NME Interview 19th September 1981


Poltergeists or pipsqueaks?
Chris Bohn gets that frivolous feeling with the merry cast of Altered Images.

If it`s Tuesday it must be Glasgow. Always suckers for an emotional occasion, your travel correspondents have booked an overnight whistlestop on a round trip ticket to catch Altered Images' first hometown concert in eight months.
And if it's Glasgow it might mean trouble - or so the promoters at the Mayfair ballroom would have it, going by the steps they've taken to prevent it.
Evidently, they're unaware of the difference between the socially acceptable fresh-faced pop groups that make up the sound of young Scotland today and the traditional stubbly rock brawlers, like Alex Harvey and Frankie Miller, of the past. Just a glance at their respective audiences should have convinced them of changed attitudes - even the punkier elements of Altered Images' youthful following appear more cute than threatening.
Though on the surface the Mayfair's precautions aren't that far removed from those at any dancehall mecca around Britain, a surly nervousness and expectancy emanates from the security staff, which has the place bristling with an unnecessary tension. However, they gracefully remain in the shadows right up until the opening chords of Altered Images' set sends joyful ripples of movement through the crowd.
Grossly misinterpreting the swells and surges as an attempted stage invasion, three squat bouncers stuffed into white shirts and black bow ties get there first and stay there for most of the concert, thereby completely obscuring the group from their fans. Though they appear acutely embarrassed, they obstinately refuse to budge, meaning we can only catch glimpses of tiny Clare's upraised wrists or an exasperated grin after a particularly energetic leap.
Finally, after tricky between song negotiations, they're convinced of the audience's good nature and reluctantly leave the stage to the group.
"Don't worry," Clare fires at their departing backs "I've got my brownie badge in crowd control."
For the last few numbers at least their fans are allowed to delight in Clare's dippily unpredictable dancing that is the physical expression of Altered Images' poltergeist pop. The gloriously disciplined dual guitar melodies and rigorously outlined rhythmic borders give them the leeway to the playful, mischievous and occasionally malevolent without them lapsing into coy cutesiness.
Their spriteliness makes them difficult to pin down, especially as it's a reflection of their character. When we meet the following morning, they're chatty, batty and bashful, happier reeling off good-natured jibing anecdotes about each other than talking about anything too specific.
Altered Images are five -Clare, Jim, John, Tony and Tich. Except Tich hasn't arrived yet.
"He'll tell you something profound when he gets here," smiles Clare.
In the meantime tell me something about Clare.
John jumps in with a wicked grin: "We did this gig in Brussels and Clare's skirt bust . . ."
"Yes," recalls Clare nonchalantly. "It fell down. The man who was doing the lights turned them off to save my embarrassment, and then I fell down this two foot hole so he had to turn them on again for them to fish me out."
Undeterred John persists: "Have you ever seen her run? Great action. She can do it now, so you can take a picture."
Clare sings and writes the lyrics. Her words follow similar flights of fancy as her voice, which can soar from a pipsqueak to a war whoop in the space of a few notes. Isolated from her highly idiosyncratic singing, her songs, as innocently sinister as nursery rhymes, don't really mean a lot, but when they're sung they're capable of charming, mystifying and sometimes moving. 'Leave Me Alone' for instance, portrays her as both hurt and bitter, and most importantly tough enough to survive it.
So far, Altered Images have released three singles and, most, recently, their first LP 'Happy Birthday', all of which should've made greater leaps in the charts than they have done. Because of their surprising commercial failure to date, Clare is still better known as Gregory's Girl (or at least one of them) than an Altered Image. That's not the way she planned it, just the way it turned out.
Whatever, she is great in the film as the last link in a chain out to grab gawky schoolboy Gregory. Like most of the cast she'd had no previous acting experience; in fact her discovery is real Hollywood rags to riches material.
"When I was at school I used to work at this restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory," says Clare, "and one day the director Bill Forsyth came in for a meal. It was Halloween and I was dressed up as a Latin American dancer, and he just said to me: 'I'm making this film and do you want to be in it?' I just went: 'Ooh, what kind of film?' and thought, 'Oh god, we've got a right one here'. And didn't think any more of it.
"Then one day he phoned the Spaghetti Factory to get my number and he told me he was starting to make the film and did I want to be in it? I just thought he was a crank - a nice crank-and that's really about it."
Corny, but true. When it was all over the amateur cast returned to their former activities-Clare to Altered Images, Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) to his electrician's job. What, no TV offers?
"No. Gordon has only just got an Equity card, and that's only because he did this really awful Summer show for six weeks. He used to go on and tell everybody about Gregory Girl, then show a clip of it and say There's me in Gregory's Girl, you know, and now he's finally got a provisional Equity card."
