MARK COOPER joins the AU PAIRS’ campaign trail
“WOULDN’T IT be nice to have central heating?” asks Lesley Woods, lead singer, guitar player and lyricist with Au Pairs. We are all wrapped up and winter sniffling in a house in Birmingham. Au Pairs are close to the dole and unprotected from financial disaster and freezing. If they are glamorous, it’s because they are warm and alive, not because of anything they have. They don’t have much, not even their own van. Just confidence and a double A side at Number 4 in the alternative chart, ‘It’s Obvious’/’Diet.’
Au Pairs are an alternative but they shouldn’t be packaged as such and forgotten, left to the jealous possession of a few “in the know.” Today’s alternative should be tomorrow’s mainstream. But on what terms and at what cost? How much is central heating?
What are Au Pairs, what do they do? We sit around and drink lots of coffee and eat sweets and talk about it. The night before Au Pairs play a benefit at the Golden Eagle in Birmingham that’s as hard and determined and as flashy and sexy as any gig I’ve seen this year. Lesley and Paul Foad, guitar and vocal, are in endless counterpoint. Their voices and guitars bounce off each other. Lesley’s voice in the lead and Paul’s guitar underlining it, now directly, now in juxtaposition. They play pop music, songs with melodies, but that doesn’t begin to describe the power and jangle of their sound and the dance it sets up between Lesley and Paul as they shuffle and stutter across stage. Au Pairs have a lot in common with other bands that consider themselves “political” and “feminist” and come from up above London, from Birmingham to Leeds. Like Delta 5 and the Gang of Four, they play beat music with the emphasis on hard drums and drop bass and heavy rhythm guitar. Like both these bands their lyrical matter is “political.” But what does that word mean? What does it mean to the wife in ‘Diet’ who ‘doesn’t have political views, she doesn’t have any views’?
Au Pairs’ music is a music of rhythm and chants that allows a surprising amount of room for lyricism and tenderness. To me, they are part of a sound and a style, perhaps the only one of the bands I’ve mentioned who have left themselves lots of room to explore.
The band, Lesley, Paul, Jane Munroe on bass and Pete Hammond on drums, all have something to say though Jane, today, is quiet. They are unhappy with my grouping them with the forementioned bands, wary of labels. Here are four voices: “We’ve been compared to so many people, Jefferson Starship, early Clash, early Jam, the Pretenders. In the end I think all these comparisons are meaningless. I think ‘It’s Obvious’ for example is completely different to any of the songs that the Gang of Four have done.”
Not completely as far as I’m concerned. The vocal style of ‘It’s Obvious’, its use of repetition and voices in counterpoint has a lot in common with the stentorian chants of, say, Delta 5. And the repetition seems dogmatic to some degree. Bands that declare their interest in politics are always accused of being dogmatic, often in an attempt to avoid hearing what they are saying. Nothing silences like a label. If they really stick a good one on you, you won’t be heard behind it.
“We’re totally opposed to sloganeering. Look what happened to TRB. You can’t lecture or try and convert them.”
First and foremost Au Pairs play music and are appreciated for doing exactly that: “There’s a lot of kids who come to see us because they like the music, they’re not listening to the words and they hang around us and they don’t seem to be affected by the way we treat each other. But that’s not our problem. We’re not here to convert but to make our music and point of view available.”
As for the use or repetition, well, the answer’s obvious: “We write pop songs and songs have always been about repetition and hooks – look at ‘She Loves You’.” True enough. I’m just intrigued that British bands that are politically-conscious are heavily into rhythm, repetition and chanting voices in dialogue.
Politics and dogma mean the same thing in a lot of people’s vocabulary. Politics is boring speeches on television, lots of talk and slogans and nothing to do with our lives. But politics for Au Pairs seems to be about power in daily life. Who has authority and why? Politics is asking questions, wondering why we are as we are, the forces that made us and shape us in particular ways, often to our loss. Politics is about who uses who and by what right? An interest in politics for Au Pairs would seem to indicate a desire to take as much control of one’s own life while caring for others. And one of the main points where power operates in society is between men and women, Mum and Dad, you and your girlfriend, your girlfriend and you.
Au Pairs are determinedly anti-sexist in their stance and subject matter. As Lesley sings in ‘It’s Obvious’: “You’re equal but different, it’s obvious.” What happens when you get known as a feminist band?
