Most everyone remembers The Vapors for their sole hit, Turning Japanese, which soared to #3 on the UK charts and #36 on the Billboard Hot 100. And I suppose there are worse fates than to be forever known as the band who gave the world Turning Japanese. But truths to tell, they were a good band who didn’t last all that long (1979-1982), but did leave two official albums and 8 singles as a legacy.
Based in Guildford, Surrey, an early version of the band was playing the Three Lions pub in Farncombe when The Jam’s bassist Bruce Foxton spotted them. The band’s line-up stabilised with David Fenton (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Howard Smith (drums), Edward Bazalgette (lead guitar) and Steve Smith (bass). Howard Smith and Steve Smith were not related. The band was originally named The Vapours, but had removed the “u” to help garner more attention in North America. Foxton then offered the band a few gigs and agreed to jointly manage them with John Weller (father of Paul Weller). The Vapors were then offered a slot supporting the Jam on the Setting Sons tour in 1979.
The band signed to United Artists, releasing their first single, “Prisoners”, at the end of 1979, but it failed to chart. Their second single is the song for which they are best remembered: “Turning Japanese”. The track was produced by the Jam’s producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven and reached number 3 in the UK and number 1 in Australia. It was also a top-ten hit in Canada and New Zealand, and reached the top 40 in the United States. “Turning Japanese” was believed to euphemistically refer to masturbation, although Fenton (the song’s writer) denied that claim in an interview on VH1. He did, however, say he wished to thank whoever first came up with that interpretation, as he felt the salacious rumour about what the song ‘really’ meant may have been what made it a hit. The follow-up singles “News at Ten” and “Jimmie Jones” both peaked at number 44 in the UK Singles Chart.
The band released two albums: New Clear Days (1980) and Magnets (1981). New Clear Days contained “Turning Japanese” and displayed a new wave sound with socially conscious lyrics. That album reached the middle of the charts in the UK, Canada, and US. Magnets revealed a power pop sound and darker lyrics, with the song “Jimmie Jones” making reference to cult leader Jim Jones. That album sold poorly and the band broke up in 1982. Fenton alleged in a later interview with Record Collector magazine that lack of record label support was the chief reason for the band’s split, while a planned single release was cancelled without explanation.
But they did have high-energy, and put a Pop face on Punk and everyone had a good time.
Their signature single is at the end of this 14 minute session – but I would crank it up and start from the top.
Further evidence the 80s weren’t a dull affair after all.