Clarge Grogan: 'I looked at Siouxsie and thought, you don’t have to be a certain type of person to be on Top of the Pops'

With several weekends’ worth of 80s retro festivals in her diary over the next few months, Clare Grogan is full of the joys of summer. However, the Altered Images singer admits to some pre-tour jitters.
Altered Images' Clare Grogan. Picture: Let's Rock 2019Altered Images' Clare Grogan. Picture: Let's Rock 2019
Altered Images' Clare Grogan. Picture: Let's Rock 2019

“I haven’t been doing much performing this year, I’ve been doing quite a lot of writing and stuff, so I’m quite nervous,” she confides to The Yorkshire Post with a laugh as we talk ahead of her appearance at Let’s Rock Leeds on June 22.

Grogan is nevertheless heartened to note the cross-generational appeal of such festivals now extends way beyond mere nostalgia for a bygone era. “Looking out (from the stage), they have become more and more of a family affair,” she says. “You see different generations of people come together, which is really lovely.

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“The whole 80s thing, I can’t get over it, the revival has lasted longer than the decade. I’ll be honest, when I was first asked to get involved in this stuff I was thinking I’m really not sure if I can be bouncing about a stage in my forties singing Happy Birthday – and here I am in my sixties doing exactly that. I think the whole momentum of it has grown as well, to a certain extent – people just love 80s music, and even my daughter when she’s got her friends round there’s always a point in the evening that they’re playing Kim Wilde and Haircut 100.”

Later on in the year, Grogan will be out on the road again, performing Altered Images’ third album, Bite, in its entirety. The autumn tour was prompted by the success of a one-off concert in London to coincide with a 40th anniversary reissue of the album. “I never know what’s next in my life in every which direction,” she reflects, “but the whole Altered Images thing has been a bit of a constant for a while now. I think since I released my new album (Mascara Streakz, in 2022), it did what we hoped for but didn’t necessarily expect, which is lovely, it just keeps it all going.”

The impetus to make Mascara Streakz happened during lockdown as a way of whiling away the time following the closure of a stage production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park in which she was appearing in Edinburgh in March 2020.

“Over the years I had written for other people and myself to a certain extent, I just love playing around with songs and ideas, and I was so disappointed when we went into lockdown because I was doing my first theatre play in seven years. I’d kind of moved hell and high water to make it all happen, and then we opened on the Saturday and we closed on the Monday and I went home and I think like everybody, we all thought this will last a month and then we can all get back to it but of course it didn’t.

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“Once it dawned on me that this was maybe going to be an extended period in my life, I just felt compelled to do something creative with it. I know that might sound a bit corny, but the thing I noticed how much I missed during lockdown was singing and that took me by surprise. My husband, Stephen Lironi, was in the band back in the Bite era and he’s a really talented person who has not been involved in the music business for years but I guess I had him pinned down, I cornered him and I said, let’s just see what happens. It started without any intention or big plan and then when we got some songs together I played them to my friend Simon Watson, who managed Belinda Carlisle and the Human League and he manages me now and he said ‘I can get you a deal on these, Clare’, so I was like, please do.”

Clare Grogan. Picture: Steve UllathorneClare Grogan. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Clare Grogan. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

The album included contributions from musician friends Bernard Butler and Bobby Bluebell, and was also due to feature Johnny McElhone of Texas. “Bernard literally lives around the corner from me, I’m doing some writing with him right now,” Grogan says. “And I’ve known Johnny for years. In the end he had a new Texas album that was coming out and it was getting complicated, so we decided it might be better to do it where we weren’t pressurised for time because at that point I had a deadline for my album coming out and we couldn’t make the timing work. But I’ve known Johnny all my adult life, I’ve sung with Texas and that’s been great fun.”

The record successfully updated Altered Images’ sound for a modern audience – something that Grogan purposefully set out to do. “I almost treated it like some kind of performance art project,” she says. “I know that sounds really crazy but I thought, what would Altered Images be now? So that was part of my thought process and also I’d been lots of the the Rewinds and Let’s Rock shows, they’ve been so kind to me and really supportive, and all the people that turn up at these little shows I play, the interesting places like Holmfirth and Hebden Bridge, and I thought I just need to do something as a thank you to people who keep turning up. It just felt rude not to. There was no big plan attached to it, the plan developed as it went along and it was a great fun, but it’s a lot of work. When you don’t have the big machine behind you, you’ve got to be really energised and focused to pull it off on any level. It was great, I learnt a lot about everything – social media in particular.”

