A few weeks ago we featured the return of cult indie band Khartomb after 31 years – a rocket from the crypt we thought could never be surpassed.
But now in this weird year of 2016 – an even more unlikely event has hit the headlines – The Vapors are back!
The early ’80s New Wave idols, best known for their seminal top three hit Turning Japanese, hit the road in October/November on their Waiting For The Weekend tour – their first for 35 years.
Vapors’ singer-songwriter Dave Fenton took a break from rehearsals to tell Matt Catchpole about getting the band back together, tour hi-jinks with The Jam and the joy of waking up to your own song on the radio.
So Dave, this is momentous news, but why has it taken so long?
We tried reforming about 15 years ago, but couldn’t all get to be in the same place at the same time. We’ve talked about it since and when I had the opportunity of taking early retirement earlier this year we discussed it again.
Who’s in the current line-up?
Ed (Bazalgette – lead guitar) and Steve (Smith – bass) said yes, but Howard (Smith – drums) passed, so Michael Bowes is taking over on drums. He’s played with Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, etc, as well as having played in one of my bands after The Vapors (TVC). He also teaches drums at BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music Institute).
What have they all been up to in the meantime?
Steve’s been mainly sound engineering and now works with ’80’s covers band The Shakespearos; Ed is a TV film director (Poldark, Vera, Holby, Eastenders, and numerous others); Howard had a vinyl record shop (People Records) in Guildford until recently.
Dave, you worked as a solicitor specialising in music law – any famous clients?
I worked mainly in litigation where settlements are inevitably confidential. So yes, there have been a few famous clients, but I’m afraid I can’t talk about them. However, working for the MU (Musicians’ Union), who provide free legal services to members, meant I could help those who could not afford to pay. Famous musicians can generally afford a lawyer. Those just starting out, or who have yet to make it, generally can’t.
The reformed Vapors played one song at The Half Moon in Putney in April – was that a nerve-wracking experience?
The Shakespearos, were playing at Poly Fest 3 at The Half Moon, and cover Turning Japanese in their set. So having already had discussions about reforming, Steve asked Ed and I if we’d guest. So we did. But it was nerve-wracking – no rehearsal, no sound-check and hadn’t played together for 35 years – what could go wrong? But it went fine. There’s a video of it on YouTube. 12,000 hits in the first few days. That also encouraged us to re-form.
You’re in rehearsals, has it been strange playing the old songs together after all those years?
Yes. I have had to work out what some of the chord sequences are, as it was all a bit hazy after 35 years.
Obviously Turning Japanese is the song you’re best known for. Did you expect it to be such a massive hit?
No. I’ve learnt never to expect anything. But it was nice to be woken up by my own song on my radio alarm. That was a first for me. (For the record Dave has consistently denied the urban myth that the song was about a certain act of solo sexual gratification – he’s described it as a post-break-up song. He declined to comment further on the subject for this interview)
You sported quite an – how can I put this? – original haircut back in the day. Can you explain the thinking behind that?
After one too many bad haircuts from local barbers I started cutting my own hair at the age of about 13 or 14. But obviously the back took ages using two or more mirrors so it was easier to trim the top and sides and leave the back. So no thinking involved there really.
The Vapors toured with The Jam and were managed jointly by Paul Weller’s dad John and (Jam bassist) Bruce Foxton. How did you get on with Paul and the boys?
Great. Really nice guys. Always made sure we got a sound-check after them.
Any tour shenanigans you’d like to share?
Like the water pistol fights at service stations? Or taping all our clothes to the changing room ceiling while we were onstage? Or talcum powder on the snare drum (or did we do that? – It was a long time ago). We used to have thunder-flashes explode at the end of Sixty Second Interval. The explosive was in metal pots with wires attached which were only onstage if we couldn’t put them on top of the PA because the ceiling was too low (we accidentally blew a number of acoustic tiles off the ceiling at a gig in Australia). One night we went on and there were metal pots and wires all over the stage. Thanks guys!
What do you remember about appearing on Top of the Pops? Was that a pretty surreal experience? Who were you on with?
First time on TOTP, Howard dropped a stick and walked around the kit to get it. For some reason they kept that footage in the broadcast version. I remember Siouxsie and the Banshees (Hong Kong Garden) was one. And I’m trying to forget I shook hands with Gary Glitter.
Maybe because of your association with The Jam, you were often bracketed as part of the Mod revival of early 1980s. Did you see yourselves as Mods?
No. Couldn’t you tell from the red jeans and leopard print jumper? (see exhibit A left).
The Vapors’ second (and final) album Magnets was not particularly well received in terms of sales, but its critical reputation seems to have grown over the years. Is that frustrating or pleasing for you?
I’m not sure that’s true, but I’m obviously pleased it still gets listened to, or even discovered sometimes.
Do you think the record company let you down at the time in terms of promotion?
It’s too easy to blame the record company, but I often wonder what would have happened had EMI not bought out United Artists (our label) and made everyone we knew who worked for them (including the A&R people who had signed us) redundant. Suddenly we had no friends on our own record label, and that was a major factor in my decision to leave (the band).
It’s quite a dark record – at least lyrically – does it reflect how you were feeling at the time?
Probably. I was pretty drained after making that album and with the constant touring. And on top of the record company situation, John and Bruce decided they were too busy with The Jam to manage us any longer. Can’t Talk Anymore sums that all up.
Musicians these days seem less reliant on record companies for promotion thanks to the rise of social media – do you think that’s been a good thing for the industry?
In some ways it’s a good thing. Instead of needing a record company to pay for expensive studios you can record an album in your bedroom and release it yourself. But new technology has also made it easier to infringe copyright. If copyright is no longer protected and no longer has a value, then there will be no incentive for artists to make music – so no-one will be able to afford to be a musician unless they gig constantly. When I was in The Vapors, buying an album was expensive but, by comparison, the gig tickets were cheap. It’s the direct opposite now, so we’ll have to see how it works out. I suspect the crunch will come when the majors’ copyrights in their big name artists’ recordings (Beatles, Stones, Elton, etc) expire and they lose that income. In the meantime, record companies are being subsumed into film and entertainment companies.
Will you be performing any new songs on this tour, any plans to release any new music?
Still under discussion but the main point of re-forming is to play the previous releases for the first time in decades.
- The Vapors tour starts at Dublin’s Opium Rooms on 14 Oct, with further gigs at London Dingwalls (followed by a VIP aftershow) on Nov 4, The Loft @The Arts Club, Liverpool on Nov 18 and Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms on Nov 19.
- More information, including a sneak glimpse of the band in rehearsals, is available from The Vapors Official Facebook page here.
Watch DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen introduce The Vapors on their debut TOTP performance in 1980: