HOW COULD they have known? The caption under the BBC1 column in the Sunday Times television listings for May 30 was unmistakeable. “6.10. Sense And Sensibility: Repeat of the serialisation”, it announced, unremarkably.
And then: “Miss Austen would be perturbed to know that last week the title turned up on proof for this page as Sense And Sensuality, a most unladylike error, but was caught before the presses rolled. Sorry, Jane.”
Lesley Woods, the “unladylike” singer, guitarist, lyricist and general frontperson for the Au Pairs, would have liked that. The Au Pairs have just completed their second album and the title is……Sense And Sensuality.
Either a close friend of the APs has burrowed their way through to the heart of the Sunday Times, or both group and paper have plugged unwittingly into the same cosmic switchboard (maaan).
As a name for an Au Pairs record, Sense And Sensuality fits snugly, a particularly succinct pointer to the group’s dominant concerns and a perfectly logical continuation from its predecessor, Playing With A Different Sex.
Au Pairs songs have consistently prowled the arena of sexual politics, questioning the roles and rules of the games people play in their everyday personal relationships. A depressingly large number of people still sneer at the subject and others just pay casual lip service; somehow those who throw around the word “sexist” as a term of abuse have become saddled with the image of sour, shrieking puritans, repressed, lonely and dead set against the flowering of healthy sexual goings-on – the old, exceedingly dumb “anti-sexism equals anti-sex” equation.
Anyone labouring under those illusions will get a rude, deserved awakening on listening to the Au Pairs or talking to Lesley Woods. The Au Pairs celebrate sex, want to remove the repressive mystification that surrounds it, want people to shake off their deeply ingrained hang-ups and exploit their own potential more fruitfully.
Lesley Woods slips into the topic of sexuality with the ease of a body sliding between warm sheets. Sense And Sensuality? It’s what it says, she tells you. Think about it; the title resounds with implication.
“The personal is political, you can’t split the two things up. If you’re going to have any kind of social change, personal relationships in society have got to change,” Woods expounds. “I think sexuality is an important part of that. If people were allowed to express their sexuality naturally, society wouldn’t be the way it is. All the relationships in society, such as power and economic relationships, would change as well.
“Someone wrote this review in America that I was really pissed off about. It said something like ‘The Au Pairs are better than the Gang Of Four because what they’re singing about, ie relationships, probably fits better into a musical framework that singing about Marxist ideology’ – which is a real kind of put down.
“It says ‘You’re a girl and you sing about boys and girls and that’s okay because it fits into music. You couldn’t sing about Marxist ideology because you’re not intelligent enough’. It splits those two things up, it sees one as serious and theoretical and politically valid, and the thing about relationships is not to be taken that seriously.”
One new song, ‘Sex Without Stress’, with its exhortation to “discover physical conversations of a different kind”, is especially pointed.
“When people get in relationships with other people, instead of actually seeing the person there they have expectations of what that relationship’s going to be, it’s going to have certain forms and a certain structure, it’ll be stable – ‘we’re going to be faithful to one another’ – and it goes on like that,” fills in Lesley.
“In the light of the post-Sixties sexual revolution people are supposed to be emancipated in the way they organise their relationships.
“There’s another song called ‘That’s When It’s Worth It’ which is lifted from a review that Lester Bangs did of us. He said something like, ‘Perhaps the Au Pairs and the way things work in the Au Pairs could provide a model for the rest of society’. That’s a song about how people are wrapped up in their own egos.
“People think they’ve progressed in their relationships and as they go from one to another their expectations alter – ‘My last relationship was fucked up because of this, and this time I’m going to fall in love and get it off with someone who’s more…’ – do you know what I mean? But they still carry on having these expectations, expecting that person to fulfill some need and desire for them instead of seeing that person as an autonomous individual. They impose this role oh that person.”
THIS IS all very easy to nod along with in theory but I feel twinges of scepticism. How does she think people can get around these attitudes? Isn’t there a certain amount of inevitability about them?
