Record Review: Altered Images – Happy Birthday …Plus DLX RM UK CD [part 2]

Clare Grogan with Siouxsie Sioux

[…continued from previous post]

The 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 as a punk sell-out. If he only knew what was in store for this band after that! The song, was built, appropriately, 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 to this album!

The next song was 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 of showed up for “Leave Me Alone,” a song of a jilted lover attacking their onetime paramour. 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. The ascending bass pulls on the middle eight before the screams of Clare intruded reflected the mental breakdown of the one singing.

exhibit A: the US label credit – I used to own this pressing

“Insects” had an interesting provenance. The bright shiny pop certainly implied the hand of Martin Rushent, and my US copy of the LP duly credited him on the cover and label for production of the song. Except that any UK copies of the album, including this CD, fail to make this credit. Implying that Steve Severin produced “Insects,” but I just can’t buy it! It sounds too much of a kind with “Happy Birthday.” Clean, bright and reverberant, there’s no way this was part of the Severin sessions.  It made a sensible way to end the album with this as an outlier to where the band would go next with “Pinky Blue.” One more run through of “Outro: Happy Birthday” made it official.

The bonus tracks here were ideal. We began the bonus round with the band’s debut single, “Dead Pop Stars.”  This featured Caesar on guitar and was a deeply ironic look at the disposability of pop music, with a forgotten band wondering where the fans went. This was perhaps the best song that Siouxsie + The Banshees never recorded. The SATB equivalent of a song like Icehouse’s “Hey Little Girl” was to Bryan Ferry, or JAPAN’s “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” was to Roxy Music. It takes no imagination at all to imagine ice queen Siouxsie channeling her inner Grace Slick while the band here did a very credible run through the Banshees playbook. The sepulchral pick scrapes in the intro set the ideal gothic tone for the minor key guitar and vocals.

Which is what made the B-side, “Sentimental” so surprising. This sounded for all the world like a deep cut from “Pinky Blue” as the tune sported a see-sawing upbeat melody of the sort which was in short supply on this largely melancholic album. The motorik drumbeats mirrored the stop-start of the guitar line cutting through this one like a serrated knife. In a different world, maybe this would have been the A-side of the single and Altered Images wouldn’t have had to wait six months for their commercial breakthrough. It still sounded like a deep cut, but in contrast the A-side resembled a Siouxsie + The Banshees song, only one from 1978. In the context of early 1981, it’s not a surprise that the single failed to make much of a dent in the charts, though John Peel was a big supporter.

The B-side to “A Day’s Wait” was the ramshackle track “Who Cares?” which was clearly the least memorable song on this disc. While the rest of the B-sides contained here were some fine gems, this one was the sort of song that gave B-sides their larger reputation. Finally, the full contents of the
Happy Birthday” 12″ single rounded out the program. The 12″ dance mix of “Happy Birthday” extended the song for a full seven minutes past its 2:55 version by extending the song past what would normally be its fading point. After that line was crossed, Martin Rushent indulged in his penchant for high-trech dub mixing for a full four minutes. Anyone familiar with Human League B-sides of the time would know what to expect here. Only Clare’s “Happy Birthday”refrain ever entered into the song as instruments dubbed in and out of the mix.

“So We Go Whispering” was the 7″ B-side and it was a self-production by the band, making it sound less assured than either the Severin or Rushent productions, while still some promise on the face of it. It cheekily featured the opening notes of the other “Happy Birthday”[you may have heard it on an annual basis] on the song’s fade as a in-joke. The bonus 12” track was a sturdy run through T-Rex’s jaunty “Jeepster” given an especially perky coat of paint by the band. Ironically, a penchant for T-Rex cover B-sides was yet another shared trait between Altered Images and Siouxsie + the Banshees. It can’t hurt any band attempting them with those T-Rex hits being all but indestructible.

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. But that’s another post for another   day [or two.]

– 30 –

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22 Responses to Record Review: Altered Images – Happy Birthday …Plus DLX RM UK CD [part 2]

  1. Richard Anvil says:

    There are two versions of ‘Insects’, the original Severin produced version which was on the Happy Birthday album and the re-recorded Rushent produced version which appeared as a B side to I Could Be Happy single which is included as an extra track on the CD deluxe of Pinky Blue. The difference in sound is very disinctive. And of couse ‘Dead Pop Stars’ was also re-recorded by Rushent as ‘Disco Pop Stars’ which was the extra track on the I Could Be Happy 12″.


