❉ This comes recommended to any fans of intelligent, lovingly crafted pop music, writes Ken Shinn.
“The Vapors’ songs are split obviously between pieces of more personal emotion, and pieces of an angry and political intent – in fact, Turning Japanese is something of an anomaly… The band’s main thematic concerns are that the World is a terrible, often violent place, but set against this repugnant madness is the altogether more benign, joyous madness of Love.”
Da da da dang dang, dang dang danggg!
They may have ended up one-hit wonders in the eyes of the British public, but it must be said that Turning Japanese is one hell of a song by which to be remembered. The Vapors’ history is a strange one indeed: starting out as proteges of certain elements of The Jam (who they even supported at the Rainbow in December 1979), the band crashed into the UK singles charts out of nowhere with that mighty second single (the first being the effective but comparatively non-descript Prisoners, a song whose lyrics hinted more strongly at the major direction of the band’s lyrics). Their first album, New Clear Days, was well-received and they seemed to be on the verge of international success, even changing the spelling of their name the better to appeal to trans-Atlantic sensibilities: but then a series of unfortunate events – everything from label buy-outs, to cancelled Top Of The Pops appearances, to the rise and rise of Duran Duran (‘Nobody paid the least bit of attention to us when they had Duran Duran to look after…Why would they?’ – David Fenton) – conspired to consign them to the ‘Where Are They Now?’ files at best, if not to the Dustbin Of History.
Which, on a closer study of their work, is clearly an unjust decision. Their songs are split obviously between pieces of more personal emotion, and pieces of an angry and political intent – in fact, Turning Japanese is something of an anomaly among such fellows.
There’s no denying the brilliance of the song, though. Even if David Fenton’s insistence that the song isn’t about masturbation at all (a claim which seems as disingenuous as the Divinyls’ assertion that I Touch Myself was about something altogether more spiritual than a mere bit of purely physical fiddling), the fact remains that this tale of a love affair verging on the alarmingly obsessive fits such an interpretation to the hilt, while also retaining enough good humour that any potential offensiveness is neatly defused. It’s a glorious, high-speed rampage clocking in at a little under four minutes, and I defy anybody not to be swept along by the sheer, gleeful joy of it all.
It comes early on the debut album New Clear Days, almost as if to lull us into a false sense of security, as straight afterwards we’re flung into a song of rather darker tone.
Cold War opens with an ominous mutter of Dead Kennedys-style guitar and a peremptory, near-military drumbeat, before spinning an un-nerving tale of lies, deceit, and violence building from the purely personal into the vast arena of international realpolitik, forming a nasty story of global manipulation and assassination, and of the untruths that we all tell to justify our actions in that story. To people expecting easy, jolly good times, it must have come as something of a shock, and a good thing too in my opinion. The Vapors, musically adept as they were, were also – lest we forget – supported whole-heartedly by the Jam, and their political fervour and fury will fuel many more songs on the Vapors’ two albums, as we’ll soon learn.
There’s an altogether more jaunty, bouncy feeling to the tune of Bunkers, a more personal tale of how, no matter where we may live, our essential problems will remain the same in a society which always has room to improve. Under that bumptious, swaggering riff lies the sour reflection that, whether we live in the country or the town, the small indignities and terrors of life anywhere will be ever with us. A plea for understanding and communication struggling against the banal evils of existence, it’s a deceptively cheerful song about social ills.
News At Ten is a tune which provides evidence that, rather than being the purely power-pop band of public perception, the Vapors were also swimming in the same Mod revival waters as the Jam for at least part of the time. An intensely personal song about the idealism of Youth when compared with the cynicism of Experience, it weaves its themes of the quiet hope for young, optimistic rebellion when set against the workaday drudge of just getting by and not rocking the boat without hectoring or harassing, instead opting for small-scale determination for something better for everybody. Sometimes the impassioned doesn’t need to shout at the top of its lungs.
Suddenly darting into a far more intimate, personal realm, Waiting For The Weekend – the follow-up single that didn’t quite hit home – shows the other important side of the group’s lyrical concerns. A light, joyous song of a long-distance relationship where every encounter, no matter how brief, always counts, there’s a bubble gum pop quality to its slight but resonant narrative which captures fully the giddy delight of being in love at whatever age, and in whatever time. For all the band’s frequently weighty preoccupations, the effervescent, sparkling happiness of this track can’t help but echo in the hearts of any listener.
There’s a surprising delicacy to Letter From Hiro, the song which was chosen to close the initial release of New Clear Days. A moving historical narrative of a pen-pal friendship which crossed the globe, until the outbreak of World War Two fragmented it, the song, for all its wispy, almost ethereal quality, touches on issues of separation and madness both personal and planetary. It comes across almost as a requiem for reason, a canto on companionship. Unexpectedly sombre and reflective, it’s the sort of tune which lingers long and uneasily in the thoughts of the listener.
