I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you remember The Vapors. I also realise that many of you will now have the song Turning Japanese lodged in your head, and a few of you will think that was the whole story.
But while technically The Vapors were one-hit wonders, they were about so much more, not least to this perennial teenager, who still rates New Clear Days as one of the finest albums ever made.
It’s 36 years since this band from my hometown of Guildford, Surrey, had a worldwide hit with the afore-mentioned 45, and I might as well put on the record (so to speak) straight away that it was probably not about what you heard it was about. That’s been the band’s lead singer and main songwriter Dave Fenton’s take on the subject over the years anyway, although he acknowledges it didn’t do any harm anyway (the publicity about the meaning of the song, that is, rather than anything that might have affected his eyesight).
And now I’ve got that out of the way, I’ll let on for those who haven’t already heard that The Vapors are finally dipping a toe back in the water this autumn, with four national dates coming up – in Dublin, London, Liverpool, and Wolverhampton.
Not as if the musical journey ended for Dave when the band went their separate ways in 1982, with another decade elapsing before he got back to his day-job as a practising lawyer. As it turned out he was soon involved again anyway, spending 17 years as a London-based in-house solicitor for the Musicians’ Union from 1999.
Meanwhile, you may have spotted lead guitarist Ed Bazalgette’s name on TV credits over that same period, more recently directing hit BBC shows (and favourites of mine I might add) like Doctor Who and Poldark, and a documentary about his great-great-grandad Joseph Bazalgette, the 19th century civil engineer responsible for saving so many lives after major cholera epidemics through creating central London’s sewer system.
But now Dave – who has taken early retirement from his legal career – and Ed – between his on-screen assignments – are working together again, having rejoined bass player Steve Smith, who never really left the music scene. And while original drummer Howard Smith (no relation to Steve) is busy with his young family back in Guildford, there’s a worthy replacement in the experienced Michael Bowes. As I put it to Dave though, there was talk of a reunion a few years back. So why not then, and why now?
“We tried around 2001, but Ed was abroad a lot, working for the BBC, directing and editing, doing holiday programmes all over, so rehearsing was almost impossible. I was at the Musicians’ Union then, but don’t have any commitments at present, so can fit more around Ed. He’s still very busy, as is Steve, who also plays with The Shakespearos. In fact, one of the covers they do is Turning Japanese, and that’s how we ended up playing along with him recently at the Half Moon in Putney.
“Steve sent a text asking if we’d like to join in, for a laugh, myself and Ed saying yes. There were no rehearsals and it was the first time we’d been together on stage for 35 years, so it was a bit nerve-racking. But once we were up there it was fine.”
For me this reunion tour can’t come around quick enough, having missed out on the band first time around (I was only 14 going on 15 when they called it a day), having to make do with two studio albums and various singles instead.
“Well, you’ll get a second chance now.”
Dave’s based in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, these days, moving that side of the capital so he could get to a North London law practice a little easier. But then he ended up working for the Musicians’ Union in South London, and because his children were in school and he didn’t want to mess them about, he took on a longer commute again, continuing for 17 years. And that seems ironic for a guy who wrote a song for the first album based around commuter frustration, ending with the line, ‘Don’t let the trains getcha!’
“Well, they tried very hard … when they bothered turning up!”
Dave’s children are grown up now – the oldest 22, having finished his degree, the middle one 20, at university in Manchester, and the youngest 17, doing her A-levels. What do they make of Dad’s return to the music scene?
“They like it. I think they’re a bit chuffed they’ve got something to talk about to friends. Daniel, the middle one, even more so – he’s a really good guitarist, so when Ed can’t make it, he’s first reserve.”
The Jam bass player Bruce Foxton, who co-managed The Vapors with Paul Weller’s dad John, recently spoke about them at a Q&A session at Liverpool’s About the Young Idea exhibition, citing ‘a great band’ with ‘great tracks’ who ‘burnt out kind of quickly’. Fair comment?
