On the Vapor-trail
by Andy Davis.
EMI celebrates one of the new waves most memorable one-hit
wonders, the Vapors with a 20-track CD.
Protégés of established acts should consider themselves
lucky if they can make it. Alanis Morissette may have much to thank Madonna
for, but who can even pronouce Me'shelle Ndegeocello's name, let alone
remember one of her Maverick-labeled records?
By the same token, how much better off might a band like Badfinger
have been if the Beatles had'nt thrust them under the medias penetrating
It was no coincidence that those young power-poppers sounded not too
dissimilar to Liverpools grand masters - like attracts like - but it was
that very similarity which led to a guarded reception for Badfinger.
They would never be as good as the Beatles, so why bother to take them
seriously? Such is the story of the Vapors.
Although frontman Dave Fenton - the essence of the group - had
been performing since the early 70s, it was his association with the Jam
(specially Paul Wellers father, John, and Bruce Foxton) which provided
the ticket to his fifteen minutes of fame. And when that association dissolved,
so too did the Vapors.
Fenton's songs, not least that near-novelty, new-wave classic "Turning
Japanese", had a lot to do with the bands success, of course,
but without the support from the Jam, the Vapors might never have played
a venue outside their native Surrey, might never have signed a major-label
deal, and might not now be the subject of EMI's recent compilation:
"Turning Japanese - The Best Of The Vapors".
The bands big break came in April 1979 when Bruce Foxton caught them
in action at a pub called "Scratches", just outside Godalming
in Surrey. By this time the Vapors had established
themselves as a popular live attraction in and around Guildford (where
Fenton had re-located from his native Croydon). Dave had actually begun
his musical career in the early 70s as a folkie, when acoustic guitar in
hand, he paid homage to the likes of Roy Harper, Bert Jansch and
Dave Swarbrick. But rather than be marginalised by the angst and alienation
of punk, Fenton switched his allegiance to the new momement more or less
as soon as it arriwed.
By the time punk's initial sqall had subsided into the poppier
puffs of the new wave, Dave had sold his car to buy his first amp, and
had formed his first band. "I saw the group format as an outlet for
the songs I was writing at the time" he remembers. "There's only
so much you can do acoustically". With characteristic Fenton cleverness,
one of his earliest outfits was called BBC3, but he quickly settled on
the more intanglible name of the Vapors.'The name just came out of the
dictionary' he explains. I was looking for something that didn't mean anything.
Sometimes you couldn't actually put your finger on." In a move matching
the artistic economy of the period, Fenton dropped the "U" from
the spelling, both to 'get rid of any unnecessary letters', and to
make the band sound more American.
Unlike the majority of those inspired by punk to strap on an electric
guitar, Dave Fenton was not only gainfully employed at the time, but also
held down a position of unusual respectability. 'I was a solicitor', he
reveals, 'which is what I'm doing now. These days I specialise in music
law, but back in the 70s, I did everything. I spent about a year in practice,
but I couldn't work during the day and play in a band - it was just too
time-consuming. I felt that if I was going to have a good crack at music,
I couldn't keep up the full-time job. It was a bit of a risk. Once you
leave, you can't easily get back into law. If you're out for more than
three years, you have to re-train'.
Taking new inspirations from the likes of Devo, XTC and Magazine (not
to mention his long-standing musical hero, David Bowie), Fenton's songwriting,
developed along quirkier lines than before. His songs spoke of detachment
and alienation, not only through the lyrics, but in the way he constructed
angular melodies of loss and longing around the traditional, if not
classic, chord changes.
Fenton claimes to be no messenger, however, and had no particular point
to put across. "My songs grew out of of things which affected me as
I went along, and which I took notice of," he reveals. "But I
don't attach that great an importance to them." By the time Bruce
Foxton saw the vapors, fenton had dispensed with an earlier, heavier verson
of the band - complete with a solo-happy lead guitarist - and now fronted a
neat, trim line-up comprising additional members Ed Bazelgette on guitar,
bassist Steve Smith and drummer Howard Smith (no relation). "When
Bruce first saw us, "Dave recalls, "it as probably Ed's first
or second gig with the band. We were still in a transitional period, and
by the time we did any Jam supports, there had been other line-up
changes. Bruce offered us a support on the Jam tour ( of summer 1979) from
the word go, and we later played around 25 dates on their Setting Sons
tour. Around that time of the first support slot, we sent a tape to
John Peel which resulted in a Radio 1 session. The two events coincided
nicely, which created a bit of an interest.
Drummer Howard Smith remembers how important the backing of the Jam
was for the Vapors: 'Even though it was a time when there was loads of
bands around, it was still difficult to get gigs. If you wanted to play
London, it was really a case of who you knew, but even after John Weller
got us gigs in town, there was often no one there. It was terrible. We
had no profile whatsoever. For one of our first gigs at the Marquee, we
had a coach load of people from Guildford to help fill up the place.
But once we started getting records out it all changed.'
For a few months in late 1979, two prominent labels vied to sign up
the Vapors. With a hearty recommendation from their start act, the Jam,
Polydor was naturally intrigued, as were United Artist, whose appetite
had been whetted by Bruce Foxton, via his girlfriend (and now wife) Pat,
who was then the head of press at the label. The band evetually signed
to U.A for an advance of £25000 - a reasonable, if not particularly
generous amount for the time. Polydor's offer was more or less similar,
but by opting to sign to U.A, the Vapors hoped to shake off the twin-edged
spectre of the Jam, which began to hang over their heads almost immediatly.
