Friday, 20 May 2011

Hazel O'Connor

As a kid, Toyah and Hazel O'Connor were my role models.

In my defence, there are reasons why I sometimes conflated the two in my young brain. Both Toyah and O'Connor were ex-art students and singers with a commercially diluted punk bent, and both were influenced by Bowie.

With hindsight we know Toyah's presence on our screens has been longer lasting - having enjoyed better luck than O'Connor, and Toyah has revelled in a successful stage career (the highlight being to star alongside Laurence Olivier).

But O'Connor has the edge as a recording artist.

A big break in the form of a lead part in Breaking Glass (1981) propelled O'Connor to almost instant stardom – but only for a while. In fact, O'Connor was set against Toyah for a role in the film. Toyah wasn't selected, and after some internal rearranging, O'Connor was chosen to be the lead. Toyah - already established as a result of appearing in Jubilee and Quadrophenia, wasn't the appropriate choice for a rock star on the rise.

It was O'Connor's time to shine.

The film charts a young punk star - Kate's rise to fame, and ponders the theme of fortune being a poisoned chalice. Kate - a young woman coming up against a formidable and manipulative record industry – was a plot that was to strangely mirror O'Connor's own career.

As a result of her uncommonly brutal and protracted disputes with her record company Albion, O'Connor didn't fully have the chance to develop artistically. Her legal grievances escalated over the years, and as they did so - in an age-conscious world, she grew older and less marketable.

The tedium of legal dealings - invariably and understandably ate into her creative fervour, and this is a shame because we'll never know how good she could have become.

She was persecuted. Signing her record contract when stressed and upset, she made a wrong move that was to have diminishing consequences. Having first taken legal advice (and she was sternly told the contract wasn't worth the paper it was written on) she made the mistake of ignoring this advice. Protracted skintness and a subsequent low moment, meant she signed along the dotted line.

In the ensuing years, what happened to O'Connor would have been enough to send anyone bitter. Whatever she earned was greedily taken back from her. Her label justified their behaviour by saying money should be clawed back to cover recording and touring expenses. This meant O'Connor worked extremely hard – almost to breaking point, and was left with nothing:

'I haven't got any money still. I'm not going to have any money for years, if ever. There were times when I thought if I wasn't naturally strong I might have done myself in...At one point I had writs arriving every week. Such bastards! How dare they treat me like this.'
O'Connor 1985

Will You is one of the best tracks of 1981 - which is praise indeed, because it was a particularly strong year for unusual and brave chart music. In a short space of time, and musically at least, she eclipsed Toyah. She was capable of innovation - producing lasting songs that were richer and texturally denser than Toyah's forgettable ditties.

But on the back of most of her singles - industry crimes against her aside, it remains questionable whether she had the raw talent to go the distance. She did though, have moments of undoubted accomplishment.

On balance, Will You is partly a stand-out song from her short career because it's unlike most of her others: it is very good indeed.

Will You has more than a smudge of Patti Smith in the vocals. As with If Only, this Patti Smith emulation is a credulous style choice, and perhaps she could have further developed this tonal quality. But just how good she could have been – or not - we shall never know.

Hazel O'Connor (born 16 May 1955, Coventry, England)

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