“I suppose it was. I felt a lot of pressure at the time but it was mainly down to external influences. It wasn’t arguments within the band.
“Our breakthrough hit, Turning Japanese, came out on United Artists, but between that and follow-up News at Ten, EMI bought the company out and those who signed us were made redundant. We got inherited by people who weren’t interested.
“That was the start, and there was a week when we were at No.3 and The Jam were at No.1 (with Going Underground), so it started to tell. Bruce and John realised they might be on a European tour with The Jam so couldn’t be on an American tour with us. It got too awkward, John held his hand up and said ‘Sorry, it doesn’t work anymore’. So within a few weeks of that hit we’d lost our record company and management.
“Actually, we went in the day News at Ten was meant to come out to talk to our A&R man – as John was away – and he didn’t even know it had been released. And that was the bloke in charge of that department.
“News at Ten charted at No.44 straight off, enough to automatically get a spot on Top of the Pops. But there was a BBC strike and the show was cancelled. Next time we made it on was almost a year later with Jimmie Jones, by which time we’d lost momentum.”
I put to Dave that I’d read about a further reason News at Ten failed to properly chart – the song title was seen as an ITV brand, so the BBC were reluctant to put it on their radio playlist. But he laughs at that, adding, “That’s the first time I’ve heard that! I’m not sure who made those kind of decisions. The main problem was that Top of the Pops wasn’t on.”
I admit to Dave that while I loved their debut album, it took me longer to warm to follow-up LP, Magnets, despite some quality moments.
“It’s a bit moodier, isn’t it.”
Yet I love New Clear Days, its themes of cold war politics, militarism, fashion fads and great love songs standing up to this day. How old was Dave when he penned those lyrics?
“I was around 26. Law school takes bloody ages – I had six months at law school, two years of articles, and that on top of a degree. Having qualified, I spent a year in practise, but decided if I didn’t try my luck then, I never would. I told my parents I was going to take a year out, and we managed to get a deal within that year.”
And what was meant to be a year’s sabbatical turned out to be a lot more.
“Yeah, about 15 years. Then me and my missus decided to have a family, so I though I better get a proper job! I’d been doing all sorts, from sound engineering to playing in bands, but the only way you could make more money was being away, touring. I’d have missed out on seeing my family grow up. So, difficult as it was to decide, I went back to the law.”
As it turns out, Bruce Foxton had first seen The Vapors before they were the settled band that made the albums. In fact, word has it that was at Scratchers, a music pub in Farncombe (properly known as The Three Lions) now run (and rejuvenated) by a good friend of mine, whose former band – that this scribe mis-managed back in the day – did a neat cover of The Vapors’ Bunkers. But that’s beside the point. Getting back to Dave, had there been many personnel changes by then?
Yes, Dave was ahead of his time there, his band moniker beating the Corporation’s own channel of the same name by around a quarter of a century. Anyway, carry on, Dave.
“There had been a few line-up changes before we settled on one, and it changed between Bruce seeing us and offering us gigs. By then I might have been the only person left.”
So you didn’t know Ed, Steve and Howard before?
“No. we all lived in Guildford, but our line-up was falling apart and I was looking for people while other bands were also falling apart, cherry-picking a new line-up. I felt Ed looked good on lead guitar and had the sort of style I wanted, while Steve was actually drumming, in a band called The Absolute, but I knew he played bass and was really solid.”
You seemed to get on well, and say there was no animosity come the 1982 split.
“It was all external stuff really, and pressure I felt from having no manager – everything falling to me as the leader, taking on all sorts of roles I didn’t want.”
Was that BBC Radio 1 session at Maida Vale in July 1979 for John Peel a big moment?
“Yeah, we sent in a cassette and I got a message to call, spoke to his producer (John Walters) and got invited in for a session. And that fitted in with John Weller getting us gigs in London.”
And how did you find working with John Weller?