“I think there’s a tendency for people to seek solutions in superficial lifestyles which just operate for the individual,” she replies. “I think the meaning of sex has got to be re-evaluated, and people have got to – at the risk of being promiscuous – carry out a lot of different kinds of relationships with people of both sexes and all ages, be able to relate sexually to those people instead of being forced into the roles they are.”
So does she manage to live up to her ideals?
“I think I’m very naive in a lot of ways, and very gullible, because I always tend to think that people are as sussed out as I am,” she laughs. “And I never find out until it’s too late. So many people are wrapped up in themselves, it’s so difficult for them to see outside of themselves.”
When questioned on this burst of immodesty she backtracks slightly: “No, I was only being facetious, I don’t think that all, but it is really important to feel free. Especially for women, because there’s this morality that operates, these notions of ‘bad women’ if they don’t conform and stay in their role. I think it’s important for women to have the relationships they want to have; it’s very difficult for women working in the public eyes as well.”
Does she want her lyrics to provoke people into re-examining their own lives?
“Yeah, all I do in writing lyrics is try and provide a new understanding of situations that people take for granted or accept as natural or normal.”
After a couple more minutes of conversation she adds: “Society is very moralistic, it’s very anti-sex. There’s this double standard – ‘Come Again’ (an Au Pairs song concerning faked orgasms), as an example, was not allowed on the air, but you get songs like ‘Don’t care how much it cost, I wanna see a piece of the action’.
“You get pornography now, way-out sex, like sado-masochism, which is presented as ‘You can be this liberated and get into this really far-out sex’, whereas really it’s where the two roles have been taken to extremes. One is the master, the other the slave, and it’s really individualistic and fascistic.”
IS THE Au Pairs enough for her?
“I went through this period where I got kind of confused about everything, for one reason or another – which I won’t go into. I think the working relationship within the Au Pairs is very special – and I don’t mean that in a really corny, sicky way. We’re all mutually dependent on each other, so it’s not like I’m the leader or something.”
Sense And Sensuality is due for release this month on “a major label” following protracted legal tussles with their old independent label Human, and though revealing lyrical themes that should be familiar to seasoned Au Pairs watchers, it represents a marked change of musical direction. The new material shows a greater variety than before, synthesizer, the ubiquitous Horns Of Pigbag, and vibes and cello being added to the basic line-up.
First impressions indicate a mixed bag; some of the songs have the feel of being unfinished, loose ends waiting to be tied into shape, others stand out as some of the best things they’ve produced, in particular the eerie, semi-Oriental ‘Fiasco’.
“The first album was very much a rush job,” comments guitarist Paul Foad. “We ended up having to do the whole lot, including mixing, in ten days, which kind of blew it really. I still think it stands up as a good debut album, though. We’ve got into recording a lot more this time because everybody’s more relaxed; we’ve gone into it without any kind of pressure.”
The spate of recording marks the end of the virtually insane amount of live work the Au Pairs undertook last year – about 250 gigs in 12 months, according to Paul.
Why play so much?
“Well, that’s what it’s about for me, if you’re a musician you play music. But it even got to us, that amount, it was physically exhausting. We’re going to take it a bit more easy this year – do about 100-150 gigs.”
TACITURN Jane Monroe, the Au Pairs’ bassist, sighs. “It’s very difficult to write when you’re on the road, and people just want to hear ‘Monogamy’ and ‘Come Again’… and I’m afraid they’re not going to any more! The last time we played ‘Come Again’, all the way through it I thought ‘I never, ever want to play this song again’. It was a good song at the time, but actually playing it night after night…” Her voice trails off in dismay.
A line in the song ‘Fiasco’ runs: “Go on repeating, meeting, after meeting, variations on the same old theme.”
As a lesson on predictability in both personal relationships and in live performance it seems salutory.
© Lynden Barber, Melody Maker, 12 June 1982