Au Pairs: Every Home Should Have Four

“THE TROUBLE with conversations like this,” declares Pete, nodding sagely, knitting his eyebrows, as he refers to the complex peculiarities of a pop group who sustain intensely idealistic desires, “is that you can tie yourself up in so many knots you can’t see any way out.”

“I can!” says Lesley, voice rising sharply to an exclamation mark.

“It’s a bit weird actually,” Jane decides and then smiles. “Because when I went into it I didn’t think that it would reach this point; not because I thought we were no good, but just because I didn’t want to go into it too seriously. I’d known lots of people who’d been in bands that hadn’t got anywhere and it had really screwed them up. This is all new to me, and I haven’t any aspirations about success, really. I just thought, I’ll see what happens.

“Now all these things are happening. I think in a way I’m a bit bemused by it all.

“We’re all pretty…what’s the word? It’s a very democratic thing we wouldn’t do something or go into anything that we didn’t all approve of. Which probably means we won’t get anywhere!”

AS A SPECIAL interview treat, manager Martin has splashed out group money on tins and bottles of alcohol. Paul is rambling 90 words a second about his lifestyle, his small feelings of achievement, his feelings that Au Pairs could last as a constructive, positive force for a couple more years…well lubricated by the alcohol.

“I’m really quite optimistic about Au Pairs but not optimistic about life in general. I just take things as they come, y’know…It’s all just a bonus.”

He spurts into a lengthy appraisal of the way he runs his life.

“This is a very pissed conversation,” he admits ruefully, trying hard to articulate the essence of Au Pairs with a tongue that has worked its way a little too loose.

“But that’s my philosophy – do what you want to do. Obviously it’s nice to be a success whatever you do, but the fact is as long as you’re doing what you want to do, that is the most important thing. And I’m playing music. I love music, and if you can make music that’s good, I’m not saying that I’m going to make anything brilliant…But being in the Au Pairs, I’m working with people that I like, and doing what I like and hopefully I’m communicating my ideas to other people…”

For Paul, the two things that most sustain Au Pairs’ motivation is the communication involved and the closeness of the four people in the group.

I’VE ASKED Pete where will it lead? It is the second question that I’ve asked him. In response to the first he’d talked for 15 minutes non-stop. Au Pairs, he tells me, have inspired him as person and as thinker. As communicator.

He was, along with Paul, in a group before called Rox – where they were searching greedily for typical illusionary rock attention. Rox were about ‘shock’. The Sunday People wrote a page 3 horror piece on them, headlined ‘Puke Rock’, which claimed that here was the vilest pop group in Britain. Not ashamed of his dingy past, he uses it as an extreme comparison to show the beauty and opennesss of Au Pairs.

He auditioned to replace Martin Jackson in Magazine, failed and realised first that you couldn’t jump straight into the rock high-life and secondly, that wasn’t what he wanted anyway.

He claims that even if Au Pairs collapsed this year he’s gained something out of the experience. But where could it lead?

“If I thought that our music had just a minority appeal, that even at its peak it could only have a minimal impression and success, I’d be really sceptical that it could go any further. I think if we had enough exposure. But that’s it, when you get down to it, can we get enough airplay, can we get enough reviews, enough breaks, enough people at the top liking us, things like that?

“I’m looking forward to the problems I come across, it’s a big challenge, trying to break through. Our interviews sometimes come across as really wimpy because all we seem to talk about is sexism and people think, what the hell are these missionary-do-gooders on about? They’ve got nothing to do with pop music. No one wants to know what they’re going on about! That’s a real drag. Some 16 year old schoolgirl who reads Smash Hits and Jackie is not going to be interested in the Au Pairs, she’ll just want to read about Rod Stewart and his new concerts.

“That’s a shame; a problem we’ll have to overcome.”

LESLEY’S LAST to be interviewed. By this time we’re both pretty drunk, the tape recorder seems especially absurd. I wonder fussily, fuzzily, if she thinks Au Pairs should be more popular?

“It hasn’t really occurred to me like that,” she replies, just. “I’m sure we could be more popular. We are really accessible. I can’t really understand the problems why we’re not…”

She stops, chuckles and slumps a little. “I’m really pissed. I’m not going to be very good.” She hands me some notes that she’d scrawled; sort of serious life-lines.

Au Pairs have been together for two years. Pete (drums), Jane (bass) and guitarists/singers Lesley and Paul playing bitter, physical, shrill, vigorous hard rock (re-defining that messed up term as much, if not more, as Gang Of Four). They’re postpunk. So that means their inspiration comes from all sorts of traditions and revolutions, their intentions are political and poetical, romantic and realistic – to shatter hypocrisy and mediocrity. Au Pairs desperately oppose the pornographic perpetuation of banality that’s all around: in rock, in pop, in everyday life.

