Post-punk femme funk
Lesley Wood interview by Jason Gross
"I prefer to talk about the future," singer/guitarist Lesley Woods told me even before I began interviewing her via Skype last spring but she did relent to speak about the storied post-punk band she formed. When Au Pairs began in Birmingham in 1978 (with guitarist Paul Foad, bassist Jane Munro and drummer Peter Hammond), they carved out a striking sound for themselves, combing the anger/fury of punk with feminist ideology and funk. "It's Obvious" became a 1980 dance floor hit, followed by their impressive indie label debut the following year, Playing With A Different Sex. But after one more album, 1982's Sense and Sensuality, they were gone.
Nowadays, Woods works in the law field: "I do immigration work: asylum, deportation, a very wide cross section, all areas covered." She's also looking to return to music, taking a course called "Music Production For Women," and studying up on the popular recording program Abelton. In a recent follow-up e-mail exchange, she explained, "I am recording backing tracks for new performance and hope to put something out there by end of this year." Other plans include travel: "when this COVID thing ends, there's so many places I want to go to, like New York." If that wasn't enough, Lesley also has upcoming live plans, revealing this- "I am performing at Rebellion Festival Blackpool on Friday August 5, 2022 with my new show."
PSF: What music were you listening to before you were in any bands?
LW: Well, when I was young, obviously we didn't have all this digitalization and videos. I remember my dad got me a record player. I think the first record I had was David Bowie's Pin Ups and a Cat Stevens album. I think I also had a Beatles single- "We Can Work It Out" on one side and "Day Tripper" on the other. Then, as I got older, I mean before the Au Pairs, I was getting into jazz and went to see Joan Armatrading, and a band called Family. So I always really loved music.
PSF: What did you think of the first UK punk bands that came around, like the Pistols, the Clash?
LW: At the time, I thought the punk movement was very important culturally and it was really quite necessary at the time that it happened. It coincided with a lot of things like Rock Against Racism. Actually, there was wonderful film on the telly last night- it was a film about Poly Styrene [Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche] that was made by her daughter, which was really, really excellent. And there was a program about girls in bands and a program on about Rock Against Racism. It was talking about how, with the punk thing... there were punk bands that wore swastikas and then they showed some photographs of people like Siouxsie Sioux with the swastika armband and punk could have gone one of two ways really. Then there was this amazing gig over at Victoria Park, which I happen to live next door to now, where they had this awesome gig with the Clash... The Au Pairs weren't going at this time. And there was X-Ray Spex and Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson Band and it was like 1000's of people came and it was amazing. So yeah, it was a real blast from the past.
So yeah, I thought there were really good punk bands though there was kind of a dodgy side to it. But in fact, I find the Sex Pistols much more melodic now than I did then. I'm singing along to it more now- it's not just a wall of sound. I can hear the melody in it and stuff like that. So I kind of appreciate it way more. But then, there were bands that I really loved that came out early on. I still love Talking Heads- I think they're a great band and I love David Byrne. I think he's a wonderful artist. But I'm not so keen on the Ramones but I think they're jolly good fun.
So, it was a great time for bands. But I was just thinking that now, there's just so much music around, it's just like then, there wasn't so much, you know? So if you wanted to make music, you stood a better chance of getting heard. There's just so many people doing it now and there's all different kinds. But there's some really good stuff going on- I'm really into Fiona Apple at the moment and I listen to a lot of her stuff. I think she's got a very interesting sound.
PSF: How did the Au Pairs come together?
LW: I was in Birmingham. I had started university and I was doing a very overreaching course and I really wasn't doing very well. And leaving home for the first time, I think I just didn't go to many lectures. I got in with a bunch of drama students and they introduced me to a lot of jazz music. And then I thought I'd really like to get a band together. I was playing guitar and I met Paul at a bus stop and he was living with his parents, just down the road from where I was in digs. We started going out together and we talked about getting a band together. He'd been in a band with Pete the drummer. And then we thought about what was going on politically and where my politics were at then.
