Thursday 22 June 2017

(Re)Turning Japanese

I went to a gig on Saturday night. Like most of the (ever-decreasing number) of gigs I go to these days, the crowd was mostly full of people of a certain age. But that's okay, I'm thirty years too old for being down with the kids.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I went to see The Vapors. Yes, The Vapors, who many of you will remember as the band behind worldwide hit Turning Japanese. Chances are you don't remember much else about them, as nothing else they did achieved the same level of success. So let me fill you in.

Spotted playing in a pub by Bruce Foxton, the Jam bassist and Jam manager John Weller quickly signed the Guildford four-piece, got them a record deal and even got Jam producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven on-board to produce the debut album. And it was no surprise when The Vapors supported Woking's finest on their Setting Sons tour in 1979... so you can see why the "Jam-lite" tag stuck, albeit unfairly in my view.

Their first single, Prisoners, sunk without trace, but Dave Fenton (vocals and guitar), Ed Bazalgette (lead guitar), Steve Smith (bass) and Howard Smith (drums, no relation to Steve) regrouped and came up with Turning Japanese, a top ten hit in the UK (#3 when Going Underground was #1), Canada, New Zealand and Australia (where it hit #1). It even broke into the US top 40, something their manager's band hadn't managed to do. On the back of that, the debut album New Clear Days managed a reasonable showing but - and here's the thing - it should have been so much higher. Because, in my view, it's an absolute classic of the age and genre, a new wave masterpiece, stuffed full of hook-filled, rhythmic early 80s tunes with singalong-able lyrics; songs about love sat alongside songs about the Cold War and nuclear threats (as the punning title suggests), but instead of this creating friction the album is remarkably cohesive, in part due to crisp, consistent production but more because the band themselves were properly tight. I know this is a minority view, but for me New Clear Days remains an essential 80s album, as chock-full of memorable songs that I can still sing along to, word perfectly, as any by The Jam and more so than almost any other band from the first half of that decade.

So you can imagine that I was pretty excited to read that three quarters of the original band had regrouped for a few dates last year (Michael Bowes has replaced Howard Smith on drums) and were touring this year. And even more excited to learn that the tour would bring them within my reach. I had to go. And what can I tell you? The band still seem tight. Dave (a lawyer for the Musicians' Union for most of this century) and Ed (a TV producer whose credits include Doctor Who) have worn well - Ed in particular makes a fine, conversational front-man. Steve looks a bit more like what he is - someone's middle-aged dad - but let's not forget this is a reunion nearly 40 years after the band formed, so what do you expect? What I didn't really expect, but was pleasantly surprised to find, is that the two- and three-part harmonies that characterised many of the tracks from New Clear Days were still present and correct. In fact, the whole band sound live was very pleasingly close to their studio sound - they can still cut it, in other words. And Michael Bowes looked as happy as anyone, smiling non-stop as he pounded away at those drums on a sweltering night.

I repeat, I know I am in the minority with my views on The Vapors. And for the record I am not trying to suggest they should have climbed out of The Jam's shadow, because for my money The Jam eclipse almost everybody. But what I am trying to say is that, with New Clear Days, The Vapors got everything right. It's a near-perfect slice of early 80s new wave, and I urge you to get a copy.

In the meantime, I recorded a couple of videos at the gig. Most people in the crowd whipped their phones out for Turning Japanese but not me - instead, here are two other tracks from New Clear Days, Sixty Second Interval and America. Things to note from these videos: (1) for a venue with so many lights, so few of them were on the band; (2) when Ed says "nothing change does it, really" at the start of America, he's just finished making a comparison between 80s Reagan and contemporary Trump; and (3), check out the 50-something with the snow-white mullet who bounces into view, bottom left, about 40 seconds into America - he was so energetic, and so into every song, he deserves our respect... and not just for maintaining that hair... Anyway, enough rambling from me. To the videos!


  1. Interesting - had no idea they were around again now and from your clips the vocalist still looks much as I remember him. The Vapors have gone into the same box in my head as Tonight (remember 'Drummer Man'?! Of course you do!) - those new wave bands whose performances on ToTP caught my attention because they had enough of the right ingredients to stand out from the rest: hooky, energetic and their trousers and hair were of the right cut (!) - but just not quite enough to warrant spending my precious pocket money on (I reserved that for Buzzcocks, Generation X, Clash, etc.) They really do evoke that whole time for me, though, and it's good to know they can still cut it, not an easy feat. I see what you mean about Snow White Mullet - isn't it just as interesting watching members of the audience these days as watching the band?!

    1. Yes, Dave Fenton is much the same, although he (unlike the enthusiastic crowd member) has lost the mullet. I do remember "Drummer Man", and it makes me wonder how you define the fine gradations between power pop and, say, Vapors-style New Wave. It's all a spectrum, I suppose. If you've got some pocket money going spare now ;) I really do recommend diving into New Clear Days - forget the follow-up, Magnets (though it's good in parts) and the compilations (which now outnumber the studio albums). Having said that, some of the compilations include the B-side to Turning Japanese, which was a live rendition of Here Comes The Judge. The Vapors always close their live shows with it, and it's terrific.

      And you're so right - crowd-watching is now an essential part of the gig experience! From those that insist on watching the whole thing through the screen of their phone to those like Snow White Mullet, taking in the annoying loud-talkers-in-gigs and the lets-immediately-put-on-our-newly-bought-merchandise-t-shirters, and everything in between. I wonder how others see me? Old bloke standing alone, not moving around much but singing along, standing close enough to get a good view but not too close because he wants to minimise the next day's ear-ringing...?