Steve Smith lives near Brighton these days, having left his Surrey hometown in the mid-1980s, initially heading to London. He returns regularly to Guildford to pop in on his Mum though, and plays locally with new wave/punk covers band The Shakespearos.
That includes dates at Suburbs at the Holroyd, taking in a lunchtime haunt from my early working years, when I was ‘waiting for the weekend to come’. But that was in the late ’80s, and I can’t imagine how such a small pub is now a thriving music venue.
“They’ve knocked it all through. It’s a really good venue. It was quite small but there was a kitchen behind the stage and they decided to knock that out and expand. It’s about a 200-capacity, with a proper stage, PA and lights. Eddie & the Hot Rods and The Members are playing there soon.”
Good plug (that’s on June 9th, with details here) for a date I was intrigued about, although it would involve a 480-mile round-trip for me. But The Vapors, the band that ensured Steve’s long career in music, pass a little closer to my Lancashire base when they start their summer schedule with gigs in Manchester, Newcastle, then north of the border in Paisley. And I’m looking forward to that June 29th opener, my first chance to see them live since a memorable Liverpool Arts Club gig in late 2016.
“Ah, that was a while ago now. I think we’ve come on a quite a bit since then.”
While those past Vapors dates were more about influential early ‘80s LPs, New Clear Days and Magnets, I gather Dave Fenton is now busy writing, with the band working on new material.
“Dave’s had a complete writing spurt. We’re most of the way through demoing the first batch of six new songs, probably all done by the end of next week, then we’ll move on to another six. Then we’ll decide what to do – to release them as an an album, remix and produce them, or find a producer and go back in the studio. We’re in the process of that, which is really good fun and it’s keeping it moving.”
That’s great, because much as I love the original material, it must get dispiriting after a while when your band’s newest songs are still more than 30 years old. Not least when your other group’s a covers outfit.
“There does come a point, but luckily when it comes to all that with The Shakespearos they’re all songs I really love – real classics and songs I’ll never tire of playing.”
Incidentally, the guitarist in The Shakespearos is Dave Maskery, a key component of the very first band I saw live, Blank Expression, who went on to support The Jam at Brixton (mid-March ’82 at the Fair Deal, I believe). I saw them a second time in late July ’81, but that first occasion at world-renowned rock’n’roll venue Wonersh Youth Club in mid-July 1980 proved a huge moment for a 12-year-old already wallowing in punk and new wave via Smash Hits (the NME would follow) and my brother’s cassette collection. Knowing two band members (Dave was my pal Jimmy’s older brother, and I’d been in a church choir with lead singer Chris Try) suggested for the first time that the punk revolution wasn’t just something happening elsewhere. Furthermore, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Members, and The Vapors had properly put Surrey on the punk and new wave map, the latter having just released wondrous debut LP, New Clear Days.
Is that right that Steve’s link with Dave Maskery and Shakespearos lead singer Duncan (aka Du Kane) initially came through the latter’s band, The Beautiful People?
“I did their live sound, but I’d known those guys a really long time. Duncan got me to produce one of his demos around 1982, and Dave was involved in that band. They’ve been in a lot of bands together. I met them way before Duncan came up with The Beautiful People’s Hendrix album (1992’s If 60’s were 90’s, well worth checking out, if you missed it). They said they wanted me to do the sound, and it was insanely complicated, with bits of Hendrix guitar and voice, then keyboard, other bits of percussion … it was all over the place! But I love that album.”
I missed The Vapors live first time around, but saw Steve twice with John Peel favourites Shoot! Dispute, first at a Peel Roadshow at Surrey University in late January 1984, and then supporting Jam bass player Bruce Foxton – who co-managed The Vapors with Paul Weller’s father, John – in early May that year, on his first solo tour at Guildford Civic Hall.
“I was friends with Bruce for ages. When I moved to London we lost touch, but when we played with From the Jam last year we re-connected. That was really nice.”
Shoot! Dispute were definitely a band of their time, and Peelie liked them a lot. I was about to sit my O-levels when I saw them, and still have their single, featuring Gat Gun and Lack Lustre. And as Peelie said on air, they were, ‘Anything but lack lustre.’ Has Steve kept in touch with his old bandmates?
