An Audition With The Police – New York 1979

Police drummer Stewart Copeland sporting a Fáshiön tee shirt

As well as touring as front man and guitar player with The Police’s opening band, Fáshiön, I did once actually play with The Police on stage. Well, sort of.

Excerpt from Stairway To Nowhere

New York City, 1979.

I walk back to the hotel, just enjoying moving through the bustle of Manhattan’s avenues. I find our drummer, Dik, on a bar stool in the bar next to the Iroquois Hotel lobby. He’s staring morosely at a the dregs of a large gin.

“Evening darling.” I say, sliding onto the stool next to him and whacking my knee against the bar. “Tough day at the office? What’s for dinner?” I grimace and rub my kneecap. “I sodding hate the standardized world. You’ve no idea what a pain in the arse it can be being a giant.”

He looks up at me, all bloodshot mascara.

“Shut up, you lanky git.”

“I love you too. A bottle of Becks and a double Jack on the rocks please, love.” I tell the barmaid. “Why the long face?”

“I could be having more fun down the Barrel Organ. At least we’d have a gig.”

“Yeah. I suppose. Still we are in New York though. I mean it’s not exactly sodding Digbeth, is it?”

I light a fag and look round the bar. An old bloke carrying a double bass case is struggling in through the door.

“Looks like they’ve get a band here tonight then.” I note.

The old man disappears through a door into a back room.

“Thrilling.” Dik says “Think they do any Pistols covers?”

“Well we can ask them. Might be a laugh.”

I slug down my Jack, pick up my beer, and head for the back room.

Inside, I find a dingy lounge and an ancient drummer, keyboard player, and the stand-up bassist. They’re all wearing Taho tuxes circa 1943. The audience consists of about twenty people who look as if they’ve also seen better days, and never mind they’re wearing their best party frocks. Also there, are Sting and Stewart Copeland – who have days better than they can possibly imagine to look forward to, and more party frocks than Barbra Streisand (should they so choose!).

“Watcha lads.” I say sitting down next to Sting. “What’s going on?”

“It’s the house band. A singer’s night I think.” Sting says. “This lot are all here to get up and do their party pieces.”

“Sounds wonderful.” I say, “Shall we do ours?”

One old dear in yards of taffeta has doddered to the mic and starts a crack-throated rendition of When Somebody Loves You. We listen to a few other relics strut their stuff, a couple of them quite tuneful as it goes, and then the keyboard player invites the Limey punk rockers up to see what they can do. So while Stewart hits the traps and brushes, Sting manhandles the bass, I nod at the keyboard player and lay down a decidedly dodgy Frank Sinatra impersonation in a surreal rendition of Strangers In The Night. I decide to add my stamp by singing every fifth note of the last chorus alternately sharp and flat.

“We’ll let you know.” Sting says to me afterwards.

“Not if I let you know first mate.” I say.

Fashion Shrewsbury Dec 1978

The Duran Duran Auditions – Part Two

DURANNick Rhodes – “Fáshiön were an inspiration on the Birmingham scene. John (Taylor) and I used to go and see them at The Barrel Organ in Digbeth virtually every week over a six month period. They were a great inspiration. We played our last gig with Stephen Duffy as our vocalist at Barbarellas supporting Fáshiön.”

John Taylor – “Fáshiön were definitely doing something new. You really had to be there with Fáshiön, but they were very important to Nick and me. It was like New Sounds New Styles, all about mixing things up. Fáshiön took a punk ethic, fused it with white reggae and there was a synth pop element. And clothes were important, posters were important, typeface was important. Birmingham had never really been known for style, we needed something. And Fáshiön did something different every week. They were pretty glamorous.”
(From Duran Duran Unseen … Paul Edmond –Photographs 1979-82)

We hack through some of our old singles Steady Eddie Steady, Citinite, The Innocent, and Silver Blades just to get warmed-up. Then we try to bludgeon the new material (Emotional Blackmail, Artificial Eyes, and Do it in the Dark) into some semblance of a hit record.

We decide to take a break from a rehearsal that’s going nowhere fast. Mulligan is just starting a game of Space Invaders on the wardrobe-sized machine by the door, Dik and I are standing behind him watching, when a silhouette carrying a guitar case appears in the doorway.

music_biogs_andy_taylor“’Scuse us, like, you Duran Duran?” a Geordie wants to know.

“Not exactly, no.” Dik says.

“No. Not at all, in fact.” I agree.

“I’m here for the audition. Just off the train. Name’s Andy.”

“Alright, Andy. We’re Fáshiön. Bits of it anway.” Dik says and grins.

Duran Duran’s gear is just through there.” I say, waving back into the darkened bowels of the club. “Go on through. I expect they’ll be here in a bit.”

“Right. Ta.”