“He was a lovely bloke. Really nice.”
“That was brilliant – our first real dabble into life on the road, going from playing to 20 people or one man and his dog in a pub to 2,000 seaters with The Jam. We each had our own minibus and every time we got to a service station had water pistol fights in the car park. They’d tape our clothes to the ceiling while we were on stage, that sort of thing, while we’d put talcum powder on the snare drum. I’ve got really happy memories of all that.”
It’s fair to say that fame followed very quickly from the moment the band had that settled line-up.
“We were talking about this at the weekend, how in 1979 everything that possibly could have gone wrong went right for us, from finding a record company and management to having a hit within a few weeks of the year. But the following year everything went horribly wrong, not least losing the people we were working with.”
I mentioned second album Magnets and its lack of success. A lot of bands had chances to bounce straight back from a difficult follow-up – The Jam’s Modern World being followed by All Mod Cons for example. But not you.
“But that was partly because I left. Everything got on top of me, and it was easier to walk away. I can’t really blame anyone else. I made us a one-hit wonder by not carrying on, really.”
Did the circumstances of that and an uneasy relationship with the label make Dave all the more determined to address such situations when he took on his Musicians’ Union role?
“No, like I said, it was more a case of finding a better way of making money than just being out there all the time. When you’ve got a young family you don’t want all that. But now my kids have grown up, I’m retired and can do what I want. Sometimes Ed will be busy and won’t be able to play, but if he can’t my son Dan can.”
Out of interest, did you already have a lot of the songs that would end up on New Clear Days when you struck that initial deal?
“Well, your first album is your entire life, while the second was rushed because you need to quickly get something else out there. But there were a few songs that didn’t make it on to the albums, some of which we might drag out when we’re playing again. But not for these first four gigs.”
Might that include those quality b-sides like Wasted and Talk Talk, both songs I love?
“It could do. Our new drummer likes Talk Talk too.”
The new drummer, Michael Bowes, certainly has an impressive musical CV, including two decades performing with artists such as Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small of M People, Michelle Gayle, and Laura Mvula.
“He’s a really good drummer, and I’ve worked with a few in my time. One of the best, and he’s a lovely guy. We get on really well and me, Steve and Ed feel like we’ve known him for years. It’s just fallen into place. We’ve been really lucky.”
Michael takes the place of Howard, who until recently ran a record shop in Guildford and now heads People Music Promotions, and for whom I understand the reformation has just fallen at the wrong time.
“That’s right. He has a new baby, and I think that’s the main reason he’s not doing it with us.”
Going back again, at their height, Turning Japanese even topped the charts in Australia, leading to a tour there.
“That was amazing, being paid to go over, being put up in brilliant hotels, with a handful of gigs, mainly up the East coast. Again, great memories.”
And then that same single was finally a success in America too.
“We dropped off in America on the way back. I don’t know why, but EMI weren’t going to put it out there at all, but then it started selling on import and they took notice. It was a hit in the clubs in New York and slowly went around the coast. It was almost six months later that it was big in Los Angeles. We sold lots of records but not at the same time, so it never charted. We kept going back to tour though, selling everything out first time, including two gigs at the Whisky a Go Go (West Hollywood, California) on the same day.”
That must have been amazing, playing venues more likely associated with the likes of The Byrds, The Doors and Otis Redding.
For all that the first album and News at Ten single stalled, chart-wise. I know there were mitigating circumstances, but I still can’t really believe that. I’ve found myself many times trying to get over that you weren’t just one-hit wonders, great as Turning Japanese was. So many more great songs didn’t get the wider appreciation. Have there been times when you thought, ‘Not that song again’?
“Not really. How can you moan about having that hit? It’s amazing to me that it’s still being played 35 years after. I never get fed up with that one.”
I’m pleased to hear that, but just wish there was similar success for songs like the wondrous Waiting for the Weekend.