  2. Richard Anvil says:

    And I should say that the UK release of the album Happy Birthday only has one Rushent produced tracks (though it appears three times if you include the intro and outro) which is the song ‘Happy Birthday’. All the others were definitely produced by Severin. All I can suggest is that the US version included the aforementioned re-recorded tracks. In fact I’ve just checked on dicogs and the Rushent produced Insects replaces the Severin produced version on the US release of the album.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Richard Anvil – I have had: the 1981 US Portrait LP [which credited Rushent for “Insects”], The 1990 US CD [which was exactly the US LP], and now the Edsel 2004 UK CD… which I swear has the Rushent take of “Insects” on it! I just found the album on iTunes and sampled the version of “Insects” there [it has none of the Edsel bonus tracks] and it was obviously the correct Severin production! I’m not shocked that Edsel sourced the wrong version for the 2004 UK CDs. If Edsel can find a way to screw a CD up, they’ll succeed. Somefimes wildly. The other two 2004 Altered Image CDs had various snafus on them as well [I have those too] but I did not remember hearing about any problems with “Happy Birthday.” I just listened to the “Pinky Blue” CD and it has the Severin version. Definitely. Nice going, Edsel!

      Well, it could have been worse. We could have gotten the same version on both CDs. I don’t have the new Altered Images collection, “The Epic Years.” but allegedly, they have tried to get the main albums correct. “Bite” in particular, had lots of the wrong versions of songs sourced. The new set loses the Flexipop version of “Real Toys” [it’s mastered fairly well – I’ve neard much worse from a flexi on CD] but gains some other versions to compensate. The 7″ mix of “A Day’s Wait” and the cassette single version of “Leave Me Alone” which I had no idea was different.


  3. Duncan Watson says:

    I realise now (REVO cover your eyes) that, in this age of Facebook, a lyric within Dead Pop Stars has acquired a very different meaning.
    “I am the poster on your wall.”
    Did Clare predict the future?


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Duncan Watson – [Rolls eyes]


      • Duncan Watson says:

        Long post alert: sorry!

        To redeem myself for mentioning the F word, which oddly has a C and a K in it, I will relate a relatively recent story about Altered Images.

        Back in 2017 there was a 3 band tour of the UK comprising of Altered Images, The Christians and Midge Ure. Indeed, that was Midge honing the Electronica band that he is presently using to great advantage to showcase both Ultravox and Visage music, along with choice selections of his solo work. But, this story is about Altered Images.

        It was 10th October 2017 (co-incidentally Midge’s birthday) and I took a friend to see the Glasgow gig at the Royal Concert Hall, but parking issues meant I missed the first half of Altered Images’ set. Still, I arrived in time to see Dead Pop Stars being played and I was aghast to hear that song live after multiple decades of knowing it. Then, The Christians played a solid set and finally Midge took the stage and played to a surprisingly rather lacklustre crowd for a home town birthday gig. It took them a while to get on their feet and properly enjoy it.

        But, I just had to go see the full Altered Images show so I bought a ticket for the same show but in Dundee 13 days later. I arrived in plenty of time and despite it being a fully seated show, I decide to stand at the side of the stalls where I bopped to the entire set, including once more Dead Pop Stars.

        The Christians did their thing next and finally Midge put on a superb show which was so much better than the Glasgow gig. The crowd were well up for it and on their feet from the start; totally loving it. You saw that reflected in Midge’s face and his performance when the crowd gave so much back, instantly. Nice.

        Afterwards, Clare Grogan was (wo)maning her merch stall in the foyer. To be fair she did not have that much to sell other than signed photos but she was happily chatting with the fans and having multiple selfies taken. I lined up and eventually spoke to her. I mentioned that I was the only one standing for the gig and she knew who I was! I thanked her for the gig but, most importantly, thanked her for playing Dead Pop Stars which she was really pleased to hear. I asked her if Altered Images had played Dundee before and she said yes, back in 1981. Then she told me this story.

        They were booked to play at the Student Union Bar; a gig that had been confirmed months before. By the time the date came around, the band had been on Top Of The Pops and were experiencing their short burst of stratospheric fame. Yet, they still had to honour the small gigs they had in place and so set up their gear in the bar. The stage was not a stage but a cleared area of the floor so they were at the same level as the crowd with no barrier separating them.

        Come gig time, the place was packed to the brim and it was so full and so mad that the crowd spilled onto the band area. Ultimately, many folk were just dancing along with the band as they played their hits. Clare, being a really small person, was visible to only the select few at the front but she absolutely loved the gig and it still sticks in her mind, well over 35 years later.

        Clare Grogan is one of the loveliest people to talk to and is remarkably down to earth given she has been a movie star and world famous pop star. I am very glad she carries on playing the occasional Altered Images gig to keep their fun brand of Scottish pop very much alive.