It's quite complicated 'cause I started up at Birmingham and then I dropped out and then I went to Keele for a year. And there I got very politicized 'cause there was a lot of political stuff going on there. And then we got the band together and we got Pete in as the drummer. Then we wanted to get a female bass player but there weren't many of them walking around Birmingham then. So we managed to get in touch with one and she, quite surprisingly, agreed to join us. And then we started rehearsing in a cellar and then about six weeks later, we played our first gig. And then we just didn't stop for the next few years.
PSF: You mentioned that you were interested in politics then. What were your political views at that time?
LW: Well, there was a lot of stuff going down at Keele like political movements like the International Marxist Group, the Socialist Worker's Party, feminist groups as well. That was very inspiring because that kind of gave a language to a lot of things that I should think a lot of young girls should feel very cross about. In fact, that's what a lot of what punk was about. A lot of the women involved in punk were like... they finally got a voice to rebel against female stereotypes and being sexually objectified and just standing up there and doing it in their own right. And uncompromisingly, like Poly Styrene. It's a totally interesting film, which I totally recommend. I think she really voices the feeling of young women at that time.
PSF: Was she a hero to you?
LW: Actually, no. I wasn't really terribly conscious of her. I was more conscious of someone like Patti Smith. There weren't very many female models around but surprisingly... No, I wasn't really aware of Poly Styrene. I remember she got on Top of the Pops and I remember thinking how great it was that someone who was so uncompromising in her dress and her appearance managed to get on there and thinking that was great. But I think my real heroes were someone like Janis Joplin and Patti Smith because they really sang in this very sort of harsh way which was not terribly feminine. And up to that point, most of the female singers I listened to had very pretty, nice voices and very high up in the register. Which is why I think I like Fiona Apple because she uses her voice in a very asexual way.
PSF: What about the Slits and the Raincoats? Did they register for you at all then?
LW: Oh yeah, yeah. The Slits definitely. The Raincoats, I always found their sound a little bit grating with the violin. I can't say I was a fan of them but I think they're great people though. We played with them on a bill several times. We played with the Slits as well. I really loved the Slits' album Cut when it came out. I thought it was fantastic.
PSF: For the first album of the Au Pairs, how did the songs come together?
LW: We were playing the songs for a while. We were very tight. We all knew our parts so when we got in the studio, it was easy in the sense that we were doing and what part of each song. Although I remember we had a bit of a bad time because signed with an independent called... Human Records, and we ended up in this studio with this guy who fancied himself as a bit of a producer. He basically tried to change our sound. So we wasted a lot of the budget basically getting very angry and upset with what he was trying to do. We fought and pulled out of there and ended up with this really great studio somewhere that used to be a sheep farm with this engineer who's credited on the album [Ken Thomas]. And he was a great guy and we finally got somewhere where we were much more happy and we got much more comfortable and we worked together producing it. But it really isn't a 'produced' album. It's very much laying bare the device- that type of album.
PSF: Was that what you really wanted or was that a function of the budget that was left over by then?
LW: Yeah, it was partly because none of us were really record producers per se. But we didn't want to lose that kind of realness if you know what I mean, that kind of authenticity.
PSF: How did you decide which parts he or Paul would sing then?
LW: Well, he doesn't do any of the lead vocals, he does a few backing vocals. He can't sing, really... Well, I don't know, maybe he can now. It was like, "who wants to sing the backing vocals?" And Jane was like, "I'm not doing it," and Pete's like "I'm not doing it." So I said, "alright, Paul- you'll have to do it." You hear it on the song "It's Obvious." [sings a bit of the chorus] He repeats the line.
PSF: That's such a striking song. How did you come up with that?
LW: I think the line, "you're equal, but different," was just something that I came up with. I think I had a male friend at the time called Billy who sometimes helped me with the lyrics and I think he probably had some input in writing some of the lines. I can't remember exactly how pen came to be on paper. But "you're equal, but different" is just a very simple line, like "it's obvious" so I think it's just a case of coming up with that and building the rest of it around it... without getting to fancy or keeping it very simple.
PSF: There were also lyrics on the record that talk about torture and beatings. What prompted that?