“You’re welcome mate,” Dik says. “Just look for a pile of right tatty, old, road battered gear with steam coming off it. That’ll be ours. The brand new stuff opposite it is theirs.”

Dik and I go outside for a smoke. We hop around trying to keep warm while we add to Broad Street’s carbon monoxide.

Simon LeBon“Here, they’ve been on at me, y’know.” I say.

“What? Who has?” Dik leers at a couple of passing office girls and they giggle.

“The management brothers.”

“What about?”

“They want to know if I think that new bloke can sing?”

“What, LeBonk?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Well, not the truth.”

“No. Why start now? Said he was alright did you?”

“Well, he’s not bad.”

“His shirts look a bit grubby though.” Dik adds, “Someone should tell his Mom about that new biological Persil, eh?”

Is he any good, they want to know. Does he have what it takes to be a star? Why would I even care, and how the fuck am I supposed to know? I’ve lost my way, I’m no longer convinced of the inevitability of my own stardom. I’m on a treadmill, going through the motions, it feels like I’m trapped on a stairway to nowhere.

“Looks like they’re looking for a guitar player as well, then.” I say, turning to stare back down the alley at the club entrance behind us.

“Oy. Don’t get any ideas, lanky, you’ve got a job.”

“You must be joking.” I say, “Me? Play with that lot of Mulligan worshippers? They think I’m some kind of oik in eyeliner.

“Well, you are.”

“I know. But I do have lovely eyes.”

“Come on, let’s go and see if we can persuade the god Mulligan to skank up the bass line to Do it in the Dark.”

We beseech him, but our prayers fall on deafened ears.

A couple of weeks later, Annette tells us that the newly furnished Duran Duran have finalized their line-up and want us to play a showcase gig with them at The Rum Runner.

“They’ll open up the show.” she says.

“Yes, and I’m sure we’ll manage to finish it off.” I add.

DD rum runnerOn the night, Duran Duran bang through their set with lots of dash and fresh-faced enthusiasm. The new guitar player, Andy, turns out to have just the right touch of funk to his playing to spark their sound.

I, on the other hand, play the whole set collapsing back against the mirrored wall, staring out at the crowd with a bored, fixed expression. Who knows how our show goes, most of the poseurs there probably weren’t even listening. I know I barely was.

And suffering the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune there at the end of my so-called career, just a couple of weeks later we are down in London opening two shows at The Rainbow Theater for The Stranglers and I’m having the time of my life again!

Luke Atlanta color

The Duran Duran Auditions

PART ONE
Nick Rhodes
Nick Rhodes – “Fáshiön were an inspiration on the Birmingham scene. John (Taylor) and I used to go and see them at The Barrel Organ in Digbeth virtually every week over a six month period. They were a great inspiration. We played our last gig with Stephen Duffy as our vocalist at Barbarellas supporting Fáshiön.”

John-Taylor
John Taylor – “Fáshiön were definitely doing something new. You really had to be there with Fáshiön, but they were very important to Nick and me. It was like New Sounds New Styles, all about mixing things up. Fáshiön took a punk ethic, fused it with white reggae and there was a synth pop element. And clothes were important, posters were important, typeface was important. Birmingham had never really been known for style, we needed something. And Fáshiön did something different every week. They were pretty glamorous.”
(Quotes are from Duran Duran Unseen by Paul Edmond –Photographs 1979-82)

In 1979 Fáshiön went off to conquer America and were promptly swallowed whole by the music biz without so much as a hiccup. Spat back four months later across the Atlantic they arrived to find Two Tone and the Coventry Sound had swept the land in their absence. They were suddenly no longer the hot ticket they always thought themselves to be. In those desperate last days of the band’s first line-up they rehearsed at The Rum Runner on Broad Street in Birmingham’s city center. The Rum Runner was easily the coolest club in town; it was where The English Beat shot their Mirror In The Bathroom video. As well as Fáshiön, UB40 rehearsed there, and a new band was giving birth to itself in one of the club’s back rooms – Duran Duran.

The following conversations might not have taken place word for word, but something like them did.

The next day, I show up for rehearsal at The Rum Runner to find Dik and Mulligan already there. I come out of the murky afternoon Birmingham light into the murky light of one of the club’s mysterious back rooms. At least there’s no waiting for your eyes to adjust to the gloom. I’m not in the best of moods. The club-in-the-afternoon atmosphere of stale booze and cigarette smoke with just a whiff of toilet cake and disinfectant cheers me up a bit. Told you I wasn’t in the best of moods.

Mulligan and Dik are standing staring at a brand, spanking new back line – drums galore, stacks of amps, new basses, guitars, and keyboards all over the place. There’s even a sodding saxophone on a stand.

“What the …” I ask, “Don’t tell me Copeland finally came through with a sponsorship deal.”

“You must be joking.” Mulligan says, “This all belongs to Duran Duran.”

A gorilla in a suit two sizes too small for it steps out of the shadows.

