By John Curley
I first became aware of The Vapors when I saw the video for their single “Turning Japanese” in 1980 on HBO’s Video Jukebox, one of the few outlets on which to see music videos prior to the August 1981 debut of MTV. The spiky New Wave power pop of the song was both impressive and quite memorable.
The band was founded in 1979 in their hometown of Guildford, Surrey, England and was comprised of Dave Fenton (songwriter, lead vocalist, guitar), Howard Smith (drums), Edward Bazalgette (lead guitar), and Steve Smith (bass, vocals). The Jam’s bassist, Bruce Foxton, was an early booster of The Vapors and he went on to co-manage them with The Jam’s manager, John Weller (Paul Weller’s father). The Jam’s producer, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, produced “Turning Japanese,” and the song went to number three in the UK singles chart in 1980.
The Vapors recorded two albums—1980’s New Clear Days and Magnets in 1981—before splitting up. This year, the band decided to reunite for four shows scheduled for November in Ireland and the UK with an eye on a full tour next year. Drummer Howard Smith is not taking part in the reunion. Michael Bowes will be behind the drumkit for the upcoming shows.
Goldmine recently did an e-mail Q&A with Dave Fenton about The Vapors’ reunion, their origins, and future plans. The results follow:
GOLDMINE: The Vapors haven’t performed a show in 35 years. Why was the decision taken now to reconvene the band for these shows?
DAVE FENTON: Actually, we did one song (“Turning Japanese”) at PolyFest3 in London (https://www.evensi.uk/polyfest-3-the-half-moon-putney/169518730) in April, and a video of it on Facebook got 12,000 hits in the first week. So that was certainly an encouragement to reform but basically, it was a case of if we didn’t do it now we probably never would. I’ve taken early retirement from the day job, so I have no other commitments and can fit around the others.
GM: Will the band be performing any new material at the shows?
DF: Probably not this year, but we are planning doing some writing after these four initial dates, so there may be some new stuff by the next gigs.
GM: Looking forward past the four shows in the UK and Ireland that have been scheduled thus far, are there plans for a full tour?
DF: We’ll see how these gigs go but yes, we are intending playing a lot more dates next year if these first four go okay. We already have some gigs and festivals booked for 2017.
GM: The band’s drummer, Howard Smith, is not participating in the reunion. Is he supportive of you and the other members of the band reuniting for these shows?
DF: Yes, he has wished us all the best with it but has a new baby and that comes first.
GM: Is there a possibility of the band performing in America in the future?
DF: We would love to but no one has offered us any dates yet ;-).
GM: There was an attempt to reform The Vapors in 2001, but it didn’t work out. Why did that reunion not happen?
DF: It proved impossible to arrange rehearsals as we weren’t even all in the same country most of the time.
GM: How did the band originally come together?
DF: We all lived in Guildford. A number of local bands split up at about the same time in 1979, and I was able to cherry pick the best players for The Vapors.
GM: The Jam invited The Vapors to support them on their Setting Sons tour after The Jam’s Bruce Foxton attended a Vapors gig. What was that experience like?
DF: Brilliant. We went from playing to about 20 people in a pub to 2000 seaters overnight, but also had a great laugh with them—we had Jam v Vapors water-pistol fights whenever we stopped at a service station, they once taped all our clothes to the ceiling while we were on stage, we put talcum powder on Rick’s snare drum before they went on, etc. etc.
GM: When The Vapors were touring America in the early 1980s, there was some controversy about the meaning behind the band’s biggest hit, “Turning Japanese.” How did you and the other members of the band deal with that at the time?
DF: We were surprised to find that some thought “Turning Japanese” was an established English euphemism, when actually it is not. We spent alternate interviews saying “Yes, it is about that” or “No, it’s not about that.” That did nothing to dispel the rumors, but it made the interviews more interesting for us.
GM: I understand that you have been working as a lawyer for the Musicians’ Union in the UK. How many years did you do that?
DF: I went back to private practice as a lawyer specializing in music law in about 1994, became a partner in that firm, and then moved in-house with the MU (who had previously been my client) in about 1999. I spent 17 years working there but have now taken early retirement, so I’m free to concentrate on the band.
GM: Do you see The Vapors recording an album of new material at some point?
DF: Yes, we’d love to.
GM: What was the reaction from fans of The Vapors once word of the reunion got out?
DF: Ecstatic. A number are even flying over to the UK so they can go to all four gigs.