Four decades to the week of the release of their debut LP, The Vapors delivered a new album, and it’s one that proved beyond doubt the staying power of a band that were always about so much more than one big hit.
Regular visitors to this website will know I’ve been extolling the virtues of a group from my old neck of the woods in Guildford, Surrey, since they got back together, any initial concerns about their decision to reform cast aside on witnessing their performance at Liverpool Arts Club in late 2016.
It was always going to be a balancing act, having loved the first album, 1980’s New Clear Days since I first heard it as a young teen, and learning to love in the interim 1981 follow-up, Magnets.
And while those early shows on reforming four years ago were all about playing the old songs, frontman Dave Fenton stressed from the start that he was eager to move on, not content to just play the numbers we already knew and loved, keen to take the band into a new era of creativity.
The shows that followed reflected that, with more and more new songs aired and tested live, and now we have Together, a long playing statement of true intent, a celebration of the band and a mutual enduring love with a loyal fanbase – young and not so young alike – and an album that suggested they’ve simply carried on where they left off before a 34-year hiatus.
As expressed in more detail in past interviews with band members on this site, Dave (lead vocals, guitar), Ed Bazalgette (lead guitar, vocals), Steve Smith (bass, vocals) and Howard Smith (drums) packed in a lot during the years in between, the latter deciding when they reformed his priorities had to be elsewhere at that stage, not least with a young family in tow.
In his place, up stepped Michael Bowes, a Brighton-based BIMM drumming tutor with an impressive CV, previous stints between the sticks including those with Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small, Michelle Gayle, Desmond Dekker and Laura Mvula. And Jamaica-born Michael fitted in right away, his infectious smile seemingly ever-present and somewhat infectious for anyone catching the band live since.
While Dave’s retired from his legal role (in later years working as an in-house solicitor for the Musicians’ Union), Ed’s work in TV and film (most recently directing Versailles and The Last Kingdom, and next up, The Witcher) continues to keep him busy, but there’s a more than competent replacement in Dave’s son Dan Fenton, regularly deputising on lead guitar, both players featuring on the new record.
The initial decision to get back together (I’ll keep using that word, in celebration of the latest arrival) came after Dave and Ed guested with Steve’s punk and new wave cover band The Shakespearos at a PolyFest charity event at the Half Moon, Putney, south west London, playing their biggest hit, ‘Turning Japanese’, a UK No.3 that proved a hit around the world, even topping the charts in Australia.
That Half Moon appearance inspired four Waiting for the Weekend dates later the same year – in Dublin, back in London at Camden’s Dingwalls, then in Liverpool (where I caught them) and Wolverhampton. And from there there’s been precious little let-up, numerous gigs and festivals following around the UK, alongside a series of sell-outs in New York City which led to 22 Lost ‘80s Live package tour dates across the US, 38 years after their previous (third) saunter across the States, in what proved to be the final act before the initial split.
Law student Dave formed an early version of The Vapors in 1978, a year later recruiting Ed and Howard, with Steve on board shortly after, one of their early gigs at Scratchers, Farncombe (four miles outside Guildford) caught by past WriteWyattUK interviewee Bruce Foxton, who asked them to open for The Jam on 1979’s Setting Sons tour. He also took on management duties alongside Paul Weller’s father John Weller, and late last year The Vapors reunited with their old manager, supporting Bruce’s From The Jam on a Setting Sons 40th anniversary tour.
More of those dates happened this year, until coronavirus restrictions curtailed live outings. But now fans have that new LP to savour, made in Liverpool with BRITS/Grammy award-winning producer Steve Levine (The Clash, Culture Club), who said of the experience, “It was such an enjoyable project to be involved with. I’m enormously proud of this album. The band really upped their game musically and sonically during the sessions and were a pleasure to work with.”
COVID-19 curbs willing, Fenton and co. are set to celebrate not only the new record but also the 40th anniversary of New Clear Days with a headline UK tour later this year, playing the debut LP in full as well as songs from the new album. But Dave admitted when I called last week a sense of frustration at not being able to get out and about with his bandmates right now.
“We can’t rehearse, because we can’t travel. Writing’s fine, but …. I’ve got 30 songs towards the new album already. I’m just wondering what to do with them. We’ll probably have to do a double album.”