  4. diskojoe says:

    This is what I remember Clare Grogan from:


    • postpunkmonk says:

      diskojoe – I saw Gregory’s Girl fairly early on, but I think it took a year to make it over to The States. I believe I had 1-2 Altered Images albums by that time. I remember when “That Sinking Feeling” came out it got a great review on “Sneak Previews” but I don’t think I saw that one until 1984 or so on cable TV. Orlando finally had an arts cinema by the time “Comfort + Joy” came out in 1984, so I bought a ticket for that one; also with Ms. G. I was less enchanted with “Housekeeping” so it seems like that trilogy of “Gregory’s Girl/Local Hero/Comfort + Joy” was where Bill Forsyth was at his best. “Breaking In” wasn’t too bad, but I could never begin to watch that thing he did afterward with Robin Williams. Whom I tried to avoid.


      • diskojoe says:

        That’s right about Bill Forsyth. He seemed to disappear right afterwards. It’s a shame since “Local Hero” showed that he could make a “Hollywood” movie & still be himself.

        Also, don’t you think that “Gergory’s Girl” was some kind of foreshadowing of Belle & Sebastian some 17 yrs. earlier?


        • postpunkmonk says:

          diskojoe – I have no idea of what you are talking about in paragraph #2. Never really heard Belle + Sebastian, so I don’t know. I mean, I’ve probably heard three Belle + Sebastian songs over the last 20+ years. They never really tripped my trigger to investigate further. They sounded inconsequential to me. I know, I know. They’re Scots, for crying out loud, but maybe they aren’t all for me.


  5. SimonH says:

    Altered Images were my third gig I think. They were still riding the wave at that point and it was a packed, hot and sweaty night. I recall them staying around afterwards for ages signing autographs for a long queue of fans.
    Dead Pop Stars is for me a bit of an under the radar post punk classic. It still sounds pretty thrilling to me now. Fair weather fans must have been horrified if they backtracked to pick it up. Funny as well because it kind of told their own future story in terms of the transience of fame.
    They did throw in the towel quickly but things moved so fast in those days. I do remember thinking that the clock was ticking even when the second album came out. With the third album they were definitely running on borrowed time, even though they still scored a couple of hits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – That’s a very canny notion of how “Dead Pop Stars” foreshadowed the [imminent] future of Altered Images in a way they could not have known at the time! Nice catch!


  6. Echorich says:

    God I hate Disco Pop Stars….


    • Mathmandan says:

      Aww I love that track.


      • postpunkmonk says:

        Mathmandan – I probably fall somewhere between you and Echorich on the “Disco Pop Stars” scale. It was kind of interesting to radically revise their debut single, but it pointed to a lack of material for B-sides, what with “Insects” also getting the nod on the “I Could Be Happy” 12″ single.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Funny story about that one. My friend Jayne liked “Disco Pop Stars.” I don’t think she had ever actually heard “Dead Pop Stars” at that time. I hadn’t either! I only bought the 7″ from a mail order catalog by ’86 or so once I started doing that. But back to Jayne. She was in the throes of her Duran Duran obsession at the time, and imagined that the revised song was a sly dig at Duran Duran at a time when everything she encountered was viewed through her DD filter.


  7. Clare for me was the girl of Lister’s dreams in “Red Dwarf” (first episode with occasional reappearances). Strong Scottish accent plus bubbly voice and very cute = ooh la la! Enjoyed the two main AI albums but my interest in helium-voiced singers had started to wane by the time the third one rolled round.

    I didn’t see Gregory’s Girl until the late 80s, and have never seen Comfort & Joy iirc, but I really enjoyed Local Hero and noted a young actor named Peter Capaldi who turned up later in the amazing Lair of the White Worm, and I’ve followed his career since … including his recent time as The Doctor in “Doctor Who!” Sadly his tenure was uneven in storytelling, but his best stories are up there with the best the series has to offer, and his performance was never less than compelling for me.


  8. Duncan Watson says:

    I have just seen Altered Images play a headline show in Edinburgh. They are now a 6 piece girl band and really good too. The drummer is a powerhouse; Gillian on guitar is amazing; Charlotte, well known in the burgeoning Glasgow bands scene, is astounding on bass; Roxanne is on BVs, helping Claire with the high notes (Claire admits during the show that at 57 years old she is no longer capable of some of the pitches but she does not care and no one in the audience minds!), and a fantastic girl on keyboards, also on BVs, along with Gillian and Charlotte. They played a superb 80 minute set and it is already one of my best gigs this year. Yes, Dead Pop Stars, Insects and even my all time favourite Stand So Quiet were played.
    But, the reason for this comment is that at the merch desk was the 4 CD box set of The Epic Years. I realise now that it is a Cherry Red release (aren’t they all nowadays?) from 2018 and seems to gather up everything thing they released on Epic; 7 inch mixes, Dance Mixes, odd cassingle b-sides. But, is it complete though…?


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Duncan Watson – Lucky you, seeing Clare’s Altered Images. I think I remember hearing that Cherry Red carried over some errors from the Edsel issues. Let me get back to you on that… busy just now.


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