Graded on a Curve: Altered Images,
“Dead Pop Stars” b/w “Sentimental”

Celebrating Clare Grogan on her 59th birthday.Ed.

Altered Images are basically remembered today for being one part of the early-‘80s influx of the New Wave, one that never broke big in the States. Featuring the unique vocal talents of Clare Grogan, the group’s early material provides a very interesting collection of melodic yet appealingly edgy post-punk that should satisfy fans of the later-‘80s c86 movement, and by extension the partisans of ‘90s indie pop that was issued via labels like Slumberland. The best place to start with Altered Images is with their first effort “Dead Pop Stars” b/w “Sentimental,” a gem of a single that never got its due.

A band’s debut record can serve a variety of different functions. At the time of release these documents will reliably stand as a tangible marker of achievement for the musicians involved, indicating that they’d transcended the realm of the practice space and low-to-no paying local live gigs to actually produce something permanent.

So many records have been issued over the years that the steady flow of bands announcing their existence with yet another 45, EP, or album can frankly not seem anything even remotely like a big deal, but the reality is that only a percentage of groups have what it takes to make it beyond the initial stages of formation to deliver something concrete, and only a portion of those actually possess the collective inspiration to deliver music that can withstand the test of time. Yes, the debut record delivers permanence (“We did it!”), but it’s far from a given that what’s contained in those grooves will cut through the haze of subsequent activity to attain the stature of the truly lasting.

The debut record also serves as a calling card for the bands that produce them, combining with a healthy impatience from the participants, who’ve surely practiced those songs dozens of times and are eager to unveil fresh material as a springboard of legitimacy for further activity. Hopefully the releases that follow will reveal a rewarding progression of ideas and a rise in quality. Indeed, very often the music that’s produced brings a level of refinement and assurance and with this an increase in polish and professionalism.

When that happens, the debut record can serve a very different function for the listener. Those that came to love a band through their more sophisticated later work will often look upon the first release as embryonic or a mere shadow of what was to come, and sometimes they even consider these initial efforts to be false starts on the way to eventual greatness.

However, those who identify sophistication as a far too common endeavor towards some form of pop success will consistently prefer the debut records of bands, finding properties in those offerings that are either highly submerged or completely absent on later outings. Sometimes it’s just a level of excitement or energy that’s missing, and it’s also true that an increase in confidence or ability doesn’t always portend a satisfying artistic trajectory.

Just as often the first release from a band is simply part of an initial period of productivity, a succession of records that lead to a turning point, either good or bad (and sometimes ugly) for the musicians concerned. For instance, the discography of Altered Images provides both a highly pleasurable and undersung debut 45 and evidence of a very productive, if quite brief, first phase.

Altered Images was an early-‘80s post-punk/new wave band that called Scotland home, a group most notable in capsule histories of the era for featuring the distinctive abilities of vocalist Clare Grogan. Largely due to the championing of Brit DJ John Peel and the assistance of Siouxsie and the Banshees who gave them an opening spot on their 1980 tour after being exposed to their demo tape, the group engaged in a fitful climb to prominence, an ascent that peaked with a run as UK hit makers. And then the bottom fell out before the decade had even reached the halfway point.

That might sound like a familiar and unexceptional story, but shedding a spotlight upon the band’s early work makes it clear that Altered Images possessed a very strong if ultimately fleeting handle on the melodic post-punk strains of the period. If they smoothed themselves out rather quickly and to far lesser returns, that doesn’t mean the handful of worthwhile documents comprising that scrappy first phase should be dismissed as the efforts of young group merely working through the pangs of creative gestation.

To the contrary, right out of the starting gate Altered Images displayed a level of confidence and focus that is rather striking in retrospect. In addition to Grogan, the band featured the dual guitars of Gerard “Caesar” McNulty and Tony McDaid, the bass of Johnny McElhone, and the drums of Michael “Tich” Anderson. In an era where post-punk/new wave acts were bailing on traditional instrumentation for the cutting edge (and soon to be quite dated) qualities of new technology (drum machines, sequencers, Casio keyboards etc), Altered Images emerged with a lineup that was pretty classic in orientation, if far from any kind of throwback.

