Clare Grogan, Scottish actress and singer with Altered Images, chats with Kevin Cooper about the 80s revival, singing Happy Birthday on the tube, the new all female line up of Altered Images and appearing at The Flashback Festival at The Thoresby Estate.

Clare Grogan is a Scottish actress and singer, best known as being the lead singer of the 1980s new wave music group Altered Images and for supporting roles in the 1981 film Gregory’s Girl and the science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf as the first incarnation of Kristine Kochanski.

While working as a waitress at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Glasgow, she was spotted by film director Bill Forsyth. This led to her breakthrough acting role in 1981’s Gregory’s Girl.

In 1984, she played Charlotte in Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy. She has also had a recurring role playing Dave Lister’s would-be love-interest, Kristine Kochanski, in series 1, 2 and 6 of the TV show Red Dwarf.

Grogan developed her singing career as the lead singer of Altered Images, originally a five-piece band that included Johnny McElhone (later of the Scottish rock band Texas). It became a four piece band with the departure of two members and the addition of Stephen Lironi, who played both guitar and drums. The band had a string of hits in the early 1980s, including Happy Birthday, Don’t Talk to Me About Love, I Could Be Happy and See Those Eyes. The group split up after the release of their third album, Bite (1983).

She later formed Universal Love School in 1989 with Lironi, performing a series of gigs around the UK. However, it was short-lived. In 2002, Grogan performed as Altered Images on the Here And Now Tour which featured other famous acts from the 1980s.

Whilst getting ready for the festival season, she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Hi Clare how are you?

I’m good thank you Kevin how are you?

I’m very well thank you. I am currently making the most of the decent weather (laughter).

(Laughter) I know what you mean, but we really shouldn’t complain.

I don’t like saying this but no doubt we will see the rain once the festival season gets going (laughter).

Yes, you are most probably right but that won’t stop us having a good time will it?

Certainly not, not at all. Before we move on let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all it’s my pleasure. Thank you for asking me.

And just how is life treating you today?

Life is treating me okay at the moment thank you. On the whole I am having a very nice time, thanks for asking.

You are currently preparing for the festival season. Do you enjoy playing the larger festivals during the summer?

Absolutely. For me to be playing the Flashback Festival at The Thoresby Estate up there in Nottinghamshire will be such a joy and one which I never expected would happen to me. If you had told me back when I was in my twenties that I would still be doing this when I was in my fifties I would have simply thought ‘hey, that’s a bit weird’ (laughter). However, as a matter of fact it doesn’t feel weird. To me it actually feels right and that is what is so interesting about it in many ways. I would have to put that down to the audiences, and to those who bring their kids along to the festivals; I think that is lovely. I now feel a strong emotional connection to the audiences, probably more so than I did when I was much younger.

Without wanting to put you under any pressure whatsoever, I am looking at the line-up for Sunday 20th August when you will be performing and it really is a strong line-up. Also playing are The Human League, The Village People, Heather Small, Nik Kershaw and Doctor And The Medics. It really is going to be a great day out.

It is, it really is. What I find interesting is that the so called ‘80s revival’ has now actually lasted longer than the decade itself (laughter). Therefore it now has to be seen as being far more than just a revival; the whole movement has once again got a life of its own. It’s totally amazing that we are all once again getting to play abroad and new doors are being opened for us all which I find so funny. It really is incredible.

Why do you think that the 80s tours and festivals are so popular?

It’s funny that you should ask me that. At one of the Flashback Festivals I recently overheard one of the artists, a certain Mr Tony Hadley (laughter), being interviewed backstage and the journalist asked him why he thought that the ‘80s revival’ had kept going like this. He simply replied “because the songs are really great” (laughter). I thought about it for a while, smiled to myself and thought ‘yes that’s right, the songs are really great’ (laughter). Who knows, maybe it really is as simple as that, I honestly don’t know. The whole 80s thing is no longer a revival, it has an identity and momentum all of its own. It really is great for us all to be given an opportunity to do it all over again.

However, I have to say that I never take that for granted, I really don’t. I have no idea just how long it is going to last. I keep on thinking that the bubble is going to burst, but thankfully it hasn’t as yet. So whenever I play at these festivals I go out onto the stage and treat every show as if it could be my last (laughter). Personally I have got nothing hinging on these shows apart from a huge overwhelming desire to entertain people. There is something lovely about that because on one level it takes the pressure off me a little bit but I really do want people to hear me, I really do.

Putting you on the spot, is there anyone who you are particularly looking forward to seeing perform?

