AS THE VAPORS spring back to life after more than thirty years out of the spotlight, cub reporter Buddy Ascott assesses the history and potential future of the one of the great bands of the 1980s.
MENTION The Vapors to people of a certain age and chances are they'll give you a vague stare. But ask if they know the song 'Turning Japanese' most likely they'll nod and break into the chorus of one of the most infectious hits of the early 80s.
That they can recall instantly both the tune and the words is a tribute to how catchy – and successful – the song was. Yet there was a lot more to the band, both in terms of output and relevance, and to some extent the record overshadowed everything else they tried to achieve.
To me at least, the follow-up single was even better, and ironically 'Turning Japanese' may not even be The Vapors' best Japanese-themed song!
So how did they come to prominence so quickly in 1980, and why did they disappear from the pop consciousness almost as fast? As is often the case with musical legend, fate played a helping hand in lifting them from the mass of guitar bands around at the time. Let's backtrack to April 1979...
Dave Fenton (lead vocals/guitar/main songwriter): "We were discovered by The Jam's bass player Bruce Foxton. We were playing a pub called the White Lion just outside Godalming, near Guildford – he just happened to be there with a mate. I didn't even know he was there until afterwards.
"Bruce offered us a couple of dates on the next Jam tour – it was just a matter of luck! We did those dates, and John Weller (Paul Weller's dad, and manager of The Jam) saw us, liked us and he went on to co-manage us, with Bruce."
Crucially, the line up of the band had only just been settled, with a teenage Eddie Bazalgette joining on lead guitar to complement Steve Smith on bass and drummer Howard Smith (no relation). It's hard to imagine a modern day equivalent of the Jam – The Arctic Monkeys, say – wandering into a pub and offering the resident group major tour dates. These were less corporate times, and if your luck was in the big break could come at the drop of a pork pie hat.
GUILDFORD had been their musical home for a while, but Weller and Foxton started getting gigs for the Vapors in London, often playing to near-empty rooms or supporting one of the Mod Revival bands who were flavour-of-the-month for a short time in '79. However, Fenton wisely fought to prevent the group being pigeon-holed.
"We weren't Mods, we didn't want to dress up as Mods, and we regarded ourselves as a clever punk band. We then got tagged as New Wave but we didn't invent that term either."
Around the time, a demo tape sent to John Peel resulted in more publicity via a Radio One session, and a further 25 dates on the Jam's Setting Sons tour honed their stagecraft and songwriting.
By the end of 1979 Polydor and United Artists were locked in a tug-of-war over signing the band. UA won, and in early 1980 their debut single 'Prisoners' was released and widely ignored, despite the kudos of sharing the Jam's producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven.
It certainly gave no indication of the maelstrom that was about to be unleashed with the release of their second record, 'Turning Japanese'.
Did they know they had a winner on their hands?
Dave: "We knew it had potential, I'd loaded it with lots of hooks, but nobody can say what's going to be successful. It took a long time to be a hit, it crept up a few places every week."
With its instant-classic opening riff (which actually owes more to Chinese melody than Japanese), catchy lyrics and dynamic performance, the song benefitted from saturation airplay and was soon a worldwide hit.
"It was number 1 in Australia! I couldn't believe it. I'd never even been there." It was also Top Ten in Canada and New Zealand. The world was seemingly theirs for the taking.
What didn't hurt the record's profile was the gossip that began to surface about the song's meaning. The mass debate (ahem) reached its zenith in an outraged America, where Fenton fed the flames of controversy by refusing to confirm or deny the subject of – shall we say 'onanism'?
To put this fable to bed, the song is most certainly not about wanking and the effect that (allegedly!) that has on the participants' eyes. But on tour in America it paid to be ambiguous and Fenton "kept the interviews interesting, I kept them guessing…".
The lyrics are actually about the character being so in thrall to a girl that he doesn't know who or what he's becoming.
"It could just as easily have been turning Portuguese, but Japanese just seemed to sound right."
They went Top 40 in the States but their luck began to turn. As The Vapors reached No 3 in the UK, their friends The Jam were enjoying their first-ever number one, with the mighty 'Going Underground'. The Jam were understandably in demand here in Europe, and The Vapors were left to grapple with the US with merely a road manager to guide and assist them.
The pressure was on and soon shenanigans at the record company would compound the uncertainty.
Fenton again: "United Artists got bought up by EMI. Prior to that, the label only had about twelve acts, bands like Buzzcocks, Fischer-Z, The Stranglers and Dr. Feelgood. It was a good atmosphere. The front door was always open, and everybody was on first-name terms.
"After the buy-out, most of the staff were made redundant and we found ourselves signed to (EMI-imprint) Liberty, all the A&R staff who'd signed us and helped develop us had disappeared."
