This time 40 years ago, The Vapors were about to set out on tour with The Jam on their biggest adventure to date, invited along for the ride on the latter’s Setting Sons tour by their co-managers, Jam bass player Bruce Foxton and the headliners’ manager John Weller, father of front-man Paul.
You may have caught that tour somewhere, perhaps at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, Lancaster University, London’s Rainbow Theatre … who knows. But if you didn’t, fear not. They’re back again, supporting Bruce Foxton’s more recent venture, From the Jam, a band that originally included Jam drummer Rick Buckler, Bruce leading the charge with long-time songwriting and performing partner Russell Hastings. They’re a class act, and the same goes for the support band.
Three of the classic four-piece Vapors remain on board, but while just two feature on this tour – Dave and bass player Steve Smith – missing guitarist Ed Bazalgette (the celebrated television director currently busy with filming commitments) has quality cover between appearances from protégé Dan Fenton, who just so happens to be one of Dave’s three children.
Dave, a music lawyer before taking early retirement from a role with the Musicians’ Union, reconvened his old band in 2016. He’s based in Worthing on the South Coast these days, moving after his children left school from Hertfordshire to Sussex, handy for rehearsals with Brighton-based Steve and Crawley-based drummer Michael Bowes, the latter a tutor by day at Brighton’s British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), taking over from Howard Smith – busy with a young family, gig promotions and his role as Guildford’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party – when they finally got back together after 35 years.
As Dave put it when we spoke earlier this week, “There was nothing keeping us in Harpenden. It made sense to move closer to them. I didn’t need to get into London on the train anymore. I’ve retired now. This is my retirement, see!”
Yes, four decades after writing ‘Trains’, for me up there with The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and The Jam’s ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ and ‘Smithers-Jones’ as a classic tale of life as a London commuter, we can confirm that Dave Fenton successfully took on the trains … and they didn’t get him.
It’s also fair to say Dave’s loving it, not only out there playing live, but also recording new songs, a third Vapors album recorded and set to land fairly soon, 38 years after the previous one. And all in all, a band best known for UK top-three hit ‘Turning Japanese’ (also a No.1 in Australia) are relishing their second coming.
So, three dates into this tour, has Dave had opportunities to reminisce with the band’s former manager, Mr Foxton?
“A bit, yeah. Not a lot. We sort of pass each other in soundchecks mostly, as we’re playing at different times. But yeah, we all get on fine.”
He was gearing up for Leeds Stylus (Thursday 24th), Middlesbrough Empire (Friday 25th) and Hull City Hall (Saturday 26th) when I called, coming closest to my adopted patch at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall (Friday, November 15th), another venue visited in 1979, although missing From the Jam’s Manchester Ritz return (Saturday, November 23rd) due to a prior London booking at Nell’s in West Kensington.
“We’ve only done three dates so far, but it’s going well, with a great crowd.”
This tour ends at London’s Indigo at the O2 on Saturday, November 30th, but they’re back out again in January and then in March and April, another busy year expected in Dave’s hectic retirement, anxiously awaiting the release of that new LP.
“We’ve recorded it and it’s all ready to go, and we’ve done test pressings. But I don’t think it’ll be ready until later in the year. We’re in negotiations with a distributor. I’ve never put a record out myself – everything’s changed, we’re on a learning curve, needing all the help we can get.”
That sounds a little frustrating.
“It is a bit. It’s going to be a year old by the time it comes out. On the other hand, I’ve never put a record out myself and everything’s changed since my day, so we’re on a learning curve and need all the help we can get. But so far, so good.”
For those catching up, possibly thinking it might just be about one big hit and a couple of minor ones, the band made two great LPs in 1980 and 1981, with debut album New Clear Days among my favourite ever long players and follow-up Magnets, though so different, gradually growing on this scribe and one I love too now.
The early shows such as those in late 2016 were all about celebrating those records and the accompanying singles and B-sides. But last summer when I saw them again at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge there were a few new songs in the set too – and going down well – giving us hope that something was afoot.
“Well, some of the new tracks haven’t actually made the album. We had around 20 songs to choose from, and only chose 12.”
The band also head to North Wales on the first weekend of November for a sell-out two-day Vapors convention at Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ celebrated Italianate-style village in Portmeirion, Gwynedd, the location for cult ‘60s series The Prisoner, in what’s become something of a regular date in the band’s diary.
