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Loved And Lost: Au Pairs

August 1, 2010

I saw the Au Pairs play only once, in London on 2 November 1980. I was at the Lyceum that night to see the Buzzcocks. After buying A Different Kind Of Tension, I’d been to the Rainbow the previous year, seen them supported by Joy Division (yes, that way round!) and been disappointed. The Buzzcocks were cold, uninterested and flat. At the Lyceum they topped an astonishing bill – in reverse order of appearance Au Pairs, The Things, Orange Juice and The Delmontes. I was seeing these last two for the first time and was impressed. I immediately bought The Delmontes’ two singles, and was sufficiently intrigued by Orange Juice to seek them out again.

The Au Pairs were a big independent name at the time. Politically committed, feminist, angry, right-on, they ticked all the boxes for the activist who worked alongside me in the bar at the University Of London Union and regularly dropped their name. A band it was approved OK to like, up there with Delta Five and the Gang Of Four, a staple of benefit gigs and leftish causes. I’d never heard them when I found myself packed into a heaving mass that night just off the Strand.

My subsequent relationship with the Au Pairs has been a perfect case of regret – a phenomenon I call ‘not paying enough attention at the time’. I should have become an instant fan and followed up on them, especially after being let down again that night by the Buzzcocks. But I didn’t, life went on, and I hitched up to Orange Juice in a big way. But something about the Au Pairs that night never went away, grew like a tumour, and is still lodged in my mind in 2010. I started to feel the need to rediscover what I’d missed, retrace the ground and bring alive the memory.

So what is left of the memory? I can’t remember a single song, only the sight, individual moments and the overall sound, and what I felt that night.

The sound was jagged, harsh, loud and urgent. Lesley Woods was awesome. Not awesome in its new currency of ‘nice’ or ‘OK’ or even ‘thank you’ but jaw-droppingly impressive, supremely confident, inspiring awe. Paul Foad was upright, sharp, cool, constantly mobile, Jane Munro static as she unleashed the great bass lines that underpinned the songs. Both guitarists were superb movers, sometimes doing a kind of jerky dance in tandem across the stage. And above it all that gorgeous voice, bluesy, punky, aching, angry. Together the band emitted a solidity, an intensity and integrity that said take it or leave it, and knew very well that you’d take it. I can see them in front of me now just as clearly as the day after the show.

There was a fight in the crowd. I don’t know why, maybe someone stood on someone else’s foot in the wrong way. As they left the stage Paul Foad paused, returned to the microphone and said “I hope that trouble sorts itself out”. Then they were gone. And that’s it.

Nearly thirty years on, something nagging me, I began my research into what I’d missed. There’s a fair bit on the internet but it’s very repetitive. It’s the classic sad story of things going bad. The jewel of what remains is a YouTube video of Come Again. What strikes me most – the Rottenesque sneer, the way Lesley Woods howls and snarls the song as it rises in intensity verse by verse; the magnificent moment in the intro when the bass comes in with that gigantic rumble, powering the music like an ocean current for the next three minutes; the fact that the song gets by on just two chords, and doesn’t need any more; the brilliant interchange between the singers at the end; and the understated humour.

Late last year, scrolling down a long list of comments on that YouTube video, I read this:

“My dear Ursula, sometimes it’s best to leave things as they are. What we achieved burnt us out as we put our all into this band and it took its toll (for rock ‘n’ roll). Please continue to get a vibe off the few recordings we did and I hope you have a fulfilling life. Many thanks and don’t sell out.”

These words are the saddest and most beautiful epitaph for a band’s career I have ever read. They were written by Pete Hammond, drummer with the Au Pairs, who split up in 1983. I don’t know whether they were dashed off in a few spare moments or lovingly crafted over hours, but they are a perfect summing-up of his band’s short life. They are the response to a query about whether the Au Pairs would reform, all those years later. Not only perfectly expressed, but absolutely the right call, Pete, even if a reunion were practically possible.

So why would trying to recreate such great moments be a mistake? Because the significance of the band was located in a particular time, because they were a unit doing 250 gigs a year, living in each other’s pockets. Because the Au Pairs were on a mission, and because you can’t just relight something that’s spluttered out and expect it to blaze again. Yes, Pete, sometimes it’s best to leave things as they are – to remember, to listen and watch what’s left. But there’s something in his words that says that the spirit and beliefs, the ethos of the band is still there, still being communicated in other ways. To quote a great song, That’s When It’s Worth It.

Au Pairs: Come Again video

From → Loved And Lost

One Comment
  1. Herb permalink

    True words! 🙂

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