And if consistently melodic in intent, they were also capable of being quite heavy. This aspect of their sound was in ample evidence on “Dead Pop Stars” b/w “Sentimental,” their first single issued in March of 1981 by Epic. The a-side climbed to #67 on the UK pop chart, under normal circumstances an admirable placement for a debut, but apparently substantial commercial expectations were attached to the group, and its mild success was seen as a disappointment.

Part of the reasoning behind its lack of breakout success concerned the subject matter indicative in the title “Dead Pop Stars”, which hit the racks a little too soon after the death of John Lennon and was seen by many as being in poor taste. The reality is that the song, essentially a Warholian rumination on the often very short window of fame, predates Lennon’s tragic demise. In fact, “Dead Pop Stars” was performed as part of Altered Images’ first Peel Session in October of 1980 (Lennon was shot in December of that year).

Upon listening to “Dead Pop Stars” however, it becomes apparent that all the hoohah over bad taste might just be somewhat overplayed; as its chunky and slightly ominous atmosphere unwinds, what’s revealed is that the song might’ve been just a wee bit too raucous for massive sales figures. The bass is assertive and troubling, the drumming restless but driving, and the guitars thick with aggressiveness that was directly linked to the uncivilized spirit of punk.

While “Dead Pop Stars”’ vibe of the non-rudimentary placed it solidly in the progression of post-punk, it’s lack of polish and politeness likely limited it appeal for the UK masses, with many listeners having had their fill of the dishevelment of punk rock. But there was also the voice of Grogan to consider. What eventually became endearing might’ve came on a little (or a lot) too strong on this first outing.

While she was not without precedent, being loosely in the then young tradition of the great Poly Styrene (of the crucial X-Ray Spex, don’tcha know), Grogan was largely defined in the pop sphere by attributes of difference. Far from a trad chanteuse, she instead oozed a precociousness that surely led to many kneejerk reactions that she didn’t belong in front of a microphone.

How wrong. Yes, Grogan was capable of squeaking and ranting ala Styrene (therefore getting under the skin of those who want their femme singers safe and/or alluring), but she also displayed a confidence as a frontwoman that was similar to sturdy coolness of Debbie Harry while effectively sounding very little like the Blondie vocalist. Instead, Grogan’s strength as a singer was comparable in intent to contemporaneous artists like Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio and the B-52’s Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, additionally pointing forward to the idiosyncratic pop talents of Cyndi Lauper.

What’s great about “Dead Pop Stars” is that it’s much more legitimately connected to punk principles than any of the examples mentioned in the previous paragraph (with the exception of early Blondie and Poly of course). And what’s also great about this debut single is its flip side “Sentimental,” an exceptionally conceived slice of ragged melodicism that’s sure to get fans of the decade’s indie pop into a foamy lather of appreciation.

The strong production of the single was handled by Banshee’s bassist Steve Severin, who also assumed knob duties on their very fine follow up “A Day’s Wait” b/w “Who Cares?” which was released in May of ’81, a single that notably failed to chart. Severin was also in charge for all but one track on their breakthrough full length Happy Birthday, issued in September of the same year and containing a #2 smash in the title track. Altered Images had finally arrived at the doorway of their historical renown.

“Happy Birthday” was produced by Martin Rushent, and along with the departure of guitarist McNulty (replaced by Jim McKinven) it was reflective of a nagging normalcy setting in for Altered Images. Happy Birthday was a fine record, but its widespread success proved to be a turning point; the Rushent produced Pinky Blue from ’82 was an exercise in pop refinement that while still lively was largely a disappointment; instead of a band working in spirited equality they evolved into essentially a vehicle for Grogan, a situation that was quite a different animal from the specialness of “Dead Pop Stars.”

Pinky Blue did result in three big UK hits, but the even more artistically divergent Bite from ’83, while still a commercial success found Altered Images’ chart potential subsiding to the fickleness of the marketplace. McKinven and original member Anderson also left before the sessions, part of a shuffling lineup that’s never a good sign; unsurprisingly, they broke up later that year.

Altered Images might be defined by their short reign of British pop stardom, but if some enterprising label would bother to compile both of their terrific Peel Sessions (to this writer’s knowledge never given a legit issue) with the first two singles and maybe even some of that elusive demo tape (if it even exists anymore), it would go far in clarifying that Altered Images was far more than just a flash in the new wave pan. With “Dead Pop Stars” b/w “Sentimental” they emerged with a debut record that sounds as great today as it did in the early months of 1981.


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