That reminds me of a recent conversation for this website with Erland Cooper where we got on to Paul Weller, the pair having worked together on projects in recent times. He told me Paul was already enthused about his new record … even before his latest is released. That’s the mark of the man, I guess, in his 60s yet as prolific as ever. And that seems to be the case with Dave too.
“Well, what else can you do if you can’t rehearse and you can’t play live?”
That said, I guess yourself and Dan, self-isolating together, will be all the more tight as a unit, seeing as you get to practise together while the rest of the band are elsewhere.
“Yeah, well, we’re going to end up doing loads of acoustic stuff, just me and him, unless we can sort out some way of getting everyone to record.”
A Zoom band meeting isn’t so easy, I suppose.
“No. The time delay on that is a problem. We’ve had podcasts though, and a Zoom party the night the album got released. We were altogether, drinking together … virtually. But there is some other software we’re going to try out, so we’ll see what happens, experimenting to find a way to play without a time delay.”
Dave’s been confined to base in recent weeks with wife Branka, sons Dan and Jack and two dogs, ‘a walkable mile and a half away’ from the South coast. And while missing their daughter, locked down elsewhere, he’s clearly loving the public and critical acclaim for Together.
“Well, who wouldn’t be? I haven’t seen anything negative.”
Those of us who have caught you live these last few years have been believers from the start, but even then, I think it’s fair to say the finished product has exceeded expectations. It’s as if you carried on where you left off with Magnets in 1981. Another winning set of songs.
“It’s nice when people say things like that. I’m just amazed no one so far has said, ‘It’s not as good as it used to be’. That’s what I was dreading most, that we’d let people down.”
Despite last year’s US package tour on the retro circuit, I don’t think there was ever a doubt that you were always about the next record. You’ve never been a band to come up with more of the same, as proved by Magnets, arguably a step too far at the time for a wider audience.
“That was the initial basis on which we got back together in 2016, over a drink in a pub in London. I said I wanted to get back to where we were before, and that would include writing new songs if these gigs were a success and we still had an audience. And everyone agreed.
“It’s taken a bit of time. I didn’t expect it to take four years. But to be quite frank, I don’t mind the pace it’s going at. I’ve got nothing else to worry about. I’m retired and this is it, so I’ll get it right.”
That’s as good a place as any to include my own brief-ish critique of the new record before I get back to my latest chat with Dave. Apologies if you’ve only got a short break, as this feature is clearly turning into another trademark epic, it would seem. That fella Tolstoy’s got nothing on me.
“We’ve been through troubled times, we’ve been through stormy waters.”
Somehow, Together gets its message across without the angst and ire of a late ‘70s approach to kicking against the pricks. That’s not to say there’s no cutting edge. Far from it. There’s are more subtle ways to deliver perhaps, and while I crave a little more fire at times, I think they’ve struck a great balance. They certainly get their points across, sonically and lyrically. We’re talking melodic new wave pop with added bite.
Look away if you like, but for me the pop sensibilities of a very 21st century success like The Feeling come through on tracks like opener ‘Together’, incorporating a respectful nod to the past but pushing on all the same. The US term power pop always confused me, but I reckon it probably fits the bill here. And whatever label you use, the title track and several more scream ‘radio airplay’. Think commercial with attitude, carrying enough sonic hooks to lure non-partisan floating voters.
‘I don’t think I could have made it on my own; I don’t even think I’d find my way back home’.
Track two, lead single ‘Crazy’, also falls into that category, grabbing you from the moment you hear that introductory late-‘70s Steve Jones-like guitar riff. If Steve Smith’s side-project The Shakespearos start playing this and it’s new to you, you could be excused for thinking it was a little-known post-punk single from ’78. I’ll be honest and say, like ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘Jimmie Jones’, I’d more likely point new fans to something more subtle and less commercial. But it’s a classic new wave hit.
‘All I really want is floating down the river; All I really want’s a reason to forgive her.’
It’s the deeper numbers that truly resonate a few more listens down the line, and ‘Sundown River’ carries a melodic laidback 12-string feel. A beautifully-crafted song, one more punk-rock elements among the fanbase might shy away from. Dare I say the harmonies put me in mind of Aussie environmental rock warriors Midnight Oil in reflective mode? In fact, I see the titular river more a dried-up creek picked up in an aerial shot by a passing helicopter. And there’s definitely a touch of the cinematic about this fine number.
