Altered Images: “Happy Birthday”
I first heard this band in 1985, a few years after it broke up. It had a candle-brief moment, releasing three albums between 1981 and 1983, so when I became aware of it it was already history, but a history that seemed more ancient than chronologically older periods of history. I had to drive to record stores all around Albany—and there were many at that time, scrubby head-shop places downtown, and sometimes two or three chain branches in each of the area’s seemingly countless malls—to find Altered Images albums, which were by then moldering in cut-out bins. By the mid-eighties, there was a mad rush to dump music from the early part of the decade into cut-out bins. The records in these bins looked sad, with the corners of the sleeves split and furred, the cellophane wrap peeling away from the surgical slit in the side. The prices, $2.99, $1.99, were insulting.
I loved Altered Images. I went on to listen to the band for many years, and all the while I was deeply embarrassed by it. I still am. If I wanted to play Altered Images albums now, as I thought of doing just the other day, I would only play them while wearing headphones. I would be afraid that our neighbors might hear.
Why should I be embarrassed by this band, which has over time been reinstated into the pantheon of classic (albeit minor) post-punk and new wave bands? (I now have all three of its albums on compact disc, and each has a heap of b-sides and remixes as bonus tracks.) I’m certainly carrying around the baggage of the era when I first heard it, when I was a freshman in college and there were strict parameters about what one could and couldn’t like—the Smiths and R.E.M., or nothing. Back then I tried to listen to Altered Images in a public way, and people would come into my dorm room and say, “That sounds like a mouse.” The vocalist, Clare Grogan, sang in a voice that wasn’t traditionally pretty or vampy or theatrical, as most pop singing voices are. Sometimes it was yippy and shouty, and sometimes it was croony and helium-high. She sang like she had a mouth full of sugar, and it was often hard to distinguish one word from another. Her voice has been described as “childlike,” which I guess it is, and why would a grown person want to listen to a singing child? Similarly childlike voices were hitting it big around the same time. Clare Grogan wasn’t doing anything too far removed from Cyndi Lauper (who buried a more classically competent talent under a gratingly “kooky” style) or even early Madonna (who learned to use her voice over the course of the next decade). But Clare’s voice wasn’t campy or kittenish. It was just … weird. Another problem: By the time I was in college, the music probably sounded dated, too aggressively poppy and effervescent and unserious when everyone had moved on to moody and atmospheric, the Cocteau Twins and Echo and the Bunnymen. And so my relationship to the band was dictated by the way it was discarded. I was loyal enough to keep on liking Altered Images, but not strong enough to ignore the way that I felt cowed and queasy listening to it.
My embarrassed feelings about Altered Images might also have been dictated by the band’s complicated relationship to its own existence. The group couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be. It started out doing a kind of angular post-punk thing; its first album, which was produced by Steve Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees, sounded frail and a little spooky. Only one of the songs on that album, “Happy Birthday,” the title song, truly stood out. It became a hit single and the band made its second album in the same bouncy, poppy vein. Pinky Blue, from which “I Could Be Happy” was the lead single, is, I would argue, a masterpiece, every song a full on, up-tempo sugar rush, and not that far, energy-wise, from what New Order singles would sound like a few years later. (The album, like the “Happy Birthday” single, was produced by Martin Rushent, who also produced the Buzzcocks, the Go-Go’s, and other bands I liked—he just signed on to produce the Pipettes’ sophomore album.)
Everyone in Altered Images was handsome and young—Clare Grogan was still in her teens. I don’t know what the boys’ sexuality was, but from pictures I detected—I wanted to detect—something gayish about them. They were clean-cut in little round glasses and sometimes posed with their arms around each other. I had a crush on one, Jim McKinven (who wears a tan jacket in the “Happy Birthday” video, and sits to the left of Clare at the birthday table). The boys in the band were also talented musicians. Appearing on Top of the Pops, they played precisely and confidently. (I guess they weren’t actually playing, but they were at least going through the motions with gusto.) And there was Clare, tiny but all leg, flouncing around the stage, kick-dancing, sticking her tongue out at the camera—what most people I knew growing up would have called “making a fool out of yourself.” Reviews of Pinky Blue were apparently bad. In recent interviews Clare Grogan has said that they were all art school types, trying on different personas for fun, and they got sick of the childlike thing. Maybe. But I can imagine some record company executive steering them toward something more sexy and New Romantic. So they changed again. Their third and last album, Bite, was swanky, with disco strings and shrill backing vocals. Clare’s voice was still childlike and hiccuppy, though, and nothing quite fit together. (That doesn’t mean the record’s not a pleasure to listen to.)
This not fitting together might be what those of us who held a torch for the band over the years were responding to—perhaps we felt that we were being dragged into adulthood when we hadn’t entirely figured out, or fully enjoyed, our childhoods. It might also be at the root of my embarrassment. It takes a kind of bravery to admit that you might want to go back to childhood (or the idealized version Altered Images offered) for retreat or simply for the pleasure of it, to a time when your birthday was the high point of your year, when you felt that it would be a pretty great thing to go outside wearing a crazy hat.