“We pretty much get it to ourselves, with only a 100-something capacity for the main hall, so it’s just us and our fans spending the weekend together, which is great.”
And all following an invite from Vapors fan, Meurig Jones, a major player in the running of the celebrated No. 6 Festival, who happens to be an official guide in ‘The Village’.
“That’s how it all started really, him asking if we’d like to play there, being the place where The Prisoner was shot, and our first single being ‘Prisoners’.”
And four decades after that debut Vapors 45, how would you say this next LP will compare to the first two? Is this perhaps the longest trilogy in music history?
“Ha! It could be! There are references to people and things mentioned on the first album, for example ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’ – which when you write it down is ‘no one won’ – the other side of that first album’s ‘Letter From Hiro’, if you like. And I think Johnny crops up in one or two places.”
Ah, yes, a character that features large on the second record, 1981’s Magnets. And there’s another nice reference to the first album… but they’re keeping that under wraps for now.
A lot’s happened since out last chat four years ago, Dave …
“Yeah, we were about to do our first four gigs in 35 years! And there was a really nice response.”
I was lucky enough to be at Liverpool Arts Club for one of those, a day I thought I’d never get to see, having been just 13 when the band first parted ways.
“Nice one. We get a lot of that, especially, ‘First time around I was too young to come’.”
Including The Vapors’ stand-in guitarist, your lad Dan.
“Yeah, he wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye!”
He’s going down well with the fans, with a fair few stage hours with the band under his belt now in Ed’s absence.
“Yeah. He’s a good guitarist, and he’s enthusiastic.”
I think people can see he’s there on merit, and not just because of any family link.
“Yes. It’s a shame Ed couldn’t do more stuff, but he’s been really busy filming this year. He’s in London editing at the moment and has been away in Turkey, I think, filming. I’ve hardly seen him.”
You’ve travelled a fair bit yourself with the band during this latest spell in the band’s history. It’s been an amazing journey since you and Ed got up on stage with Steve’s band, The Shakespearos at London’s Half Moon, Putney in late April 2016, just playing ‘Turning Japanese’ on that occasion.
“I had no idea! And that’s before we did the initial four gigs.”
You’ve even inspired a book, dedicated Vapors fan Mike Philpott’s Time’s Gonna Make Me A Man Someday (on sale throughout this tour at the merch desk or via Amazon through this link), its title taken from the band’s third single, ‘News at Ten’.
“Yeah, that was strange! There are all these people that we’re finding out how much The Vapors meant to them. And we didn’t know then. There was no internet. It was completely different.”
I’m guessing you were never stand-offish to the fans. You seem to have always been fairly open to approaches from them. I wonder how much of that was down to being associated with The Jam, a band who always looked after their supporters, however young.
“We learned that from the Jam really. They’d always go to the merch desk after a gig, sign things, shake hands, and have photos taken.
“This time last year we did three gigs at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, which all went down well, and we sold out. A great weekend for everyone, and quite a few fans came out from the UK. We’ve got quite a good following there and got invited back for the lost ‘80s tour this summer, doing around 22 dates over 30 days across America.
“It was weird playing there. Indoors it was freezing cold because the air conditioning was on, but when you went outside it was 100 degrees. And then we came home, and it was the complete opposite of that.”
I don’t wish to be disparaging, but it was a case of short, sharp greatest hit sets, sometimes barely a few aired. Does that get frustrating, just being asked to play the better-known songs?
“It was a bit. But there were so many bands on the roster that we were lucky that we got to play three or four songs each night. Some were just doing their one hit. I didn’t mind that, but it would have been nice to vary the set a bit. But the audience wanted to hear what they were getting.”
And hopefully they returned home to play the other records, get them on order, or save up to see you again somewhere soon.
“Well, exactly. If they liked us live maybe they’d look online and see what else we’ve got. And I’d never stop going back there. It was great.”
While The Vapors never properly toured Europe (Dave just recalls one TV show in Germany), with the thought of his past work with the Musicians’ Union, I put it to him that US tours involve a lot of painstaking paperwork, and we currently have a dark horizon looming with Brexit, making it increasingly difficult for bands planning future European travels.
“Well, yeah, it’s going to restrict musicians touring abroad, having to go through visa applications for each territory – and there’s 27 of them, rather than just through one passport. It’s going to be a nightmare.”
I went more into the early history of the band with you in our feature/interview in September 2016 (with a link here), carrying on that conversation since with Ed and Steve in further features, and also Howard Smith. But something I only learned more recently involved the band before they all joined.