“Yeah, I’m Facebook friends with most of those people.”
I recall Shoot! Dispute’s percussionist Mark Charles and sax player Scampi in a band I regularly saw busking in Guildford High Street, Inspector Tuppence. I was a Saturday boy working at Boot’s then, gazing out of an upstairs window wishing I was there with them.
“Yeah, and also … this is really getting incestuous … Julian and Mark from that band were with me in a band called 1ST after Shoot! Dispute. If you look on my YouTube channel you’ll see us in a sort of rap band on MTV’s rap show in the late ‘80s. There was another band I was in with Mark, with him as the singer. He was the singer in two other bands I was in. So I’ve been in three bands with Mark.”
What’s more, Inspector Tuppence’s double-bass player, Jason, was a couple of years ahead of me at Guildford County School, while Steve – who has a few years on me – was at the nearby Royal Grammar School, where The Stranglers’ bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel attended before him. But not for long ….
“I got ejected and ended up at Bishop Reindorp. I really didn’t last long there. Two and a half years and I was out of the door.”
Any particular reason?
“Err … I was surrounded by posh people and just couldn’t relate to anybody. No one came from Guildford. Everyone came from the rich villages like Shere, Ripley, Cobham. They’d all been to prep school. But when I went to Bishop Reindorp, I came upon people I knew, thinking, ‘These are my people!’”
I guess you passed your 11-plus and got a scholarship.
“Yeah, then got taken away from my friends and put into a school where I didn’t know anybody at all.”
That seems to be the system this Government wants to revert to now.
“Yeah. I just don’t get it, really.”
Steve has his own school-age children now, a 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. And he reckons his son’s ‘much better than I was at that age’ on bass.
While The Vapors recorded one session for John Peel (in July 1979), Shoot! Dispute recorded two in 1984. Did they properly get to meet Peelie?
“Only really through the Roadshow gig show, but he phoned Shoot! Dispute a couple of times. That was brilliant. Within a week of the roadshow we were recording this session, and within another week it was out. We’d gone from just being this band playing pubs to all of a sudden being played on Radio 1. That was phenomenal for us.”
I wondered about that. Peel was obviously a big fan of Altered Images. I wonder if he saw Kathy’s quirky vocal style a similar way.
“Yeah, and that was fantastic for us. He also did this event at the ICA – I think it was four nights, with three bands a night, and we were on that as well. We did a lot of stuff, but it just wasn’t enough to get us over the line to get a record deal, unfortunately.”
No regrets though, I’m guessing. You had a great time.
“Oh, totally. I’ve had good times with every single band I’ve been in.”
Well, that’s what it should all be about. And if you can make a living out of it, all the better.
“Yeah … well, it’s barely a living, but it’s great!”
When The Vapors split in 1982, Dave Fenton returned to the legal profession, going on to specialise in music law, while guitarist Ed Bazalgette moved into television, his recent directing credits including hit BBC dramas Dr Who, Poldark, and (this June) Versailles. Meanwhile, drummer Howard Smith (no relation to Steve) worked for the PRS, going on to run an independent record shop in Guildford in recent years. He now runs People Music Promotions, putting on gigs in the South-East, and became Guildford’s Labour parliamentary candidate in 2017, adding 4,000 votes to the party’s 2015 result.
But while those three shifted away from the gig circuit for a while, Steve never really left the music business.
“I’ve spent about 25 years doing live sound and being in bands. I also did house engineering jobs in London – Clapham Grand; The Barfly, Camden; The Orange, West Kensington. The latter was my favourite job. I loved working there. I started there about ’92 and finished in ’98.
“I love the whole thing about a gig. I love the fact that you go along and you play music or go along and watch music then have a bit of a party afterwards. I love the whole thing. That’s probably not happening so much in the industry as it did once, but that’s still one of my favourite things to do. There’s nothing better – have a gig and then a bit of a party.”
He’s also helped a few indie acts along the way, including Fad Gadget, Loop and Lush, leading me to tell him I saw the latter early on at Drummonds, Euston, supporting The Wolfhounds. I remember them being really raw, but within a couple of weeks the NME were all over them.
