Wherever Clare Grogan goes, people sing her signature song, the Altered Images 1981 hit Happy Birthday. “They don’t even know they’re doing it,” she laughs. “I’ll be on the Tube and the person beside me is humming ‘Happy birthday, happy birthday’. It makes me feel I’m still part of something.”
Grogan’s most recent birthday, in March, saw her turn 60. “I refuse to go there!” she declares. Her appearance belies the passing decades: a bright smile, easy laugh and air of twinkly-eyed mischief unchanged since her early days as a Smash Hits cover star. “I definitely have moments where I think, ‘What the f--- am I doing, getting all dressed up to go jumping around singing songs I wrote when I was a teenager!’”
Grogan’s life changed very fast when she was very young. She was working as a waitress aged 17 at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Glasgow, when she served the director Bill Forsyth. He was so charmed that he offered her the key role of the girl who wins the gormless hero’s heart in his new film, Gregory’s Girl. At the same time, Grogan’s band Altered Images had written a fan letter to Siouxsie and the Banshees, who responded by taking them on tour.
By 1981, the low-budget Scottish movie had become an award-winning worldwide hit, and Altered Images were scoring the first of a succession of hit singles, including I Could Be Happy and Don’t Talk to Me About Love from three Top 30 albums. The quintet (four male musicians with Grogan singing) concocted a feisty collision of jagged guitars and giddy melodies that seemed to chime perfectly with a colourful new strain of British pop.
“We became good pals with Spandau Ballet and Wham!” she says. “We were so obsessed with football in Altered Images, we had our own five-a-side team, and we’d challenge them to play at Bellahouston Sports Centre in Glasgow.” Gary Kemp became so infatuated with Grogan that she inspired Spandau’s biggest hit, True. “I used to joke that it was about me, but then when he wrote about it in his book [Kemp’s 2009 autobiography, I Know This Much], I was like, ‘Oh, this is all a bit embarrassing!’”
And then, almost as quickly, it was all over, the band breaking up in 1983. “It ended on a bit of a sour note,” she admits. “I really didn’t like the crazy attention that came with being that successful, that young. I became very thin-skinned. It’s such a male-dominated world. I was so insecure, I probably overcompensated by being a bit gallus,” she says, using the Scottish word for forceful boldness. “I don’t think I was ever really able to just be myself.”
The theme of women in music is a recurring one with Grogan. “There’s still not enough of us. I think things might have been different for Altered Images if there had been more women around,” she says. “I remember the excitement I would feel seeing a woman on Top of the Pops, whether it was Suzi Quatro or Karen Carpenter. I always thought – and I still do – that most women are more entertaining than men. The first person I really identified with was Poly Styrene [the late frontwoman for the punk band X-Ray Spex]. Oh my God! She was a riot. Unconventional girls like Siouxsie Sioux and Debbie Harry made me believe I could do this.”
Grogan becomes briefly teary-eyed when I asked if she had ever experienced the kind of sexism the MeToo movement has exposed. “It’s quite complex, and it’s really personal,” she says, and falls silent while composing herself. “Every woman I know has had some kind of experience of sexual harassment or worse. It’s so disappointing. I think it’s really important that people do vocalise this stuff, but in your own terms, and in your own time. I’m not saying anything other than I can’t imagine any woman has survived life in general without really difficult situations creeping in.”
Grogan was dropped by her record company after her first solo single, Love Bomb, failed to chart. “At 24, I was a has-been in some people’s eyes.” She went on working as an actress, with notable roles in Red Dwarf, EastEnders (as Ian Beale’s love interest, Ros, from 1997–8) and teen drama Skins. “My starting point was so successful, there was maybe only one way to go. And that’s not up! But if you’ve ever been in a band, you’ll never get over the absolute shocking need to perform.”
Grogan married her former bandmate, drummer and producer Stephen Lironi in 1994. They live in north London with their 17-year-old adopted daughter, Ellie. They own three restaurants (Bar Esteban in Crouch End, Escocesa in Stoke Newington and soon-to-open Maresco in Soho). But during the pandemic, with their restaurants closed, the couple wrote new songs together, with Ellie singing some backing vocals. “The thing I really missed was singing. It made me think, I’m not finished yet.”
Out next week, Mascara Streakz will be the first Altered Images album in 39 years. It features songwriting collaborations with Suede’s Bernard Butler, Bobby Bluebell of The Bluebells and former Altered Images bassist Johnny McElhone, with Grogan’s quirky voice instantly identifiable on a set of sparky, witty songs about a big night out. “Those crazy nights are a metaphor for life, the drama, the tears – somebody falls apart and somebody falls in love, the intensity of thinking, ‘This is a night that could change my life.’ I still have nights out a bit like that! But you always get to the other end.”
I first met Grogan in 1981, and over the years I’ve always been impressed by her radiantly upbeat spirit. “I am absolutely predisposed to happiness, but my God, everything has gotten in the way of that,” she says. “I’ve had extraordinarily difficult moments. But I just think, I’m going to deal with this, and everything’s going to be OK.”
As a teenager, Grogan was struck by a glass thrown by strangers in a bar fight that left her with a vicious facial scar. “It was a shocking thing, but I instantly thought, ‘I cannot let this get in my way.’ It’s caused me lots of problems over the years. I’ve had to have it reopened, because there was still glass in there, and I nearly lost my eyesight. But I don’t think you get to our age and not have to deal with quite a lot of s--t.
“I had really difficult times trying to become a mum [suffering multiple miscarriages and failed IVF procedures], Stephen has had cancer, my mum had a slow and painful death, my dad got dementia and passed away just before the pandemic. But I think most people who have been through hard times end up being really quite happy, because we know the true value of life. There’s no such thing as a perfect life, it’s all a bit messy – but as long as we’re taking care of each other, it’ll all be alright.”
Mascara Streakz will be released on Cooking Vinyl on August 26