The Au Pairs
Stepping Out of Line: The Anthology
Sanctuary / Castle
early all of the critical reactions I've read to the Au Pairs, either of the time or later, have missed the point entirely. They've been called everything from "generally tuneless dance-rock" (by Trouser Press, deans at the University of Not-Getting-It) to "priggish" and "sorry punk-funk" (by Christgau, dean of calling himself "the Dean"). Unlike, say, Gang of Four, who fused the single-cell amoeba of the punk template with more complex melodic and rhythmic variations (not to mention singularly more interesting takes on politics, commerce, and sexuality), or Wire, who stripped down punk to explore more minimal terrain and art-school antics, the Au Pairs did something similar to what Joy Division did—they pushed rhythm to the foreground and articulated a very personal, emotional lyricism that defined the headspace of the post-punk era and beyond. Perhaps the unfortunate critical reception stems from their inability to come down wholly on one side of the political / personal divide. Too leftist for the libertines, too pleasure-driven for the politicos. So, something more accurately reflective of the tightrope walk of humanity, then—no wonder they were slept on.
Stepping Out of Line: The Anthology is a two-disc summation of basically everything the band ever recorded. It starts with their debut, Playing With a Different Sex. That album doesn't exactly rewrite the post-punk rulebook—but the rhythmic changeups and focus on beat over bullishness are reflective of the exciting developments brewing in the exchange between the four members. Over Pete Hammond's muscular drumming, Lesley Woods and Paul Foad would trade guitar parts—all lean textures and unflashy, explosive riffage, consciously avoiding soloing. Which left plenty of room for Jane Munro, one of the unheralded bass players of the era. Never having touched a bass before joining the group, she injects so much heavy thumpage into Playing With a Different Sex that you'd hardly know it. Her real moment, though, is the second record—by this point, the "reggae guys in Birmingham" were taking notes (from a girl, even), according to Paul Foad. The BBC sessions and bonus tracks on the first disc show a much more stentorian punk approach, leavened with a goodly amount of what would make the debut unique, but still focused on cutting the same gashes.
Sense and Sensuality, though, is the record the Au Pairs were put on the earth to create. Blistering with a white-heat physicality the debut couldn't quite muster, it takes them further and further away from the sound of a "rock band" and into the unknown, at the same time combining the argent dissension of Playing With a Different Sex with something far more fearlessly feminine. Lesley's vocals are limber and husky, flexing between breathy nuance and brittle urgency, but it's Jane who steals the show—her bass-playing has evolved at this point to a Peter Hook level of brilliant viscerality. The album is included here in its remastered 2002 version, which is quite a revelation. If you think you've heard this record before, you most assuredly have not. Before the remaster, I loved Sense and Sensuality mainly for its cerebral questioning / celebration of sexuality and the strength of the tunes that lay under the fairly muddled production. Once I'd heard this version, I felt as though the cake were removed from my ears. This is truly one of the most musically innovative, progressive albums of the early 80's, shaking up the blueprint for what a “rock” group could accomplish.
Strong words? Perhaps, but give a listen to the first track of the album, which also gives this anthology its title—starting as a rant about conformity, it turns into a monster of avant-jazz-over-groove explosiveness, Lesley shrieking "shut up / shut up" through various effects-boxes and every instrument literally "Stepping Out of Line." Sense & Sensuality is more than anything a manifesto in favor of a vivid expression of human sexuality as a means of escape from the repression of the purely political sphere. Songs like "That's When It's Worth It" or "Don't Lie Back" are statements in support of freedom through recognition of the physical human potential, rather than didactic lessons in post-colonial feminism. Even their most seemingly negative song here ("Fiasco") plants tongue gloriously in cheek with its delivery ("Life is a fiasco, you come and you go / You go and you come... periodically"), showing a deeply-imbedded sense of the "wonderful" that a dry reading of the lyrics might miss. Coupled with engagingly warm bass and horn parts, it's an outwardly depressive coda refigured as a sensual ode to joy.
The sad finale to the Au Pairs story was that Sense & Sensuality didn't mark their ascent into a career of fine records and further rulebook-shredding. Instead, it was the termination. Lesley went AWOL and the '83 demos that follow the record suggest a band that was going further and further away from orthodoxy, but without their signature voice and de facto leader. The nadir is "Hokka He He," but one in a long line of ignoble songs of the past three decades in which a young British rock group critiques Colonialism using the America vs. Red Indian model, while simultaneously ignoring all that their own government did to fuck shit up on, you know, every continent bar Antarctica.
But, all the same—respect due. The Au Pairs attempted the near-unfathomable—to welcome both an open expression of the body and the engagement of the body politic in deference to the difficult business of being human. They got few enough plaudits for their efforts, but luckily it's not yet too late to re-open a dialectic that cuddles up to progressivism without turning its back on love. Thankfully, the good folks at Sanctuary have put together a package that allows us to re-assess this critical group at a time in which the re-emergence of a feminine voice in the rock world is still as deeply needed as it was in 1980. Strongly recommended for all who seek to temper well-grounded ire with emotional fires.