I could say I’d been waiting 35 years for this weekend to come, but that’s being a bit melodramatic. One thing’s for sure though – I finally got to see a band I suspected I’d never catch live, and they were well worth the wait.
I’d already missed the openers in Dublin and Camden Town, and had no chance of getting to Wolverhampton the following night on this four-show return. What’s more, at eight o’clock last Friday evening the odds were still pretty much stacked against myself and a mate (back from Finland to mark the occasion) getting to this venue either. But on a treacherous November night, despite the traffic jams and foul weather encountered en route from my Lancashire base, we successfully navigated our way across Liverpool before a ‘trickling down the neck’ sleet-storm on the final leg up Seel Street.
Our late arrival ruled out support act Klammer and guest DJ Jacqui Carroll’s spot, but we were in time for the main attraction, not least thanks to a fellow attendee swapping my plastic fiver for pound coins in the nearest car park, saving me the ignominy of feeding 60 titchy fivepences into a cantankerous ticket machine.
I’d seen fellow Guildford lad Steve Smith with later John Peel sessioneers Shoot! Dispute a couple of times, but never with his breakthrough band … until now. And while we’re all a little older, there was no mistaking him nor band-mates Ed Bazalgette and Dave Fenton as they filed out to join Howard Smith’s replacement, drummer Michael Bowes.
David’s hair has turned … erm, a lighter shade, while Ed’s has … well, gone. As for Steve, he was as I perhaps imagined – like a kid brother of fellow Surrey bass guitar legend Jean-Jacques Burnel. Yet I reckon they retain the youthful looks of the fellas I’ve seen belting out Turning Japanese on all those Top of the Pops re-runs. The years have been pretty good to The Vapors, and the spirit clearly remains.
Where I was, four or five rows back (my guest for the weekend always preferred to hog stage right) I couldn’t see much of Ed, but now and again he strode forward, guitar in hand, taking in his wider audience (and a few of us were wider, it had to be said). Besides, I was in a prime position to catch the others.
Arguments aside about Howard not being around this time, Michael was a revelation, a real powerhouse, regularly off his stool to catch a cymbal or lead from the rear. He was having so much fun too, and it was contagious. In this case at least, a happy drummer makes for a happy band and happy crowd.
While Ed was closer, Steve’s bass was more prominent to these ears, and together with Michael’s percussive masterclass we had a perfect foundation for those six-strings and great songs. And the voices? There was talk of detuning by half a tone to reach the notes, but not once did I feel anything less than admiration for the results. What’s more, those harmonies really worked.
Cards on the table – I was always a first album man, and still love New Clear Days, while at times I struggled with Magnets. Yet this performance made me appreciate all the more the fine songs on there. If anything, the live versions were better, inspiring me to go back and listen again with fresh ears.
There’s talk of new songs when the band return next year, but this time it was all about the back-catalogue, and we were treated to all but one track off the debut LP, six off the follow-up, both sides of the debut 45, two more B’s, and a rarity. And they started with the latter, warming up nicely (while I was still drying out) on Secret Noise, before News at Ten, the first of many emotional highs for this fan, leaving me in no doubt I really was there. I wasn’t even a teenager when that LP was released (not quite), yet here they were – back again, especially for me (of course).
There were early technical issues, Dave disappearing with his guitar while the others jokingly considered carrying on without him, giving brief snatches of two b-sides I love – Wasted and Talk Talk. Maybe next time, eh.
Galleries for Guns saw them away again, and then came the first of those Magnets tracks to make an impact, Steve’s rumbling bass and Ed’s staccato guitar punctuating Johnny’s in Love Again, before an elongated Live at the Marquee, complete with instrumental duelling, each leaving us in no doubt as to the competency of this quartet. The hours rehearsing had clearly paid off.
Spring Collection is always my ‘go to’ opener, and the band were in their stride by now, fellow lead track Jimmie Jones keeping that vibe super-fresh. Meanwhile, the ever-poignant Letter from Hiro was always destined to be a highlight, and was everything I hoped for, a favourite on the deck and now in concert too.
Those neat three-part harmonies on Isolated Case led us nicely towards a sublime Sixty Second Interval, my lop-sided smile remaining for Somehow and the military might of Cold War, the strength in depth on New Clear Days all too apparent.
The band joked about writing about venues that would ultimately see them close, and up next was Civic Hall. Again, Ed was out of my sight for much of it, but I was pretty sure he was picking out a keyboard solo. At least he was in my head. Try telling me I’m wrong.
While many of the lyrics remain as relevant today amid the political mess of 2016, there was a suggestion that David was some kind of visionary when we reached Daylight Titans, pondering on his ability to freeze time for this special occasion.
A further indication of how good this band’s b-sides surfaced on debut flip Sunstroke, Michael keeping us on track, going where Howard took us all those years before – dictating the tempo on Trains. That call and response final verse remains sublime, and while it’s not an overly-emotional song, I got a little dewy-eyed thinking back to my own days on Guildford station waiting for the Reading-Tonbridge stopper while my old man waited to load mail across on platform eight.
I kind of feared the next song. Yes, it was the big hit, the one that tends to get all the airplay. For lesser audiences it could have been the moment when they finally let loose, recognising something they finally knew. Yet this was a cultured gathering, on the money from the start. And as it turned out, Turning Japanese was nothing short of a celebration, and I embraced it far more than for many a year.
Prisoners was next, and it struck me for the first time that it carried a ‘60s alt-surf Nuggets vibe, one complementing David’s stripy top. And then they were away with Bunkers. I’ve got no idea where we go from here, but this was all about the moment, and I was keen to drink it all in.
On returning, there was no real surprise as Ed’s guitar ushered in Waiting for the Weekend, that criminally-ignored (at least commercially) gem followed by the traditional finale, Here Comes The Judge, just as fresh today. Again, we’re talking quality fare.
They were soon away, an early start the next day ruling out my chances of sticking around. But they’ll be back next year, and what’s a few months to wait after all this time? Yes, The Vapors are back, and that’s got to be worth celebrating.
For this site’s November 2016 interview with Ed Bazalgette, head here, and for September 2016’s interview with Dave Fenton, try here. Meanwhile, for all the latest on The Vapors visit their Facebook page or keep in touch via Twitter and Instagram.
With extra thanks to Derek D’Souza for the Dingwall’s photos (check out some of his brilliant work via this link), Owen Carne for the Arts Club shot, and Shaun Modern for his work behind the scenes.