‘Freeze frame, freeze frame, freeze frame; And look at everything you’ve got.’
The subject matter of ‘Real Time’ puts me in mind of ‘Daylight Titans’ on the second LP, and its ‘We can freeze time’ line. And while a band that have been away as long as this shouldn’t just be able to drift back into the groove, The Vapors pull it off, seemingly seamlessly. And if there’s an over-riding message across these vinyl grooves, perhaps it’s something about making the best of the limited time we have on this earth and using the power we have – personally and politically – for good. And a big yes to all that.
‘I could have stayed for longer, probably should have; But the last thing I saw happening was this.’
‘Girl From the Factory’ is the first of the New Clear Days: Revisited songs here, it’s title taken from ‘Letter From Hiro’, and while the sheer number of years between Vapors records suggests such reflection might have been over-thought, over-wrought and over-played, they manage to keep within the parameters. Nothing’s in your face, and similarly nothing comes with a smug or conspiratorial wink to the camera. It’s great storytelling, masterfully done.
‘I can’t remember how we ended up like this; Just that it’s beautiful, I feel so blessed.’
There’s cause for further reflection on ‘I Don’t Remember’, and this time I could easily hear Suggs and Madness tackle this. In their case too it would be tucked away on another quality album and only a select few of us would pay much attention. But given the chance it‘s a song that gets inside your head and refuses to budge, the message put across without the need for a mallet.
‘Now it’s a different story, someone’s singing our song; Land of hope and glory for the rich and the strong’.
The Vapors were always a political band for these ears, and those messages made an impression on a teenage lad waking up to what was going on around him, on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘In Babylon’ continues that great tradition, although for me it sounds like it would fit better on Magnets than the more direct debut album. Incidentally, the day after my fourth listen to the new record, this was the one still playing in my head, that chord progression imprinted on the brain. In a good way. A sure sign of staying power.
‘But if you wait till the war is all over, and then you wait till they all drop their guns; And then you wait till they pick up the pieces, no-one won.’
I guess ‘Letter From Hiro’ was the song I returned to most during the ‘80s and ‘90s, thinking I’d never ever get a chance to see The Vapors. So near, yet so far, a band on my doorstop gone before I had chance to catch them live. So there was something of a thrill in finding out there was a follow-up here, one I first heard live at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in 2018 (reviewed here)and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’ moves the story on, in its structure and its narrative, and it’s certainly worthy of its company. It brings us up to date and again there’s a maturity that might not have sounded right if the LP had surfaced in the early ‘80s but sounds just right here. Think of Peter Gabriel (I know, I know, but please bear with me) at his most evocative. Think ‘Biko’ and the chill you got first hearing that.
‘White Rabbit is blue, Mad Hatter is too; I’ve told you before, you’re Alison Wonderland.’
Another number that has more in common with Magnets is ‘Wonderland’, which would have slipped into that set perfectly. There’s an ethereal feel in tune with the title, Dave Fenton with looking-glass in pocket in a creative nod to past Guildford resident Lewis Carroll, letting his imagination run wild.
‘I only came to pick up my things; I was hoping that you wouldn’t be in’.
I get the idea with ‘Those Tears’ that if all these songs were ready to record in, say, 1983, this could well have been the lead single. Who knows what might have happened then. It could have bombed without trace, the band done for, or it could have been a mega-success, at least in America, the biggest hit since Turning Japanese, a new era of The Vapors ushered in and a life by the pool with dubious substances and temptations assured. Ah well. I’d have probably walked away then, and would have certainly disliked the tie-in MTV promo video.
‘And we loved Suzanne, and we loved Marianne, and we hung out at the Chelsea Hotel; But then Jane came by with a bird on a wire; Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye, goodbye; King L!’
The car’s running now and we’re ready to depart, the plane not far off from taxi-ing across the runway as ‘King L’ kicks in, the crowd going wild, the band wigging out somewhat. Is this the track the band end on right now rather than ‘Here Comes the Judge’? It would make sense. There’s certainly not so many places to go from here. Kin’ ‘ell!
‘Cos those nuclear nights, followed by the new clear mornings, make the sun so bright in your eyes.’
