Toyah and Hazel – electric ladies of the 80s

Mar 2020 Toyah and Hazel – electric ladies of the 80s

By Ian Woolley

On the eve of their first UK tour together for many years, we caught up with two true survivors of the punk era – Toyah Wilcox & Hazel O’Connor.

The latter recently underwent a knee operation so was recuperating at her home in the South of France where she splits her time between there and Ireland. We talked to both of them about their career which, for both, spans more than 40 years.

Born in Birmingham in 1958, Toyah Wilcox now regrets the rebellious stage she went through in her teens.

“I was the child from Hell and it’s always the person you most love that you take it out on. Today, I do really appreciate what they gave me but, at the time, I didn’t see it that way. I had physiotherapy to straighten my spine, at that time, so that wasn’t easy for me to live with as I was also dyslexic.

“Even when I went on to a private school for girls, I was very much the rebel. Any form of authority sort of had an adverse effect on me trying to conform. To me, I was neither a girl or boy … just different in my own body.

“I experimented with my hair, and by that time, I was beginning to make it as an actress.”

In fact, it was as an actress that the big break she needed came when in a BBC play called Glitter she was cast as a girl in a band looking to find fame on Top of The Pops. She co-wrote two songs for the play, Dream Maker and Floating Free, and from that, was offered more work.

“I packed my bags, went off to London and formed my own band Toyah”. In 1979, when I got the part of Monkey in Quadrophenia, I was quite ill at the time. Being nursed through the making of it was difficult, but I knew it was furthering my career… which it did, of course”.

In fact, writing songs and the acting side, would keep Toyah busy all her life. As lead singer of her band, with bright orange hair with pink tips, she was instantly recognisable to all who saw her perform. It was only a matter of time before success would find her – and it did, with the making of that film. Although unsigned at that time, their gigs were always packed and in her studio ‘Mayhem’, she would be creative with her music, recording her first band’s demos. Safari Records obliged and immediately found success with Victims of the Riddle.

After two years, the band had walked out on her but, by that time, she knew she could be a success in her own right. So, with a new band, they started 1981 with the EP Four From Toyah and It’s A Mystery the stand out track, which received the most airplay. Their platinum album Anthem just failed to make it No.1 but spawned more hit singles, including I Want To Be Free and Thunder In The Mountains.

Throughout the mid 80s though, Toyah went through some major changes of her own, personally, when she disbanded her old band. Marrying King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, they started working together on various projects, yet still pursuing their other stuff which is where they are today. “Robert and I have large chunks away from each other, which is probably one of the reasons our marriage has stood the test of time, but he’s mainly retired now. At home here in Worcestershire I rarely listen to music, and so it’s normally Robert that plays it in our house” she added. “I’m looking forward to the Electric Ladies tour in April with Hazel and our bands.”

In fact, Toyah and Hazel first met when they stood in for Stranglers front man Hugh Cornwall at London’s Rainbow Theatre when they were both using the studio Mayhem to do their own things. Hazel recalled: “Hugh was spending a little time at Her Majesty’s pleasure on drug-related charges, and they needed some fellow singers to stand in for them until he was released. I sang ‘Grip’ and ‘Hanging Around’, Toyah did a couple of their songs and then we both came together to sing backing vocals for Ian Dury on ‘Peaches’. I remember vividly Ian losing his hat mid song and was trying to unsuccessfully retrieve it while Toyah was doing this wild dance around it.” (By now, Hazel is in hysterics).

“It was so funny and so spontaneous. I also remember a young pre-Cure Robert Smith dancing in the wings, and playing his guitar at the gig wearing a chequered shirt. Not like the Goth image he was later prone to wear.”

Despite being a rebel like Toyah, Hazel had cause to lash out.

“I ran away from home at 16 and went on a solo journey to rediscover myself,” she volunteered.
I asked her what that was that like.

“I enroled in art school early as I had gone to Morocco in the summer holidays with my friend and her sister and while I was ther,e I was raped, which changed my thinking on life entirely. I was a changed person when I came back and thought that perhaps art college would heal the pain.”