“That is all off limits.” he growls, “Boss’s orders. That belongs to Duran Duran, that does.”

“How nice for it.” I say.

“Or to a music shop with a hole in the back wall.” Dik says.

Mulligan grins and shushes him.

“Shall we?” I ask, pointing at our small clump of road-battered gear.

TO BE CONTINUED … Part Two Next Week

We Lost The Clash Gig So That Night We Played With Duran Duran Instead


Fáshiön
Luke Sky: guitar and vocals
Mulligan: Bass and synth
Dik Davis: Drums

Band meeting, Birmingham, England – July 1978

Mulligan, dyed platinum dreadlocks flying behind him like jet stream, bursts into the room.

“The Cla …. The Cla … The Cla…” He pants.

“You’ve got the clap?” Dik asks.

“What, again?” I add.

“No … The Cla ….”

“You really should cut down on the fags you know.”

“No stamina these keyboard players.” I tell Dik “What do you expect though? They just stand there all night.”

“The sodding Clash!” Mulligan explodes.

“Congratulations. A complete sentence. Sort of.”

“I knew he could do it.”

“WE’VE GOT A GIG WITH THE CLASH!”

“It’s those night school classes he’s been – WHAT!? What did you just say?”

Mulligan has got his breath back. He sniffs and turns his back.

“Never mind.”

“Never mind never mind, arse face, what did you just say?” Dik demands.

“Come on Jon. What? A gig? With The Clash? You’re kidding, right? Like that time you told us your granddad was a captain in the IRA.”

“I’m not telling you now.” Mulligan sulks, but I can see malicious glee is all but straightening his dreadlocks.

“What we need in a situation like this is a manager.” I say, “So we’d know what’s going on.”

“Or a swift knee in the bollocks.” Dik says.

“Oh, alright then. I was in town and I ran into Corky. He needs a band this Saturday to open for The Clash at Barbarellas. He said we could do it if we want.”

“If we bleedin’ well want to?!” I’m hopping around the room like a totem pole on the loose.

“Hang on,” Dik says, “It’s Friday today innit. That means, tomorrow night?”

“Yeah.” Mulligan says, “You aren’t busy are you? Washing your pubes or anything?”

“Right after the gig Jon, that’s precisely what I plan on doing.” Dik says. “Right, rehearsal tonight men. There’s gonna be some skankin’ white men in Barbarellas tomorrow night!”

The rehearsal is absolutely terrible, Nobody’s mind is on what they’re doing. We’re all time traveling forward to sharing a dressing room and then a stage with Joe Strummer and his pals. I forget the words and try to make up for it by playing chords that have no business being anywhere near a guitar neck. Mulligan’s synth plays itself when it feels like it, mostly between numbers, and it’s only the relentless fury of Dik’s drumming that occasionally holds the whole thing together. Not that he sees it that way.

“I can’t decide whether I sound like I’m building a bloody shed or pushing a suit of armor down our cellar stairs.” he says.

“Oh shut up, you tart. This is the third string I’ve broken this afternoon. And what the sodding hell is up with that bloody Wasp Jon?”

“I think it’s lonely.” Mulligan says, and as if in agreement the black and yellow, touch-sensitive keyboard lets out a sad, dribbling sounds not unlike a farting badger being blown off a cliff.

“Well lads,” Miki says, “You know what they say, lousy rehearsal, brilliant gig.”

“So on the strength of today we’ll blow The Clash offstage then.” I say.

“Here, here big nose,” Dik says, “a bit less of the blasphemy if you don’t mind. Strummer be his name.”

I’m at home practicing for when we’re on Top of the Pops, skank dancing in front of the wardrobe mirror, miming to Product Perfect. The neighbors are probably banging on the wall but I can’t hear them. I ponder the eternal question, if a neighbor knocks on the wall but there’s no guitarist around to hear it, is he still making too much noise?

Then I decide more important matters are in need of my attention. I bring my Technofascist Doc Martens to a halt, set the John Birch custom on its stand, and go into the kitchen to get the boot polish and my brush. The docs are going to be polished to mirror-finish tonight. There’s a knock on the back door and it topples into the kitchen. I really must get around to rehanging it on its hinges sometime – that was some party though. So they tell me. Dik comes into the room like Taz off the Bugs Bunny show, a whirlwind of hair, knuckles, drumsticks and invective. He pirouettes to a halt in the middle of the floor and lets out a bellow of rage.

“Nice of you to pop round.” I spit on the toe of my left Doc and attack it with the brush.

“That wanker! I’ll bleedin’ swing for him, I swear I will! He’s only pulled us.”

“Pulled us?” I’m not really listening. I often don’t.

“Corky. From the gig tonight.”

“WHAT?”

His voice sinks to a low growl filled with the promise of extremely painful retribution.

