“Breaking Glass”: Hazel O’Connor’s true life story will tear your heart out

By on February 20, 2016

When the phone rang at the tiny independent English record label Albion Records sometime in late 1979, the receptionist who took the call was about half-way through her very first day on the job.

The call was for the owners of the label, but when she informed the callers — from a casting agency — that they were out to lunch at the time, they told her “We actually want to talk to Hazel O’Connor,” and you can probably imagine how surprised the receptionist was to hear them say that. She was Hazel O’Connor.

O’Connor — 25 years old at the time — remembers that she told the caller “I’m Hazel O’Connor,” but then they said, “Oh no, this one’s a singer.”

Around that same time, O’Connor had been reading a book called Bring Out the Magic in Your Mind, about the power of positive thinking, which encouraged the reader to will their dreams to life by turning it over in the their mind and concentrating on it, willing it to happen.

O’Connor’s dream was to make it as singer, and a songwriter, but she’d only written four songs at that point. Her brother — who was in a new wave band called the Flys — had been teaching her some of the basics of writing songs, and she’d mostly been hustling around London, hanging out with her brother (his band was playing supporting gigs with the Buzzcocks, who still featured Howard Devoto in their lineup).

She’d frequented the club scene, and had been going to see bands like the Specials, and the Clash, and the Rich Kids, featuring former Sex Pistols bassist Glenn Matlock and future Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, and was caught up in the restless spirit of the times, seeing them all starting to have a little success and wanting some of that for herself, so she began writing songs, and singing, something she’d already been doing for a few years by that point.

She demoed a handful of her first songs with her brother’s band backing her up, and Albion’s owners had thought there might be something in her future so they offered her a long-term recording contract but they didn’t give her much of a recording advance — in interviews she’s said they given her just £1, “just a quid,” — which certainly wasn’t enough to pay the rent, even back then, and she was pretty much penniless so the owners of Albion then offered her a two-week job as a “telephonist” while their regular girl was out on holiday.

Albion had only just launched earlier in the year and by that point had only released a few recordings by Ian Gomm, who was focusing on his solo career after having been a guitarist with pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz. Gomm was primarily working as a studio engineer and producer, having built his own recording studio, where besides himself he recorded the Stranglers, Alexis Korner, Peter Hammill (solo artist, and founding member of the progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator) and German rockers Amon Düül.

By the time Gomm’s recordings had come out on Albion, however, he’d already signed a new record deal for distribution in North America, joining his former bandmate Nick Lowe at Stiff Records’s U.S. imprint Stiff/Epic. Albion had only one other band to promote in 1979, called Pinpoint, and they were just starting out and a little desperate perhaps to find a way to land on the charts.

They’d even recorded a song of O’Connors, with two members of the Rich Kids, but she was embarrassed about it because she didn’t think it was one of her better songs and she thought friends in her music scene might think that’s what the rest of her songs were like. She was crestfallen, but it would probably have to be something pretty seriously fucked up to break her spirit, she’d been through so many misadventures by then.

Hazel O’Connor would later detail in her autobiography Breaking Glass Barefoot about how she’d run away from her family home in Coventry, Warwickshire, England, at the age of sixteen, after she’d gone a bit “loopy.” She’d planned to go to a college in Leamington Spa to study art but first she decided to take a trip with two of her friends to Morocco.

There, while in Marrakesh, she says she was raped, no doubt a horrific, traumatic event which she writes about in her memoir as responsible for changing the direction of her life. She rushed back to Casablanca, and she wanted to get out of Morocco as soon as possible, and so she accepted a lift from kind Canadian strangers who were heading to Spain, where she reconnected with her two English friends again, and together they returned home.

But, she just couldn’t get settled again, and after a few weeks at college, she was restless and needed to leave school. College administrators were understanding and supportive, and O’Connor took off again, hitchhiking and traveling to countries where she would settle again for a short time, working weird little odd jobs and adventures before getting restless and taking off again.

She spent some time in Ibiza, and went grape-picking in France, then crossed the Sahara desert and ended up working in West Africa, before heading north again, where she ended up making and selling clothes in Amsterdam, Holland, painting in an Amsterdam attic, even some modeling, all before getting homesick and returning to her family home again Coventry, where she made amends with her parents and tried, for a time, to get her life back on track again.

O’Connor writes in her autobiography that she had opened a little sewing shop and she was settling down again when someone broke into the store and stole all of her landlord’s stock from upstairs. It was her 18th birthday, and she was already feeling like fleeing again, and so she did, landing in London this time.

