Sex! Sex! Sex!
As title, Playing with a Different Sex has a hint of salaciousness, but it also sounds a little bit odd. Whilst the word 'sex' leaps out, there's something about the combination of words that doesn't roll off the tongue, that causes a moment's hesitation. That moment —of stopping, and, then, reflection— summons the central thesis in this debut album from post-punk outfit Au Pairs.
The meanings that linger in the loaded title are many. The first reading —especially in 1981, when it was released— was of women-in-music as the 'different sex,' this an invitation to spend time with a band who were exactly co-ed (lead by guitarist/vocalist Lesley Woods and guitarist Paul Foad, with Jane Munro on bass and Pete Hammond on drums). Playing with a different sex also had its sexual connotations: the title also an entreaty to explore intimacy with not-your-usual gender; Woods an outspoken lesbian in an era in which there were few.
And, finally, the name of the album contains the thematic thrust of the record. Across its ten stark, wiry, genuinely funky post-punk jams, Playing with a Different Sex looked at sex as cultural phenomenon, in all its different guises: sex as liberation, sex in a relationship, sex as commercial commodity, sex as power, sex as control, sex as protest, sex as violence. Rather than simply conceive of sex as personal crusade or simple titillation, Au Pairs' provocation was to see it in all its social complications.
Political as Personal, Personal as Political
Dealing with sex, gender, and politics in such an outspoken, brash, femme-powered fashion made Au Pairs an obvious influence on riot-grrrl. And, given such, it's easy to see them as close peers to X-Ray Spex, whose sole LP, Germ Free Adolescents, shared many thematic sentiments and left much the same legacy.
Yet, musically, Au Pairs are more comparable to Gang of Four: the staticky, dry, brittle guitar; the boingy, funky basslines; the metronomic drummer; and the hollered slogans from each guitarist. Their definitive song, "It's Obvious" —a six-minute anthem which became such a crowd-beloved live-show closer that it serves as the sign-off to Playing with a Different Sex— mints this sound perfectly. And, lyrically, it shows the terrain Woods and Foad were forever circling. Its repeated refrain, "you're equal/but different," is a case of feminism as simple human value; encouraging equality of genders by speaking to both, and attacking neither. Yet, the song is also about a monogamous relationship, and the need for both parties to be given equality, autonomy, and individuality within a union.
This sentiment is explored, with more of a sense of comic satire, elsewhere: "We're So Cool" is about the delusions and ego of those boasting of an 'open relationship'; and "Come Again" mocks reciprocal sex and attempts to find mutual pleasure in a relationship, with each orgasm tallied up to the point where it becomes a form of dreary accounting tinged with resentment.
In many ways, their commentaries on the intimacies of supposedly-radical relationship were far more incisive and culturally seditious, than their more outwardly-political tunes. Though, of course, writing songs about sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and the English occupation in Northern Ireland (sex being bound up in rape/torture) was a bold thing to do circa 1981; "Armagh," their exploration of the latter, leading Playing with a Different Sex to being banned in Norther Ireland.
'Controversy' was always going to be the fate of an album as fearsome and brazen as this; one that challenged not only the musical hegemony, but what had became the status quo of punk itself. Au Pairs released only one more LP, 1982's Sense and Sensuality, before their demise; leaving this glorious, vicious debut to slowly grow into a cult artifact over time. The decades have made it seem less transgressive, but no less vital, no less intense, no less amazing.
Record Label: Human
Release Date: 1981