Society and its wicked messengers – BBC, the media – support the illusions that they’re protecting us from evil and degradation with a heartless, deceitful sentimentality, preferring to let through exploitation and emotionless entertainment rather than truth, despair, extremity – depth! Who do they think they’re re-assuring?

Au Pairs are not superficial! The urge to make a nice noise never gets the better of them. Lesley Woods is the bluesiest, nastiest, most human of singers, with a voice that cuts through on all levels. Paul extends the role of harmonising to something more than just pretty-pretty emphasis. The music is shaped in new ways by coarse colliding, cruising, catapulting guitars.

Their songs are gems. They put a lot of critical work into them. Those written in between their straining, abrasive first single ‘You’ and their lowlight laments ‘Obvious’ and ‘Diet’ (the next single – a year gap) should be available in a series of singles like the Buzzcocks classic run of ‘Orgasm Addict’ through to ‘Promises’. It’s a major tragedy that songs like ‘Dear John’, ‘Come Again’, ‘Pretty Boys’, What Kind Of Girl’, ‘Love Song’ and ‘Ideal Woman’ and their revelatory version of Bowie’s ‘Repetition’ are not available, and when (if) they become available, their force may have dwindled.

These songs have an earthy, yet simultaneously a mysterious, shaking quality. They have extraordinary subversive style, a unique consistency, intoxicating hardness, valuable and turbulent lyrics. Au Pairs choose dignity. It’s unsafe dance music.

IT WAS only when I was trapped in the train up to Birmingham that I realised I’d selected my white socks to wear that day. Of course white socks are always preferable to C & A tartan, but these white socks have a small black Playboy logo embroidered on the ankles, and I was going to interview Au Pairs. Even I, who loves Au Pairs and who has seen and heard enough to see through the smoke screens – am slightly affected by their development, the number of political benefits they’ve played, the people who’ve written about them…basically the rigid political labels the group attract.

Lesley’s vivid and vitriolic attacks on prejudice are violently anti-sexist. But Au Pairs songs, and Lesley’s words, go way way beyond monotonous propagandising. Lesley’s words penetrate to the centre of the inauthentic world that is based on exploitation and falsehoods with an indignation that reaches beyond the political.

Au Pairs have been classified a ‘political band’ and a ‘feminist band’; but those terms are misleading, narrow, for a lot of reasons boring – in fact oppressive.

Lesley: “Perhaps if we were number one in the charts people wouldn’t call us a political band; it’s meaningless. The point being that early on there were a lot of very set images/depictions of ‘political’ which do not and never did exist except with those who found it a bit difficult to cope. People are paranoid at saying ‘I’m political’. If people didn’t get paranoid then that definition as a label would disappear.”

Au Pairs’ brittle songs deal with the sting and injustice of real life, the hurt, hate, heartache, sorrow, absence, need. They are songs that extend Pete Shelley’s vision a few subtler, moodier stages on. They are militantly and valiantly honest.

The Au Pairs are a ‘political’ group like Buzzcocks, or Cabaret Voltaire, or A Certain Ratio, or The Passage are. They came together to make music that was influenced by musics that elsewhere have helped shape one of the most corrupt and corrupting entertainment forms, but were impelled not to deal with the same formulae and vulgarities.

They wanted to entertain and not to exploit.

But for a few moments on my journey to Birmingham I’m whimpering under the greyer Au Pairs image: that they are frightful zealots, not an emotional and sensitive pop group. The Playboy logos on my socks, no more than pretty little bunnies to me, turn into monstrous symbols of all that Au Pairs fight against. I feel I will be lectured and smartly sent home. Stupid boy!

In the tenth issue of the Jamming fanzine, Jane remarked that she wasn’t going to go out of her way to prove that she wasn’t anti-men. She seemed very angry. During the main group interview I conduct she stayed silent, smiling slyly as the interview disappeared down twisting tunnels; staying out of it as if superior. I tell her I thought she was surly and oppressively anti-men. She looks at me like I’m a fool.

“I’m not anti-men. I mean, I like men! But I’m anti the male dominated society.”

Jamming had also broadcast that in her songs Lesley implied all men are villains.

“I don’t make men out to be villains at all. I think that’s just paranoia. We don’t set out to threaten anybody. We don’t set out to threaten men. That’s like going back two years when we first started and people were asking us if we were anti-men.

“I do not hate men. I wouldn’t be in a band with two men if I did.

“I mean, yeah, there are men that I hate, but no, I don’t think my songs make men out to be villains…I do think that the majority of men are pretty shitty…”

Lesley thinks that it is impossible for Au Pairs to be a feminist band.

“I don’t believe men can be feminists just as I don’t believe men are as oppressed as women. Men can be sympathetic of feminism and men are obviously victims of stereotyping, but that stereotyping makes them the oppressors not the oppressed.”

Au Pairs will gain their first success by making people dance. But their success will have substance – true glory! – because Au Pairs do not perpetuate lies and myths.

