The Vapors: “Turning Japanese Again”

by Keith Valcourt

The Vapors

1980s package tours are both a blessing and a curse. The pro is you get more “bang for your buck” with as many as a dozen groups gracing the stage. And the early start times are a plus for us aging hipsters. The con is the bands play short sets. Sometimes a group with six or seven beloved songs will only get to play two in the interest of time. Other times, the bands are comprised of one original member and may not exactly be at the top of their game. It’s a gamble. I usually base my decision to go on finding that name in the lineup that I have never seen before. While looking at the Lost 80’s Live 2019 list of bands, one name stood out among the familiar names of my youth, a band I hadn’t seen nor thought of in decades: The Vapors.

The punk-edged new wave band, discovered in a pub by Bruce Foxton, bass player of The Jam. Could it really be them? After all, The Vapors haven’t toured in America (or been active really) in 34 years. Truthfully, after one suggestive hit single, “Turning Japanese,” and just two solid albums, New Clear Days and Magnets, the band disappeared from the music scene completely.  But there, alongside Missing Persons, The Tubes and A Flock of Seagulls, sat their name. I went and was not disappointed. Although they only played 4 songs, “News at Ten,” “Jimmie Jones,” “Waiting for The Weekend,” and the mega hit about masturbation (or not), they played with an energy reminiscent of their younger selves. After the set, I caught up with the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist Dave Fenton backstage, in a cramped bathroom of a shared dressing room, to discuss the band’s return to action and the truth behind that misunderstood (or is it misinterpreted?) hit.

Alchemical:  They say rock and roll is glamorous. An interview in the restroom proves it. Has the whole tour been this glamorous?

Dave Fenton:  Yeah, much of it is glamorous.  (Laughs)

There was a 34 year gap between now and when The Vapors were last an active band. What brought the band back together?

We did try and get back together at the beginning of 2001, but the band members were living all over the world. Doing other things. So, it fell through. Then I tried again when I retired. I asked the other chaps, and Steve (Smith-Bass) and Ed (Bazalgette-Lead Guitar) said yes. Howard (Smith-Drums) wasn’t too keen. He had just had a baby. That was 2016, we got back together and haven’t stopped yet. This is the first time we’ve been able to do a full tour in America. 

Steve is touring, but is Ed on the tour as well?

No. Ed is currently doing something in Europe. He’s a film director. He is doing a Netflix series now. That was much better than being in a miserable band. (Laughs) Generally speaking, he does gigs when he’s available. 

You’re only playing four songs on this tour. Is playing a short set easier or harder?

Obviously, it is less tiring. Night after night after night, you can get quite a bit knackered. While it is less tiring, it is frustrating because we only get to play four singles, basically. They’re all about 3 minutes or so. It goes too quickly. 

How is the reaction?

It’s been amazing! Several people are bringing their old albums out. Telling us how we’ve really affected their lives. They loved the music, the songs meant something. It’s been a pleasant experience for us.

When you weren’t making music, you were working as a music lawyer?

It all ran consecutively. I started law when I was 25, and I thought why not give the band a go? We managed to get a record deal in that year. Then even after The Vapors broke up, I stayed around music producing and doing sound engineering. Until we had kids, and then I went back to law in London as a solicitor for the musician’s union for 25 years.

Your kids are now grown? What is it like for them to see Dad as a rocker?

I thought it would be embarrassing to start with, but it’s alright. They like music. Plus, my middle son Daniel plays. He’s good guitarist. Music is a bit of the family business. The wife sells the t-shirts.

Why do you think the calling card for the band in America became the song “Turning Japanese”?

It’s a bit of a novelty song in some ways. When we came to America, everyone thought it was about masturbation. It wasn’t. We hadn’t thought of that before we got to America. But it created a stir, so we went along.    

What was the song really about?  

It’s just a love song. I wrote it from the view of a bloke who is sitting alone in his room because his girlfriend has chucked him off. All he’s got is the photograph.

Has this tour ignited any interest in making new music?

Well, yeah. I carry my iPhone, put notes into it. We’ll see what comes out.

The Vapors have been called a “One Hit Wonder.” How do you feel about that?

It’s better than having no hits. Never know, we might have another hit this time around. 

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Keith Valcourt

Keith Valcourt is a Los Angeles based music and entertainment writer. He has interviewed thousands of celebrities in the worlds of music, film, TV and comedy for dozens of outlets including: L.A. Times, Washington Times, LFP Publishing, ChelseaCommunityNews.com, RetroRoadMap.com LaArtsOnline and more. Much More

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