“Well, we’re still playing it, so you never know. Maybe someone will re-release it!”
When Dave – born in Redhill and brought up in Reigate – returned to the legal profession in 1993, he was working for a firm in Guildford, and fellow pupils would occasionally spot him passing my secondary school on his way to work.
But when I was in the sixth form, Steve Smith’s next band Shoot! Dispute – a funk-driven five-piece in the style of the more quirky side of Altered Images, not least through Cathy Lomax’s distinctive vocals – were making something of an impact, and I recall seeing them live a couple of times. I still have their debut single, and remember well their two 1984 sessions for John Peel, who was also a fan. So was Dave keeping tabs on his old band-mates around then?
“I kind of lost touch around the time I moved to London.”
Were you aware of Ed’s work in television?
“I was, and since the advent of texts and mobile phones he’s been letting us know what he’s up to.”
“Not yet, but we’re talking about the beginning of next year for writing and have gigs booked in April and May. We’ll announce them when we’re more sorted. We’ve also got a couple of festivals lined up. We’re taking it easy really, making time to write and think about what else we want to be doing.”
Another of my favourite bands, The Undertones, tend to just get together for a few occasional shows between careers elsewhere. Will that be your approach?
“I think so, and generally at weekends so Ed can do it.”
Going back to those early days in Guildford, The Vapors rehearsed above a laundrette, not so far from the scout hut in my home village where The Stranglers had rehearsed. Meanwhile, The Jam started a few miles away in Woking and The Members sprang out of Camberley. So what was it about Surrey’s Sound of the Suburbs that evoked such great music in the wake of punk?
“Punk was the main influence, encouraging us to have a go, proving anyone could do it. You didn’t have to be an amazing musician to get up there on stage and excite people. We were going up to The Marquee and elsewhere … trying to get gigs!”
Was there a special moment when Dave thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’
“Yeah, it was watching a band called The Screeens. The lead singer, who called himself Helmholtz Watson, was just brilliant. I think I got far more famous than he did though!”
I can confirm that. I can find nothing of a band of that name, and the only mention of the lead singer is through him using the name of the prinicipal character in Aldous Huxley’s early 1930s futuristic novel, Brave New World. But you already knew that of course.
“That was at Bishop Otter teacher training college (in Bognor Regis) where my brother went in the mid-’70s. I also remember hearing Devo at The Marquee, with ‘Jocko Homo’ being played in the break between bands one night, me thinking, ‘Good grief!’ That started my interest in them and made my stuff a bit jerkier than before. Some point after that they played The Rainbow. Without Devo, I’d not have written ‘Turning Japanese’.”
And from what I can gather, Dave never stopped writing songs, even if the original band split almost 35 years ago.
“Yeah, I’ve loads of songs that only some people have heard. I had a band called the Vapor Corporation first, and did a lot of writing for that project, even though I didn’t front it. I think a lot of those songs still stand up. And that’s what the beginning of next year’s about, playing to each other what we’ve got in our pockets and writing new songs.”
Until then, is it more a case of the best of those first two albums for these four shows?
“Yes, but it’s taken a while to get this far. Ed’s been working all summer, Steve had three months touring and doing residences in Portugal. We haven’t been able to rehearse until this month. But we did five days on the trot and are doing weekends between now and the gigs. We’re getting there, but it’s taken a while to remember all the songs and how to play them.”
And has you voice changed?
“It’s dropped a bit. We’ve detuned by half a tone across the board. We’re working on the vocals right now.”
The Vapors visit Dublin’s Opium Rooms on Friday, October 14th, London’s Dingwall’s (in Camden) on Friday, November 4th, Liverpool’s Arts Club on Friday, November 18th, and Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms on Saturday, November 19th. For ticket details and all the latest news from the band visit their Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via their Twitter and Instagram pages.
I’d also like to point you towards an appreciation of The Vapors from Neil Waite on the recommended Toppermost website, with a link here.