The Au Pairs are one of those bands that aren’t imprinted on the mainstream but are regularly hailed by artists as an influence (and DJs David Holmes and Richard Fearless hold a candle for them). They split in 1982 but have been name-dropped by a number of scenes – riot grrrl, US alt. rock (starting with The Pixies) gay and lesbian punks and more recently by punk funk revivalists – Chicks on Speed, DFA, Rapture, etc. Even Greil Marcus would haul them back from the dead: there is a chapter on them in his rock crit epic In The Fascist Bathroom. The Au Pairs are more than a little mythic.
They came from Birmingham (three of them anyway) and in total there were four Au Pairs: Lesley Woods (vocals and guitars) Jane Munro (bass), Pete Hammond (drums) and Paul Foad (guitar and vocals). They lasted for just three years and recorded two studio LPs: ‘Playing With A Different Sex’ (which got to number 10 in the LP charts) and ‘Sense and Sensuality’. ‘Playing’ is a classic album or near miss (in the Hornby and MOJO sense of things) and ‘Sense’ is patchy but when it shines the record comes on like a comet.
They are one of those bands that found their own sound – something that shifts between forms – from reggae (upbeat dance rather than experimental dub) to punk and funk. They are often close to ESG with tough, bare drums and raw, physical bass. Jane says she never heard ESG but was influenced by Tina Weymouth. Hammond says they were into punk, dub and The JBs. When The Au Pairs rock it’s not completely cock-less (like contemporaries The Raincoats) but part of the punk attempt to reinvent the sound. Hammond recalls: “The main criteria was not to use any kind of cliché in the sense we never had a guitar solo as such – that was deemed too masturbatory. And anytime we did have a break it was a rhythm break.”
One reason The Au Pairs sound distinctive is that singer Lesley Woods had a unique and astonishing voice. At the beginning of their career on self-financed single ‘You’ (a high-speed fuck-off stomper) she’s tres punk and a bit mannered, but as the band progressed she became as beautiful and potent a singer as Tim Buckley or KD Laing. But she always maintained a punk-era voice with a modern (for 1979) energy – a fury. Writing in the NME in 1980 Paul Morley said Lesley’s voice: “can be everything – solemn, intense, shattered, exuberant, vulnerable.” It’s her voice, he writes, that lifts The Au Pairs “into greatness.”
The Au Pairs ‘period’ of 1979 to 1982 is the time of The Specials, ‘London Calling’, ‘Metal Box’, Rock Against Racism, Rock Against Sexism, skinhead beatings, Trident, SPG, riots in Bristol, the peace camp at Greenham Common, the first Gay Pride march in London, Grandmaster Flash and the birth of hip-hop. And also the deaths of Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis and Bob Marley. It’s a period when youth was said to be allied to anger rather than apathy or culture/materialism. And the ‘gig’ was the flashpoint for information and meaning – there were leaflets given out at gigs, stabbings at gigs, riots at gigs. The Au Pairs kept an ‘open’ backstage to meet people at gigs.
“You could have a go at attacking issues through music because there were places to play for bands,” says Hammond. He describes a now vanished scene with venues across the country – places like Birmingham University where 4,000 would come and see Au Pairs and other bands. “We’d play to thousands of people, mainly students and all in anger – all wanting to do something. That’s gone now.” The audience was political says Hammond and they were looking for bands to reflect and amplify their energies. He recently lectured to media students at Birmingham University. “I was telling them about the venues and the bands. And I realised most of it had been arranged by students. And I looked at the modern students in front of me (with credit cards and dreams of getting jobs in IT). ‘You people are not the same’‚ I told them. ‘You’re not prepared to fight for anything’.”
The politics of The Au Pairs were informed, there was nothing casual about their stances. They wrote about treatment of women prisoners in Ireland, domestic violence, American imperialism and murder, heroin, gender, feminism. “We used to constantly debate issues,” Hammond says.
The band’s politics are often described as ‘feminist’. Most of the feeling and fire in The Au Pairs comes from gender politics (although Jane says they also liked a bit of speed and dope). Sometimes they sound like The Clash meets a Camden Council women’s group (and this is also what makes them wonderful). ‘Diet’ is their masterpiece of feminist rock (and rock full stop) – the song is one long verse that follows a housewife through her routine (“Press the button on the tumble dryer, Nothing could send her higher”) and works its way to a vicious, barbed finale where Lesley repeatedly howls “She needs to be tranquillised”. At the beginning of ‘Diet’ is a stranger line – “Mama my night-dress its hurting me” – I assume its about a small girl unwilling to try on the uniform of oppressed female identity. There is a power and pathos to this work that is almost unequalled.
Jane recalls that Lesley was ‘widely read’ in feminism – and that Paul and Pete used to belong to ‘some kind of men’s group’. But The Au Pairs’ political songs are never too obvious – Lesley always played with the most bitter ironies. Michael Moore would understand her approach: she liked to sing from the standpoint of her enemy. And because her voice can deliver so much feeling she communicates the hurt as much as her hatred. “Her voice was astonishing,” says Munro. “I hope she’s still using it but I really don’t know.”
Jane left the band when things began to ‘get a bit difficult’. She says Lesley was “apt to get emotional for various reasons. It became less enjoyable to do gigs.” Pete says the band fell apart on a European tour – they lacked he said, ‘one cool head’. It had been an impossible year – they’d already played 280 live shows in 1982. There were other difficulties – they were ripped off by their record label – which was ironic as they’d chosen a small label because it seemed more ‘ethical’ than a major. “Lesley went and did a law degree and became a barrister,” says Jane. “That was the last I heard. Pete and Paul and I are still in contact. We haven’t had any contact with Lesley.”
There’s a black and white shot by Pennie Smith on the front cover of the NME from Oct 11 1980 – it’s a picture of a relaxed looking young woman with dark hair and regular, sensible clothes. Maybe she’s a teacher. Others who made the NME cover that year – Iggy, PiL, Strummer, Weller, The Specials – are legends. So who is this unknown woman? She is Lesley Woods. It’s shocking to see her on the cover because she is a kind of missing icon – someone that fell out of pop culture time and space. She could have been a female Weller or Strummer but maybe that’s to wrongly define her in male terms.
It is a lost story now. Jane hasn’t played bass for 20 years, she’s a complimentary therapist. Pete and Paul still make music – the former plays lives percussion at Moneypenny’s. Jane sometimes catches new stars on TV. “In terms of how female pop stars – for want of a better word – are perceived things don’t seem to have moved on a great deal.” And if Beyonce or Tatu come on? “I just sigh and think about something else.”
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AU PAIRS – That’s When It’s Worth It