“He’s pulled us and put those New York poufters Suicide in our place. I’m gonna-“
“-please. Spare me the details. They can’t be any worse than the ones I’m thinking.”

Mulligan creeps into the kitchen. He looks like some severely depressed Revlon field mouse who’s lost his tea party.

“We have to do something.” I declare.

“Shut up.”

Mulligan digs in his jumpsuit pocket and pops a handful of small purple pills into his mouth.

“I’ll put the kettle on.” I say.

“It won’t fit. And besides, it doesn’t go with your eyes.” Miki has trailed in behind Mulligan. He lights a B&H, so he now has one in each hand.

As Mulligan subsists almost entirely on a diet of toast and pills it only takes about ten minutes for the purple hearts to gallop through his empty stomach into his blood stream. Somewhere around my second cup of tea, his head snaps up.

“Bollocks to ‘em.” He says, “we’ll do a gig anyway. Our own gig.”

“Great idea, Jon. I mean it’s not as if anyone’s going to Barbs tonight to see The Clash is it. They’ll all need something to do.”

“No, come on. Sod this for a game of tinnies. It’s us against the world, right?”

“Apparently.” Dik mumbles, but then he gets a sudden devilish look on his face. “Jon’s right. Us against the world. Come on lanky, shake a leg, we’ve got a gig to organize.

I’m standing with Miki at the back doors of the van. He’s just driven it over the pedestrian-only little humpback bridge outside the main entrance to The Canon Hill Arts Center. No trolls were harmed in the parking of this van.

“Barbarella’s has changed a bit then.” Miki observes. B&H smoke swirls around him like Sherlockian fog.

“Very funny.”

“Yes,” he says, unraveling the electric cable holding the back doors of the van closed, “it’s amazing what a dab of paint and turfing over Broad Street can do for a club’s ambiance.”

“We’ll be needing a bleedin’ ambulance if you don’t shut it.”

“Oh yeah? You and who’s army sunshine?”

Mulligan bursts out of the arts center doors and hares towards the van.

“His.” I say.

“Oooh, you big butch cowboy, you know I love it when you talk dangerous.”

“Alright chaps?” Mulligan wants to know.

“Just fine and dandy.” I say with a face as long as the line currently winding its way round Barbarellas to see The Clash.

“How you are adjusting to life in the army Mulligan?” Miki asks him but Mulligan has already learned to disregard the more surreal of Miki’s questions. Which is most of them, then.

“Let’s get in and get set up.” Mulligan says and then I need you to take me back to my place please Miki. With the van. To pick up a few things.

I stand and marvel at the stage, upon which sits a good deal of Mulligan’s flat. There’s the sculpture from the bog, the one that always confuses me as to where I’m supposed to piss. His biggest paintings are strung from invisible cables so that the minotaur on the black and white checkered floor looks as if he’s about to step over and adjust the stack of televisions. There are ten television stacked on a board that’s balanced on the backs of a couple of female shop window dummies posed down on their hands and knees. All very Korova milkbar, I’m sure.

Dik’s standing onstage wielding the mystic Premier drum key and doing mysterious things only drummers pretend to understand to the 3-D jigsaw puzzle of his kit. There are a couple of motorbikes parked either end of the stage. Center stage, a large white screen is silently showing one of those old black and white French films, all full of rotting dog carcasses, eyeballs being sliced by razor blades, and other things the French think of as art.

Then those two thin white dukes in trench coats I’d met last week at Mulligans walk onstage, and start setting up a couple of amps and a keyboard. What were they called again?

“Duran Duran.” Mulligan says coming up behind me and making me jump.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

“They’re going to open the show for us. That’s their screen and projector.

“Very multi-media, I’m sure. Where’s Miki?”

“Up the village. In the pubs, trying to get a few punters down the hill.” He tugs a pocket watch from his jacket pocket, “He should be back in a minutes, then we’ll do sound checks. I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make” And he rushes off like a dreadlocked white rabbit.

Afterwards, how did I feel about the show: Fashion and Duran Duran at The Cannon Hill Arts Center on that night in July of 1978? We’re helping hump Mulligan’s furniture and artwork back into his flat around about half past midnight? And I’m surprised to find I actually ended up having a great time. I managed to shake off the depression of losing what would have been at that time the most important gig I’d ever played.

I’d actually quite enjoyed Duran Duran – they were a bit synthy and drum machiney, but they had a few other good songs as well as that Girls On Film we’d heard on their demo tape. They were a bit funky in places, that John could play bass by slapping it with his thumb which is quite impressive, then again, I am easily impressed. Add in Nick’s synths meeps and warbles, and decent singer in Andy Wickett, and their set had seemed a good enough soundtrack for the black and white arty, Frech films they’d projected behind them.