Somewhere along the way, she’d landed a job at a “stage” magazine, a job that apparently took her to major cities of the world, like Paris and Tokyo, where she says she did some go-go dancing, and eventually she ended up in Germany, where she writes that she landed her first professional singing gig, with an all-girl trio who sang and performed for for U.S. troops who were stationed there and elsewhere.

O’Connor also worked as a seamstress and made all of their costumes — before a GI stole them — and she also was performing in Beirut, Lebanon, where there was a bombing that rattled her nerves again.

She returned to London, where she fell in and out of love, had her heart broken and her nerves rattled a few more times, and she began hanging out in her brother’s music scene, thinking that she’d like to give music a try herself, which is how she ended up writing songs.

In 1975, O’Connor also made her film debut in a raunchy 43-minute “sex comedy” called Girls Come First, which was the second of a trilogy of movies about a character named Alan Street (played by John Hammill), a middle-aged struggling artist who is hired by a sex magazine’s publisher to paint erotic paintings of naked models. In the film, the artist moves into the publisher’s studio flat, where various mostly topless models throw themselves at him.

O’Connor was modeling at the time, and her agency sent her to audition for the movie because they wanted models who didn’t have a problem with being naked onscreen. She landed the part as one of the naked starlets, a blonde named “Claire,” and was billed in the credits as Hazel Glyn.

We’re not sure if the casting people who called Albion Records in order to track down O’Connor had seen Girls Come First, but regardless they had asked for her by name, and she’d been recommended to them by Andy Czezowski, who ran the Roxy punk club in London. They knew she was a singer, and she was told that the writer/director, Brian Gibson, had wanted her to come in and meet with the film’s casting people.

At the time, Gibson had just finished working on Blue Remembered Hills, the Dennis Potter film with Helen Mirren, Colin Welland and others, all playing children. She knew by reputation that he was an intense director, loved by his actors, and O’Connor was intrigued, still thinking that perhaps they were looking for interesting Londoners as background actors (or what was then called “extra” work), perhaps people who could sing.

She asked about the movie, and was told it a Rock Follies-type story about a boy singer who rises to fame in the punk rock world and then, subsequently, suffers a precipitous downfall, which certainly sounded promising to O’Connor — a story that wasn’t too original, having been covered in movies like ‘Stardust and the rock version of A Star Is Born, to name just a few — but she says she went to the audition, not really thinking that it would end up being much of anything more than a day’s work on another film, something to add to her C.V.

When Hazel O’Connor arrived at the audition at United Artists’s London offices, however, she learned that the people behind the film apparently weren’t fully convinced that they wanted to have a male singer at the center of their story, or a female, and she learned that Elvis Costello was already being considered for the lead role.

O’Connor — and by now remembering the book she’d read about positive thinking — psyched herself up for her meeting with the casting people by imagining that they would take one look at her and change their movie around, giving her the lead and also asking her to write the film’s songs.

Not only that, she daydreamed that she’d get to work with a producer of her own choosing — she dreamed that it would be David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, because she was such a huge fan of his work.

Then, she saw a friend of hers, English actress and singer Toyah Willcox, showing up for her own audition that same day, and O’Connor has said in interviews that her confidence was zapped at that point, thinking that she was facing pretty stiff competition for the lead role and she thought she might as well go back to work.

Instead, she set her mind right, and she re-focused again, using her newly-found power of positive thinking, thanks to Bring Out the Magic in Your Mind, to strive to achieve the goal she’d just set for herself.

She told the casting people about her life up to that point, running away at sixteen, joining a cabaret troupe at 19, her rape in Morocco, surviving the bombing in Beirut, all of it, and she argued with them that they really needed a girl singer in the lead. She told them they needed a better script to reflect how young people actually think and talk, and they also needed the kind of songs she could write for them, recorded with the producer of her choice, of course.

The casting people liked her moxy, and asked her to read a larger part, as a bass player, and she killed in the audition, and it should probably come to no surprise by now to anyone still reading this that she was given the lead part, Kate, with one of the other major parts going to Phil Daniels, who was fresh off his starring role as “Jimmy” in Quadrophenia, as her lover and manager Danny.

Smaller roles went to Jonathan Pryce, who has a brief but memorable role as Kate’s deaf junkie saxophone player, with the rest of the band including her two best friends Tony (Mark Wingett) and Dave (Gary Tibbs), on lead and bass guitar respectively.

Other roles went to Jon Finch, Jim Broadbent and other actors who have gone on to considerable success since 1980.

The story of Breaking Glass was re-written by Gibson for O’Connor — an original script by Rock Follies screenwriter Howard Schuman was jettisoned — based on anecdotes from her own life.

