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.
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.
Altered Images: Dead Pop Stars – UK – 7″ 
- Dead Pop Stars
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.
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.
Happy Birthday 1981
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.
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 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]