Clare Grogan: ‘It’s nice to reclaim the songs’

Clare Grogan
Clare Grogan
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Singer with 80s band Altered Images and co-star in Gregory’s Girl, Clare Grogan is back on tour. Duncan Seaman reports.

Clare Grogan well remembers her return to singing on stage after a break of some 15 years. That Here and Now show back in 2002 was, Altered Images vocalist recalls, an emotional experience.

“The first thing I did was an arena tour with The Human League and Kim Wilde. My family were like, ‘Why would you not do that?’ We opened in Newcastle and I had a giant birthday cake commissioned and was going to come out of that. It was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film How To Murder Your Wife. While I was waiting inside this cake I had tears coming down my cheeks, I was terrified, thinking, ‘What am I doing? This is insane’. As soon as the audience saw the cake they all started singing Happy Birthday. It was a really magical moment in my life. I’d sat in the cake feeling foolish; the audience made it OK.”

She sounds genuinely excited about the prospect of more road trips this year, starting next month in Holmfirth. It is, she says, one of several gigs she has “scattered all throughout the year in between other things”, one of which is a new film.

Full-on touring three years ago with fellow 80s stars Midge Ure and The Christians was “a bit of a shock to the system”, but she says she “really enjoyed” performing. “Part of it for me is the very fact that I’ve got the opportunity to do it again. I love going to parts of the country that I would never normally go to and meeting people at this stage in my life.

“When I was younger I guess you are obviously in such a different place in your head. When I get on stage now I’m much more confident and I can relate to the audience. I still have this drive to do something that I’ve always loved, there’s something poignant about that. For me now there’s nothing hanging on it other than wanting to put on the best show I can.”

Clare Grogan of Altered Images.

Clare Grogan of Altered Images.

At 57 she often remarks to audiences that if someone had told her when she was 17 and Altered Images were just taking off that she would think “that’s a bit weird”, however, she says, “it’s nice to reclaim the songs” 40 years later. “Altered Images did not end in a great way, you could say it was too much too young,” she says. “It’s nice to find a way of feeling good about them again. I just felt like they were something in the past, but at the end of the day I co-wrote these songs. I would walk into Topshop when one of them was playing and think, ‘That’s me’.”

Altered Images were one of a number of bands who came out of the post-punk scene in Glasgow at the turn of the 1980s. Then a five-piece fronted by Clare, with Gerard McNulty and Tony McDaid on guitars, Johnny McElhone (later of Hipsway and Texas) on bass and Michael Anderson on drums, they were barely out of school when they played their first tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Back then, Clare says, she was “more passionate than driven” to succeed. “It was an opportunity to be part of something I loved. I did not feel I was good as a lead singer for a long time, but I knew this was something I wanted to throw myself into. It was never easy. It’s a lot of effort and determination to do something you love. In those days the boys could not really play their instruments but we were all music fans and we wanted to take it to the next step. When it came to writing songs I was thinking I couldn’t do it, but I did, I learned it as in me.”

The Banshees, it turned out, were “all genuinely quite protective” of their young touring companions. “As a matter of fact, they were not all that much older than us,” Clare remembers. Nor was there any great rock ’n’ roll debauchment. “It all seemed good fun to me. If there was any stuff going on, I honestly did not see it. It was not squeaky clean, but it was not nearly as wild as people might imagine.”

Being championed by Radio 1 DJ John Peel meant “everything to us at one point”, Clare says. “I suppose that was the extent of our ambition when we started, we really wanted to get a John Peel session. When we played at Leeds Futurama [in 1980] and he saw us and liked us, that was the biggest boost to us that you could imagine. Then we signed a deal and got on Top of the Pops, as you progress that world becomes more accessible to you. To a certain extent it fell into place for us until it did not.

For the first couple years it was, ‘let’s do this’. We had the naivety and the arrogance of youth. But it’s fantastic for young people to think that if you could say and imagine it there’s a possibility it will happen. We worked really hard to get there.

Clare Grogan

“For the first couple years it was, ‘let’s do this’. We had the naivety and the arrogance of youth. But it’s fantastic for young people to think that if you could say and imagine it there’s a possibility it will happen. We worked really hard to get there. I missed friends’ wedding and parties; I was busy all the time.”

Their first three singles – including the ill-timed Dead Pop Stars, released on the day of John Lennon’s murder – might have missed the charts but, with John McNiven replacing Gerard McNulty, they scored a massive hit in September 1981 with the song Happy Birthday. Produced by Martin Rushent, it climbed to Number Two in the UK charts; its parent album, helmed by Steve Severin of the Banshees, also went gold. More hits followed in 1982 with I Could Be Happy and See Those Eyes, plus the album Pinky Blue.

