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 spotlight?
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 English phrase!"
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 London.


"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 a chance."
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 any records.
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."

Turning Japanese?