Yet for all the penultimate song’s firepower, we have a perfect album finale in ‘Nuclear Nights’, the understated yet raw guitar at the death leaving us hungry for more. Again, there’s that perfect fusion between Heritage Vapors and 21st Century Boys in the Zone. And there will be more great records to come, I’m sure, that bridge safely crossed, new horizons in the sights. And here’s to that. Crack on.
Talking of which, now I’ve got that down, let’s get back to it. And in the same way that a successful football team builds around key players, I get the feeling the building blocks on the new LP are songs like ‘Together’, ‘Crazy’, ‘Sundown River’, ‘Girl From the Factory’, ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11) and ‘Nuclear Nights’.
“I honestly can’t remember which were written first. Some are quite old and we’ve been playing them since 2017/18, including ‘No.11’ and ‘Sundown River’, coming up from riffs that Ed played. But some of them were finished just before we got in the studio, and I was still tweaking lyrics when I was in there.”
I should point out that when Dave mentions ‘No.11’, he says ‘No-one won’, as those listening to the LP will realise. Vintage Fenton wordplay, up there with talk of ‘Alison Wonderland’ elsewhere, something there right from the start. And what was his gut feeling on first playback of the new record, and how that might have compared to first hearing the completed New Clear Days?
“I was pretty chuffed. We worked quite hard and quite fast with Steve Levine. He’s very good, but he cracked the whip, with about six days doing backing tracks and six more doing vocals and overdubs, six days mixing. There’s very little time to sit there and experiment. I was very pleased with how it came out, but at the time, it was like, ‘Is it finished yet?’”
Was that because he had such a busy diary, or just that’s he worked out over the years the best way to approach it all?
“I think it was a bit of both really. We were lucky to get a slot with him in the first place and lucky that he was keen to do it.”
And how did he compare to Vic Coppersmith-Heaven for the first LP and Dave Tickle for the second?
“Well, we got in touch with a number of these people to see if they were free or interested, and Steve was the first to come back and say yes. And we’re still waiting to hear back from some of them! Some were hard to track down, and I believe Dave Tickle is in Hawaii somewhere.”
Somehow over the course of these last four years, you’ve become a five-piece with a twist, with Dan and Ed sharing lead guitar duties here and live.
“Yeah, we didn’t want to chop Ed out of the album. I think he spent three days with us, and he’s on three tracks, songs he knew already – ‘No.11’, ‘Sundown River’ and ‘King L’.
On the subject of the latter, I was wondering what Lemmy would have done with that. I’d have loved to hear a Motorhead cover.
“It would have been interesting to have found out!”
I love Mandy Cox’s cover design more and more, and Derek D’Souza’s live shots and Si Root’s bus stop five-piece line-up.
“That was in Porthcawl, South Wales. We did a gig there, and that was the last place all five of us were together. Dan came along to help roadie and Ed played.”
Would you have been out on the road now as a band, if not for coronavirus restrictions?
“No. we were halfway through the From the Jam 40th anniversary Setting Sons tour. That was set to go on until the end of April. Next up would have been a Lost ‘80s six-week tour in America from the end of July to mid-September.
“We were then set to tour in October/November /December to play stuff from the new album and mark the 40th anniversary of New Clear Days, so that’s still pencilled in for those dates, although Lost ‘80s Live is not going to happen, postponed to next year effectively.”
I guess if restrictions on live music and reduced numbers in confined spaces continue, there’s a chance it might even be five years on from the Half Moon reunion if those shows are delayed again.
“It could be. That was May, yeah.”
Either way, when that tour finally happens, there will inevitably be setlist casualties. There are only so many songs you can play each night.
“Well, it’s already been stated that we’d be doing the entirety of New Clear Days, so we’ll be doing less of Together.”
For someone like you who’s already thinking ahead to the next album …
“Yeah, it’s frustrating. I can’t keep all these songs in my head all the time. I have to rehearse them, depending on which set we’re doing.”
We had Talking Heads with More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978 and The Undertones with ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’ in 1980, and now we’ve got The Vapors 40 years later with, in your words, ‘more pop songs about war, famine, suicide, mental health, dementia and having fun’.
“Yeah, the short title was going to be ‘More Songs About Wanking and War’ … but we didn’t think that would get played!
“Some are about depressing subjects, people coming back and saying, ‘That made me cry’. Which, I think, y’know … is that successful? If it affects people emotionally, that’s amazing.”