“They supported Loop on a tour and I ended up working with both bands. A busy tour all round. They were really nice people, and I was friendly with them, especially Miki (Berenyi), who sent me postcards from all over the place. They were fun to work with, but I ended up having to make a choice between them and another band.”
Of course, for all I’ve since learned, I still imagine his most famous band putting in a bit of overtime working in Vapors Garage overalls, as per 1980’s Waiting for the Weekend promo video.
“Ha! I think that was in Camden Town. It might even still be there.”
Do you know your way around cars?
“No! I’d say none of us would be any good at all if you needed any mechanical work doing on your car.”
You look like you knew how to polish chrome and wash grease off.
“Ha! That’s acting, Malc. That’s just acting.”
As it was, it was The Shakespearos who helped ensure the return of The Vapors, via Polyfest, a charity event in memory of late, great X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, and a late-April 2016 cameo at Putney’s Half Moon.
“It did, in a way. Mike Bennett runs PolyFest and was a producer with Trojan Records and a bit of a mover and a shaker (he also produced The Fall), and gets as many acts as he can to play a few songs. He knows us and always gets us in, to do covers and as a backing band for various people. A couple of years ago he got really on my case about The Vapors and asked me to get them down. He got at me so much that I told him I’d message them straight away, and Dave got back five minutes later, saying, ‘Yeah, definitely’. He subsequently told me he was at the pub and quite drunk when he got the message!
“Meanwhile, Ed thought about it for a week, then messaged me back and said, ‘Sure, why not’. So we went down, played ’Turning Japanese’, without any rehearsal, but the rest of The Shakespearos have played that song hundreds of times in our set so they all knew what they were doing. It was quite well received and we got offered a few gigs, so it all stemmed from that really.”
And it’s been so great finally seeing you live after all these years. What’s more, you seem to be doing it for all the right reasons. That really shows.
“Yeah, I’d like to think we are doing it for the right reasons … we definitely don’t go through the motions.”
Steve’s personal music apprenticeship pre-dated punk, but seeing The Clash live in May ’77 proved to be the catalyst in finding his future direction.
“I went to the first night of the ‘White Riot’ tour at Guildford Civic Hall. I was a bit of a hippy, to be honest. I had long hair and sat up in the balcony. But the next day I thought, ‘I’m a punk rocker’, I cut all my hair off and threw all my records away. The Clash completely changed my life, just from going to see them at the Civic Hall. Music was so boring at that time. All of a sudden I was looking at this thing and thinking, ‘This is great!’”
I got the impression Dave Fenton was more into the likes of Devo.
“Yes, definitely. Dave was influenced by more arty stuff like Talking Heads and that sort of thing. He was really into Captain Beefheart at the time. That was more his kind of vibe. Mine was much more mainstream, I suppose, while his was more left-field.”
How old were you when you first saw The Clash, and what were you doing at the time?
“I must have been 19, and was ripe for it. I was playing in a covers band. When I was 17, working in Debenham’s, my two cousins turned up and said they were in this band, playing working men’s clubs up North. They asked if I wanted to play bass with them. At the time I was a guitar player. I told them I’d never played bass, but they told me they thought I could do it and offered to buy me all the gear.
“I was working in the loading bay at the time and they told me I’d earn a little more money playing with them three days a week than over a five-day week with Debenhams. So I started doing that, but it wasn’t like The Shakespearos, where we love everything we play, with real attitude. It was things like, ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy’ and all very mainstream. But it was brilliant for me and that’s how I learned to play the bass.”
Was that your equivalent of The Beatles’ Hamburg years?
“Yes, except it was in places like Middlesbrough, Leeds and South Shields!”
Tough crowds, no doubt.
“Oh, miners’ clubs, social clubs and welfare clubs – a real crash-course in being in a band and being a bass player. And I was still doing that when I went to see The Clash. But then I rapidly tired of that covers thing. I saw a whole new world in front of me, where you don’t have to be a brilliant musician. You just need to want it and want to have fun.”
And you haven’t looked back since.
“Well, I’ve looked back, but …”
Dave Fenton told me he knew you were a good bass player, but you were playing drums for someone when he asked you to audition.
“Yes, for a band called The Absolute, a proper punk band. I wasn’t a drummer though, that came about because … do you remember The Wooden Bridge at Guildford?”