She was now presented as a gifted, unspoiled punk poet and performer (she plays keyboards in the film) who has excruciatingly slow rise to punk stardom before she sells out at her peak, which is followed by her swift plummet to the depths once again.

At one point, she shows up onstage with black lipstick and whiteface makeup and frizzed-out hair, looking something like a female Bowie superstar, even though she says the silver alien costume was inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

There were scenes with real skinheads cast as extras that depicted the rise of the National Front and police brutality:

Hazel O’Connor performs “Will You” on “Top of the Pops” in 1981

Not surprisingly, just as she’d dreamed it, O’Connor got to work with Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, on the soundtrack, writing all of the songs for it herself, most of them in a week or so. One of them, Will You,” had already been written by O’Connor after she became upset after reading about a man who was blown to pieces by an IRA bomb that had gone off in Barclay Square.

Just like the scene that takes place in the film, she sang it for him live while accompanied by a cassette recording she’d made of her playing the piano, and it was re-written into a straight love song.

Hazel O’Connor’s “Eighth Day” performed on “Top Of The Pops,” in 1980

Her song “Eighth Day,” was also inspired by an idea presented to her director Brian Gibson, who wanted O’Connor to write a song for a futuristic/ metropolis/robot scene he had in mind. O’Connor says she went to the bible and began reading in the book of Genesis and says that she realized “Jesus, we’re acting like we’re bloody living Gods all of us!,” and that’s how she came up with the lyric. (The US release of Breaking Glass ends after the song is performed).

Her song “Monsters in Disguise” was inspired by O’Connor’s reaction to prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s politics, in particular her desire to bring back capital punishment.

Breaking Glass — released by Paramount Pictures, and co-produced by Dodi Fayed, Princess Diana’s boyfriend at the time of her death — earned O’Connor a BAFTA nomination, and gave O’Connor a taste of instant stardom, but it also continued to be a difficult time. Along with the newfound fame came the distractions — nude photos from her youthful days began showing up in the pages of the UK’s Daily Star, which shocked and upset her mother back home.

By far the worst problems stemmed from the fact that her record company, Albion, became embroiled in contractual litigation with the U.S.-based record company who released the film’s soundtrack, A&M Records, who wanted to buy O’Connor out of her existing recording contract (the one she’d just signed before taking the temp receptionist gig), but Albion thought having O’Connor on their roster might be their own ticket to the bigtime and they weren’t in the mood to sell.

Albion’s owners ended up licensing O’Connor to A&M for a year, in order for her to tour the soundtrack album, and promote the movie. For her first series of shows, before her headlining shows, O’Connor opened for the Stranglers, and Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell would end up being O’Connors boyfriend for a short period before he was busted for possession of drugs (followed by some time imprisoned at HMP Pentonville).

O’Connor and her friend Toyah Willcox ended up singing with the Stranglers at London’s Rainbow Theatre, as well as providing backing vocals for Ian Dury. She also ended up on a headlining tour that featured a young band named Duran Duran as her opening band.

O’Connor writes in her memoir that: “They were penniless and couldn’t afford a hotel room each. So every night they would draw straws to see which one would get the one room they could afford. The rest of them would use it to shower then kip down in the Bedford van outside.”

Unfortunately for Hazel O’Connor, for many years after the release of Breaking Glass — which should have launched her to another level of her burgeoning singing career — she never saw any royalties from the film’s soundtrack sales, despite the fact that that A&M paid Albion monies that were due to her. For one reason or another — probably the shitty recording contract she had signed days before — the owners never passed any of her publishing royalties, this despite her soundtrack album selling hundreds of thousands of copies and going platinum in sales.

Read more about what has happened since 1980 in O’Connor’s autobiography, Breaking Glass Barefoot (2014). Here’s part of the description for the book:

“Hazel’s career has been a roller coaster ride ever since that has included fascinating friendships, and relationships with The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell, and Ultravox’s Midge Ure. Her career as both a musician and actress through the past thirty years has also involved encounters with David Bowie, Tony Visconti, Duran Duran, Jesse Birdsall and Neil Morrissey amongst others. Hazel was even driven around Ireland during her early career by a young Louis Walsh; played Boggle with Bob Geldof and taught Elton John to balance a spoon on the end of his nose! The press even described her as George Michael’s girlfriend! After a failed marriage where she lived in Los Angeles, Hazel now divides her time between Ireland and France whilst still delighting audiences and touring extensively throughout Europe. Breaking Glass Barefoot, her first, full autobiography captures all the ups and downs of a life of adventure and trauma, sadness and celebrity, which speak to anyone who has ever followed their heart.”

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.