The Vapors

TrackAlbum / Single
Here Comes The Judge (Live)United Artists BP 334
Daylight TitansLiberty BP 401
Civic HallMagnets
Waiting For The WeekendUnited Artists BP 367
SunstrokeUnited Artists BP 321
TrainsNew Clear Days
News At TenUnited Artists BP 345
Spring CollectionNew Clear Days
Jimmie JonesLiberty BP 401
Turning JapaneseUnited Artists BP 334

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The Vapors photo

The Vapors (l to r): Howard Smith (drums), Steve Smith (bass, vocals), David Fenton (vocals, guitar), Edward Bazalgette (lead guitar)

 

Contributor: Neil Waite

“No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women, No fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it’s dark …”

I’ve never liked the sneering expression ‘one-hit wonder’ – although technically it could apply to the Vapors. For it’s true they had only one Top 40 hit, but they’re no Joe Dolce or St Winifred’s School Choir … and such songs as The Floral Dance are nothing like Turning Japanese. This was a masterful pop song with a dynamic tune and a video to match. You can see why it soared to No.3, but it also overshadows a fine song catalogue. And ongoing conjecture as to whether it’s about masturbation only detracts from the music. David Fenton has explained that it’s about the break-up of a relationship, but this fails to satisfy everyone. He said in a VH1 interview it was also about “the clichés about angst and youth and turning into something you didn’t expect to … it could have been Portuguese, Lebanese, anything that fit with that phrase. It had nothing to do with the ‘Japanese’.” Yet the debate goes on.

The song had instant appeal, as I noticed one evening when listening to Kid Jensen’s Roundtable on Radio 1. Next day I cycled to our local record shop and ordered the single, which came in a great sleeve depicting a Geisha girl and vertical red lettering in Japanese style. But orders were slow back then and by the time the record came, I had heard the song a few times on the radio and was more interested in the B-side. The six-and-a-half-minute encore Here Comes The Judge was recorded live at the Rainbow Theatre on 4th December 1979 on the last of three nights supporting the Jam on the Setting Sons tour, and remains one of my all-time faves. There’s a dark guitar pulse punctuated by a whiplash chord, and Dave Fenton, the charismatic vocalist, comes in with another enigmatic lyric: “What am I supposed to do, sitting here in this eternal zoo with no shoes on?” He sings in tune and with conviction. The song lifts off as the drums burst through and the rhythm section of Howard Smith and Steve Smith (not related) is so tight it feels like a studio recording. The song comes up for air with a middle eight: “I took a walk in the park, I tried a kiss in the dark…” – then races off again. For me this became the most frequently played side, and if it was what the Vapors were about then I really wanted more.

In the music press I learned the Vapors were from Guildford, despite the American spelling without the ‘u’. This was great because Guildford was near Hampshire, which made them close to home. In 1980 my family happened to be shopping in Guildford and as we walked down the street my older cousin pointed out Dave Fenton on the far pavement – I remember him with his trademark long hair and slim-fit jeans. This was so exciting but I was a shy boy and didn’t think of speaking to him. Sadly I never saw them live so this remains the nearest I got to the band.

The Vapors were managed by John Weller (Paul Weller’s dad) and Bruce Foxton, and their sound and punchy vocals were akin to the Jam’s. Before Turning Japanese there was a single called Prisoners, another fine song with fast, sliding power chords. But I’m picking the B-side, Sunstroke, with its driving drumbeat and relentless chord riff.

The Vapors car photo

The debut album New Clear Days came out in July 1980 and didn’t disappoint. The sleeve shows a colourful photo of a forecaster standing by a primitive TV weather chart, but the cloud icon over London has morphed into a mushroom cloud and above that there’s a radiation hazard symbol. ‘New Clear’ was a pun on ‘nuclear’ – and in those days the political landscape of nuclear attack felt much more real than today. The music was also striking: catchy tunes, powerful riffs, gritty guitar, punchy vocals. After the light-hearted Turning Japanese, in Letter From Hiro the Vapors seem concerned about Japanese militarism: “[Hiro] said he was waiting for an outbreak […] the guns and the crossfire…” Also, Cold War, with its strange intro of distant dissonant chords, is another sinister weather forecast: “Get ready for another Cold War, another Cold War, oh, oh.”

News At Ten is about growing up: “Time’s gonna make you a man someday, and you won’t want to go out and play.” A jangly guitar pulse leads into sliced-off power chords and the song springs into life with a dialogue of lead and support vocals. This was a great follow-up to Turning Japanese but sadly it stopped shy of the Top 40.

New Clear Days had brilliant songs, a killer two-guitar sound, great rhythm and a vocalist who seemed to believe in every word, and yet it sold modestly. The next single, Waiting For The Weekend, was about looking forward to seeing a loved one at the weekend; a great Fenton composition with a driving beat and tuneful riff. I loved the video with the band in greasy overalls in the ‘Vapors Garage’, tending to a Rover SD1 (now a classic car). Howard Smith uses hubcaps as cymbals and in one priceless shot Edward Bazalgette plays guitar on the garage loo – what more could anyone want from a music video?

