Sunday, July 13, 2008

You Got Me Turning Up And Turning Down

English new wave rock quartet The Vapors may not have been around for a long time but they were definitely around for a good time. Former solicitor and frontman Dave Fenton (vocals/guitar) was at the heart of the band, also featuring Ed Bazalgette (guitar), Steve Smith (bass) and Howard Smith (drums and no relation to Steve). The Vapors formed in early 1979 and constant gigging brought them to the attention of Bruce Foxton, bass player for the Jam, when he caught one of their shows in April of ‘79. Foxton became co-manager for The Vapors along with John Weller, whose son Paul just happened to be frontman for the Jam, and before long The Vapors were opening for the Jam.

The Vapors signed to United Artists records and released their first single ‘Prisoners’ in late ‘79, but the song missed the charts altogether. A similar fate would not befall their second effort. ‘Turning Japanese’ was the perfect guitar driven pop rock tune for the time. It rocketed up the charts in the U.K. in early 1980 peaking at #3. Backed by a tongue in cheek promo clip, that reflected the mischievous nature of the songs lyrics, ‘Turning Japanese’ then invaded the Australian charts and conquered the #1 position for two weeks in June 1980. On the back of the singles popularity the Vapors’ debut album ‘New Clear Days’ found itself a nice sunny position inside the U.K. and Australian top 40. The band then set their sights on the lucrative U.S. market, but although the Vapors toured extensively to support the release of ‘Turning Japanese’, it failed to turn as many heads Stateside and the song stalled at #36 later in 1980. The follow up single ‘News At Ten’ fell short of making headline on the charts (UK#44), and so the Vapors set their sights on recording their second album.

‘Magnets’ was released in March 1981 but despite receiving positive reviews it didn’t attract that much attention from a perennially fickle record buying public. The first single release ‘Jimmie Jones’ could have been straight from the Jam’s songbook but it didn’t enjoy a ‘Jam-like’ reception on the charts peaking at #44 in the U.K. and failing to trouble the scorers in Australia and the U.S. Soon after the release of ’Jimmie Jones’ the bands’ manager John Weller (who was the hands on side of the management team) cut ties with the band.

During August 1981 the Vapors booked some studio time to lay down a new track, planned to be their next single. ’Red Flag’ didn’t get past the studio rehearsal stage as just a day before the band were due to record it proper, their record label (now EMI) pulled the plug on the sessions. Singer Dave Fenton was suitable outraged and decided to pull the plug on the Vapors as well (there were other contributing factors such as the old chestnut of strained relations within the band). It’s probably fair to say that The Vapors charted a similar career path as their American contemporaries The Knack, starting out with an all conquering hit which set the bar so high that anything that followed could only serve to set the band on a downward trajectory.

So as the question goes: where are they today? Dave Fenton attempted to get some other bands off the ground before eventually returning to his first trade as a solicitor (specialising in music law); Ed Bazalgette works for the BBC as a tape editor; Howard Smith started a career with the PRS, whilst Steve Smith was the only former member to maintain an ongoing presence in the music biz, regularly playing in various bands and doing some sound mixing on the side.

I can vividly recall seeing the Vapors’ appearance on Australia’s Countdown back in 1980, not only for the brilliance of the song ‘Turning Japanese’ but also bassist Steve Smith’s yellow and black ‘bumble-bee’ shirt. I had no idea what the lyrics really meant back then either, and despite reading a popular interpretation that you’ve probably heard too, I read in an interview with songwriter Dave Fenton that the song’s lyrics really didn’t mean anything specific, other than ‘Turning Japanese’ was a catchy phrase to build a song around. From running dangerously close to being a ‘novelty song’ in 1980, ‘Turning Japanese’ has become an enduring classic and one of the defining tunes of that era.

Oh and in case you’re wondering why Vapors is missing the traditional letter ‘U’ normally associated with the word, Fenton wanted to, as he put it, get rid of any unnecessary letters in the band’s name - shame I was hoping for a more intriguing explanation than that.

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