Grogan believes her return to the creative fray won’t stop there, saying that another Altered Images album is “definitely” possible. “After the first one came out and it struck a chord with people, I was quite keen to really get back on board and go, let’s do another one​​​​​​​, then I thought, let’s not rush this​​​​​​​,” she says. “I got a bit carried away and actually I thought I need to respond to Mascara Streakz ​​​​​​​and it’s going to take me a couple of years to work out, maybe a few more, what that response is.

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“I think the thing with the album was I was living at home with my daughter Ellie ​​​​​​​who was just turning the age that I was when I joined Altered Images​​​​​​​ and it became an interesting thought to me, I just couldn’t get over the fact ​​​​​​​this poor kid was stuck at home with her parents but feeling a lot of the things that I felt when I was her age. It was really interesting and good fun and of course we had to get her involved because ​​​​​​​we have a tiny wee home studio upstairs that’s next door to her bedroom, so Stephen and I would be in there and she’d be shouting, ‘Would you keep the noise down, please!’”

It’s now 45 years since Grogan formed Altered Images in Glasgow with Gerard McInulty, Michael Anderson, Tony McDaid and Johnny McElhone. Back then, the quintet were all members of the Siouxsie and the Banshees fanclub and within a year they found themselves supporting the Banshees on a national tour. “It’s just incredible when I look back,” Grogan says. “I went from being a huge Siouxsie fan, she really spoke to me as a young girl – I looked at her and thought, you don’t have to be a certain type of person to be on Top of the Pops. Her and Poly Styrene and Debbie Harry and The Slits, I thought, I want to be one of those girls.

“We were fans, we sent one of our demos to Billy Chainsaw, he ran their fanclub and he passed it on to Siouxsie for us and she was like, ‘Yeah, I like it, come on, you can open’ and it was amazing.”

She remembers the Banshees’ then guitarist John McGeoch as “amazing”, adding: “He really created a whole sound that was just fabulous.”

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Grogan clearly remains an avid fan of Siouxsie Sioux, saying that last year she saw one of her comeback shows in London. “It was emotional,” she says. “I hadn’t seen her play live for a long time and my God, I’ve never been in a room where that atmosphere was was the crazy the anticipation just before she came onstage. I love the fact that she’s doing it on her own terms and in her own way, she does it really well and she’s absolutely worked for that place. She’s got that real streak of knowing who she is and what she can demand and I think it’s a great position to be in.”

Steve Severin produced most of Altered Images’ debut album, Happy Birthday, with the exception of the title track, which was helmed by Martin Rushent. Grogan says she has recently been listening to the master tapes of the album recently ahead of a reissue and was struck by its mixture of lyrical darkness and poppy melodies.

“It’s funny,” she says, “I listening to a lot of the lyrics because they need clarification on some of the songs, I wrote the words and I couldn’t believe how dark they were I was definitely going through some mad teenage angst at that point – in fact somebody at the label said, ‘Did anybody ask if you were OK at this point, Clare?’

“But the thing about Altered Images was we wanted to be successful. I think we were ambitious without even realising what ambition was. It was like a naivety where we thougth if we’re going to do this we want to get to the biggest audience we can. So maybe we thought, are we limiting ourselves by being ​​​​​​​so alternative? That first album, apart from Happy Birthday, the tracks are really dark​​​​​​​ and actually I love them​​​​​​​. It’s funny going back, it’s almost like having an out-of-body experience. They’re really good, they’re really strong ​​​​​​​but...our first single was Dead Popstars and that didn’t go anywhere for a number of reasons ​​​​​​​and we thought our goal is we want to be on Top of the Pops, we want to get the chance to tour America, so maybe we have to (change). But I don’t know, it’s really hard to say, I think we were just experimenting.”

