The AU PAIRS – ” The Albums “

Posted: May 18, 2021 in MUSIC

It’s now forty years ago this month, one of the best but often forgotten albums of the 1980s was released: “Playing With a Different Sex” by Birmingham band The Au Pairs. The cover, an Eve Arnold photo showing female militia fighters heading into battle, is a good visual harbinger of the album’s friction-filled songs. Jane Munro’s monster basslines, Pete Hammond’s tight drum rhythms, and the jagged riffs of Lesley Woods and Paul Foad combine to form a tense backdrop for the myriad moods of Woods’ androgynous voice, singing songs that confront conformity and demand equality. “There was just so much to be angry about,” Woods says. “We were four young people,” Foad adds, “who were pissed off with the political situation of the time.”

Au Pairs formed in Birmingham in 1978. Stewart Lee’s recent documentary King Rocker showcases the scene in the city at the time, with Birmingham’s first punk band the Prefects (later The Nightingales) playing venues like the legendary Barbarella’s, a venue they immortalised in the song of the same name as a place “where the beer tastes of prune juice” and “they sell tickets for the exits”. The band was led by Lesley Woods, who was once described as “one of the most striking women in British rock” The Au Pairs, who formed from their city’s Rock Against Racism action group, would often team up with local bands to play gigs for the anti-racist organisation.  They produced two studio albums and three singles. Their songs were said to have “contempt for the cliches of contemporary sexual politics” and their music has been compared to that of the Gang Of Four plus the Young Marble Giants, and the Mekons, who came out of Leeds University’s Fine Art department. Like Au Pairs, these groups were stridently left wing, and tried to pull punk away from its three-chord origins to something more experimental. Woods attended Birmingham University, meeting drama students who introduced her to jazz, then went on to Keele, where she was exposed to books like Love of Worker Bees, Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai’s 1923 story collection about the possibility of a “new Eros under communism”, and other radical left wing and feminist ideas. “That gave me a language to express a lot of the anger that as a young person and as a child I felt about things but wasn’t able to articulate,” she says.

Then punk exploded, and it was incredibly important. “In a new town like Stevenage” – where Woods grew up – “you don’t really see much of anything except what goes on around your family and in the local vicinity of your council estate,” she says. “There was nothing to do and the only options were to get married, have kids, get a job, and then die.” Punk opened a window on to another life, giving her generation the opportunity to “go off and see something really real and raw and exciting”.

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The sexual nature of Woods’ lyrics on Playing With a Different Sex may have shocked people 40 years ago, but they are still intensely relevant. We’re So Cool talks about open relationships (“I don’t mind if you want to bring somebody home”) but also the power games that never quite go away (“Your affection is ultimately mine”); Come Again sees a quest for mutual orgasm becoming a kind of military manoeuvre (“You brought in new rules / which you obey”); and Dear John tackles male sexual fantasies (“Do I recline like the seats in your head?”). Woods was one of the first female singers to be open about her sexuality. “There wasn’t much space in society, at least at that time, for independent, progressive, single women whose sexualities are fluid,” she says, though things have improved. “Nowadays there are more sexual identities, which is liberating for society.”

Foad says that “as well as the personal politics of relationships, the Thatcher years gave us plenty of material to comment on,” remembering “hundreds of wild gigs where National Front skinheads would turn up to disrupt the shows”.

Playing With a Different Sex’s song Armagh, with its sarcastic chorus line “we don’t torture, we’re a civilised nation”, addressed 1980 protests by female political prisoners in Northern Ireland. “We played the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, who told us we couldn’t play Armagh because it was too politically sensitive,” Foad says. “The show went out live, so we played it anyway, only to be told we would never work for the BBC again.”

Woods’ anger at the constraints of her time, the freedom she found in punk, and the ambiguity of where it all might end up, come together in the album’s closing song. It’s Obvious, the band’s unofficial anthem, both envisions and asserts a future in which gender roles just don’t matter so much, and both sexes have access to equal time, equal resources, and equal leisure. “You’re equal but different,” the song proclaims. “It’s obvious.”

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The second LP from 1982, “Sense and Sensuality” showed a greater influence of jazz soul, funk and disco in the band’s sound, but was less well received couldn’t match the urgency of the first, despite stand-out tracks like Sex Without Stress and the brass and saxophones of fellow post-punkers Pigbag adding to the jazzy feel. There was no time to develop the material before going into the studio, and relationships were fraught. “I lost my voice and went a little crazy because of that,” Woods says, and sleeve notes written for the 2006 anthology Stepping Out of Line detail the “ragged mood” they fell into back then, with bassist Munro leaving two months later, and the band breaking up for good the following year. “It was sad really,” Woods says. “I sometimes wonder if we’d taken six months out and taken a breather and then got back and re-evaluated the situation …”

Following the departure of Jane Munro in 1983, the band recruited Nick O’Connor who also played piano and synthesizers. At this time the group were further augmented by Jayne Morris (percussion and backing vocals), Graeme Hamilton (trumpet) and Cara Tivey on additional keyboards. The band were scheduled to record a third album with famed producer Steve Lillywhite in 1983 but broke up. Woods has intimated that that the hostility and violence she and other women faced playing music was a factor in the group’s demise: “There comes a point where you can’t go on any more at that level,” things had come to a head. “It was just a big mess,” Woods says. “I didn’t like the sound that was being made, and I didn’t like the fact that I had no control over it.”

Drummer Pete Hammond shares his own memories of the end. “By [that] time we exploded into pieces we were exhausted,” he says. “In the final year we had played over 200 gigs and our management didn’t notice how stretched we were. We fell apart because the intensity of our journey was immense – we did hundreds of gigs to support our beliefs and barely sustained our existence. It took its toll.”

Three of the Au Pairs still live in Birmingham. Foad is a full-time jazz musician who also teaches, Hammond plays in the bands Steve Ajao Blues Giants, and Munro is retired, having worked for 30 years as a complementary therapist. “Potentially we had more to give,” Hammond continues, “but what we left behind is still listened to today and that is very humbling.”

The three, however, have had a long-running dispute with Woods over the rights to the songs, and their royalties. “I am trying to get back the rights to the feminist songs I wrote,” Woods says, arguing that she was the lyricist and the songs originate in her experiences: “These are songs that came out of me, they’re part of me”.

Foad, Hammond and Munro claim that they co-wrote the songs as a quartet, and that a decision was made by the band, when they formed, to share credits and royalties. In a joint statement, they said: “One of the founding principles of the Au Pairs was equality, and that extended to the members of the band – each one of us uniquely important. We are saddened by Lesley’s desire to take our rights away from us … We were all equally committed politically, still are and always will be.”

Woods now works as a barrister specialising in immigration law, but she is also taking a course with Music Production for Women where she’s learning to use Ableton software, and feels she’s regained some of the autonomy she lost with Au Pairs. Perhaps if she’d taken the course 20 or 30 years ago, she says, her life might have been completely different.

“Women need to control their own music,” she says, and I ask her if she has any advice for young women starting a band today. “Stick to your guns,” she replies.

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