Indeed, another of my lunchtime drinking places during my working days there.
“The Absolute had a gig there, then discovered their drummer was banned from the pub! They came to me as I’d expressed an interest in having a go playing drums, asking me along to rehearsals to use their kit, see how it goes. It was really good fun. I didn’t do many gigs though. I got bored of playing drums pretty quickly. It was just like you were doing the same thing over and over again.”
Howard Smith and Michael Bowes might take issue with that, but I take your point.
“But I was also going to see lots of Vapors gigs, and knew Dave was a great songwriter.”
Were they already calling themselves The Vapors?
“Yeah, there was an early version of the band that did a demo I really love. But they didn’t get anywhere. I think they played one London gig, what’s now Koko in Camden. It was very much a local band, but they were great and a few songs ended up on the first album. But I think it just fell apart. Different people were leaving or being chucked out. When I auditioned there was Dave, Ed, and a drummer called Joe. The bass player, Mike, was off to university. I went away thinking I’d done alright, then got a call from Dave the next day saying, ‘You’re in, but there’s one slight problem – the drummer’s left now!’
“That drummer was actually at our 229 gig (November 2016) and I asked him, ‘Was I really that bad that you had to leave the band? All I did was audition!” That was when we got Howard in. It was between him and a drummer who went on to World Domination Enterprises. They were a great band and I was their sound engineer. Really good friends of mine. But it was Howard or Digger (Metters), and Howard was chosen for whatever reason, because he fitted in better.”
And didn’t Howard have somewhere to rehearse as well?
“I don’t think that really came into it … but it was a total bonus!”
For me, that’s where the stories of Guildford’s best-known bands seem to merge. Stranglers drummer Jet Black had his off-licence, while Howard had a launderette.
“Yeah, it was his Dad’s launderette and there were two flats above it. Howard and Ed lived in one and the other was empty. When Howard left there, I moved into the flat with Ed. And we’d rehearse in the other flat two or three nights a week.”
“Yeah, we played a festival in Guildford, where it poured with rain all day, and Howard turned up with his wife and young child. It was really lovely to see him, a very pleasant afternoon in his company. I obviously wish him all the best in everything he does. He’s very political now, which is great.”
And he recorded Labour’s highest vote in the area since 1979 last year, at the first time of asking.
“Yeah, I’ve got my fingers crossed for him that he’s actually going to crack it, be an MP at some point.”
Now you have Michael Bowes (who’s also worked with the likes of Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small, Michelle Gayle, and Laura Mvula) in his seat, and I get the impression he fits in well.
“Michael’s brought a lovely freshness and impetus. He’s such a lovely man to have around. That in itself is great, but he’s also got a handle on the drums. He’s listened to Howard and reproduces that. He’s also coming up with his own parts on the new stuff. It’s all good. We’d all have loved Howard to do it, but couldn’t really have found anyone better than Michael if it wasn’t to be Howard.”
So, 36 years after the initial split, it’s Dave, Ed (occasionally with Dave’s son Dan Fenton deputising), Steve and Michael, with this summer’s UK dates to be followed by three October sell-outs at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. That’s impressive, I suggest. It’s really taken off again.
“It seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own. I think it’s coincidental that we signed our back-catalogue over to an American independent label around the same time as fans over there started a funding campaign. The label saw that and realised it was a good idea to get us over, so decided to bung a bit in to make it happen. The American fans did brilliantly to raise the money they did, and the record company topped it off at the end.
“It costs a hell of a lot of money for visas and lawyers. Ridiculous. It didn’t used to be like that. It’s like they really don’t want you to go. There’s a 40-page form to fill in, after you get someone to petition the US Government to let you in. You fill in a preliminary form with all your details, then this 40-page form, remembering all your secondary school education dates, stuff like that, asking whether you’ve ever been involved in terrorism or in genocide. Pages and pages. And after that, you go to an interview at the embassy. Then they decide whether you’re good enough to get into their country.”
And this is for a bunch of white boys from South-East England. What if you were a Tijuana brass ensemble from across the Mexican border?
“Yeah, or an Iranian death-metal band!”
Between our interview and publication, the last of the three New York dates sold out, with the band’s four-day schedule set to be jam-packed, the sightseeing kept to a minimum. I dare say there will be photo opportunities though. Is that right that Dan is featuring on guitar in America?
