THE MIDDLE OF the first decade of the 21st century has seen a reappraisal of the music which followed punk. Not an academic, clinical exercise, but a dynamic process which has fed into the music of Hard-Fi, Franz Ferdinand, the Rakes, Kaiser Chiefs. The list is endless. As the shock wave of punk dissipated at the close of the 1970s, innovators and mavericks found that punk had opened the doors: no subject matter was taboo and the climate was right for experimentation.
Birmingham’s Au Pairs were a vital force in this period of foment and provocation. It’s something Kurt Cobain recognised when he namechecked them in his diaries. Au Pairs were a four-piece band, equally spilt by gender. Their music was forceful, sinuous and jagged. Their lyrics met the inherent politics of day-to-day life head on. Whether it’s the frustrated egalitarian couple in ‘Come Again’ or the fierce condemnation of ‘Armagh’, Au Pairs were unambiguous. The subject matter was unadorned. Yet Au Pairs weren’t lecturing – their music was irresistibly kinetic. Danceable.
Stepping Out Of Line collects the entire studio work of Au Pairs. It’s a thrilling release, with a remastered sonic clarity which hits hard. It’s the perfect tribute to one of Britain’s most important bands.
Au Pairs formed in late 1978 as punk was splintering, generating all sorts of exciting new music. Drummer Pete Hammond and guitarist/singer Paul Foad were old school friends; veterans of many long-lost Birmingham-area bands. Pete had been in a punk band during 1977, while Paul had done time with a band called Rox. “Me and Paul came up from Birmingham rock: Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath,” says Pete. “We both left school with the intention of forming a band.”
Following his punk episode, Pete travelled continental Europe and returned home after close to a year to find that Paul was pursuing something new with a singer/guitarist called Lesley Woods. “Lesley saw me carrying some gear into my mum and dad’s house and started chatting,” recalls Paul. “We met up when she had come back from university.”
Paul, Lesley and Pete began playing together, and it was clear from the start that there was a need to create something fresh, something that didn’t pay homage to what was going on around them. The thirst for innovation was partly driven by the differences between Lesley and Paul’s playing techniques. “We had to develop a new style,” explains Paul. “Lesley’s style was totally off the wall, she didn’t have any lessons. I come from quite a musically-schooled background, I’d had guitar lessons. I had to fit my schooled-style around hers. Her and Viv Albertine from the Slits came close to each other. When we were in the studio it would take me a couple of listens to realise where she was coming from. Me and Lesley had this weird guitar dialogue like play acting. The vocals too were like acting.”
“Paul and Lesley had very different styles,” agrees Pete. “We were completely against guitar solos – we wanted to find a way of using the two guitars that was new.”
It wasn’t just the musical approach that was going to be new: the formative band’s songs were going to address subjects more usually restricted to the political arena – sexual and personal politics, and the politics of the state. “The songs were about what we believed in,” says Paul “They brought up issues. We did talk about the issues, there was lot of discussion about the lyrics. It was an education as it went along.”
“Lesley wrote the lyrics,” says Pete. “Politics was very much there, it was a time when people were very interested – it wasn’t being boring, sitting around. It was trying to say something. They were subjects that needed to be discussed. We knew these subjects weren’t cut and dried, black and white. Only by discussing them could you create your stance. We were trying to work things out ourselves.”
It was decided that when the band became a four-piece, it should be split down the middle by: two men, two women. Jane Munro came in as bassist. She was well-known to both Paul and Pete through friends in other bands. The fact that she hadn’t played bass wasn’t an issue. “Jane was having lessons from the bass player in [local band] the Denizens,” recalls Pete.
Fitting in instantly, Jane was a natural. “Jane used to come up with amazing bass lines,” says Paul “The reggae guys in Birmingham used to check her out.”
Choosing a band name was as critical as the nature of their lyrics and the musical style. “We wanted a name in tune with who we were, but not overtly political,” notes Pete.
The newly named Au Pairs hit the stage for the first time only four weeks after Jane had joined. As 1979 unwound they played more and more shows, often benefits. Paul and Lesley were on the committee of the Birmingham wing of Rock Against Racism, which generated a proportion of their shows. “We’d do any gig that we were asked to do that was a benefit,” says Pete.
