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?

About postpunkmonk

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2 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Altered Images [part 5]

  1. Scott says:

    Very early into my rediscovery of Altered Images, which was when I was going on an early MTV retro kick of artists in 1987 that I didn’t buy at the time (I was 12 in 1982 with limited pocket money), I picked up Bite now that I was a working boy of 17. My immediate reaction was of strong disappointment, and I quickly disposed of it. A few years later, and deep into my fascination with Pinky Blue, I tried Bite again and managed to appreciate about half of it. All of these years later, some of the songs I like on Bite are among my favorites; Love to Stay, Change of Heart, and more so the B sides, which have a Pinky Blue-ish charm, Last Goodbye and Suprise Me. Even after decades of hating the disco strings and guitar of Bring Me Closer, it grew on me… somewhat. I do much prefer the 12″ mix. But things like Stand So Quiet and Now That You’re Here are dreadful. Don’t Talk To Me About Love is often held is the highest regards but I’ve never found it to be much more than pleasant, never a craving. AI’s career was so schizo in such a short time, allowing themselves to be affected by the brutal backlash of Pinky Blue, after the relative praise of Happy Birthday, that they tried to grow up way too fast. Had they been less of a marshmallow to the critics, who knows what they would have achieved.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Scott – I wasn’t strongly disappointed by “Bite” on release, but I was shocked at how schizophrenic it was and discounted it somewhat for years. I like about half of it. And I agree on the quality B-sides, but that’s not the purview here. “Change Of Heart” sounds to me like “Pinky Blue” minus the production gambits that give me pause now. I think the critical backlash for “Pinky Blue” was down to the presentation and production. The videos looked like they were specially made for a children’s TV program[me]. I would be interested in hearing what would have happened if Chapman had produced “Pinky Blue.” Visconti is a great producer but his tracks on ‘Bite” [save for “Thinking About You”] were pretty miss-able. I don’t think he was the man to capture those songs no matter how much they loved T-Rex. I mentioned “Collected Images” early on as maybe their dest disc, but it has the dreaded “Song Sung Blue” on it!

      This was a good compilation but the PDO disc tended to bronze.


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