Despite getting into Leamington Spa art college, she felt she didn’t fit in, and subsequently left shortly afterwards.

“I felt like a square peg in a round hole. At that time, I was rebelling against everything and everyone and so we hitchhiked our way to Ibiza and met some Dutch friends while we were there. They said that Amsterdam was this cool place, and after we had come back, being the rebels we were at the time, walked out of the college and went there.” For six months she got by, buying old clothes from the fleamarket and transforming them into flared trousers, as well as selling her paintings. She moved on to France grape-picking, before ending up in Paris. “When I thought my mother wouldn’t be cross anymore, I returned home to England with bright red hair and hippy clothes. I was a selfish, hedonistic 16-year-old”.

Despite joining a dance troupe in Japan and Beirut for a spell, and the break-up of her first real relationship, it was her brother who took her on her musical career. Being in his own band called The Flies, she went to see them support The Buzzcocks and it was there that she was amazed with the energy of the time.

“I was 21 and the world of music was changing. I realised you didn’t have to be a stereotyped beautiful woman to make it in that business. People like Polystyrene, Suzie Siouxsie (of the Banshees) and indeed Toyah were making it. I asked my brother to show me how to write songs. He told me to listen to the people ‘who wrote songs that you like and admire’. For me, that was groups like Small Faces and The Kinks writing perfect crafted pop songs. All my songs are in that form because my brother taught me that way.”

In 1980, Hazel got a little record deal with Albion Records (for £1!) and started recording in Toyah’s studio at the time when she went for an audition to be an extra in a new film called Breaking Glass – this year being the 40th anniversary.

Hazel recalled: “I was amazed that I got the main part because Toyah was already there”.

Starring alongside future stars like Jim Broadbent, Phil Daniels and Jonathan Pryce, she wrote the entire soundtrack for the film. “After writing the soundtrack, the director needed a love song and asked me if I had written any. There was only one, my first…a song called Will You.”

Although the final song for the film Eighth Day proved successful in the charts, it was Will You which got her worldwide recognition – and heartache. The guest session musician was saxophonist Wesley Magoogan who sued Hazel, which resulted in a 13-year litigation battle ending, finally, in 1993 with Wesley accepting what she had offered in the first place.

“In the end, we were friends before the court’s decision and recorded stuff together again which was great. Unfortunately, Wesley had a serious accident with his fingers which resulted in him not being able to play the sax anymore. Fortunately, he has other musical strengths which he can rely on to continue in the music business.

But the album went on to become double platinum. Despite being sued by everybody and not being allowed to work at that time, she began doing a few jazz gigs as a trio called the Bluja Project.
Hazel also began doing acoustic shows with Cormac whom she met in Dublin, and got rave reviews with their show Beyond Breaking Glass. When Hazel’s mum got poorly about 10 years ago, she decided to base herself near Coventry where she lived and reformed her girl band in The Project with Sarah Fisher and Claire Hirst. Last year their latest album Hallelujah Moments was released and Hazel is hoping to be reunited with Toyah.

Hazel is now in her French home in the South of France when she’s not working – a home she virtually built herself.

“It lies across a bridge with gates keeping the world out. It was just basically four walls and not much else. Most of the work on it was done by myself and I’ve become a dab hand at building a straight wall,” she said.

What would she say to someone starting out in the music business today?

“Do it because you want to do it – not for fame and money” replied Hazel.

Being both big David Bowie fans (Hazel having once cut his hair!), you can wager there will be a Bowie number in their repertoire on stage.
I asked her if there was an artist she would love to perform with.

“Ed Sheeran, for sure, but would he want to perform with an old 80s bird like me?” she replied.

I said an acoustic sequel to Will You would be a sure fire winner for both their sets of fans.
After the tour ends, what next for Hazel O’Connor?

“A classical album of Breaking Glass tunes with a full orchestra. I’d really like to do that! Oh and appear on Strictly!” replied Hazel excitedly.
I reminded her that her knee operation might initially scupper that dream and only time will tell: but one thing is for sure – these two wild girls of the 80s are having a gas right now, especially with their combined electricity on stage!

The Electric Ladies of the 80s tour starts on February 15.