“Hello. Are you Fàshiön?” asks a fresh-faced lad. “I’m Bono. I’m the singer with U2.”
“Very nice to meet you, Bongo,” (Fàshiön drummer) Dik says.
“Yeah, welcome to the big time, mate,” I say.
“Take no notice of them,” (Fàshiön manager) Annette says to Bono, who has a slight smile on his face. “No one else does.”
— Luke James, Stairway To Nowhere
Luke James has nothing but nice things to say about U2, even though they were the final catalyst in his exit from the music business.
After James’ British New Wave trio Fàshiön did a small tour of London clubs with U2 in 1980, the disillusioned frontman abandoned his band and fledgling music career.
James was burned out after only two years performing with Fàshiön, and U2 were distinctly on fire.
“They had this energy and belief that I had seen in our band a year earlier,” James said. “I was a little envious, but I was also really pleased for them. They were a great light. Even if there was only a small number of people in the crowd, they’d lift people up.”
It was a refreshing reversal from Fàshiön’s world: internal disputes, negative press, exhaustion, broken promises, drugs and alcohol, money woes.
James, who moved to the U.S. and has lived in San Francisco since 1988, is now happily married with two kids, has a day job working in sales for a print company and writes online for soccerly.com. In 2009 he published a book about his jaded musical journey, Stairway To Nowhere. The final portion of the self-published memoir includes James’ account of Fàshiön playing on a bill with U2 at nine clubs over 10 days in London in 1980, when they alternated as headliners. The book ends right after the co-tour, with James skipping out on his band and headed to France.
James, during a recent phone interview with @U2, laughed with a touch of self-deprecation when he talked about watching U2 recently on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and the Academy Awards.
“I remember sitting in a dressing room talking to Bono, both of us complaining about our record companies doing nothing to promote the band,” James said. “And here we are 35 years later, and he’s on the new Jimmy Fallon, and I’m watching it. And I’m very pleased for him.”
Luke “Skyscraper” James (the nickname refers to his 6-foot-9-inch-tall stature), who was born Al James and at one time called himself Luke Sky (“when I was taking myself way too seriously,” he said), had reason to hope that Fàshiön would find fame.
Yes, the name is spelled with the accent and umlaut, but still pronounced like plain old “fashion.” The letter embellishments were part of the band’s image. Fàshiön’s founder and bass-synth player, John Mulligan, was an artist and style aficionado whose first poster for the band featured a Vogue model.
Fàshiön, featuring James on guitar and lead vocals, Mulligan on bass and synthesizer, and Dik Davis on drums, with Miki Cottrell as producer, formed in 1978 in Birmingham, England. The band, which played a mix of punk-techno-reggae music, drew the interest of Miles Copeland, manager and producer for The Police. Fàshiön started out opening for The Police, The Cure, the B-52s and other bands. Duran Duran opened for Fàshiön.
The U2 gig came about after Fàshiön finished a three-month tour of the U.S. When they returned, Britain had mostly forgotten about them, or thought they broke up, James said, and Copeland was devoting all his energy to The Police. They had trouble landing any gigs, and agreed to tour with a new band from Ireland.
James said he noticed U2’s energy and charisma during the first show they played together, at the tiny Hope and Anchor, a cellar underneath a pub, when U2 performed “11 O’Clock Tick Tock.”
“It’s kind of like the first time I heard (Nirvana’s) ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” James said. “I was pretty knocked back — these guys are really good. Within a few minutes I found myself smiling, and the next thing I know I’m jigging around and having fun. I said, ‘The joy in this, my God.’ They had that effect immediately on a kind of bored, jaded, dissatisfied, disgruntled musician. The energy came off the stage. Everybody in that place had a great time. And then we went on. Everybody went into a depression.”
James said the two bands didn’t mingle much, in part because Fàshiön drove home to Birmingham every night (they were short on money for hotels), and U2 stayed at bed-and-breakfasts.
“After the show they didn’t hang about much — there was nothing much to hang about for,” James said. “We’d mostly see them when we got there to set up and do sound check, some of the usual interband banter. They were very friendly.