“I don’t think Ed’s going, but I spoke to him last week and he’s doing all the UK gigs to the end of the summer, starting in Manchester. He really wanted to do America but couldn’t give a cast-iron commitment, which isn’t normally a problem as we have Dan on standby. But Ed wants to keep his work going, so that makes it difficult, and he couldn’t commit to this six months in advance.”
Wasn’t there a previous attempt to reunite the band that didn’t quite come off?
“That was after I was working at the Orange. We did a few rehearsals there, after it became something else, about 1992 or 1993. We used the drummer from Basement Jaxx … and also the drummer from The Beautiful People. There’s the connection.”
Time flies and it’s 38 years since New Clear Days was released. Yet it remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Good memories of recording that?
“Really good memories. Instead of going to some dodgy studio and doing a couple of days recording and paying for it out of your own money, all of a sudden we’re in the studio where Bob Marley was recording, just off Portobello Road. We did a lot of it there and then some of it at Townhouse, where The Jam recorded.
“It was like a dream, these really posh studios. Not only that, but they’d make us dinner every night. ‘Can we get some beers please?’ ‘Yes, we’ll just mark it down as some cassettes.’ Yes, lots of happy memories. That was my dream to be in the studio recording an album, and all of a sudden it was actually happening. A dream come true.”
I struggled more with Magnets initially, although appreciating the songs. How close do you think the third LP will be to the first two?
“We don’t know yet. A lot of it’s down to how it’s recorded. The main difference between the albums was having a different producer with a different approach and different ideas. I think what Vic Smith did was create a sort of readily-identifiable cool sound for the band, with the guitar sound on a lot of the tracks very similar. Dave Tickle would treat each song like a different entity and try and make something without the thought of a ‘whole album’ thing – treating each song individually, whereas Vic had an overall sound in mind. And it seems to me that most people like that sound better than the other sound.”
In a sense I wonder if it was the sound of that first LP, as much as touring with The Jam, that singled you out as Mods, although I’m not sure you ever were.
“Maybe a bit, but actually I was a bit of a Mod. And so was Howard. Me and him used to bowl around on his scooter. I think it was a Lambretta GP200. A really cool scooter with mirrors and everything, and a Tonic jacket. Me and Howard were Mods, but Dave and Ed totally weren’t and we didn’t want to be identified as a Mod band … even though two of us secretly were!”
Maybe you should have branched off, started a solo project, called yourself The Smiths.
“Ha ha! No, I don’t think that was likely to catch on.”
After New York, I wondered about Australia next. You did well Down Under, so to speak, first time round. How about an Aussie tour next year?
“I’d love to go back to Australia. Over there we had one of those massive hits (with ‘Turning Japanese’) that went on for about eight weeks, like one of those horrible songs like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or ‘Shaddup Ya Face’. It was absolutely massive there. Apart from our Jam shows, our gigs involved small venues, but then we turned up at this huge arena for our first show there! But again, it was such fun.”
Subsequent research reveals that while official records suggest ‘Turning Japanese’ was No. 1 in Australia for barely two weeks (impressive as that is), it was the second-highest grossing single in 1980 there, selling more than 100,000 copies Down Under.
And while organising that Aussie return could take some time, in the meantime there’s another trip for Steve with The Shakespearos to Portugal.
“Yeah, we’re off again to the Western Algarve, where it’s a little wild, not so touristy, with 16 or 17 shows before coming back to do the gigs at the end of June. It’s lovely. We’ve got two residencies we play every week, while picking up odd gigs around and about, here and there. We did it last year and the two years before, and we’re making the most of it … until Brexit maybe puts the kibosh on it.”
Well, hopefully that’ll never happen. I’m in denial on all that.
“I am too. I’ve just got my fingers in my ears, going, ‘Nah nah nah! Can’t hear you, can’t hear you!’”
The Vapors’ next dates start with a visit to Manchester’s Ruby Lounge (0161 834 1392) on Friday, June 29th, followed by The Cluny in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Saturday, June 30th, and the Bungalow in Paisley (Sunday, July 1st). For more dates and to keep up with the band’s latest news, check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.