THERE ARE WORSE THINGS to be than a One Hit Wonder. Try Utterly Forgotten, or Remembered For Nothing. Compared to any amount of genuine embarrassments or ignominies, a place in the eternal jukebox of collective memory is surely not to be sniffed at: one freaking legendary song to be set against your… what, exactly?
The Vapors’ Turning Japanese is one of those immortal earworms: once heard, never forgotten; a UK Number 3 single in 1980 (Top 40 in Billboard, the toppermost of the poppermost in Australia); an irrepressible hook-fest with a practically edible production job by Jam man Vic Coppersmith Heaven and an instant, attendant urban myth (that it was about wanking; it wasn’t). Social marketing that went viral in the age of analogue, this was publicity you couldn’t buy.
Yet The Vapors had more than one song. There were two excellent albums between 1978 and 1982 – the urgent pop-punk compendium of 1980’s New Clear Days and darker, more involved Magnets – before singer-and-songwriter David Fenton split to concentrate on lawyering and lead guitarist Ed Bazalgette edged into a career in TV drama, ultimately to direct Poldark and Dr Who.
“These are serious songs, gloomy mindscapes and social satires.”
We’re all time travellers tonight [November 4, 2016] at Camden’s Dingwalls as Fenton, Bazalgette, original bassist Steve Smith and non-original drummer Michael Bowes (Howard Smith, with family commitments, couldn’t make it) line up to play one of a small handful of reunion shows and seek vindication of sorts in front of grizzled gentlemen in Fred Perrys and at least one semi-celebrity (the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson, taking a night off from US Election duties).
As they kick off with an ebullient one-two of Secret Noise and News At Ten, two things become apparent. One: they’re superbly drilled; edgy in a good way; no pipe (well, maybe not of that sort) or slippers in sight. Secondly: while lacking no verve, these are serious songs, gloomy mindscapes and social satires. And stripped of their recording era’s politesse there’s power and emotional punch to spare.
The Jam loom – News At Ten owes something to ‘A’ Bomb In Wardour Street; Smith’s Rickenbacker bass is clanky and melodic like Bruce Foxton’s – and in fact this Guildford four were management stablemates of the Woking three, overseen by Weller’s dad John. There’s a similar debt to mid-to-late-’60s pop, evident in the enigmatic wartime psychodrama of Sixty Second Interval, but something their own in the nervy, sweaty, darkly maniacal Trains (“I said a lot of things that I didn’t mean / ’Cause I was hungry for your sweet sixteen”).
Other highlights: Smith and Bazalgette’s Isolated Case – their only co-write (hence the title); the police brutality vignette of Civic Hall, with its poignant smashed jar of homemade jam; a slowburning Letter From Hiro. Another song with a Japanese theme, with a wistfully Oriental riff, it’s almost an apology to the nation they brashly appropriated in their famous hit.
And what of that song? Seventeen songs into a 22-song set, The Vapors play Turning Japanese (there’s confidence) and it’s as irrespressible as ever, certainly not grudgingly delivered and handsomely appreciated, but with no sense of the main course arriving at last.
Within The Vapors’ angsty oeuvre it’s a sore thumb, a black sheep. But that’s smash hit singles for you. Their authors often resent the attention paid to them because they’re “unrepresentative”, arrivals from elsewhere that live in another space – a wider cultural realm not defined by a group or their hardcore fans.
36 years on, The Vapors look, and sound, like they long ago came to terms with that.
The Vapors play The Loft @ The Arts Club, Liverpool on November 18; The Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton, November 19; and the 100 Club, London, April 8, 2017. Visit Facebook.com/thevaporsofficial