their recordings.


  2. Andy B says:

    Although Altered Images had quite a few hits in the UK in the early eighties most serious musos didn’t take them too seriously. They were seen as something of a novelty act, especially after the release of the Happy Birthday single. Of course if they had bothered to listen to the album they would have realised there was so much more to this band.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Andy B – You cite their hits. They had a run of 4/5 top 20 [three in Top 10] singles in England, and I am astounded that as soon as the last three singles from album number three went from barely making Top 30 to barely making Top 100, the band threw in the towel! That seemed short sighted to me then and even more so now! It seemed as if a dry spell was death in those days. How much goodwill and reputation did they throw away in their decision? And it looked petulant on the outside, though the business surely was leaning heavily on them. And they were not the only band to do this. It seemed to be a common attitude back then. I put it down to Thatcherism! If you can’t win every round, get off the game board.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Echorich says:

    I still feel Dead Pop Stars is one of my favorite debut singles all these years later. Dark Post Punk taking aim at Rock’s Dead Royalty. Teenage Claire takes on Siouxsie at every opportunity with her delivery.
    But my favorite Altered Images song will always be A Day’s Wait. The sound is purely Banshees/Cure, but Claire Grogan’s childlike vocals give it a uniqueness that is absolutely haunting. The patches of minimal instrumentation give a great deal of strength to the track in a Krautrock way. Jimmy McKiven’s guitar work on A Day’s Wait is glorious in its haunting tension.

    Liked by 1 person

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