Two years after that debut album, in 1981, the Vapors kicked off the follow-up, Magnets (which came complete with cover art by Martin Handford, later of Where’s Wally? renown, of a similarly crowded image of assassination), with the last track of theirs that almost got them back triumphantly into the charts – and it was a song with decidedly chart-unfriendly origins. Jimmie Jones – once more, with deceptive bounce – casts an eye on the horrors that lay beneath the surface of Jones’s seemingly idealistic Guyana-based cult, horrors that encompassed gang killings and an ultimate mass suicide in 1978 which shocked the World. Whatever the intervening years had done to the Vapors, they clearly hadn’t made them any more compromising, and this coldly furious song bears powerful witness.
If the opening track and sleeve art hadn’t convinced listeners that the band’s concerns had, if anything, become darker than their debut album’s, then Spiders should surely have done the trick. Its chirpy orchestrations form a stark contrast to its uneasy mixture of concerns – in this case, the narrator’s genuine love for a girl who’s suffering from equally genuine mental issues. Passion and paranoia collide head-on in this narrative of an affair going steadily, alarmingly, more wrong. From global concerns, the focus shifts once more to the personal stab at the heart.
With shades, again, of the Jam, the cod-reggae jauntiness of Civic Hall details events taken from personal experience – and, unlike the threatening yobs of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, Dave’s assailants here operate with the full approval of the nation’s Law – policemen who, rather than the outright thuggish menace of those yobs, approached him with a seemingly affable ‘What’s goin’ on here, then, Sonny?’ and a ‘Hello, hello’ before proceeding to casually brutalise him on no firmer grounds than that they believed he could be carrying something more suspicious than a pot of jam in his carrier bag. The Kinks-like vocal chirp is underlaid by genuine fear and loathing.
After such grim subjects, it’s perhaps not surprising that Silver Machines charges in triumphantly to lift our spirits again. Another tale of long-distance relationship, this drives along with never a moment of doubt, reflecting both the bemusements and amusements of being in love without a cynical bone in its body. ‘Loved up’ is a descriptive usually aimed at such drug-happy genres as Acid House, but this is a purer kind of love, needing no artificial stimulant. Instead, it captures perfectly the simple, pure hit of a joyful endorphin rush. Glorious.
Closing the album on its initial release came the title track. Magnets takes its initial inspiration from the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy, and in its six-and-a-half-minute length weaves a deceptively hazy musical spell counterpointed by sharp, hard lyrics which anatomise each aspect of the killings – victims, murderers, bystanders – with uncompromising clear-sightedness, before widening the focus of the lens to encompass all of History. The assassinations will continue, it states, and we’ll all watch with cold, unblinking gazes as the horrors unfold – unless we learn differently. It makes a stark, powerful ending: a dose of singularly unpalatable but necessary medicine.
And perhaps such a harsh dose required a suitable spoonful of sugar to help it go down – thus, possibly, why the album’s CD re-release ended with a new track. Galleries For Guns is perhaps the perfect synthesis of the Vapors’ main thematic concerns: the World is a terrible, often violent place, but set against this repugnant madness is the altogether more benign, joyous madness of Love. This is the essential dichotomy of the band’s work, and in the end its redemption: that, for all the Evil that Humanity can engender, so, too, it can create great and enduring Good, and in this case does so with delighted, and delightful, aplomb.
And now, Cherry Red has brought us both New Clear Days and Magnets, as just two CDs of a comprehensive 4-CD box set which comes recommended to any fans of intelligent, lovingly crafted pop music. As well as the two albums, you’ll find alternative rough and instrumental mixes of key tunes from both, in addition to the band’s 3 December 1979 performance at the Rainbow, and an interview with the ever-eloquent Dave Fenton, as well as exhaustive and enthusiastic sleeve notes by Ed Piller, and even three never-before-officially-released tracks!
Yes, the Vapors – who still aren’t done yet, and will be touring this October playing all New Clear Days, plus selections from Magnets and their third album, Together – are undeniably a bit of an odd fish, as bands go. But one thing remains marvellously clear: for a band which is remembered for a musical nob gag, they’ve proven – triumphantly – that they were never just dicking around.
❉ The Vapors – ‘Waiting For The Weekend: The United Artists & Liberty Recordings’ (CRCDBOX113) is available as a 4-CD box set from Cherry Red Records, RRP £24.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Due to popular demand, a second online screening of the Vapors film ‘We Lived Off Words That No One Heard – Live from The Factory’ has been confirmed. The second screening takes place on Saturday 9th October at 8pm BST. To book your viewing of the film or for more information visit http://www.thevapors.co.uk
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.