And whereas there were only about 50 people in the whole 200-seater theatre, I did actually manage to get into our songs. We played a tight set, twisting and dipping, roaring and whooshing, in all the right places, all the right notes in the right order sort of thing. I completely forgot where I was, and why I was there, and those 50 punters must have picked up on that because they did a Dr. Who Tardis number on the theater, and somehow seemed to fill the place. It was only our eighth gig and despite the circumstances it felt like progress.

I’m tired, sweaty and almost happy as we unload the gear back into Mulligan’s flat.

“Help me get the sculpture back in the bog.” Mulligan says.

“Good idea.” I say “I’m dying for a slash.”

ON TOUR WITH U2 – 1980

 
 
 
(Excerpt from Stairway To Nowhere by Luke James)

The thing about U2 in England in 1980 is that they are a great band. They are vibrant, passionate, energetic, they are on a mission they believe in.
 
And then there’s Fàshiön – exhausted from two years on the road, a road littered with broken and false promises, going through the motions with very little new material, slowly being devoured by internal dispute and dissent. Apart from that we’re doing just fine!
 
In fact, Miles Copeland (manager of The Police and head of IRS Records) will be later quoted in New Musical Express saying: “Fàshiön are all at sea – but doing quite well”.
 
Ah there’s nothing like having your record company’s backing … and that’s nothing like having your record company’s backing. More like having them behind you with a fistful of daggers. But I digress …
 
U2 have great songs and put on great shows. It’s a bit like touring with a bunch of really nice, well-behaved boy next door types. They don’t do any of the booze or drugs. If there had been any groupies they wouldn’t have done them either. No, they show up, treat everyone with courteous respect, play amazing music, then say goodnight and drive back to their bed and breakfast in a battered old transit van.
 
The U2 “tour”, with only a couple of provincial exceptions, turns out to consist of gigs in London’s smaller clubs, clubs we’d first played back when we thought we were on our way up.
 
First stop, May 22, is The Hope & Anchor, Upper Street, Islington, London.
 
“I see we’re back playing in someone’s mouth again.” I say, eying the red painted walls and dangerously low ceiling of The Hope & Anchor.
 
“Some of my happiest moments have been spent playing inside someone’s mouth.” Dik says.
 
“Pity we didn’t all become dentists instead,” I say, “Then again …”
 
“What’s he moaning about now?” Annette asks.
 
“Oh, the usual,” Mulligan says, “Everything.”
 
I watch Whistling Pete and Pedro try not to get squashed lowering bass cabs through the street level trap door that in former times was used to load huge barrels of beer into the pub cellar.
 
“I was just saying, we were here two years ago, that’s all. Remember there was that journalist bird from Record Mirror. Gave us a great review, she did.” I say.
 
“That’s not all. She gave great he—”, Mulligan says.
 
“Yes, yes, alright, alright. Spare us the grizzly details. True and otherwise.” I say. Then to Annette, “So is there going to be any press here tonight, boss?”
 
“I’m sure the usual will be here. NME, Sounds, Melody Maker.”
 
“Tractor Breeding Monthly?” I suggest. “Wasp Farming Quarterly? The British Journal of Dung?”
 
“Shut up Luke.”
 
“Yes boss.”
 
“Hello. Are you Fashion?” asks a fresh-faced lad, “I’m Bono. I’m the singer with U2.”
 
“Very nice to meet you Bongo.” Dik says.
 
“Yeah, welcome to the big time mate.” I say.
 
“Take no notice of them Bono.” Annette says to Bono, who has a slight smile on his face. “No one else does.”
 
She squints at her file-o-fax.
 
“We’re opening the show for you tonight. You open for us tomorrow at The Moonlight Club,” she says, “So, we’ll get set up, and if you can have you back line ready at the side of the stage—”
 
“That postage stamp-sized thing over there,” I say. “That’s the stage.”
 
“Shut up Luke.”
 
“And next to it, that alcove where they stack the mops and sawdust, that’s the dressing room.” I say, “Watch your head on the ceiling.”
 
Luke James interview with @U2

Sting… Bono… Luke Sky… who?


 
I never had a train set, never had a bike, lived on a council estate and ran with a gang. I never went on holiday, went to a state school, son of a taxi driver, but no feeble-minded git, me – no, clever. Sharp. Ambitious. No dole factory pension illusion for me. Pop star me!
 
As a teenager, I was laughed at for being a freak, I never got shagged, instead I got beaten up in the toilets. I was the black sheep of the family, who did I think I was, first with that long hair and guitar, then with that spiky hair and make-up? Blokes don’t wear make-up in Brum. Must be one of them bloody pooftahs. I’d get my own back though, show every bugger what was really what. Pop star me!
 
