May 17, 2021
Forty years ago, the Birmingham band released their debut album, and its frank, forthright songs about sex and equality are still pertinent. They explain how music gave their anger a voice
Post-punk band Au Pairs: ‘The Thatcher years gave us plenty of material’
Forty years ago this month, one of the best but often forgotten albums of the 1980s was released: Playing With a Different Sex by Birmingham band Au Pairs. The cover, an Eve Arnold photo showing female militia fighters heading into battle, is a good visual harbinger of the album’s friction-filled songs. Jane Munro’s monster basslines, Pete Hammond’s tight drum rhythms, and the jagged riffs of Lesley Woods and Paul Foad combine to form a tense backdrop for the myriad moods of Woods’ androgynous voice, singing songs that confront conformity and demand equality. “There was just so much to be angry about,” Woods says today. “We were four young people,” Foad adds, “who were pissed off with the political situation of the time.”
Au Pairs formed in Birmingham in 1978. Stewart Lee’s recent documentary King Rocker showcases the scene in the city at the time, with Birmingham’s first punk band the Prefects (later the Nightingales) playing venues like the legendary Barbarella’s, a venue they immortalised in the song of the same name as a place “where the beer tastes of prune juice” and “they sell tickets for the exits”. UB40 and the Beat were also on the same circuit, and Au Pairs, who formed from their city’s Rock Against racism action group, would often team up with local bands to play gigs for the anti-racist organisation.
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