I’ve always dined out on the fact that The Stranglers practised at the end of the road I was brought up on, at Shalford Scout Hut, just outside Guildford. What I hadn’t realised was that an early incarnation of The Vapors also practised nearby, at Shalford Village Hall, a venue I knew better from Christmas fairs and older siblings going to dances and a social club there. Small world, eh?
“Yeah, that was a very early formation of The Vapors – Mark I, as we called it, with Rob Kemp, Mike Hedges and Mike Jordan on drums.”
So I gather, with the latter known as Joe, for fairly obvious reasons to football fans of that era. I hear Rob’s no longer with us though.
“Unfortunately not. He moved to America, and died about three years ago.”
Were you in touch?
“I’m in touch with his sister, and we did get in touch after all that time, when he sent me some photos and demos we’d done. It was very much a shock when he died. He was a lot younger than me.
“I’ve been in touch with Mike Hedges since, but Mike Jordan seemed to fall off the face of the earth when he left the band. The two Mikes were at school together, and it was because Mike Hedges went off to do his degree at Southampton that Mike Jordan left the band at the same time. Ed was already in the band by that point, and we’d done a gig with him, I think.
“Then they left and we ended up looking for a bassist and drummer. Howard was previously with Ed, while Steve was in a number of bands around Guildford, playing various instruments, including drums!”
Is that right that the original ‘Turning Japanese’ demo was recorded at Shalford Village Hall?
“It could well have been. I don’t have a copy, but we did a version at Chestnut Studios, somewhere in Surrey. I’m pretty sure we did borrow a tape recorder to make some recordings at the hall, but I haven’t got the tapes. I’m not sure if anyone else has.
“Things keep cropping up. ‘Caroline’ cropped up on the internet recently, but I think that was recorded from The Rainbow along with the B-side from ‘Turning Japanese’, ‘Here Comes the Judge’. I think someone lifted ‘Caroline’ from the same tape.”
Dave, who moved to Guildford from the east of Surrey to study at the College of Law, was working at a grocer’s shop in Market Street in the town, and his past keeps catching up with him.
“I keep bumping into someone I worked with, coming to gigs. And he was at Cardiff at the weekend.”
And who had that lovely old Morris in the early publicity shots for The Vapors, Mk. II?
“I really couldn’t tell you. I think that might have been one of our roadies. It’s not still with us, I’m afraid!”
According to a Facebook page run by Surrey music scene aficionado David Shephard, I learned after that the Morris 1000 belonged to a fella called Steve Gunner. So now you know.
There were earlier names. Were you still the Big Box Band or BBC3 when practising at my village hall?
“No, I think by the time we had Rob in the band we were The Vapors.”
With or without the ‘u’ in the name?
“Ah, I’m not sure if we’d made that decision by that point. But fairly soon after we decided the name was too long, and if the Americans didn’t need it, neither did we.”
Well, that’s a bone of contention. It has to be the exception that proves the rule for this pedant – I always go with anglicised versions, unless I’m writing about your band.
There’s also a little confusion about when Bruce Foxton saw you first at Scratchers in Godalming. Were Ed, Steve and Howard in the band by then?
“I think just Ed … but I really don’t remember. Actually, it was Steve that Bruce mostly spoke to at the pub, so he must have been playing. But it was 40 years ago – my memory’s not as good as it was! I know things happened in a certain order, but sometimes the details …I don’t remember at all.
“It’s like that with Mike (Philpott), who’s written this book. There’s stuff in there I’ve no recollection of at all! Steve also said he read it with trepidation. Mike talks about queuing up at The Marquee hoping he’d remembered to put him on the guest list, with Steve worried whether he had or not!”
Before I let Dave go – on a rare day off between shows – I thanked him for getting The Vapors back together after all these years. I never thought it would happen, so it’s all a bonus for this ‘too young’ fan. And his response?
“No problem … it’s the day-job now!”
The Vapors are currently supporting From The Jam at venues across the UK, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Setting Sons, with full details of dates – including a few pre-arranged shows outside the tour – and how to get tickets via this link.
With thanks to Shaun Modern, plus former Barbed Wire fanzine head honcho Alan ‘Fred’ Pipes, freelance photographer Warren Meadows and Si Root for the use of their photographs, and David Shephard for his splendid Soundscene Does Facebook! archive.