The first gig, we gatecrash: The Mekons at The Bournbrook Hotel, borrow all their gear, we only have curly guitar leads, drum sticks and the best-looking clothes. The Mekons give us five songs before their support band. We only have four songs, so we have to do one of them twice. Right before we go on, drummer Dik Davis and I go to the gents, which is stinking up the corridor outside the saloon bar. The saloon bar’s full of British Leyland track workers, swilling it down and setting fire to their fingers to prove how hard they are. We’re standing in the ammonia puke stench, taking a leisurely leak, when we hear a voice behind us, slurred and thick with menace.
 
“What the frig am that doin’ in the gents?”
 
“’Ey girls, the ladies is downstairs,” booms a second voice.
 
“Oh very funny, you dimmock.” Dik says.
 
“Yeah, ha-soddin’-ha spunk bubble.” I add.
 
“What do yow say, yow bleedin’ queer?”
 
Dik turns from the tile, smiling, “Your missus doesn’t think I was very bleedin’ queer last night.” he says.
 
I don’t have time to laugh or brace myself, much less zip up. My face is slammed into the tiles and everything goes barmy. I get hit, I try to hit back, I get kicked, I try to kick back, but there are fists and boots everywhere. It doesn’t last long, it’s over really quickly, probably just as well. As suddenly as it started, it stops and they’re gone. The British Leyland lads are already back in the saloon bar, laughing over a fresh pint of slop about the fun they had with the queers in the bog.
 
I’m down on my knees, cheek against the slimy tile. I struggle up from pee-stained knees, wobbling, waiting to see how badly I’m hurt. I can taste blood and my lips feel like old inner tubes. I see a pair of black leather legs sticking out of a stall. Dik’s lying on his back, head propped against a crusty, brown toilet bowl. One of his eyes is already starting to close and his nose is streaming blood.
 
“Yow alright?” I ask him. My mouth feels broken. He grins up at me.
 
“’Ello darlin’,” he says, “Come here often, do you?”
 
Just the working class fighting the working class – a necessary part of keeping things the way they are.
 
We play our five songs – one of them twice as an encore – and fourteen minutes later we’re out of the door, and off down the road, with the applause still ringing behind us.
 
Pop stars us!
 
We work hard, the gigs get better, we think we’re on the stairway, but we’re not on our way up, we’re Brummies, working class council estate oiks, second city, second class, tolerated but not really invited to the party that is London. Court jesters? No, pop stars us!
 
A year later onstage at the end of gruelling US tour we’re playing at The Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. We’re still the support band, the opening act. We’re not The Police: a teacher on bass, a public school hippy on guitar, and a member of one of the richest familes in America on drums. We’re the hired help, the crowd warmers, fluffers to the Copelandic Empires naughty dreams of world conquest! We still have our pride though. We’re clinging to it by our black glitter fingernail polish. Pop stars us!
 
Come on you buggers, when do we get our go? All this promising us the nice car, then swindling us, working us to death, and sending us home on the bus with fifty quid between us.
 
Then the record company finally (and probaby accidentally) told us the truth – Your single won’t be a hit – we’re spending every penny to make sure “Message In A Bottle” by The Police is bought in every country across the globe. Whether they have electricity or not!
 
Sodding pop stars us! Now one old man, two dead, and one missing – pop stars us? Not really … not even close!
 

Above It All – The Tallest Man in the Bar

Chess Lunatic and Tallest Man In The Bar Podcast

 

Luke Sky and Andy Summers B&W lo res

I can see everything from up here you know, all the way to the door at the back where Frank’s not bothering to check most of the IDs. I’m as drunk as the rest of my fellow revelers, probably more than most, as I’m breathing the fumes rising from the trough of fermentation that is the bar well. Not that you can tell because at 6 foot 9 I’m drunk at altitude. I’ve barely filled myself up to just above the knees. Blessed be the tallest man in the bar. Not only can I clock the birds, scout for the girls from up here, I’m also handily above the majority of the inane drunken babble that’s going on down there. I can though, with a slight bend of the knees and a bit of a lean forward, lower myself to give or even on occasion receive a bon mot, a bad joke or a cool quip.

Being drunk in America is different when you’re 6 foot 9. Being anything or anywhere in America is different when you’re 6 foot 9. Different from the land of my birth. England. Not so sodding Great anymore if it ever was in the first place Britain, those Septic Isles set in a sea of phlegm-colored effluent. In Britain the different, including the physically different are derided, sneered at, taunted , laughed at as freaks – all out in public in loud voices. These supposed inhibited little titchy people will loudly yell “fuckin’ ‘ell Barry, look at that freak over Thayer. Hey lamppost what’s the weather like up there. What a state, look at him, shouldn’t be allowed. Fucking freak.” The denizens of this land of conformity hate anything or anyone that by daring to look different reminds them of the crushing weight of their conformity. Children will dance and chant and taunt down around your ankles and girls will call you Frankenstein while they go off to pub with the normal sized captain of the cricket team on the back of his motorbike.car track 2

In pubs in my car factory hometown of Birmingham I was often picked on by drunks who were too drunk to care whether they beat up or were beaten up by the biggest fucking freak yow ever saw. Just as long as they had something to tell their fellow morons on the track at British Leyland, or in the dole queue, next day.