Other lighter songs were Somehow and the brilliant Trains, which builds up with chuffing rhythm guitar and a recurring interval like an old locomotive horn. “Everybody I know has to face the trains, everybody I know makes the same mistakes,” goes the catchy chorus. Let’s also include the blistering opener, Spring Collection, mocking punk and new wave style: “Black jeans with tortured seams don’t mean that much to me …”

The Vapors photo

The Vapors’ short but faultless legacy – a brace of albums and a handful of singles

The following year, in 1981, the Vapors released their eagerly awaited second and final album Magnets. Like Turning Japanese, its first single, Jimmie Jones, was tuneful but not the best number. Unlike Turning Japanese, it didn’t make the Top 40 – if only it had the band might have lasted longer. Though upbeat it was about the sect leader Jim Jones, who’d organised a mass suicide in 1978. “Heaven is physical, wonderful, beautiful, saleable, cynical …” Again the sleeve design on Magnets is colourful but darker when you look closely – this time depicting an assassination scene. I rate Jimmie Jones over Turning Japanese but you can see why the public preferred the latter; far more accessible and easier to sing along to. Again, the B-side was even better. Daylight Titans is slower and more melodic with brittle guitar sounds, weaving bass and vocals in full voice, speaking style and sotto voce.

As well as the title-track Magnets, about the Kennedy assassination, there were other socially aware songs such as Isolated Case and Civic Hall. The latter has pulsing reggae/ska guitar reminiscent of a Strummer/Jones arrangement, along with soulful singing, giving this second album a refreshing new feel. Spiders was the final single, a good song albeit strange to release as a 7″ with its atonal synth lead. The album Magnets wasn’t a hit, though I couldn’t see why the general public weren’t as enthralled as I was. Soon after its release the band split up.

David Fenton continues to be involved in the music industry working for the Musicians’ Union as a solicitor concentrating on music law. Edward Bazalgette moved into television, producing and directing. He’s worked on many high profile productions including Holby City, Eastenders, Top Gear and Poldark. Until recently Howard Smith ran an independent record shop in Guildford (one I frequented often). He’s now spending time with his young family although is still involved in the promotion of local gigs in and around Guildford. Steve Smith now plays guitar with a band called The Shakespearos.

So what is the Vapors’ legacy? Two outstanding albums and several singles without one substandard track, which is some going. Would this unfairly underrated band have been bigger if their output hadn’t been overshadowed by one big song? I’d say it would have. I was tempted to leave Turning Japanese out, but that would have been too controversial for a rule-abiding music-lover like me. Number 10 is its position. If you listen to the nine above it you will agree.

 

Many thanks to David Fenton and Edward Bazalgette for clarifying the Rainbow Theatre information for this post.

 

Secret Noise: a tribute to the Vapors (incl. discography)

The Vapors biography (iTunes)

Neil Waite, a teacher of 25 years, has written a number of posts for Toppermost. He lives in Hampshire, England and has always been a music and vinyl addict. He loves a wide variety of music genres but is particularly passionate about Punk. You’ll find him on twitter @NeilWaite1

TopperPost #526

10 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 1, 2016

    Neil, thanks for this excellent post – another band I remember well from Top of The Pops. A lot of details here that I hadn’t known before which made it a fascinating read. Thanks again…

    • Neil Waite
      Jun 2, 2016

      Thanks Andrew. Definitely a massively underrated band. It was great revisiting all the old material while writing this. They seemed to come and go in a flash but left some real gems.

  2. Simon Jones
    Jun 6, 2016

    Superb – will be listening. I had, incorrectly I now know, passed them off as one hit wonders.
    Great write up.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Jun 16, 2016

    Impossible to ruin a good song

  4. Robin Barwick
    Jul 30, 2016

    Agree with all of this, although my personal favourite was the never released ‘Caroline’. (Steve Smith, the bassist, posted a live recording on youtube a couple of years ago). Unlike the author I was fortunate enough to see them live many times. After 35 years hoping, I’m now looking forward to the next occasion (at Dingwalls) as they’ve reformed – sadly without the excellent Howard Smith – for a mini-tour in autumn 2016. Details on The Vapors UK Facebook page. Hope Neil gets to make it to one of the dates.

    • Neil Waite
      Jul 31, 2016

      Thanks Robin. I have my ticket. See you there!

  5. David Wimmer
    Jul 31, 2016

    Neil, that’s an excellent piece about a massively underrated band. I’ve loved the Vapors and treasure my record collection. With the news of their reunion tour I’ve a renewed interest in this excellent music. Looking forward to finally getting to see them play live in the autumn!

  6. Chris Munday
    Aug 6, 2016

    Agree with everything – well almost. Wasn’t Jimmie Jones the final single? Not a bad song in their entire back catalogue and both LPs have stood the test of time. The Captain Mod CD reissues mean there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be in everyone’s collection. After all “This is it, this is it, this is it, this is it, this is all that I need.”

  7. TikTak
    Nov 14, 2016

    Been hoping for years these guys would do a comeback. Never saw them first time around and desperately want to make up for that. Can only think that lack of a clear image done for them back in the day coz there’s nought wrong with the albums. Still play them and still enjoy them.

  8. Gary/The Autumn Stones
    Aug 11, 2017

    Unfortunate that “Waiting for the Weekend” failed to chart (and, essentially, did them in) — the single version added a smooth sax solo and some outro horns, little flourishes that made a big difference.

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