Maybe Altered Images is an easier way to making a living.
Forming Altered Images wasn't part of some Grand Design.
Tony: "Johnny, Tich and me were all friends at school. We're the main part of the band. And then we met Clare, got this other guitarist Caesar who left and Jim joined. We were just doing it for fun then, but when we began rehearsing it got more serious. We never got any money out of it."
Clare: "I really don't think we thought about it that much when we first started." John: 'We don't take the music too seriously, but on the other hand we don't treat it as though it were one big joke. By the way we did a John Peel session just recently and played 'Song Sung Blue'. Clare: "it was funny because we didn't know the song or anything and weren't quite sure what to do with it. It came out six minutes long!"
John: "That's the fun side to us, the others are very serious."
Clare: "Yes, very serious. Very, VERY SERIOUS."
Before it gets too serious tell me something about Jim.
Jim contributes to those tautly sprung guitar melodies. He's older, not necessarily wiser, but a little less easily impressed than
the rest of the group. However, he's not without problems. As Clare kindly points out. "He gets really heavy growth."
Jim: "I only shaved two hours ago!"
"He wants to get electrolysised and thinks he won't have to shave again for 20 years." "It would be worth it, believe me. It's not heavy, that's what gets me- it's not a lot, it just comes quickly," he despairs.
From the outside it looks like Altered Images have had an easy ride. They deny this, claiming to have played around the country while still at school, having to travel back the next morning, but nevertheless their detractors still claim they haven't paid their dues.
They have been blessed with a few breaks though, the most notable of which was probably being invited to support Siouxsie And The Banshees after the latter had heard their demo. They also got to play and impress a Futurama festival and recorded a John Peel session. By this time they were drawing attention and the A&R men gathered to see them open for Margo Random at the Nashville. They went on and blew it badly.
"It was probably the best thing that happened to us," says John," because it gave us the breathing space to prepare ourselves. Six months later we were better prepared and ready to start again. So it didn't really happen so fast."
They signed to CBS/Epic and suddenly what was once seen as guileless pop charm was now interpreted as gross gullibility. Critics mourned another good group going down, basing their impressions on some rather condescending and out-dated notion that pop groups were incapable of looking after themselves once committed to a major. While it's true that many are either seduced by the glittering prizes or, more commonly, lack the will to fight for what they want, other have proved signing can be done with dignity. Siouxsie And The Banshees, PiL, Dexys, to name a few, have all got what they wanted.
But because Altered Images appeared to be more fragile, people assumed them to be too dumb to survive the pressure. Yet, if they'd signed with an independent like Postcard, the same music would've been considered a bright and breezy subversion of conventional methods. While context is obviously important, it doesn't or shouldn't after the shape of the music.
"People who criticise us for signing just don't know the facts," contests Jim. "How can they criticise us for working at CBS when they haven't read our contract or heard us at meetings? Everybody writes about us as though they were there."
John: "All the reviews now say we're under CBS's thumb. They think we're a lovey-dovey record company band. Well, it just makes us laugh because they forget to mention that we get what we ask for, like Steve Severin to produce our first two singles and LP, which they didn't want."
Tony: "We were given all those offers and CBS gave us the best one. We got what we wanted and all that. We had the choice of signing to an independent or signing to CBS so we signed with CBS. People just think about Britain, but you have to see things in terms of the whole world."
Clare, laughing: "Tony sees himself as a world conqueror."
A S TONY IS so quiet, why don't you tell me something about him.
Tony is the other half of the guitar team, he dresses as if for a day on the golf course, and is the best looking of the group. "He's our philosopher," says Clare.
"ff you ask him all about the meaning of life he'll tell you what it is," grins John. "He's got a book about Hare Krishna. It's really bad, by the way, a lot of rubbish, but he believes it
all ... gullible, gullible," he finishes shaking his head in disbelief.
"Not all of it," argues Tony meekly, "some of it is quite good . . ."
Clare jumps to his defence: "Just because he's got an open mind . . ."
John: "So have I - I read it!"
"Yes", responds Tony sagely, "but you can read the thing with a closed mind."
Now you know how he won his reputation.
Altered Images play the game dangerously close, but the emphasis is still on the word 'play'. Having chosen to go with CBS and having proven their ability to survive the decision, they should now be judged solely on the strength on what they've decided since.
Their own artwork has always been distinctive and attractive, and Steve Severin's production of the 'Happy Birthday' LP is much better than his personal critics would have you believe. By anchoring their sound in the deep lower regions he highlights the trebly guitars and the trill of Clare's singing without making it all sound awfully twee.