But that’s England, it’s different here in America where everything’s bigger anyway, right? Just ask a Texan. There is though a cultural crossover where I encounter an increasing number of Indian and Pakistani people who grew up under the crushing yoke of the legacy of colonial British rule. They tend to peer up at me, not quite yet assimilated into the cultural mores of their new country, and I see the flicker of astonishment, the knee jerk reaction to smirking derisive laughter, hastily quelled by the sudden realization that they are now in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and the tall.union-jack-stars-and-stripes

In America there’s this whole pantheon of tall heroes, men who have their heads in the clouds of ambition from long legged Texas rangers to basketball players, being tall in America is admired not sneered at.

In American bars being this tall means you often get served quicker at a crowded bar, it means with a bigger body mass you can hold your drink, and girls? Well a lot of the time American girls look up to you, look up at you … while trying to gauge the contents of your pants.

I was picking up a pizza at Big Kaisers the other day and there was a gaggle of high school kids behind me. As I turned to leave clutching my box of tasty Americaness one of them said: “Excuse me sir, are in the NBA.” I smiled modestly and said, “well I used to be.” “Wow,” said the youth nudging his buddies as I went out through the door “he was in the NBA dude.”

Yep I thought as I folded my foot too tall ass into the interior of my Mazda 626, as a man who has never played a game basketball in his life I was nevertheless once NBA, National British Aberration. Not any more though, not now I’ve found where I truly belong, where I fit in, the US of A. The tallest man in the bar.


Luke as Lucky Eric in Bouncers 2

Illusions of Success and Failure: Cliff Richard (1959)

Cliff Richard Living Doll

The row of terraced houses wound up and down Tiverton Road like an industrial accordion cast aside by a drunken giant. Grey slate roofs glistened with Christmas frost under the full moon. Roy and I scrambled out of the car and scurried down the entry to Grandma James backdoor. The front door was only used for weddings and funerals.

When I was 7 Boxing Day was like a second Christmas, almost as exciting as the actual day, and there were more presents, even if some of them were monogrammed hankies or grey socks from Aunty Dorothy. The whole James clan would gather and jam themselves in Grandma May’s and Granddad Charlie’s tiny terraced two-up-and-two-down (being the total number of tiny rooms on each floor). There was a shadowy entry way to run up and down, there was an outside toilet to flush when empty and bang on the door when occupied, and there was a mysterious back garden, a small patch of weeds that surrounded an Anderson shelter left over from the war.

I threaded my way through forests of trouser legs and sailing ships of dresses and reached the front room. It’s amazing what the lure of the stage can do, especially when fueled by booze. I may have only been 7 years-old but I knew what a glass of Stones ginger wine could do to warm my chest and fuddle my head.

“Come on then our Alan. That’s right,” Dad yelled, “Get up on that table and give us a turn.”

I clambered via a chair up onto the polished top of Grandma James’s front room table. I looked round, my head just about level with the crowd and spied Auntie Christine over in the corner next to her Dansette record player. She was old, about 12 I thought. Anyway, she wore a big girl’s party dress with lots of layers and had pop records. Her idol Cliff Richards was warbling on about his living doll when Uncle Bob said:

“Come on Christine, turn that bloody racket off so we can hear Alan.”

She shot me a furious look but did as Uncle Bob said. Most people did, he’d been in the army. He’d got a tattoo and had stood outside Buckingham Palace and guarded the Queen.

buckingham-palace-guard-london

I looked at Christine as she slipped her precious 45 records into their green Columbia Records sleeves. I was determined to impress her.

Uncle Harley came up and stood next to Dad. He puffed on his cigar, the smoking fireman.

“He’s a card your Alan.”

It was one of the few times I ever remember seeing Dad look proud of me.

“Daft as a bag of spanners.” Dad said, “But we might get a laugh out of him.”

I started marching up and down the table imitating a cartoon character from a paraffin advert on the telly.

Esso blue man

“Boom-boom-boom-boom Esso Blue!” I proclaimed, and then segued into “You’ll wonder where the yellow went – when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”, grinning out at everyone from behind a face full of teeth.

Then I hit them with “Nuts! Who-o-le Hazelnuts!  Cadbury’s take them and they cover them in chocolate!” to the tune of The Banana Boat Song,  moving on to wow ’em with the big finish:

milky-bar-kid“The Milky Bar Kid is tough and strong,

The Milky Bar Kid just can’t go wrong,

The Milky Bar Kid only eats what’s right,

That’s Milky Bar, it’s sweet and light,

Nestlé’s Milky Bar!

The Milky Bars are on me!”