I have to be honest with you and admit that I always enjoy seeing The Human League perform. Having said that though, the whole day has such a great line-up. However, I must say that I don’t always stay after my set because we are playing shows all through the summer which means that sometimes you get the chance to stay behind and watch the other artists perform whilst other times you have other commitments but this time I promise you that I will be hanging around backstage with a bottle of Tequila listening to The Human League (laughter).

If you want to have a good time then all that you have to do is avoid The Doctor (laughter).

Yes I know, I have already been warned about The Doctor (laughter). However, I am sure that despite The Doctor it is going to be a really good weekend (laughter).

I have been told that the current Altered Images line-up is all female. Is that correct?

(Laughter) who’s been gossiping (laughter). Well yes, that’s correct, the current line-up of the band is now an all-girl affair. I still use a house band for the indoor gigs but for the festivals I now use an all-girl band. They are a group of girls that I know who are all from Glasgow and who I really do love working with. Let’s just say that it is my all-girl incarnation of Altered Images (laughter).

What can we expect from Altered Images?

We will be playing all of the hits so it will be like taking a peep into all of the different stages of the career of Altered Images. We will be playing some of the more punk sounding songs that we recorded when I was being influenced quite heavily by Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie And The Banshees. I was really influenced by her that was until I got to an age where I really did want to be either Diana Ross or Siouxsie Sioux but then I realised that Diana Ross might be a challenge too far (laughter). Siouxsie was someone who I really did admire and someone who wasn’t a typical girl. I really did identify with that and I think that a lot of girls around that time also identified with that feeling of not fitting in to what was expected of you.

I always felt that way and I still do feel that as strongly now as I did back then. So it will be fun to do that and then do a little catalogue of the songs from the three albums we did and then I will throw in a couple of songs that I personally like. You will see that the girls that I am using are all extremely talented musicians and we just love being out there on stage entertaining people and I think that the audiences can feel that.

When you became a mum, did that change your outlook on the music business?

Yes I think that it did but in a positive way. My daughter is only twelve so she missed all of the ten years of madness (laughter). As she got a little older she began to get more curious about my past and my music. In 1994 I married Stephen Lironi who had also been in Altered Images with me so she knew that both of her parents had been in this band together and she had this natural curiosity about it. So one day I decided to show her some stuff of the band on YouTube and she thought that it was hilarious (laughter). I actually did feel a little embarrassed by it all but fortunately she loved it. I suppose that I really enjoyed performing for her again. I told her that it didn’t matter who you are or what you are, if you have got the passion, the desire and the hard work ethic then just do it. Anything is possible.

Does it bother you when people refer to you as a retro act?

No, being referred to as a retro act doesn’t bother me in the slightest. However, what does bother me, and I have to say that I think that this is a personal thing, is that when you get to a certain age, for example I was recently celebrating my birthday with family and friends and I got sent a card saying ’you’re not old, your vintage’ (laughter). That really did wind me up. It has never bothered me before but when you find yourself getting slightly more mature it does wind me up. I found myself saying “excuse me, I’m still young” (laughter). I think that there is a huge element of truth in the saying that you are only as old as you feel, but there is no getting away from the fact that we are all getting older (laughter). We simply can’t escape it but don’t send me a fucking birthday card that says ‘you are still looking fabulous even at fifty’ (laughter). You can all go and fuck off (laughter). Sorry, excuse my language (laughter).

So in answer to your question, being referred to as a retro act doesn’t bother me personally, but I can totally understand just why people get slightly offended by it. However, I do honestly feel that what we are currently doing as Altered Images is as relevant now as it was back then. Obviously there is quite a lot of nostalgia attached to it and I have to say that I feel that as well. The whole thing has got such a momentum that I feel as though it has almost moved on from being about the past. I think that it originally began as a celebration of everything that had gone before ‘back in the day’ but now it does actually feel more than that. And I don’t do every gig that I am asked to do, I could literally gig every day from the start of the year to the end of the year, but I won’t do that.

It simply doesn’t work for me because I am always busy working on other stuff. But I have to say that I have never been more in demand in terms of the music and actually, this time around, I am making money (laughter). We never made any money back in the day because we didn’t know how to (laughter). Whilst I personally feel that there is always a danger in labelling people this and that, you finally get to a point where it is what it is; you are either into it or you’re not and that’s it. I really don’t care (laughter).

If you take the time to listen to the songs then you will find that a lot of them are more relevant today than they were back in the day.

I always laugh and I do comment when I am out there onstage that some of the less obvious songs that I now get the opportunity to sing are songs that I wrote which are quite extreme in terms of love and all of the associated things with love. The funny thing is that I had written those songs before I had even had a boyfriend (laughter). I had not had any sexual experiences at all; it was all in my head. I suppose now that those songs have become a little more pertinent because I have had the life experience now.