By Bite, in 1983, their sound was becoming more polished, with tracks produced by Mike Chapman and Tony Visconti. Clare’s future husband Stephen Lironi had joined the band and the singer’s look was also becoming more sophisticated, with a short haircut, little black dress and elbow-length gloves. Don’t Talk To Me About Love scaled the top 10 but three singles later, the group disbanded. “When that started backfiring I even thought it was ironic,” Clare says. “When you’re kids it’s all about experimenting. You’re bound to make mistakes. For us it was all a bit too public. I was just very influenced by people whose work I loved – that whole Audrey Hepburn thing, I loved Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

After the break-up of the band, Clare attempted a solo career but when her first single, Love Bomb, failed to ignite she was dropped by London Records. After another attempt, this time with multi-instrumentalist Lironi and the band Universal Love School, was met with indifference, she returned to an acting career that had begun in 1981 with the cult classic film Gregory’s Girl.

Future projects would include another Bill Forsyth film, Comfort and Joy, a TV adaptation of the Tom Sharpe novel Blott on the Landscape and the soap opera EastEnders. She also found a niche in comedy, playing Dave Lister’s girlfriend Kristine Kochanski in three series of Red Dwarf and the feminist musician Niamh Connolly in a fondly remembered episode of Father Ted.

Gregory’s Girl, however, remains with her to this day. Somewhat surprisingly she says she only saw it for the first time in its entirety over 30 years later at a screening at the BFI. “It was a very mixed audience,” she says. “My daughter [Ellie] and husband were there, and Gordon Sinclair and his kids. I got to have that experience with Ellie. It was just incredible, the amount of laughter in that cinema, people were laughing and laughing. It might not be entirely PC some of it, but it doesn’t matter, it’s just funny. Gordon’s central performance is so hilarious. I often thought for me at the time, although it didn’t seem to register, that the girls are playing football and in the science lab and the boys are baking cakes. There was quite a big role-reversal going on, it was incredibly empowering.”

Clare admits she hates watching herself on screen as she is so self-critical. “Lots of actors are like that,” she says. “I always think, ‘I could do that film much better’.” Not that it’s stopped her acting. “I’ve just been filming in Glencoe,” she reveals. “I had a few days in a Christmas film. All of us were talking about this very subject. I’ve never come across anyone in our business who’s said, ‘I enjoyed myself in that movie’. I’m going to start doing that. ‘Did you see how fabulous I was?’” she laughs.

One role she did “love” was playing a mum in the E4 comedy-drama Skins. “That was a great show to be involved in,” she says. “I loved the fact that in a lot of the writing the storylines were coming from the young people themselves and their experiences. I think there’s a morality to it. A lot of it’s quite shocking in places but there was always a pathos to it that I was impressed with. They also asked me to write some songs for it as well which was brilliant. You get drawn to like-minded people in this business, a lot of people you relate to they all find each other.”

Another more recent standout was the 2017 film Delirium, in which Clare played a woman on the edge. She says that in itself wasn’t a challenge. “Nobody goes through life without hitting a patch where you question where you are at,” she explains. “My character was being overlooked. I think a lot of women get to a certain age and feel overlooked. You’ve got to break away from that mindset. I wore beige and cream throughout the film, like a ghost. Mums often feel a bit taken advantage of a little bit. It’s so much fun to play people who are a little unhinged.”

Clare retains the same work ethic that was instilled in her from her working-class Glasgow childhood. “My dad worked in the fish market and mum was a hairdresser. If you wanted a nice life and nice things you worked for it. No-one was going to hand it to me on a plate. I think that is a really useful thing in life to understand that. It’s not unique to Glasgow but I think it is about if you want stuff you have to work for it.

“I’ve spent my life as a freelancer as such and you have to be quite self-disciplined to do that. I’ve survived for 40 years. When I was not working I would volunteer at a women’s refuge or a Mind charity shop. I always wanted to be involved in things, otherwise you sit at home as a performer thinking, ‘I’m never going to work again, my life is over’. When you go and do something meaningful as such you get a healthier perspective on it all.”

Alongside gigging, Clare has also returned to song writing. She hopes a new album might be completed “sooner rather than later”. “I’m just about to go to Scotland for a couple of months to do a play in Edinburgh. During the day I’ll have some time to finish off things. I’ve started writing things with people but there’s only so much you can fit in being a mum, you have to prioritise that.

“I don’t think anyone has been sitting around waiting for an album. It will come when it’s ready. I’m excited about it. In the Altered Images shows I’ve started doing new songs live. I’m hoping I’ll get round to recording them.”

In terms of their sound, she says they’re not dissimilar to her songs of old. “Just because I’ve always been one of the main writers, I’m always going to have a sound that I lean towards. It’s not a huge departure. I always want to make it interesting but more current, part of what’s going on in the world today. The songs have always reflected how I feel. One of the new songs is about how much I love to cry. People should not worry about it. They’re snapshots of who I am and where I’m at.

“People have asked me to write a book but I would never write a memoir. When I’m finished this project I’m going to call it Snapshot because there’s a little bit of my life in all of these songs.”

Altered Images play at Holmfirth Picturedrome on March 6.