Absolutely. And I was going to ask you about the dementia line, something I know all too well through struggles with both of my parents in their latter days. Was there a personal link with you?
“Well, yeah, my Mum was towards the end, but it was me I was talking about, really. I can’t remember lyrics. The older I get the less I remember … and it’s embarrassing sometimes. Because the audience know them all. Sometimes it goes through fine, but other times I just go blank.”
And you’re clearly a bloke who’s had to remember a lot of information over the years, not least through all those years in the legal profession.
“Yeah, but I’ve always found it hard. Names to faces as well. That’s difficult as well, and I’m really finding it now with new songs. The old ones I learned that long ago now that they’re still stuck in there somewhere. It’s just a matter of teasing them out.
“Then again, as it says in the song (‘I Don’t Remember’), ‘But then it comes to me.’ Sometimes you just sit on it and the answer will come. It’s no good me doing pub quizzes though, because it’s going to take a day or so!”
On a brighter note, the title track, ‘Together’ seems to be a celebration of relationships and doing alright at life. Am I right?
“I don’t want to spell it out, but they’re usually about more than one subject. It might sound like a boyfriend/girlfriend, and sometimes it’s me and the fans, sometimes it’s me and the band. The first line of the last song, ‘Nuclear Nights’, is ‘Don’t cry when it ends’, and that was about the end of the band. I didn’t know how long it would go on. I’m 67 now, already, and how long can we keep this up? It’s bound to end sometime, even if that’s not soon. But everything should be read on that level. And together in itself is three words – ‘to get her’.
I love that, and despite what you just said, in a sense you did spell it out with the front cover graphic.
“Well yeah, and it’s a stunning design. I love it. So simple, yet …”
Then of course there’s the alternative on the inside (and if you don’t know what that is, dear reader, it’s time you bought the finished product).
“Yeah, you don’t find that until you take the CD out.”
While you’re still pushing on and finding new ground, there are clearly links from the first album to this one. As heard in the titles of ‘Girl From the Factory’ and ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’, both linked to ‘Letter From Hiro’, and ‘Nuclear Nights’, referencing the first LP title. But it’s all rather subtle, like some of the key signatures and repeated motifs.
“Yeah, if I’d written an album immediately after Magnets, it wouldn’t have been the same. But now, with the hindsight of realising so many people did like us … that wasn’t at all obvious in 1981. There were a few people still turning out to gigs, so we felt bad about that, but there was no internet or MTV, the BBC’s Top of the Pops was off for the follow-up to ‘Turning Japanese’, and that crucified it. I think ‘News at Ten’ would have gone further if not for that.
“Instead though, I could stand back and have some perspective on what happened 40 years ago. So what’s on this album now comes with the benefit of hindsight.”
On that front, listening back to those first two LPs, they’re not dated in any way for me, and the subjects you wrote about first time around hold true to this day, whether it’s politics, relationships, or whatever. Even when you were the frustrated son in ‘News at Ten’, hitting out but maybe just worried you might turn into your old man. That song sounds as fresh and genuine today, and any generation will understand that sentiment, not least after several weeks of lockdown with family.
“Yeah, although I am now the father, with my son there next to me on stage. That’s weird. And he enjoys singing it back at me. We did an acoustic version when we played Portmeirion, where he did lead vocal on that.”
That’s another venue I’d love to catch the band at when it next happens and this virus is behind us, past performances at Hercules Hall in Clough Williams-Ellis’ splendid Italianate estuary-side village in North Wales proving a hit with the fans in recent years. A gorgeous setting, and in keeping with the band’s history as the filming location for cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner, part of the inspiration for The Vapors’ debut single, Prisoners.
But I guess we’ll just have to wait before the band are out and about again, making do with playing Together at volume around the house instead. As for Dave, I asked before I went what was next for him that day – was he off to the coast to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of ‘Sussex by the Sea’ perhaps?
“Erm … I’m vacuuming the garden! We’ve got fake grass, and it’s covered in petals and leaves, so I’ll be hoovering that off.”
Rock’n’roll lifestyles ain’t what they used to be, pop kids. And crazy don’t seem crazy anymore.
For this website’s feature/interview with Dave Fenton from October 2019, head here, and for another marking the band’s return from September 2016, head here. There are also Vapors-related feature/interviews with Ed Bazalgette (November 2016) and Steve Smith (May 2018).