“I’m still the same person I was back then.” Altered Images singer Clare Grogan talks to Northern Soul
If Channel 5’s Friday music documentaries are to be believed, the 80s was the best decade for music. Many from the class of ’81 to ’84 are particularly feted, and few more so than Clare Grogan. In 1981, she was everywhere: in the top 10 with her band Altered Images, on screen starring in cult movie Gregory’s Girl, and in print adorning the covers of Smash Hits and NME. During the intervening years, Grogan has acted in theatre as well as a diverse range of TV shows, including Father Ted, Red Dwarf and EastEnders. In the latter she played Ian Beale’s love interest (plucky woman).
Altered Images have long gone their separate ways but in recent years Grogan has performed their hits to great acclaim on the hugely successful Here & Now tours, where big musical acts from the 80s perform their biggest songs. Spurred on by the popularity of these shows (and the lull of lockdown), Grogan has now written and recorded her first new music in 37 years. The result is the album Mascara Streakz.
So, what inspired Grogan to record again after so much time?
“For me, lockdown presented a welcome chance to pause in life and think about where I was at with things,” she says. “I realised I felt incredibly compelled to write songs and be creative again. I recently read that Robert Smith from The Cure felt a need to make music again after a long time and I completely understood what he meant.
“I told my husband [music producer, Stephen Lironi] that this was how I wanted to use my time. We’d seen literally everything on Netflix, so it was exciting to start writing together again. My neighbour is Bernard Butler [former Suede guitarist] and we did some writing and one of my oldest friends is Robert Hodgens from The Bluebells, who I’d never written with, so we collaborated too. It all came together really quickly. For the past 20 years I’ve been performing under the Altered Images band name and there’s a pool of Glasgow-based musicians I’ve regularly used, and they also got involved.”
She continues: “When I’ve been performing shows in recent years, people have often asked if I’m going to do some new music. I suddenly realised that I really should. I wanted to be that person again that writes and creates and comes up with a vision so that’s what I did. I was also aware that I needed to bring something new to future gigs and all those loyal audiences that keep coming out to see me. The constant support has been incredibly rewarding on so many levels, so I owe them. It’s payback time though, after 37 years, I haven’t exactly been rushing with a new album.”
“It just grew organically as I started dabbling with ideas,” Grogan says. “Being at home with my 16-year-old daughter, Ellie, also helped. I started thinking about what I was doing when I was 16 and it certainly wasn’t being trapped at home with my parents like Ellie has been through the pandemic.
“I went back and listened to all the music I loved at her age like Human League, Simple Minds and Kraftwerk. I also listened to all the early Altered Images stuff. It took me to back to a place that sparked one song idea after another.”
This reflection on youthful pursuits has clearly influenced the themes of the new album, as Grogan explains.
“It’s about going clubbing and what happens on a night out. The Glasgow nightclub scene was massive when I was a teenager, and it was always a big adventure finding ourselves through music. The challenge was to write it without the headspace of being 16-years-old. I discovered that I haven’t changed all that much and, essentially, I’m still the same person I was back then, and I quite like that. Like most people though, I’ve evolved and learned from my mistakes.”
Aside from being Scottish, Grogan and I have something else in common. We both have landmark birthdays coming up this year. For me, growing old disgracefully is the only way forward and I’ve never cared about what other people think about age or how you are expected to be or act. How would they know anyway? Age has always just been a number. However, with this particular birthday, even I have preconceptions of what it represents. Grogan admits to similar feelings but is also determined to do things her way.
“I refuse to be defined by an age,” she says. “In a way, the album is a reaction to that. I’m cool about it all though and not desperately trying to cling on to my youth. It all whizzes by so fast and I just want to enjoy every moment of life and keep doing what I’m doing for as long as I possibly can. I’m certainly not ready to slow down.”
Grogan has sage advice for anyone concerned with ageing. “Recognise that any limitations you think come with age are put there by yourself. I’ve always preferred acting my shoe size, not my age. There are more opportunities for older artists in entertainment and other walks of life now. Barriers seem to be breaking down and I want to be a part of that.”
“It’s a lovely thing to be involved with,” she confirms. “When they asked me to take part and perform the old songs, I honestly wondered how on earth I was going to be able to sing the hits I sang when I was 19 like Happy Birthday, yet here I am. I just decided not to over analyse things. The opportunity for all of us to sing our hit songs again and keep their legacy going is hugely flattering. It’s a lot of fun and always gets a great response.
“When I look out into the audience, I absolutely love witnessing people going back to a moment somewhere in their lives. It’s an amazing thing and I feel so privileged to be with them. It seems to go beyond nostalgia now. I thought it would be a one-off, but it’s gone on and on and the bubble shows no signs that it’s going to burst.’
It’s difficult to explain why the loyalty of audiences to songs from the 80s seems stronger than ever, although Grogan has one theory about their lasting appeal.
“Somebody recently said to me that its simply because the songs are just all really good so maybe that’s it? When I started singing the hits again 20 years ago, I can’t deny it was lucrative, but it also gave me a chance to revisit these songs and I realised I still loved them too. I really missed singing and the opportunity to be on a stage is still a wonderful thing, though if somebody told me when I first went on stage 40 years ago, that I’d still be doing it now, I’d have said they were fucking nuts.”
It seems that the tours are just as happy backstage with no sign of Cheryl Baker holding Toyah in a headlock or Nick Heyward and Howard Jones arm wrestling for top billing.
“It’s really friendly,” says Grogan. “Back in the 80s we were all so socially inept it was shyness that got in the way of all the acts being more communicative and friendly with one another. Now we’ve lived life, there’s less competition and we feel like we’re all in it together.”
Grogan’s focus is now on getting out to perform the new material and the release of the album, though an exact date for the latter remains unknown.
“There’s currently a worldwide shortage of vinyl. I’m in the queue, though I think Adele is slightly ahead of me for some reason,” she laughs. “It’s frustrating to have waited so long and then be caught up in this situation though, after 37 years, another two months won’t make much difference. It will be out this summer, though.”
In the meantime, there are selected dates to look forward to.
“The current shows will be a bit of old and new music. Many of them were initially planned for two years ago until you-know-what happened. I really don’t want to let tour promoters or audiences down, so these shows are scattered through March and April, but a more concise tour will happen in the autumn on the back of the new album.”
Altered Images play Manchester Academy on March 2, 2022. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Pre-order the new album Mascara Streakz here.
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Spotted in Manchester's Northern Quarter. (photo by RM) pic.twitter.com/FcFSbbvtZ9