LW: Well, there was a lot of stuff going on in Northern Ireland at that time. It was a very big political issue. And what the British Army was doing, basically persecuting the Catholic minority, was something we felt very strongly about. And also the way that the news was very censored, like to get the truth about what was going on, it was actually quite difficult.
But we actually went over to Belfast and played a gig and that was an eye opener. That was like going into a war-type situation. We sort of saw it firsthand really. There wasn't a Catholic family in Belfast that hadn't been affected in some way either by a family member having been killed or being incarcerated without trial, just basically on no evidence. I felt very strongly about that but I'm not sure about the others [in the band].
PSF: So you saw this before you recorded the first album?
LW: I can't remember but I think we recorded the album before we went there- I got a feeling we had. I think that's probably why they got us to do the gig but I honestly can't remember those kind of details.
PSF: Were you happy with the debut album when it came out? Did it sound like what you intended it to be?
LW: I think it's very difficult to be a judge of something that you're very, very close to. I think it's very difficult to be objective about it, particularly at the time when you've been involved in the studio recording it. Now, I've got some distance between me and that album and I can listen to it and I really like it. I think it's great. I think a lot of the tracks on it are very dancey. And I really like dancing around the room and harmonizing with it.
But at the time, of course, you're very unsure because you're too close to it. And the biggest worry that I had was that these young kids that were our fans, that came to all our gigs... I remember being extremely worried that this young couple, this boyfriend and girlfriend who used to come to all our gigs wherever we played, that they wouldn't like it and I kind of said to myself, "well, if they like, it, I know it's good. If they don't like, I'll just... cry." But they turned up and they said that they really liked it and I remember being really thrilled that they really liked it. That was very important to me. [laughs]
PSF: That's nice- that meant that you had a good connection to your fans.
LW: Yeah! We did. They were like our friends, a lot of them. We had some times where we did gigs with other bands and they would sell out and our hardcore fans couldn't get in. And I remember there was this one gig, this big promoter in Birmingham, he had a real reputation for being a right old bastard. Making money out of bands that were singing songs against people like him. But these fans of ours who had traveled miles to see us, couldn't get in. And I remember getting hold of these comps And forging his signature and then at the end of the gig, it was like going into the ogre's office and he was like "somebody's forged my signature on these comps and it was you lot! I'm gonna make sure you never get another gig, ever again!" He was like really horrible.
And just like getting kids in to see us, you know. Like, "we'll put you on the guest list" and having a guest list was longer than the stairs going up the Eiffel Tower.
PSF: This was the time of Thatcher of course. How did that affect you personally and as an artist?
LW: I do think that economically, the country very much was in a mess. There was a miner's strike but I think that kicked off shortly after we split up. The whole era of Margaret Thatcher is so much anti-feeling against her policies, it gave voice to a lot of songs like the Beat song "Stand Down Margaret." [sings] "Stand down ple-ease..." And then the UB40 song- [sings] "I'm a number on a list, even though I don't exist...Nobody knows me, but I'm always there/A statistic, a reminder of a world that doesn't care" ["One In Ten"}. It inspired people to express their feelings against her in their music.
But I look back and I'm actually incredulous at some of things that Margaret Thatcher did that we forget about, like when she was so anti-gay, and she took all the books out of the libraries and schools... Was it called Section 28? [ED NOTE: yes] She took all the books that had any gay references, which was a massive [amount of] literature, like D.H. Lawrence and probably Shakespeare as well. Some of her policies were so... draconian. And her support of apartheid and the way you got all these right wing bigots. You couldn't get an abortion in Birmingham because the head of the health service there was a Tory right-wing bigot. So, music really used its voice to speak out against her. A very nasty woman. She's one of those people who didn't want to give up- it was very embarrassing as she kept going along until the end.
PSF: In the early reviews of Au Pairs, I keep seeing Gang of Four mentioned though it seemed unfair and lazy just to lump that together both group. What did you think of Gang of Four yourself though?