“We’re known as an anti-sexist band yet we have people come up to us and say that we’re supposed to be anti-sexist but that Lesley and Jane have been wearing make-up and dress provocatively and that we come across onstage as quite sexual, totally missing the point that being anti-sexist doesn’t mean that you’ve got to knock sex on the head. They have a label in their heads that ‘anti-sexist’ means you’ve got to be all serious and boring. Anti-sexism is not anti-sex.”
Quite obviously in Au Pairs’ case. See them live. When Lesley and Paul dance and sing, there’s a definite erotic feel in the air that lingers in Lesley’s smokey voice and style. But being erotic is not being provocative.
“Rock music has always been about sex and that’s great. But it doesn’t have to be about sexual stereotypes. It has to be about real relationships and sexuality, not the kind that’s sold to us on screens.” As for the fact that Lesley sometimes likes to wear make-up and mini-skirts and fishnet stockings, that’s her right and her pleasure. “I wear what I like. People think if you’re a feminist you should appear in a boiler suit or something. Men’s response is their problem, I’m not provoking them. Men tend to blame women. If they react to you, it’s your fault. They project it onto women. They read the meaning back to me when it really means something to them.”
Jim Morrison was once described as an “erotic politician.” Au Pairs work in similar territory. They ask you to dance and think. These are not mutually exclusive processes, though some would have you believe otherwise. “We are a feminist band but we don’t want to be dismissed by being labelled as such. Too often a label puts people off; labels are homes for assumptions, they’re ways that often help people not to think or react individually.” Lesley, as usual, is less worried. Things seem to strike her as possible and positive: “I think the notion that it’s bad to be feminist or political is disappearing. I think people are more sympathetic to feminist ideas, more used to hearing them discussed.”
Journalists and marketeers like labels and hooks because they’re catchy and quick and easy to take away, like MacDonald. Au Pairs don’t want to die the death that came to TRB. But then they don’t use slogans in the first place: “If interviewers think you’re ‘political’ then they expect you to make big controversial ‘political’ statements. And when we don’t – then they think we’re only doing it because ‘it’s the next big thing’.” Which only goes to show the circular cynicism of hackdom which assumes that everybody acts for their own profit with an eye on the marketplace because that’s how hacks act.
Au Pairs want to succeed but they’re wary of the price to pay. If you succeed by selling out or being sold out, have you succeeded at all? You can open yourself to the media innocently enough and then be sold provocatively. And Au Pairs face this problem because of their erotic charge, because Lesley is a very attractive woman, the kind on which the media feed. Images of women sell papers. Debbie Harry’s image began ironic and ended up taking itself seriously for the money involved and the sheer pressure that was put on her. She acquiesced and became an image.
“If you don’t have any control, like if you’re on Top of the Pops where you are in their hands, then you’re going to get sold in a sexist way. It’s obvious that we are going to be set up like that but it’s something we want to avoid as much as possible. We want to come across as four people and we don’t want one specific person to be emphasised at the expense of the others but it’s obvious that that’s what they’ll try to do to us.”
The way to combat this is to keep control of your own image and the images of you that are sold. “It’s best to make your own videos but that’s not something you can do straightaway. You won’t get the money to do it yourself unless you get on Top of the Pops in the first place. If you’re too pure about it, you’ll never get to the stage where you can take control.”
Or get central heating or even an extra fire to keep the sniffles away.
Once again, Lesley refuses to be immobilised, the issue and the problem get stared down: “I don’t think it really matters. Obviously we’re going to get this problem, we had it with NME. But I know I’m not a sex object – I don’t live like one and I don’t see myself as one and people I know don’t treat me as such.” As Lesley knows, press and promotion always like to single out an individual for their attention, it’s easier to package bands that way: “Even if it’s all blokes, you still get someone singled out. Anyway, I think it’s better to have one of us than say, Phil Lynott or somebody. Obviously we’re not prepared to do some things to sell the band.”
Au Pairs are floating in a system that does its best to deflate them, to keep them cold. Already they have succeeded – in songs like ‘Autonomy’, ‘Come Again’ and ‘Diet’ – in making a driving, committed erotic dance music that discusses aspects of everyday sexuality and relationships, songs that show the sexual and political dramas involved while remaining dramatic themselves. They are opening something for discussion that has been the province of stereotypes for too long. Romance is the public language of love and, like Au Pairs’ parents told them, sex is private. But why? Let’s talk about it, let’s dance about it.
“Sex is really important to everybody… It’s the most interesting thing, it creates our lives… it’s all about sex, everything, isn’t it?”
Come into the open with the Au Pairs. Why? It’s obvious.
© Mark Cooper, Record Mirror, 10 January 1981