Are there any thoughts on any new material?

To be honest I do think about it all of the time and I have to say that it will happen but for me the timing of it has to be just right. I feel that I am getting closer to it, I really am but as yet the timing just hasn’t been right. There are just so many things that I have to juggle in life both workwise and privately. Sometimes you can only do what you can do.

Thirty six years ago you wrote and recorded Happy Birthday. Did you at that time realise that it was something special that would stand the test of time?

I call it the song that keeps giving (laughter). It’s a funny one because it gets used all of the time around the world in commercials, movies and to be honest it has been an absolute gift of a song, it really has. However, I have to say that I recently went through a phrase where I was weary of singing it, but I am now over that. Usually whenever I am sitting on the tube, in a bar or out with my family someone will always come over to me and tell me that it’s their birthday and I will sing it for them (laughter). The problem is that everyone else in the vicinity thinks that I am simply off my head (laughter). Looking at it realistically I have got to rejoice in it because it has been so good to me.

Regarding the song standing the test of time, no I don’t think that we really did think that. What we felt at the time was that everything that we wrote was all quite disposable and in fact that was our intention. We were all at the time attending art school and we really were quite pretentious ‘moi’ people (laughter). We were all under the illusion that no pop song should be longer than three minutes and so we didn’t expect any of it to last. That was not what we were trying to create. We were trying to create a moment within a moment and that’s all and it has just grown from there. As I said earlier if someone had told me back then that I would still be doing this well into my fifties I would have thought ‘that is really odd’ (laughter).

However, I have to say that I no longer find it odd perhaps that is because I have evolved with the song. It doesn’t feel the same as it did back then, it feels kind of different. I keep trying to reinvent the song a little bit and as I say, I have grown up with it.

On the subject of all things odd, what were your first impressions of Top Of The Pops when you appeared on the show?

I can remember seeing the Bay City Rollers and a host of other artists getting ready to do their performances. I thought that it was really funny seeing the artists of the day walking around chatting to each other with heated rollers in their hair (laughter). I remember being sent along to the makeup room where the ladies did something really weird with my makeup. I left the room, went into the toilets and immediately washed it all off because it had totally freaked me out. I have to say that I did find the whole experience rather overwhelming. At that moment I thought that I had entered into a world that I really shouldn’t be a part of, nor did I know how to be a part of it all.

Rather than trying to fit in, what you see on Top Of The Pops is the real me, I just wanted to be me. I kind of admired my younger self for that and that for me is quite a difficult thing for me to say. What you have to remember is that back then I found myself under quite a lot of pressure to be someone who I simply didn’t view myself as. I think that was what probably made me quit the music industry in the end and stay away from it for so long because you end up losing your own sense of self. A big part of it is about pleasing people and I think that when I realised that I was being asked to do too much I just thought that I would rather not do this. I did not want to compromise myself on any one level.

It is very easy for you to get sucked into a lot of stuff but believe me, what a gorgeous experiment to have as a young person. I really do love the fact that I had the chance to live that life. The good thing was that I found out very early on that it didn’t necessarily suit me (laughter).

And all of that was happening at the same time as the movie Gregory’s Girl was rapidly becoming a world wide hit.

Yes it was, what a double whammy I was faced with (laughter). I was promoting the movie all around the world at exactly the same time that the band was taking off. Most of the time it felt like a bloody out of body experience (laughter). I learnt very quickly that I love performing and nothing will ever change that, I love singing and I love acting too. I really do love both things equally. I always say to people that I have never had a proper job and music is something that I intend to stick with because I really do feel passionate about it. I have absolutely no bitterness towards anything that didn’t quite go my way, I really don’t.

I think that thirty odd years on I am still getting to do this and it can’t all be down to luck (laughter). It’s just me, I’m really talented (hysterical laughter). Joking aside, I honestly do believe that it is all written in the stars.

If I had to push you, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

For me that would be getting to show my daughter that if you work hard enough you can achieve your dreams.

What was the first record that you bought?

That’s easy it was Rock On by David Essex.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

Please, please, please don’t hold this against me but it was the Bay City Rollers (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh gosh, if I was totally honest with you then I would have to say everything all of the time. I find it extremely difficult to listen to the last David Bowie album. It’s so weird that I can’t even talk about it, it really does get to me.

Clare on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great. You take care and I will see you at Flashback.

Thanks Kevin, you make sure that you come and find me backstage, I will even let you share my bottle of Tequila. Bye for now.