LW: Oh, I loved Gang of Four. I loved them as individuals and I loved their music. And they also gave us our first big gigs. And they took us on our first tour in America- I mean, we'd never been on an aeroplane before. So they were really good to us. I was extremely upset when Andy Gill died at the early part of last year, about a year ago now. I went to his memorial. It was just really upsetting. I couldn't believe that he died. I just thought that marked the end of an era. But in fact, they still play his music. There was a well-known producer on Radio Six today that actually mentioned the Au Pairs and mentioned Gang of Four. He said that he loved Andy Gill's guitar playing. And yeah, he was a great guitar player. I just loved them. Really, really fond memories of Gang of Four, and their music, in their original line-up. After they split up, Hugo the drummer left and Dave the bass player left- Jon and Andy kept going. But it still sounded great. But then Jon left and Andy kept it going.
Rumor has it that Andy said that he would die playing his guitar, but he actually got COVID before we knew what COVID was. They said he died of pneumonia but that's because we didn't know about COVID at that time- it was about six weeks before this thing was identified and given a name. But he'd been in China and he got really ill and he always suffered from asthma. I remember I got an email from him, saying that he wasn't very well and that they'd have to cancel their American tour. I thought, "Oh God..." And he said that he was having breathing problems and then the next thing, he was in hospital. And then it came on Radio Six and I was like, "Oh my God..." Very sad.
But that's what happens when you get to an age like mine. Everybody starts falling down dead.
PSF: Hopefully not too soon for you!
LW: [laughs] Well, I think I'm doing well. Touch wood... [she notices a CD rack behind me] Are all those CD's there?
PSF: Yeah, I'm kind of a manic collector.
LW: I have a Bose player that I've had for a number of years and it's coming back from repair tomorrow and it just plays CD's. And I was just having a chat with my friend, saying "if I didn't get it repaired, I'd have to throw my CD's away." I just think that would be a shame in a way, even though you can get everything on Spotify or whatever.
PSF: Not everything. Certain rights come and go with those things so I like to keep my music.
LW: I'm glad someone else does. It's encouraging to see that! [laughs]
PSF: Right and if it's a really good album, you feel personal about it. It's a part of you.
LW: Yeah, you can't have it as just digital. You want to have it, with a sleeve and a bump in it. I agree.
PSF: For the 2nd Au Pairs album, it had a different sound to it. What do you attribute that to?
LW: Well, I think the problem with the second album was that we didn't really have the material together to put on it. And I feel with the second album, with a lot of it, it is unfinished. We were in a studio, probably on a studio budget, and we had to just put it down and put it out. It's a shame. I think if we had more time, we could have really worked on the material. Maybe not used all of the songs that were on the album. Maybe just done different things with some of the songs, written more words, maybe written better words. I just feel like it's a half-finished piece of work. I feel like it's a work in progress. I thought it was great that some of the guys from Pigbag came and played on it. And I quite liked the idea of somebody coming in to play keyboards but the guy who played the keyboards on it was a dickhead. I think Jane got very disenchanted- she just felt... I don't know. I also felt that within the band, I kind of felt that we were losing our bond together. We weren't very connected. I know that I had a bit of a bad experience in like the pre-math of doing it and I also wasn't very happy. I also lost my voice- my voice was very shot. And I just think that we should not have gone into the studio to put down the second album until we reconnected, recharged our batteries and basically taken some time out to work on the material before being under this pressure, which you are in the studio because of the budget. Instead of just bashing something out for the sake of just bashing something out. So, that's my feeling about the second album unfortunately.
PSF: Why did the Au Pairs break up?
LW: Lack of money, key people had lost their marbles, creative energy lacking, lack of loyalty (Jane had already left to shack up with the keyboard player on 2nd album), not caring about each other anymore.
I acted on my own initiative as everything was in chaos and it was a big mess and I was penniless and homeless so I went to see the guy who had bought out Au Pairs' last record company (Kamera) who offered me the chance for Au Pairs to go into a studio with Steve Lillywhite. I met with Paul and Pete and told them that this guy had money, including to pay them and that we could go into the studio with Steve Lillywhite BUT Paul and Pete did not want to continue. I also think we split up because none of the others contributed to the songwriting. I had to lead the band and write all the material. I got drained and had no opportunity to re-charge. I also had the misfortune to experience a highly traumatic personal experience from which it took me a some years to recover.
Lovely Leslie in 2021
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