The situation was compounded when John Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, veteran
of the three Jam LPs up to that point, to become the Vapors producer. 'That
had quite an effect," understated Howard. "On tour with the Jam,
we got all that "We are the mods!, We are the mods!" rubbish
from the crowd. Obviously we weren't a mod group. But we were catagorised
as one of those Chords, Small Hours types of bands. There was always a
certain amount of confusion.
If it hadn't been for "Turning Japanese, the Vapors might still
be filed erroneously under the Mod revival banner of the day. The band
knew from the outset that, given the major-label support and some behind-the
scenes string-pulling from Foxton and Weller Senior, "Turning Japanese"
was likely to be a hit, but they did naturally didn't want it to be their
one and only hit. In another vain attempt to stage-manage their career,
they held the song back until their second single, opting instead
to issue the less obvious "Prisoners" as their debut. "Maybe
it would have been better to have made "Turning Japanese" our
third or fourth single," ruminates Howard. "Especially in Australia,
where it was a huge, huge hit. It was something like ten week at No. 1
and we were told that only "Mull Of Kintyre" and some rugby record
had sold more. I've got a platinium single for it from Australia! but when
we went over there, people had only heard "Turning Japanese"
and nothing else. We were told, "Oh, we didn't think you were an actual
band. We thought you'd just got together in the studio for this one record.
Over in the States, "Turning Japanese" was deciphered as
a paen to masturbation - more specifically the Oriantal - looking facial
distortions one pulls in the moment of climax (so I'm reliably informed).
Fenton is characteristically reticent on such matters. "It means whatever
you want it to mean," he says, before admitting: "I wrote it
as a love song. But when I went to America everyone said to me, "Is
it about wanking?" In interviews, I'd say alternatively, "Yes
it is", and "No, it's not". It could be about a lot of things.
I just woke up with that phrase in my head. It's just an image which captures
what that song was all about. But, no it wasn't intended to be about wanking
at the time. What surprised me was that the Americans thought it was an
Successful tours to the States and Australia followed "Turning
Japanese", but follow-up singles and subsequent albums all struggled
to make an impact at home. "It's hard to know the reason why,"
muses Howard Smith, "Did people want "Turning Japanese"
soundalike records? Our first album, "New Clear Days" did OK,
but we hadn't had long enough to build up a following outside Guildford,
and for the last six months or so, the band was living on borrowed time."
Dave: "We did better abroad than we did at home, which meant we spent
a lot of time away from the U.K, living out of suitcases. We spent a year
or so chasing that one hit around the world. There was a lot of pressure
there. I had to write another song as good as "Turning Japanese"
to maintain our success, but there was no time as we were touring constantly."
With the benefit of hindsight, Dave recons that the music business
shenanigans also played a major part in the Vapors' exit from the scene,
which was almost as rapid as had been their entry. "It was a difficult
time," he says. "For one thing, United Artist suddenly got bought
up by EMI. Prior to that, the label only had about twelve acts on their
roster, bands like Buzzcocks, Fisher Z, the Stranglers and DR. Feelgood.
It was a good atmosphere. The front door was always open, and everybody
was on first-name terms.After the buy-out, most of the staff were made
redundant and we found ourselves om EMI, which was walking into the civil
service. Nobody seemed to know anyone there. It's better now, but at the time,
EMI was a big rambling company, operating from about four buildings around
"News At Ten", the follow-up single to "Turning Japanese",
came out via EMI," Dave continues, "but the day it was supposed
to be released we went in to see our A&R man, and he didn't know anything
about it! To make matters worse, the Musicians Union were on strike around
that time, so "Top Of The Pops" wasn't on the air. "News
At Ten" charted quite well in it's first week, so we might have had
Once the bubble had burst, there was little to keep the Vapors together.
"Relations between three of us on one hand and Dave on the other became
strained," reveals Howard. "We were all much younger than Dave.
We were all about 18 or 19, while Dave was 26. There was a certain amount
of let's get-pissed attitude from Steve, myself and Ed, but Dave
wasn't really like that. That difference in attitude was there from the
beginning, and we could have lived through it if we'd continued to be successful.
By most bands' yardstick we were doing OK, even without loads of follow-up
hits, but I think we knew we were on a downward curve, Which wouldn't have
become an upward curve unless a miracle happened.
Even a drastic image-change - from the band's stock-in-trade
Fred Perry T-shirts, drainpipe jeans and baseball shoes to Adam Ant-style
frillies - for an eventual "Top Of The Pops" appearance to promote
the "Jimmie Jones" single failed to re-ignite the touchpaper.
Claming that the Jam demanded 100% of his time, John Weller informed the
Vapors that he'd have to resign as their manager. In August 1981, about
a month after the release of "Jimmie Jones", the Vapors called
it a day. Guitarist Ed Bazelgette went to join the BBC as a film editor,
while Howard Smith ended up at the PRS. Bassist Steve Smith briefly
joined Shoot Dispute, whom Bruce Foxton continued to sponsor for a while
(they supported him on live gigs during his short-lived career),while
Dave Fenton moved into electronic music, issued a solo single, before fronting
a succession of bands called the Vapor Corporation, none of which issued
The Vapors had always been Dave Fenton's band, and he takes full responsibility
for finishing them. "The record company had booked the studio
to begin work on our seventh single," he says, recalling the final
moment. "It was a new song, "Red Flag, and the A&R guy came
down to the rehearsal room to see what it sounded like. We ran through
it on the Thursday and we were due to record it, and produce it ourselves,
on the Saturday and Sunday. This guy took us down to the pub afterward
and said, "Yeah, sounds brilliant, chaps". He took the tape away,
but then pulled the plug on the studio on the Friday. Suddenly the sessions
were off. I thought, "Sod this. I can't work with people who can't
even tell me to my face if they don't like something". So that was
it. I'd had enough."