Still, for some his name in the credits only reinforced the superficial and woefully inadequate comparisons between the Banshees and Altered Images.
"We're just good friends," says one. "Okay, so we did get Steve to produce our records," says Clare, "but we didn't know anyone else at the time. We liked Steve and that was that."
The Images' precarious balancing act is carried through to their eagerness to talk to the teenzines. It's all good fun - as well being good exposure.
John: "We did it for a laugh and anyway nobody else seemed to do it. Besides we wanted Tony to be a star because he's a good Jackie pin up."
Fresh from her starring role in Gregory's Girl, Clare and the boys are featured in an upcoming Photo Love story.
"We thought it would be a little bit of fun, but they take it all so seriously," says Jim. "They thought it was a work of art or something and started shouting at you if you didn't stand right."
Hard life isn't it? Actually, yes, a photo story means posing for some 400 pictures.
Clare: "And they had a knack of positioning your head so that your neck was breaking and in every picture you had to have your mouth open for the speech bubble to come out of. We all had lockjaw at the end!
"It was awful. It was silly, it was so funny because we were meant to bring about five changes of clothes, but nobody told us, so we had to keep swapping clothes."
Jim: "Which is why I was wearing a dressl" Had their press confrontations brought them into contact with the Daily Star, who're never slow to pick up on the sex potential in a group with a girl singer?
"Well get Tich to do that one!"
So tell me something about Tich. What is there to tell about Tich? He plays drums, but his greater claim to fame is probably his uncanny resemblance to a Muppet. Ever cheerful, his face is hidden beneath an unruly carrot-coloured thatch of hair, which only just manages to draw attention away from his large blue boots, held together by various straps and zips.
"He's the group's new romantic," says Clare.
All these groups that go to make up the Glasgow scene . . oops! faux pas. "There is no Scottish scene," Jim points out. "When people talk about the Scottish scene they're only talking about five groups, while there's a million people in Glasgow alone."
John: "Aye, it must be sickening if you're a small group in Bristol reading all about Scottish groups when they don't get anything about themselves."
The Pop Group derivatives haven't done too badly, but point taken.
"That's what happened in Scotland for a long time. For six or seven years nothing and then suddenly, after they got through Liverpool and Manchester they got to Scotland."
Jim: "I think it's more important what you listen to than where you come from . . ."
So where did pop begin for Altered Images? Jim: "With 'Rock And Roll Part Two', definitely. I can remember when 1 first got my radio, switching it on and there it was." John: "I've been listening back to the'60s for early Rolling Stones, the '50s and then relating it all back to the '70s and now. The worrying thing is that the early '70s thing is starting to creep back, not the Gary Glitter thing, but Genesis-type bands on the one side and all this Bay City Rollers type stuff of the other -the 'Stars On 45' idea of making a hit single: here are three steps how to do it."
Which is why groups like Altered Images and Orange Juice (for all their wilful amateurism) are needed, if only to bring a sense of balance back to pop-quality and frivolity make for a winning combination. Altered Images begin to confound expectations even in their coming from Glasgow.
Like the literate Simple Minds and the defunct Josef K, they're the complete antithesis of the caricatured Glaswegian as represented by the Alex Harveys or the Jimmy Boyles who perpetrated the myths of Glasgow being one seething slum of violence and alcoholism.
"The problem is," says John "if you come into Glasgow by car or train you see all the bad bits first, whereas in London they're better hidden and you have to go looking for them."
The groups mentioned and Bill Forsyth's two films That Sinking Feeling and Gregory's Girl should help paint a more accurate picture, one that embraces both the ugliness of the city and the humour of its youth.
Clare: "The saddest thing was that when Gregory's Girl opened here it ran for three weeks and that was it. But once it went down to London and everybody started saying how wonderful it was, it came back."
Jim: "Your hometown is always the last place to recognize you."
Quick! We`re running out of time-tell me something about John.
As John does most of the talking, the rest get very little chance to say anything about him, but what he says about the rest is quite revealing. John plays bass, is perky and enjoys gently reminding the others of their more embarrassing moments. What else?
"When 1 get bigger I'd like to do film soundtracks," he says.
"Aye, about six foot two," replies Clare.
See whatyou mean. Despite Glasgow's ' dearth of concerts and venues, their homecoming is only about two thirds full they drew more at Heaven the other week - "and 75 per cent of them are our friends," says Clare.
How come Altered Images' pop isn't more popular? Maybe they're not pushy enough. A day later Tony dreamily poses the question.
"The thing to think is if we weren't in this group would we go and see us rather than a film?"
He ponders indecisively for a moment. "I think we would, but then I'm biased."