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In the same year that the Happy Birthday single reached number two in the charts – 1981 – the film Gregory’s Girl, in which Grogan starred alongside John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn, was also released to widespread acclaim. The singer, now 62, recognises that the the film’s success also helped her band in America. She explains: “Gregory’s Girl was shown alongside Chariots of Fire and then it found its own audience, it just gained momentum and the Samuel Goldwyn Company took it to America and I went with it to promote it with Gordon, and I think in a way that double whammy – the film and the band – helped each other. Well, actually I think the film helped Altered Images in America because I was doing the equivalent of the Good Morning America shows talking about the film and stuff, so I got the chance to slip in a mention about the band, naturally.”

In the UK, however, Grogan had not really sought to captialise on the film’s popularity. She recalls: “I remember being one day being at home and my mum calling me downstairs and saying that Simon, who was our A&R guy, was on the phone. He said, ‘Clare, our press people have just told me that ​​​​​​​you’re in a film that’s been nominated for a Bafta​​​​​​​’ and I was like, yeah, and he went ‘I’m just wondering why you’ve never mentioned this to me​​​​​​​ before’. I didn’t like to show off. It was so overwhelming, all of it.”

Grogan would go on to again work with Bill Forsyth, the director of Gregory’s Girl, ​​​​​​​on his next film, Comfort and Joy. ​​​​​​​She remembers: “Bill made such a big impact on my young life​​​​​​​. I think he saw something in me that I hadn’t necessarily recognised in myself​​​​​​​. I was in the Scottish Youth Theatre ​​​​​​​and I really wanted to be a lead singer and a film star​​​​​​​ but I had literally no idea how I was going to go about it. Then the summer I left school I got signed to a major label ​​​​​​​and made Gregory’s Girl and I will never understand how or why that happened, but I’m really glad it did.

“Bill was a really steadying (influence), he made me laugh at myself quite a lot because it was quite intense at times. He was just a very cool guy.”

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Eight months after the release of Happy Birthday, their second album Pinky Blue brought the band even greater chart success. Grogan says: “It was really crazy because we were having hits not just in the UK but in Europe and Japan and Australia​​​​​​​. Literally, we had this dream and it came true​​​​​​​ and that was extraordinary, but I think we really pushed ourselves to the limit​​​​​​​. It was almost as though we felt the chance would suddenly be taken away from us​​​​​​​ so we almost did too much too soon​​​​​​​, we were just so determined to try to hang onto it​​​​​​​, but by trying to hang on to it we kind of lost sight of what it was we were trying to hang onto​​​​​​​.”

Their third album, Bite, which came out in 1983 featured a more sophisticated sound sculpted by Tony Visconti and Mike Chapman, with Grogan’s black-dress-and-pearls look modelled on Audrey Hepburn.

“How amazing is that for those two incredible people to produce different songs,” Grogan says now. “Half of it was done with Tony and the other half done with Mike and I am so thrilled to this day that I had that opportunity in life.

“We really wanted to leave behind the cute thing. The cute thing was because we were all into Japanese culture in that Pinky Blue phase, so it was influenced by that, and then we were into our twenties, we were really young and experimenting in public. When Stephen joined the band I think he was responsible for taking us in a different direction but we were really willing and ready to go with him. There was almost like a dance influence in some of the songs as well, Giorgio Moroder and also the whole Parallel Lines, which is to this day one of my favourite albums ever, it was fantastic pop music with an edge.”

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Despite the top 10 success of the single Don’t Talk to Me About Love, the band fractured later that year. Grogan attempted a solo career but only one single, Love Bomb, was actually released before London Records shelved the album Trash Mad. Grogan says the tapes have languished “in some dark cupboard somewhere, long forgotten about” at the label ever since. “I think maybe one day we will come across and I’ll have a listen and see what I think,” she says. “I had Tom Verlaine playing guitar, I had Stephen involved, I had Mark Kamins who produced Madonna. I had relaly great people working on it, I think to myself it couldn’t have been that bad.”

Alongside Altered Images’ renaissance, Grogan has endeavoured to keep acting. Among her work in recent years was The Wee Man, Delirium and My Old School with Alan Cumming, which won a Scottish Bafta. She also played “an absolute b***h of a producer” in the radio drama Geezer Bird. “It was set in the 90s and it’s all about that ladette culture and just how ridiculous a lot of that was,” she says.

“It’s weird,” she adds, “because I was in an acting role just before the pandemic and then since the pandemic I’ve just been doing lots of music. It goes in every direction for me, I just go with it as it comes along.”

Altered Images play at Let’s Rock Leeds on Saturday June 22.