The crucial follow-up release was the magnificent 'News At Ten', every inch the equal of its predecessor. But it seemed doomed to fail from the start.
Dave: "The day it was released, we went to the EMI offices to see our new A&R man, and he didn't even know it was out! So we had the changes at the label, the management letting go, and then Top Of The Pops was on strike the week we were the highest new entry!"
Guitarist Eddie remembers it slightly differently. "I think we contributed to our own shortcomings, we didn't want to rush the follow up, which was a serious miscalculation, and a lesson I'll always remember – if things are going well, move on, don't sit around celebrating your success, keep moving forward."
Meanwhile the band's debut album, New Clear Days was released to much acclaim. A concept album of sorts, it too was produced by Coppersmith-Heaven and featured the gorgeous Japanese-themed 'Letter From Hiro', a paen to a fan and photographer who the band later worked with. The sound was inspired by Ryuichi Sakamoto's work on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence soundtrack.
DESPITE 'News At Ten's relative failure and modest chart position of the album, the group soldiered on into 1981 and with it came a slight change in direction – musically and sartorially.
Dave: "We went for a more earthy production for the second album (Magnets), it was more like us, and a more acceptable sound for US radio."
It spawned the singles 'Spiders' and the American Top 50 hit 'Jimmie Jones' – another case of a jaunty pop song coupled with darker-themed lyrics. The song recalls the mass suicides of the Jones death cult.
Fenton: "I was trying to tell a sad story but attached to a jerky pop song. I used to like doing that, with extremes, so you have a really serious subject matter but in a cute bouncy way."
The video was directed by Julien Temple, and Bazalgette now has mixed feelings about the change in the band's image. "Our dress sense and sophistication was below that of even the Undertones at the time, and suddenly we're expected to go down to Vivien Westwood's and dress up as fucking pirates or something! For fuck's sake!"
He laughs at the memory, but it was time of great flux and tribal fashion and cults were changing overnight. Even Fenton was fazed by it. "We were reflecting what was going on around us. I remember we did one magazine advert where we were basically naked, with our arms outstretched like cardboard cutouts, and you could cut out the clothes you wanted to put on our bodies, whether mod or new romantic or whatever, it was like we weren't going to describe what we were." Almost like a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of pop music itself.
The second album failed to chart in the UK, and matters soon came to a head as the group began preparing for what would have been their seventh single, 'Red Flag'.
Dave: "The last straw was when were rehearsing the song and the record label A&R guy turned up, took us down the pub and bought us drinks, all that lovey-dovey stuff – then behind our backs he cancelled the recording session."
The record was never released and the band soon folded, Fenton's disgust with all things industry-oriented finally tipping him over the edge.
Some 5 or 6 years older than the rest of the band, Fenton turned his back on music and soon returned to what he'd been doing previously – law. He had been a qualified solicitor before The Vapors took off, and after some years in practice he found himself joining the Musicians Union as an in-house lawyer, where he believes his past experiences have helped him guide others where The Vapors perhaps faltered. It's gratifying to find a successful musician who wants to help put something back into the music business, especially one who found it so wanting.
Fenton's recent early retirement has allowed the current reconvening of The Vapors. He says "I know if I don't do this now I never will. We tried to do it back in 2001-2002, but Eddie was spending so much time abroad with the BBC we were never in the same country to rehearse. We only did 3-4 rehearsals and it gradually fell apart."
Last month they played a show at London's Dingwalls, which Bazalgette describes as "Fantastic, extraordinary, out of this world – packed to the rafters, a sea of hardcore Vapors fans who were singing along to all the songs; one of those hair standing up on the back of your neck moments... I had doubts about whether I should do it, but we did it the right way, it was a performance, we gave the audience something they wouldn't get by listening to the songs at home... I felt we got the balance right... and there's no getting away from it, they're great songs."
As for the other members, Steve Smith became a highly-accomplished and in-demand sound engineer, and today plays bass in 80s punk-New Wave-alternative covers band the Shakespearos.
Eddie, who now describes himself as looking "like the bastard child of Wilko Johnson and Woody Harrelson" has led the most spectacular post-Vapors life, culminating as a top TV director at the BBC. If you're a fan of Dr Who, Vera, Poldark or Guilty then you'll appreciate his work. He is also one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.
For his own reasons, Howard Smith declined to join the reformed band for their current activity. His place has been taken by session drummer par excellence Michael Bowes. Fenton describes him as an exceptional talent.
THE Vapors plan to tour again next Spring, and haven't ruled out the possibility of new recordings too. New, clear days are hopefully just around the corner. Just don't ask about the words to that song or you may find yourself in a sticky situation.