This was a sure-fire winner as everyone thought our Roy looked just like the Milky Bar Kid from the advert. As I lapped up the good-natured applause I saw poor Roy beetroot red with embarrassment at the back of the room. Dad handed me my prize glass of Stones Ginger Wine. Aunty Christine swanked past me in her frock.

“Well at least Cliff has got nothing to worry about!” she said with her snoot in the air.

We’ll see about that, I told myself, and slugged down my drink.

Illusions of Success and Failure:Roll Over Beethoven (1965)

Beatles_Shea-Stadium-2
I was 13 and we were still living in our tiny council house slum. One bright and freezing Saturday in December, I strapped on my blue plastic Beatle guitar, slapped on my black plastic Beatle wig, and strode out onto the “stage” that faced the tiny patch of hardened mud we, in lighter moments, called our back garden.

I stood shivering on the stage, a small, cracked patch of cement outside our toilet window, and while our Roy set up his biscuit tin and saucepan lid drum kit, I did a sound check. That is, I turned on our red and white transistor radio and checked to see if any sound was coming out of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Through the open toilet window I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and the dulcet strains of Granddad straining away. I twiddled the tuner and Radio Luxemburg faded in, The Rolling Stones clattering through Come On. We didn’t have long to wait for what we wanted, only Roll Over Beethoven by the almighty Beatles would do for us.

Our audience was always the same, the empty balconies and blank windows of the tower block opposite ours. We were both a bit scared of the rough kids that lived in these tower blocks, so these shows were probably my first experiences of stage fright. Needing just that little extra bit of swagger, I was always John Lennon and never mind what song was playing.

Beatles roll_over_beethoven

Illusions of Success and Failure: Get A Haircut! (1964)

The Beatles

The Beatles

Saturday morning, I caught the number 4 bus into Cotteridge with Mom and Roy. It was the weekend after my 12th birthday and I still had 10s 6d in my pocket. Rain verging on sleet lashed my legs as we stepped off the bus’s back platform. I had to wear short trousers until I was fourteen, and never mind I was already five foot seven inches tall. It was both school rules, and Mom and Dad rules. My whole life seemed to be run by other people’s sodding rules! But right then I really didn’t care because we were going to Woolworth’s.

“Can we go to Woolworth’s first Mom?” I asked.

“Haircut first,” she said, tugging Roy by the hand along the rain-swept misery of Cotteridge High Street. We battled towards a flickering barbershop pole, then up a steep, narrow flight of stairs and into Sid’s barber shop. I breathed the sacred stench of singed hair and Dettol. My eyes started to water.

“Don’t cry son,” Sid said, looking up from the pudding bowl massacre he was executing on some glum kid’s thatch. “Least not till one of yer ears is lyin’ there on the floor!”

He rattled out a chesty laugh that quickly morphed into a hacking cough. Reaching out his scissorless hand, he groped for the cigarette smoldering in its ashtray. He sucked smoke wetly into the tail end of his cough, stuck the fag in the corner of his mouth, and bent to peer at the back of the head in front of him. There was a brief yelp from the chair and a fresh curl of singed hair smoke made its way into the room. He straightened up, leveled the scissors with a palsied hand and the snick-snick of clumpy haircutting continued.

I stared at the embryonic clusters of black plastic combs sitting in their jars of milky disinfectant, the blue rubber bulbs of talc, the clippers hanging on the wall next to the leather razor strop, the glass shelves of bay rum and aftershave. It all seemed designed specifically to prevent me from being one of The Beatles.

Beatles plastic guitar

Sid buzzed the back of the kid’s neck with clattering clippers, then squirted a cloud of talc at the neck. He waved a desultory brush over the kid’s shoulders and then whipped off the puke green nylon cape with all the gusto of a tubercular matador.

“Next.” he wheezed.

Roy and I looked at each other. Mom nudged me with her elbow. I walked over and climbed slowly into the executioner’s chair. I stared at myself in the speckley mirror while Sid fastened the green cape of doom round my throat. The edges of the cape were liberally spotted with Woodbine burns and grease stains. He reached for his clippers.

Plastic Beatles Wig

Plastic Beatles Wig

“Boston in the back.” I said.

In the mirror I saw him look askance at Mom. She nodded slightly. It was the sole concession to style allowed me – a straight cut edge at the back of my neck instead of the regulation vee-shape.

As Sid set to work on my barnett my reflection gradually disappeared in a growing cloud of fag smoke and flying hair. I closed my eyes and slipped my hand into my pocket. My fingers found the crumpled 10 bob note. I focused on the reward at the end of the ordeal: a trip to Woolworths to buy my black plastic Beatle wig and my pale blue plastic Beatle guitar.

I was hoping Mom would spring for a plastic wig for our Roy as well. If she did, we’d definitely look the business next time we tuned the transistor into radio Luxembourg and mimed to Roll Over Beethoven by The Beatles.