November 1979 saw Au Pairs issue their debut single, the scratchy, furious ‘You’. Self-financed, it was issued on 021 Records – the label’s name taken from the telephone dialling code for Birmingham. By this time, what would become known as post-punk was emerging and Au Pairs began realising they had some peers. “The Gang Of Four inspired us immensely at the start,” says Paul. “The Slits and the Pop Group too.”
Constantly gigging, Au Pairs became formidable live band, with Lesley a towering, almost fearsome, presence. “The audiences were heavy, so we played heavy too,” recalls Paul “All the venom came out in the music. After we did a gig in Digbeth this kid said, ‘God man, what have you done to your guitar?’ I’d splattered it with blood from my hand. I had no idea.”
Au Pairs’ second single, the Rough Trade-funded ‘Diet’, arrived in November 1980. Their profile had increased during 1980 after tours with both Gang Of Four (in September) and Buzzcocks (in November), but the major labels weren’t sniffing around. After signing with the independent Human Records – run by the founder of the indie record shop chain Bonaparte – Au Pairs eventually issued their debut album, Playing With A Different Sex, in May 1981. Both it and the single ‘Inconvenience’ topped the indie charts. Playing With A Different Sex even reached 33 on the national charts.
A brush with the mainstream wasn’t going to temper Au Pairs’ approach. An appearance on the BBC2 rock programme The Old Grey Whistle Test became a benchmark moment. “We’d been told we couldn’t do ‘Armagh’,” recalls Paul. “We rehearsed a different song all day and did ‘Armagh’ live for the broadcast. That was the last thing we did for the BBC TV.”
The weekly music papers latched onto this uncompromising stance, much to the band’s discomfort. “Nearly all the songs had a hard-hitting point,” acknowledges Pete. “But we always got stick. We had to constantly defend ourselves.”
Such constant examination led to friction. “It meant Lesley became the spokesperson,” says Paul. “But there were different views within the band.”
The next year was laden with tension. Pete has estimated that Au Pairs played 285 gigs in 1982. The pace took its toll, and the support structure was hardly conducive to taking a step back. Whilst on tour, says Paul, “we always stayed in red light districts, because they were the cheapest hotels.” “We had enough money to keep is going, to pay rent, but we never saw bulk sums,” adds Pete.
Despite the pressure, Au Pairs recorded their second album between April and June 1982, Sense And Sensuality, which was issued that August by Kamera Records. The graphics on the front of the non-band-approved sleeve might have been oddly oblique, but the rear sported a pointed photograph of a hairy armpit. An amazingly cohesive, creative album, Sense And Sensuality betrayed little of the ragged mood that the band was sliding into. “We had to write the second album on the run, almost improvised,” says Paul. “We ended up writing in the studio.” The band were moving forward musically: Sense And Sensuality found Paul adding cello, and guest player Chris Lee contributed trumpet, while Pigbag/Pop Group member Olly Moore played saxophone. Curiously, some synthesiser and vibes were later added without the band’s knowledge.
Just two months after the release of Sense And Sensuality, Jane Munro left Au Pairs. There was no time to stop. The spirit of exploration that had begun on Sense And Sensuality was continued by replacing her with three new members: Nick O’Connor (bass, keyboards), Graeme Hamilton (trumpet) and Cara Tivey (keyboards, backing vocals). The new line up taped a session for Radio One’s Kid Jensen in January 1983, but Lesley had gone AWOL. They also recorded some demos with Lesley for a prospective third album (heard here on disc two), but Au Pairs were fast unravelling. “The third album was set up to be produced by Steve Lillywhite,” says Paul, “But by that point Lesley had dropped over the edge. When you’re in people’s pockets for four-and-half years…”
The end came in France. “Towards the end it so crappy and messed up,” continues Paul. “We were booked to a gig in France at an improvisational music festival. Lesley didn’t show up. We improvised a set and that was it.”
It was a sad and messy end. Au Pairs had burned fiercely, and probably no band could have survived. But it was that pace, the force with which they attacked their music and everything that came in their path which nourished them and created the formidable body of work heard here.
Au Pairs are one the most important bands to emerge from Britain in the post-punk era. Their willingness to marry a challenging agenda to a compelling, new, music has secured their status. Modest to the end, Paul Foad says “we simply wanted to say something with the music. It was by default that we got well known. It was never intended.”
© Kieron Tyler, MOJO, March 2006