Breaking Glass is the 1980 British cult movie that depicts feisty and subversive New-Wave singer Kate (played by real-life musician Hazel O’Connor, who also wrote all the music for the film) and her band Breaking Glass’s journey to fame. The story itself is very much the generic tale of the rise and fall of a rock star and features many of the stereotypes inherent to the rock ‘n’ roll genre including disastrous early gigs, wayward drummers, junkie musicians and Machiavellian music industry gurus. What makes Breaking Glass notable though is its focus on the post-punk era and the politics that surrounded this fascinating time in music history.
The social and political circumstances of the era pervade the film and provide a catalyst for both the music and the events that unfold. Filmed in 1979 and set at the beginning of the 1980s, the Britain that the film depicts reflects much of the era’s social and economic turmoil. As a camera shot pans over the London skyline, a radio announcer declares that the unemployment rate is the highest since the war. The country, and much of the world, was in the grips of a recession at the time and public morale was extremely low. Strikes were commonplace, and the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’ had seen tens of thousands of public sector workers go on strike whilst miners’ strikes continued into the 1980s. Police harassment was common, as experienced by the band members who are harangued when trying to rehearse. Most worryingly of all, support for the far right and neo-Nazis was on the rise, as is apparent in the Notting Hill race riot scene. In short, Britain at the turn of the decade was a deeply troubled society.
The band’s edgy confrontational music is a reaction to all this. Kate sings about political issues in songs such as “Blackman” “Big Brother”, “Writing on the Wall” and “Monsters in Disguise.” She develops her own robot moves, perhaps an imitation of the robot masses as she sees them, and wears garish clown-like make-up which is in direct contrast to the usual preened and glossy image of a typical female pop star.
Kate’s music and persona very much fits into the post-punk mold of the time. By 1980, punk was arguably already dead, but the anti-establishment ideals and crude politicization that punk had spawned remained in the public consciousness. This, combined with the widespread adoption of the synth and the musical experimentation of the early 1980s, gave birth to the genre known as new wave. Characterized by choppy guitars, clipped vocals, political lyrics and an experimental sensibility, new wave and other post-punk subgenres were very much the polar opposite of the bland disco (exemplified by the Suzie Sapphire record that is periodically mentioned) that was topping the charts at the time.
It is the political nature of Kate’s brand of new wave that makes this more than your average rock ‘n’ roll chronicle. Precisely because she is part of the post-punk scene and so politically motivated, her eventual downfall is rendered more significant. Throughout the film, Kate articulates an intense dislike for the society that she sees as controlling and almost-authoritarian. When Danny admits to helping record companies manipulate the charts by buying up multiple Suzie Sapphire records, she calls it sick. Early on, she dismisses the idea of getting a record contract, and her general sneer at anyone who attempts to exert any kind of control over her leaves you in no doubt about her distrust of those in power.
That distrust is also apparent in Kate’s lyrics. Her song, ‘Big Brother’, expresses a fear of an Orwellian world where the individual is insignificant and controlled by a greater political power: “But the people in control don’t care for you / say you’re just a robot with a job to do / and when your use is exhausted / they’ll be rid of you / as soon as look at you / go to the back of the queue. “
After she witnesses the killing of a young man during the race riots, the record company seizes on Kate’s weakened emotional state and gradually wears her down. Her songs are censored, her look is commercialised and her autonomy relinquished as they ply her with drugs.
In her last performance; silver-clad and drugged-up by the label bosses, Kate resembles the robot she had once imitated. Mirroring the opening scene on the tube train, Kate sees people mimicking her look everywhere. She has become a music industry clone and her music is the bland commercial radio fodder she once despised. As a victim of the controlling powers she once sung about, her politics and individualism have been crushed. Earlier in the film, the year 1984 had been announced to be approaching, clearly likening British society to George Orwell’s novel and dystopian vision.
Breaking Glass is far from a flawless film. It doesn’t seem wholly plausible, for example, that the race riot incident alone would be enough to break Kate. For such a fiery strong character, it seems jarring that her ultimate submission to the heinous music industry executives should come about so easily. Likewise, the demonisation of the music industry seems a little excessive sometimes. After all, many post-punk and new wave bands did successfully operate within the mainstream music industry. Talking Heads, The Human League and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, to name a few, all enjoyed much chart success.
Story flourishes aside; Breaking Glass is definitely a film that captures much of the essence of an exhilarating time in music history. The excitement and originality of the music that came out of the post-punk era really shines through. The soundtrack itself has stood the test of time and, like much new wave, still sounds relatively fresh today. Moreover, the film successfully depicts the social and political turbulence of the times. Taken as a snapshot of a troubled society and the edgy raw counter-culture borne as a result, the film is a worthy one and truly deserving of its cult status.
Lopes, Paul D. ‘Innovation and Diversity in the Popular Music Industry, 1969 – 1990’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 57, No. 1, (Feb 1992), 56 – 71
Monk, Claire, ‘Hey you, standing there, what you got to stare at?’ The post-punk female in British film: Breaking Glass’, 1970s British Culture conference, University of Portsmouth, 1-3 July 200
Monaghan, Angela, ‘UK Recession in 1980: What was it like’, The Daily Telegraph, 23/01/2009
Reynolds, Simon, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978 – 1984 (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), Introduction (xiv – xvi), Prologue (xv11 – xxx)