“They were really nice guys. A lot of the people I met in my years in that world were — how shall I put this delicately — not the most decent human beings I’d ever met. I was in a pretty bad place mentally myself. So it was really nice to be able to work with some people who were just these decent young guys. They didn’t drink; they didn’t carouse; they didn’t do any drugs. That optimism and joy in what they were doing, I remember thinking: This is not right they should open for us.”
Bono being … Bono
James said his most vivid memory of U2 was a performance in Fàshiön’s hometown of Birmingham.
“At one point Bono gets this rose in his teeth and jumps off the stage,” James said. “The Edge and Adam Clayton jump down too, but they haven’t figured out how long their guitar cables are, so one of them is unplugged and the other falls over. Bono still has his vocals, and so he just goes into this thing with the drums, and this dance. When they come back in with the guitar and bass, it absolutely takes the roof off.”
James said Larry, Edge and Adam were “pretty quiet most of the time,” but he remembers having a few conversations with Bono, mainly about negative press coverage and unhelpful record companies, including a “really lousy review” for a gig Fàshiön did with U2. James included a quote from the review on the cover of his book: “These jesters probably think that the future of music is theirs.”
“They said horrible things about how shallow we were and how wonderful U2 were, which was great for them,” James said. “I was sitting next to Bono, and I said, ‘Why can’t they just say good things about you? They don’t have to talk crap about us.’”
According to James, Bono replied, “Yeah, I know, but it doesn’t matter what they say about you, as long as they spell your name right.” James then looked at the reviews … and the accent and umlaut were missing. “They even spelled our name wrong,” he said, laughing.
“At the end of the tour, I quit, I ran away,” James said. “I went away in the sun in Bordeaux with my 19-year-old French girlfriend, which made more sense to me than freezing and starving in some little apartment in Birmingham waiting for a 50-pound gig. That was that. It was pretty legit, I think. I’ve since apologized.”
Fàshiön went on for a few more years with different band members. James said he and Mulligan have exchanged one email since 1979 and “buried the hatchet and wished each other well” in 2000, when producer Cottrell died. Davis has died as well.
James said he has “no regrets at all” about leaving Fàshiön because he’s “married to the love of my life and have these two incredible children. I’ve been clean and sober for seven years. If I’d been successful in commercial terms, I’d have been dead on a bathroom floor somewhere a long time ago. The best part of my life came late. I’m just so damn lucky to have gotten to it, the things that are really important.”
He said he’s channeled his “addictive personality” into writing — including a black-comedy novel he hopes to publish someday; acting (doing performance pieces of his writing); and reconnecting with his love of soccer.
James still dabbles in music, too. He has recorded “In Deep,” an album of songs he wrote while falling in love with his wife, Karin; and released Stairway To Nowhere (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/fashionmusic2), a 30th-anniversary tribute to Fàshiön’s debut album, Product Perfect, featuring new songs written and played by James. He’s also learning to play flamenco guitar, an English style he calls “flamanglo.”
James’ YouTube page features a video of Fàshiön performing on the BBC in 1979.
James said he hasn’t seen U2 perform live since he left Fàshiön, although he’s watched their concert DVDs. “And I love that movie (It Might Get Loud) The Edge made with Jack White and Jimmy Page,” he said. “It’s guitar player porn.”
And he knows U2’s music.
“They never stopped with the awesome songs,” he said. “Every time you hear a U2 song, it’s never bad. I don’t know how they do it.”
One of the reasons he moved to the U.S., James said, was because “in Britain, they love nothing more than to drag you down. The amount of people I know who talk s**t about Bono for the work he’s trying to do … I don’t hear that here. It really ticks me off.”
James said he has never considered contacting the band. And if he did, “it’s not because I would want anything. It would be to say hi. I’d let them know I remember them as being a really great band and really great guys, and that it was kind of the bright spot at the end for me — a glimmer of light at the end of my so-called career. U2 that went on to burst into a shining light.”
(c) @U2/Lindell, 2014