Their songs are not fuelled by rock mythology or the fake fantasy of one-dimensional youth rebellion, but by the natural temperamental scenes of (sexual) confusion, ignorance, selfishness. A sense of rage spills out into the music, swirling with the pure joy of performing, driving the songs into heart and memory.

Paul: “We didn’t want to have a particular focus on one person fronting the band or anything like that. If there was any conscious way of presenting ourselves it was that we are all equal.”

Why does he think the music can be so deranged and exhilarating?
“We’re all pretty zany people. We’re all mad really. We all feel similarly about things and that similarity comes out when we play together. Yeah we are committed, as individuals we’re very committed to each other. There is a certain something special about playing in Au Pairs.”

AU PAIRS’ ‘Come Again’ was banned by the BBC because of its attitude towards sex – it brilliantly conveys the mental agony, the general tug of war of sex. Someone at the BBC called the group “perverts”. Ha!

Lesley: “Graham Lock described ‘Come Again’ as an uncompromisingly feminist song, which really is a bit funny, because I didn’t write it as an uncompromisingly feminist song. It wasn’t written for a feminist. I’m not saying that it’s not an uncompromisingly feminist song, but that doesn’t sum up what ‘Come Again’ is about anyway.”

Pete: “But that’s an area that people have picked up on when they can’t fit us into any other bag – they fit us into the feminist one.”

But as they get deeper into the entertainment business Au Pairs will become more and more misrepresented. How do they deal with that?

Lesley: “I don’t know. To a certain extent I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think it puts people off from coming to see us. If I say to someone after we’ve played ‘Come Again’ what did you think of that uncompromisingly feminist song, they say what are you talking about?”

Pete: “People also ask Lesley in interviews, is this a personal thing, have you actually faked an orgasm in bed, has this come out of your personal experiences? The songs are there for lots of people. They’re not personal grudges.”

Lesley: “One night after we’d done a gig, it was really funny, this kid came up to me and he said, I like my girl friend to have orgasms when we sleep together but…erm…she doesn’t fake orgasms. And like he started telling me about his sex life basically, y’know: I really want her to have a nice time in bed and I want her to have orgasms. I felt like Marjorie Proops…”

YOU COULD be friends with the four members of Au Pairs inside a day. I was! And you could wrap enough compliments around their necks to strangle them – saying how much they minimise the lyrical, musical, visual, myth-shattering achievements of others more highly regarded. I do!

They’re tough and unrepentant. By design they’ve grown up slowly and carefully insistently independent, trying hard to avoid being captured by the underground. Right now they’re hanging midway between that horrid new underground and the mainstream that’s desperately in need of disruption. A level that crippled, say, Gang Of Four or The Clash.

Paul: “I think Gang Of Four have made it easier for people like us. The paranoia surrounding so called political bands is lessening. You get groups like The Beat or UB40 singing, if you like, political songs. People are generally becoming more politically aware; they’re having to.”

Pete: “We’re not being overtly political. We don’t go on stage as a way to make huge political statements, with banners and leaflets. We’re not an army on a mission. We do commercial songs.”

Lesley: “We’d like to be number one, and it is feasible with the songs that we do. But it’s not an aim in that everything we do is directed towards that and therefore manipulated that way. The whole point is that what we are and what we’re doing without beliefs being sacrificed should quite easily get to number one.”

Paul: “When we played with The Clash it was just totally depressing because you saw what had happened to them.”

Lesley: “The Clash are just a myth. They could sing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and still go down well, and as individuals that must affect The Clash, fuck them up to know when you go on to the stage there’s a load of people yelling for The Clash…”

Pete: “But everything they started out being against they have become, and if they really cared they’d either pack it in or totally deny the whole thing…”

Lesley: “No, The Clash have got into a position..if we’d have been in that position then we’d have probably ended up like that as well. In a way they’ve brought it on themselves because they didn’t retaliate. The point is the retaliation wasn’t available to them, because they started it off.

“We’ve seen it happen. We can sit back and talk about it. We can say we’ll never get into that position but the thing is The Clash had no examples.”

At the moment lots of groups are saying similar things, but can that precedent be acted upon? Can pop become rebellious again?

Lesley: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. They could devise a method of dealing with bands like us which when it came to the point we’d have no way of…you don’t know. In the end that doesn’t really matter, you’ve just got to keep going, otherwise what’s the point in doing anything? You’ve just got to try and if we get fucked up we set a precedent for other bands and then they can look back and see what’s happened to us and say, well that won’t happen to us.”

AT THE end of Lesley’s bitty notes that indicate the bitterness, awareness and possibilty of Au Pairs there’s written – after a comment on the natural progression of the group – WHAT NOW?

The end and the beginning, I suppose. And although I tried to hide the Playboy logos by tugging my trousers down all the time, Lesley saw them. She loved the socks. I said I’d try and get her a pair.

Socks can be fun!

© Paul MorleyNew Musical Express, 11 October 1980

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